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Archive for July 25th, 2009

CN Withdraws Port Vancouver Rail Service

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Journal of Commerce

The Port Authority at Vancouver, British Columbia, is canvassing its options, including legal action, after Canadian National Railway switched its rail service to trucks for three of the port’s four container terminals.

CN “unilaterally” withdrew rail service temporarily to the terminals July 13, without informing or discussing it with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, vice-president Chris Badger told the Journal of Commerce.

The Authority will monitor the effects until next week of the rail-to-trucks switch between CN’s Vancouver Intermodal Terminal and the downtown terminals Centerm and Vanterm and Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River and then “take whatever action is open to us,” Badger said.

The Authority is looking at terms of contracts and whether there are negative effects on truck flow. “We are looking at all available options,” including legal action, Badger said.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said container supply to the dowtown terminals had dwindled and some steamship lines had moved their calls to Deltaport. CN still provides rail service to this fourth and largest box terminal.

Trucking rather than rail will “more efficiently serve the (three) terminals and improve transit times,” Hallman said. “The terminal operators are fine with this.”

The port isn’t – and neither should we be, and maybe this is the sort of story that the mainstream media should be jumping all over. It is not just that the railway did not tell the port what it was going to do – that’s bad enough, and shows a really bad attitude. My concern is over the increase of truck traffic. It has seemed to me in recent months that I have been seeing larger number of trucks with the tractor units painted in CN livery hauling containers. It is also unclear to me why the decline in the number of units being shipped – and the switch of port of call to Deltaport instead of other terminals justifies ending rail service entirely.

The Vancouver port call serves the Canadian market in general. Given the distribution of our population that means most goods are destined for Ontario and Quebec. The majority of containers go from the ship side onto a train and back east. Much of the rest still goes that way – but the contents of the full containers get split up and reloaded back onto other containers or truck trailers for onward distribution. And again, a lot of this is not destined for this region so it goes by rail. Rail service from Vanterm, Centerm and Fraser Surrey Docks may not need to be quite so frequent or on such long trains, but I do not understand the logic of extra handling of containers when there is already the infrastructure in place for the rail haul.

The key word seems to be “temporary” – well how long is that? And what savings does CN make? Obviously the communities directly impacted by these truck movements have an interest – and CN of course does not consult with them at all. CN also likes to portray itself as a good corporate citizen – and has all kinds of PR stuff about the efficiencies of railways and how good that is to reduce truck traffic. So to make a decision which increases truck traffic locally and which is sprung by surprise and with no detail on why it is necessary – “more efficiently serve” and “improve transit times” – how? And how does increasing the number of times a container is handled reduce cost?

What would make more sense – and would of course be even more of a concern to communities – is if this change is not really temporary at all and CN is looking to turn its tracks into developable real estate. Now CP have been trying to do that for a while – with the Arbutus line – with little success. Is that what CN is after too?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Railway

Column: Try this on for size: Sales tax on bikes returns, fossil fuels exempt

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Vaughan Palmer in the Sun kicks the ball into the open goal.  I am not sure if the the tax on bikes is actually the most important feature but it does once again give the lie to the Liberal’s pretence to care about greenhouse gas emissions or urban traffic.

“…some …thought the … carbon tax had merit as a tool for putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases”

Very few, I suspect. The price on emissions was far too low to have any effect on behaviour. Moreover, the actual effect was more than offset by the decline in gas prices brought about by general falling in demand due to the recession. The carbon tax – already offset by those $100 cheques – really did not hurt at all. And to have any effect it had to be noticeable. It wasn’t.

The Harmonised Sales Tax is being touted as “good for business” since it reduces their administrative overheads a bit, though frankly I doubt that we will see a big increase in the number of accountants in the dole queues. The real winner is the provincial government itself, which sees a huge one time payment from the feds – over $1bn that can usefully have some impact on the provincial deficit when other revenues are down – and a steady stream of new revenue. Because lots of things that are now tax free will not be (not just bikes) and we will be paying more. The “revenue neutral” claim has very little credibility. And we are already hearing from the restaurant businesses – and the realtors and developers who have had such a close relationship with the Liberals – and who seem to have been taken by surprise.

The most obvious weakness of the Liberals case is that this move was not part of their election platform and they were denying right up to election day. But within a few days after the election talks started with the Feds. Just like BC Rail. This is not just breaking electoral promises it is clearly deliberate deception about their intentions. And with fixed election dates, of course they do that now and hope that after the four years of this term it will be forgotten.

For a party that ran on the “safe pair of hands” and “don’t vote for them they will raise your taxes” slogans, I think this one will stick firmly. Of course the NDP will have a field day – but a lot of Liberal supporters will be feeling annoyed, and with very good reason. But the people who will find this most difficult are those on low incomes. Our tax system has become steadily more regressive as tax is shifted away from income tax to consumption taxes. Changes in sales tax will have very little impact on those who have large incomes and already spend a great deal on “conspicuous consumption”. But for those people on low and fixed incomes – and there has been very little increase in the incomes of those at the bottom end of the scale in recent years – even small changes in sales taxes have a disproportionate impact on what they can buy. They already pay the government proportionately more of their small incomes – leaving less for essentials such as food and shelter and are  far more price sensitive than the wealthy for whom high prices are simply an useful guide to quality. It is a curious notion in the neoconservative philosophy is that the poor need less and the wealthy need more – but that is exactly what we have seen in recent years, and this is just another plank of the same structure.

By the way “fossil fuels exempt” is probably not a very wise line to take either. The province gets plenty of tax revenue from fuel. What should be noted is that GST is a tax on tax – and, as far as I know, Canada is one of the very few countries that levies national taxes on provincial taxes. I had never heard of this practice until I came here and I am still astonished that we put up with it. That alone would have justified refusing to join HST until that obvious unjustifiable impost had been removed.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2009 at 11:02 am