Hitting the rails

by Frank Condron

MILTON, Ont. – Canadian Pacific Railway kicked off what it calls “the future of long-haul freight transportation” last month with the inauguration of its new Expressway intermodal service linking Montreal, Toronto and Detroit. Unlike traditional intermodal systems, Expressway utilizes flatbed rail cars designed specifically to carry conventional truck trailers.

Shipping conventional trailers on flatbed rail cars is not exactly a new idea, with both Canadian National and CSX in the U.S. attempting similar services with limited success. But CPR clearly has high hopes for Expressway, in which it has invested some $50 million.

Gala ribbon-cutting ceremonies took place on subsequent days last month at each of the system’s three terminals, at CPR’s Cote St. Luc yard outside Montreal, at a brand new site in Milton, Ont., just off Hwy. 401 west of Toronto, and near downtown Detroit. The new service will run twice daily between the three cities, and CPR already has a long-term plan in place to expand the service to Quebec City and Chicago by the end of this year and to New York City in 2001.

“This is not just another intermodal service,” says Raymond O’Meara, general manager of Expressway. “Conventional intermodal services use cranes to ‘top-lift’ trailers onto the trains, so those trailers must be reinforced. But only eight per cent of North America’s trailer fleet is reinforced, meaning conventional intermodal equipment is no good for the other 92 per cent of trailers. That’s the market we decided to go after.”

The key to the system is the rail platforms. Built to CPR specifications by National Steel Car in Hamilton, Ont., the dedicated fleet of 240 Expressway rail platforms feature electro-pneumatic brakes, slackless drawbars and high-quality wheel sets. “The ride quality is excellent. We have no problem with fragile shipments,” O’Meara says.

Via the Expressway Web site, a carrier or shipper can reserve a spot on a particular train, as well as handle all Customs and payment arrangements, without investing in any specialized software. The registered load can then be dropped at the secure terminal yard where it is picked up for loading by a specially built Hostler shunt truck that features a load leveling fifth-wheel. Using a mobile ramp, the trailers are backed up on to the flatbed cars and down a continuous track that runs the length of the 60-car train. Once in position, the trailer is locked into a “knock-down/pull-up” hitch system.

Railway executives took pains at the Expressway inauguration to point out that the new system is not designed to steal freight from the trucking industry. In fact, CPR executive vice-president Hugh MacDiarmid says CPR actually started working on the idea behind Expressway in 1994, after railway executives decided they had to do something to stop the movement of freight off of the rails and onto the road. Since 1950, he says, rail’s share of the land transportation market in North America has dropped from 80 per cent to around 20 per cent.

“We went head-to-head with the trucking industry for 45 years and we lost the war,” MacDiarmid says. “We had to find a way to approach the trucking industry in a partnership fashion, not as competitors.”

Toward that end, CPR says its Expressway service will be marketed to trucking companies, rather than directly to manufacturers and other shippers without truck fleets.

“We are saying to the carriers, ‘you go and get the shipper and then come to us,'” O’Meara says. “We will then wholesale linehaul services to you.”

The systems should also prove attractive to large shippers with their own truck and trailer fleets. In fact a number of large shippers – including The Bay, Canadian Tire, and Sears Canada – tried the service in its testing phase and have already signed on as regular customers.

The benefits to a truck fleet using the system are obvious: less money spent on fuel, tires, and drivers and less wear and tear on equipment. Plus, CPR guarantees that service will not suffer because, they say, the turnaround time for drop-off and pick-up at the terminal is only 15 minutes and transit times between cities are about the same. But what’s in it for the shipper?

“The shipper may or may not know that their truck carrier is using Expressway,” O’Meara says. “And it is up to the carrier whether or not they want to pass the savings along to the shipper.”

CPR was unwilling to talk openly about rates on the Expressway system, preferring to keep that information on a “contract basis.” But CPR spokesman Paul Thurston said the rates would be “competitive with over-the-road costs” for carriers.

One carrier that has already been using the new service is Bruce R. Smith Ltd. of Simcoe, Ont., which runs 180 power units and hauls a variety of dry goods through Ontario, Quebec, and the Northwest, Northeast, and Southeast U.S. Company president John H. Smith says he has found the service a handy option that will cut down on the need to add power units.

“We still maximize our equipment, but the service is there when we have a big push,” Smith says. “We use it as a sort of steady overflow with certain loads along those routes.”

So far, Smith says he hasn’t had any scheduling problems or damaged goods using Expressway and he considers adding the rail option a simple extension of his company’s current service.

Although it sounds like a great deal for the trucking business on its face, the potential is obviously there for shippers along those routes to bypass their carrier altogether if they can get their load to and from the terminal at either end. MacDiarmid doesn’t deny that fact, but steadfastly denies that that is the goal of Expressway.

“We will serve certain large shippers directly,” MacDiarmid says. “But we don’t have the retail marketing capacity in place to service a large number of retail accounts. The carrier community has already done that work and we want to work with them.” n

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