North America’s transportation system needs a master plan.

That is the message Dr. Stephen Blank has been trying to deliver to governments, universities and industry in the U.S., Canada and Mexico for years.

Blank, special advisor, Collaboratory on Energy Research and Policy, University of Ottawa, believes that without a strategic plan for moving commodities such as grain and containers, North America could soon reach a point where the inability to move freight efficiently will limit the ability of farmers and manufacturers to expand their export markets.

In a recent blog at, he said: “In the second decade of the 21st century, we understand that transportation infrastructure will be a critical element in shaping our competitiveness in the global arena. But it is also clear that in our national and the continental economies, North America continues to face significant transportation infrastructure deficits. We lack a vision of an efficient, sustainable and secure North American freight transportation system for the next decades, and we have failed to create a mechanism to think about, not to say put in place, such a system.”

In a presentation this spring to the Canola Council of Canada, Blank said he did not doubt the ability of Canadian canola growers to boost production from the present 34.4 bushels per acre to the council’s goal of 52 bushels per acre by 2015, but said growers should be concerned that years of underinvestment in North America’s transportation network have not only made it difficult to keep up with routine maintenance, but impossible to accommodate the growth looming on the horizon.

North America not prepared

In an interview with World Grain, Blank was asked if North America is prepared to handle the demand for goods and foodstuffs that will soon be coming from developing countries and a growing population worldwide, and his answer was an emphatic no.

“What is interesting here is the fact that people think about ships – 12,000 or 14,000 TEUs – but they really don’t think enough about the land side. A unit train will carry about 200 containers or 250 maximum. A lot of North American railways are single track now – having torn up the second track in the 1970s – and the lay-bys (sidings) are a mile long. You can’t have trains that are longer than you can put on the lay-by.

“So you divide 12,000 or 13,000 by 250 containers and you’ve got a lot of trains. And the guys that carry the stuff out aren’t always the guys that carry the stuff in, so we’re talking about a multiple of at least 1 1/2. And, you need space. You can’t load 12,000 or 14,000 or 18,000 containers directly off of a ship onto a train. You need a place to stack the stuff.

“So when you think of the number of trains that have to get into a terminal, plus trucks, it’s just not possible. Moreover, in most places there’s very little space. In Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles and Long Beach, there’s very little space. The land has become much more valuable for condos.”

In addition to a lack of space, there’ll be restricted rail capacity, huge surges in highway traffic and visits to fewer West Coast ports.

Blank is also concerned that in both Canada and the U.S., the issue has shifted from building infrastructure to cutting government spending and cutting taxes.

In Canada and the U.S., he said, there’s barely enough funding to fix potholes rather than think strategically. “There’s going to be no money left for strategic thinking,” he said.

In addition, he said, if anything is done it’s going to be “shovel-ready jobs” and not looking at the big picture.

“You can look at every transportation institute in North America and none of them are working on North American stuff,” he said. “We have this huge asset that should be focused on these issues, and they aren’t focused at all.”

Blank’s concern is that North American farmers and manufacturers will gradually lose competitiveness “right across the board.” And while some businesses will find a way to compete, many won’t.

While there are projects, such as the Asia Pacific Corridor in Western Canada, that have worked and provide an example of the federal and provincial governments and industry working together on a project, Blank is concerned about the Trans Canada Highway that is still a single lane in some areas, and he says the level of maintenance is dropping. Another trouble spot is the CN Rail’s connection between the Port of Prince Rupert and the U.S Midwest that goes through Chicago. If rail traffic volumes increase significantly, Chicago will be overwhelmed, and it will become “impossible” to move the containers further south, he said.

Blank said the only way to design a North American rail system for the 21st century is to take a blank piece of paper and start with what the continent will need in the future.

“Our railroad systems were based on the economic geography of the second half of the 19th century,” he said. “Our road system was based on the perception of need and what politics could manage in the 1950s. In general, the infrastructure in our part of the world is in dire straits. I don’t know what the answer is.”

How will we feed Asia?

When it comes to food, Blank said the rising middle class in Asia, particularly in China, is going to be enormous. “They’re going to want to buy everything we can possibly send them,” he said.

His question is: How are we going to be able to do this?

“We’re going to have to come up with something better than now exists because we’re not going to have the road or rail capacity – or even the port capacity – to meet the demand,” he said. “And for the foreseeable future we’re going to live on a knife-edge when you have large crops or cold winters or a shortage of equipment, or whatever it is that’s going to drive the thing to a crisis.”

Blank said that, in reality, there’s no place in North America where knowledgeable people can sit down and think about these things across their various academic silos.

“The notion of a think tank barely exists any longer, and certainly not in this area,” he said. “For years I’ve been traveling across North America visiting universities and begging people to think about this. But I’ve been a total failure.”

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Leo Quigley writes for a variety of national and international publications specializing in agriculture and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected].

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