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A vision worth following?

OTTAWA, Ont. - Straight Ahead: A Vision for Transportation in Canada may be Transport Minister David Collenette's legacy document, but it has not been reverentially received.The 10-year plan does cove...

WHAT'S ON THE HORIZON?: Collenette's new transportation vision does little to shed light on the future of trucking.
WHAT'S ON THE HORIZON?: Collenette's new transportation vision does little to shed light on the future of trucking.

OTTAWA, Ont. – Straight Ahead: A Vision for Transportation in Canada may be Transport Minister David Collenette’s legacy document, but it has not been reverentially received.

The 10-year plan does cover a range of long-term transportation issues in Canada, ranging from airline and railway competition issues to critical infrastructure needs, environmental pressures and safety and security imperatives.

“I believe the policy framework we have set out in this document will allow the transportation system to successfully meet the economic, social and environmental needs of the next decade and beyond, and will improve the quality of life of Canadians,” says Collenette.

At 84 pages the document, boldly entitled Straight Ahead, embodies some of the recommendations contained in the 346-page report of the Canada Transportation Act review panel, delivered to the minister in 2001. And it does call for some sweeping regulatory changes to the transportation sector, such as giving Ottawa the power to review merger proposals involving railways and other transportation companies. But the general criticism of Straight Ahead is that it is shy on what it claims to offer – vision.

Lacks vision

“We have what is described as a vision document and it is startlingly lacking in vision. You might expect it to spring some surprises, some flourishes of out-of-the-box thinking. There are none,”comments Lisa MacGillivray, president of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, a major shippers’ group.

However, some things that aren’t in the document may be a greater cause for satisfaction, for truckers at least. David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, is relieved that Straight Ahead does not “overly promote rail over truck” as was feared considering the transport minister’s many remarks towards that end over the past year.

Bradley notes that while the document calls for increased use of ‘alternative modes’ for passenger travel, it uses more neutral language when it comes to freight transportation, promoting the concept of ‘more efficient transportation of goods’ as opposed to modal shift.

Still, Bradley is not enthusiastic about Straight Ahead and its contents.

“(The plan) touches on most of the old chestnuts and contains all the latest buzzwords, like efficiency, sustainability and innovation but once it veers away from the traditional areas of federal involvement, it is soft on new commitments and concrete actions,” says Bradley.

The current approach to fuel taxation, which Bradley likens to highway robbery, is a case in point. “The government says it will place a high priority on selective strategic investments in highways, roads, bridges, as well as short line rail infrastructure and grade crossings. It also states that the federal responsibility for highways is minimal. Road users are told to forget about their federal gasoline and diesel fuel taxes being used to pay for highways,” says Bradley.

Bradley says Canada continues to be the only major industrialized country lacking a national highways policy.

He is heartened that the Canada Transportation Act is to be amended to give more power to the Minister of Transport to proceed with new international bridge and tunnel crossings for highway traffic.

“This seems like a good idea, particularly when one sees the inevitable backlog looking at some of the busiest border crossings,” Bradley says.

Since the release of Straight Ahead, the Prime Minister has announced jointly funded highway projects with the governments of B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec. Well and good, but MacGillivray would have liked the blueprint document to speak more decisively about the long-term future of our national highways system.

George Kuhn, executive director of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association, was particularly critical of Straight Ahead’s failure to address the inefficiencies that remain a factor when freight is transferred between modes.

“We are still stuck dealing with trucking, railroads and marine as discrete entities, instead of trying to tie everything together in the name of multi-modalism, which is what we should be doing,” Kuhn says. “There is a crying need for a cohesive master plan and government can play a critical role in ensuring there are the platforms in place to permit the smooth and rapid transfer of containers between the modes.

“The truckers alone can’t do it and the railways aren’t interested in what happens once containers or trailers are no longer riding flat cars and yielding revenue. The truth is that scandalous amounts of time, fuel and money are being wasted because of sluggish transfers between the modes.

“Yes, there have been advances. We have block trains and improvements to the Montreal gateway. But the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway terminals in Toronto are absolute catastrophes.

“For a nation that derives 50 per cent of its GDP from exports and is reliant on one trading partner to take 87 per cent of those exports, it should be imperative that government try and do something to remove the bottlenecks. And while we are at it, why don’t we push the concept of free trade zones?”

Kuhn says that if he had to distil his criticisms down to a one complaint it is that Straight Ahead lacks flair. Its plodding vision, if there is one, is based on what we know, whereas it could have attempted to inform us of what we don’t know.

There’s not too much else of immediate significance to motor carriers other than assurances that Transport Canada will continue to:

take a leadership role to ensure that a consistent national safety rating regime is put in place

seek greater compatibility in North American standards through the existing North American Free Trade Agreement and bilateral mechanisms

work co-operatively with provincial and territorial governments to ensure that a consistent national hours of service regime for commercial vehicle drivers is put in place.

The transportation blueprint process included consultation with a range of stakeholders in the industry, among users, and with provincial and territorial governments. Among other things, Collenette convened a series of roundtable discussions with stakeholders to learn their perspectives on the transportation system and its future direction.

Throughout 2001-2002, the minister held roundtables in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver to discuss issues including the needs of shippers, large and small carriers, the special needs of the west and north, and urban transportation.

Railways unhappy

However, within minutes of the document’s release, Collenette came under fire from Canadian National Railway, which felt the transportation vision missed the opportunity to further de-regulate the nation’s rail transportation system.

“Canada has the best rail transportation system in the world – the lowest freight rates, the best service, and the most efficient operators in CN and CPR as a result of an enlightened policy of rail de-regulation since 1987. The minister’s vision document fails to build on these strengths, and it fails to further de-regulate the grain transportation sector,” says E. Hunter Harrison, president and CEO of CN.

CN also says it is concerned that the vision paper recommends that a regulated connection rate (RCR) provision be incorporated in the Canada Transportation Act (CTA). A RCR – a regulated rate for moving goods over an originating railway to an interchange point for transfer to a connecting railway – would be an unprecedented regulatory measure, replacing the Competitive Line Rate under the current CTA regime.

HTML or PDF versions of Straight Ahead can be downloaded at

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