Rail in Winnipeg: Sign of the Times

In today’s Globe and Mail, Siri Agrell wrote on the rail renaissance taking place in Winnipeg.

The premise of the article is something that should ring true for every transportation planner around the world: with the long-term decline of oil and gas supply, trucking isn’t going to be as viable in the mid- to long-term future as it is now for hauling freight long distances.

Winnipeg is in the midst of some major course corrections, most importantly a return to its roots with an ambitious plan to re-establish itself as a major transportation hub, one that will be built largely around the belief that rail shipping, too, is poised to make a comeback.

The author notes that “Winnipeg is not alone in predicting that rail shipping will be a major force in the coming years.” In fact, Bill Gates is now the biggest shareholder of Canadian National Railway, Co. — there is clearly a future in this business.

Why is this happening?

…with fuel prices rising, many experts predict a growing reliance on rail, especially when it comes to feeding demand from the populous Asian continent. Products packed into shipping containers do not have to be reloaded at different ports of call, and can be delivered in a faster, more streamlined manner, with less of an environmental toll.

Given these trends, what is the future for heavy-duty trucks in Canada, and indeed in China?  Will we continue to see the long-term growth of this market?  If fuel is going to become a limiting factor, how should the world prepare?

I have a few ideas: first, where trucks are necessary, especially in agricultural areas, make sure there is a supply of biodiesel available.  This is not a choice of food versus fuel.  This is fuel for food, and is a necessary part of our food production and delivery process.

Second, make sure rail is hybridized and can access electricity where it is clean, and diesel where it is available.

Third, optimize trucking for integration to the rail system.  Long distance trucking is not necessarily a big part of the long-term future.

Will these be the answers?  Who knows — People have been predicting peak oil for a long time, and some have suggested that we actually did hit peak oil in 2006.  That means that the transport world is going to change quickly, and we have to be ready for it when it does.

In the end, peak oil isn’t just about cars — it is about the way global trade works, from shipping manufactured good from China, to delivering food to your grocery store.  It is time to get over the question about the existence of peak oil, and get working on how to adapt our lives to it.

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