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Smoke and mirrors

Canada's Transport Minister, David Collenette, says a shift of freight from truck to rail will reduce environmental emissions and alleviate congestion on Ontario's Highway 401.He provides no evidence ...


Canada’s Transport Minister, David Collenette, says a shift of freight from truck to rail will reduce environmental emissions and alleviate congestion on Ontario’s Highway 401.

He provides no evidence to support these claims.

If he has a plan to reach his goal we’d like to see it.

The facts would suggest that there is limited prospect for modal shift and little environmental or congestion benefits to be had.

Maybe the minister is simply trying to even the score for those in the rail sector who were perhaps chagrined by the federal and provincial governments’ joint commitment to invest $300 million (of the truckers’ fuel tax dollars) in the roadways linking Highway 401 with the Windsor-Detroit border.

It is hard for us to argue against some fair proportion of rail fuel tax dollars being invested in their infrastructure.

As with all government expenditures, the public will ultimately decide whether the benefit justifies the cost, or whether there are better ways to reduce pollution and congestion.

The trucking industry is not opposed to working with the railways.

The two modes are working together more closely now than they ever have and growth in intermodal shipments is expected to continue.

But, intermodalism only works as a partnership and where the combination of price and service is transparent to the person whose goods are being shipped.

Rail is cheaper than truck.

The reason that trucks haul 90 per cent of all consumer products and foodstuffs and 80 per cent of Ontario trade with the U.S. comes down to service, not price.

Most of what trucks haul is small shipments of time sensitive freight.

This is not really the business that trains are in.

They dominate in the long haul, bulk commodity business where time is not as important a factor.

Nobody should expect anything more than a modest (in terms of the overall freight market), strategic shift of freight is possible.

But, even if a more substantive shift was possible would it bring about the environmental and congestion benefits for urban areas the minister suggests?

Transport Canada’s Climate Change Table reviewed over 100 measures to reduce GHG emissions and concluded that a truck-rail modal shift would do little to reduce GHG, but would exact an enormous economic cost, rendering the whole idea not worth pursuing.

A recent study for the three NAFTA environment ministers found that a shift to rail in the Toronto-Detroit corridor, would lead to an increase in emissions (i.e., nitrogen oxides and particulate matter) that cause smog and have been linked to respiratory illnesses.

Why?

Because the emissions from heavy truck engines and truck diesel fuel are regulated. By 2007, emissions of NOx and PM will be virtually eliminated from new trucks.

No similar regulation is applied to rail locomotives and fuels.

A study for Transport Canada has found the railways are basically using home heating oil for fuel in Central Canada.

This fuel is cheaper, but it contains more sulphur – the main ingredient in producing particulate matter.

In fact, the sulphur content of truck diesel fuel is three to five times less than that of rail diesel.

Another study for Environment Canada found that the introduction of new, higher powered, locomotive engines meant improved fuel efficiency but more emissions per unit of fuel consumed.

If the minister is concerned about the environment, why doesn’t he regulate pollution from trains, which falls under his jurisdiction?

If the federal government wants to reduce emissions from trucks it should be looking at incentives to accelerate the market penetration of the new, cleaner truck engines.

Other research for Transport Canada has concluded that in the GTA, where congestion is greatest, a shift to rail (even at about double the current intermodal volume) would represent about 0.5per cent of total traffic.

If the minister is serious about reducing the number of trucks on the road, he should be working with the industry and the provinces to review regulations that constrain the industry’s productivity, encouraging loading docks to be open in off-peak periods, etc.

If he wants to alleviate congestion he needs to get more people out of cars and onto public transit.

David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

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