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Is Saskatchewan the Canary in the Coal Mine?

by Jim Park

Grain transportation in Saskatchewan has changed radically in the last two decades, and that isn't about to stop, even though the effect on the province's highways has been devastating.

As rail operators began abandoning unprofitable branch lines in the mid-1980s, more and more grain has been moved off the farms and on to local and regional elevators by truck. Trains still haul almost all tonnage from those regional sites to the ocean ports, but trucks are definitely in charge of the short hauls.

At the same time, many elevators have been shut down. The number of grain elevators in Saskatchewan has decreased from 1045 in the mid-1980s to fewer than 400 today. Several studies predict that further consolidation is bound to occur, resulting in a distribution network with as few as 50 to 75 operating elevators.

The result of all this is that trucks haul 17 times more grain today than they did 25 years ago, and that may double again if consolidation continues.

This has created a tremendous strain that's been concentrated on fewer roads, roads that were never intended to handle such levels of truck traffic, never designed to carry the weight. So they began to crumble. In a very real way, that's exactly what's been happening all over the country: too much traffic on too few roads.

In 1998, the Saskatchewan government submitted a report to the Estey Grain Commission review committee warning of the false economy in switching transport modes from rail to truck. The report, called 'The Impact of Grain Truck Hauls on Saskatchewan Roads', said that while local producers would see some reduction in shipping costs due to track abandonment, the real cost of moving the grain by truck would be considerably higher.

Local producers would eventually have to pay higher taxes to fund road improvements resulting from increased truck traffic.

The report also suggested that the affected communities would suffer further as their municipalities lost tax revenue from the abandonment of rail lines and the closure of elevators. On top of that, their assessed land value would plummet as the distance to market and the cost of transport by truck increased.

Most of the studies and surveys conducted in the past have focused on farm-to-elevator hauling. Those studies revealed that in the early 1970s, the average haul distance was just slightly over 10 km and the average delivery weighed five tonnes. The primary vehicle type was either a one-ton or a two-ton pickup. By the late '80's, the three-axle truck came into significant use along with the five-axle tractor-trailer. The average haul distance had increased to 16 km and the average delivery weighed 10.1 tonnes. The current haul distance has increased to 23.5 km with an average delivery weight of 11.4 tonnes.

If current estimates are correct, and the consolidation of delivery points leaves only 60 operational elevators in the entire province, the average haul distance would increase to 49.7 km with an average payload of 14.3 tonnes. That may not sound like a lot, but statistically, it's a huge increase.

What hasn't even been taken into account is the emergence of elevator-to-elevator hauls using heavier B-train combinations. Those movements are estimated to involve 1.4 billion tonne-kilometres and 50 million vehicle-kilometres annually. In terms of tonne-kilometres they're already estimated to be twice the size of farm-to-elevator hauls, and are expected to increase significantly in the future.

To add a bit of gasoline to the fire: the government estimates that 93% of these B-trains are loaded for primary road weights, which puts them well beyond the weight limits for secondary highways and gravel roads.

Another challenge faced by the province is the seasonal nature of grain traffic. Studies have shown that a road that can handle 10 to 15 trucks a day over a two-week period will fail prematurely if that level of traffic is concentrated over two or three days. A Saskatchewan road designed for an average volume of five vehicles a day may, today, actually be carrying 50 or more trucks a day in August and September.

The province's primary highways can handle these traffic peaks without difficulty, but concentrated hauling can easily destroy a 'thin-membrane surface', the type of road surface found in most parts of rural Saskatchewan.

What's the Answer?

The Estey Grain Commission review committee said there's no single answer to the problem. Rather, it suggested a series of possible solutions, adding that the likely remedy would lie in a multi-faceted approach. One way or the other, it ain't gonna be cheap.

One proposal was central tire-inflation technology (CTI), which equalizes pressure wheel-to-wheel and allows a driver to adjust inflation pressures from the cab. Lower tire pressures result in less damage to weak roads, so this technology is currently used by at least three Saskatchewan truck fleets. Trucks travel at normal speeds and tire inflation on primary highways, then the drivers slow down and deflate the tires while on secondary roads to minimize damage.

But CTI is expensive, and economical only for fleets that travel long distances on lower-strength roads. It would not make financial sense for most two- and three-axle farm trucks. Manual tire deflation would also be an option, but the review committee felt that few operators would bother unless there was a massive enforcement campaign to encourage compliance.

Experts have said that increasing the volumes hauled during the winter months, when the pavement and subgrade is frozen, would help to reduce road damage. But only 22% of annual grain deliveries occur during the winter weight period. The peak delivery period is typically two to three weeks at the end of August and early September.

Haul avoidance is seen as the most effective way of avoiding damage to secondary roads. This means that trucks simply do not haul during wet weather, when the roads are most vulnerable. But few carriers are likely to park their trucks in wet weather because they can ill afford to lose revenue to a rainy day.

Increasing the use of short-line railways is another option to keep grain traffic off the roads. But there are presently less than 600 km of track in short-line service in the entire province. The review committee said that operating these lines isn't terribly profitable, and there are still too many institutional barriers that need to be removed before this option could be seen as a viable alternative to trucks.

Increased enforcement of weight limits would also reduce road impacts. While any increase in compliance would be beneficial, it's estimated that to achieve 97% compliance would cost the province over $10 million a year.

In a direct way, Saskatchewan mirrors what's happening on a national scale in the rest of Canada. We don't have the highway infrastructure to support our industrial output or consumer demand. As we run more and heavier trucks over existing roads, we decrease the lifespan of those roads and increase congestion. This drives the price of goods up as the tax demands to fund improvements increase as well. At the same time, as industry moves away from congested areas to avoid those costs, distances increase and costs rise anyway. It's a real dilemma.

Just as Saskatchewan is watching its highways crumble under the weight, other regions of the country continue to stare down empty highways for the want of some industrial activity. Poor quality roads do nothing to encourage industrial development. Just look at northern Ontario and central New Brunswick.

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