Getting back on track

03 July 2014 | Christopher Ludwig

Even in our digital world, location matters. Earlier this year, travelling between equally grey and rainy London and Germany, I didn’t appreciate how much the cold weather was disturbing the rail network in North America. Sure, Marcus Williams (our news editor) and I made calls and heard about the frozen tundra that parts of the Midwest and Canada had become, and the transport panic, but I had counted on a few line stoppages and trucks stuck in the snow before things eventually melted away. If anything was going to snarl vehicle deliveries on the continent, I’d long been hearing, it was going to be surging exports from Mexico.

I had to travel further away to realise how wrong I was. In Shanghai, one executive told me North American rail was his biggest headache. Now, I knew of companies pushing the Trans-Siberian between China and Europe, but this would have been the first I’d heard of tracks under the Bering Strait.

While I wouldn’t discount Chinese ambition for such a project, he meant, of course, that he couldn’t get vehicles out of North America because of rail backlogs. By the time I got to California and Mexico in May – where surely the winter had given way to sunshine – things had gotten worse, with double the average number of vehicles awaiting transport. Mexico was hardly a culprit at all, with the rail and sea network coping generally well – although as the outbound reports of our Mexico focus reveals, there are plenty of executives anxious to see more capacity investments. 

No one has a quick fix to the rail issues. It has happened for very technical reasons, including the cold weather’s impact on air brakes, as well as a demand surge. OEM executives have made it clear, however, that they don’t want weather reports. Many have switched lanes to truck, with some volume liable to stay permanently on the road. There are cases in which that may be radical or rash – trucking 3,000km, for example – but providers need to grasp the consequences. The railways at least need a better understanding of the impacts any network disruption might have for cargo such as vehicles. OEMs have complained most about inaccurate estimates (although the railways would not be the first to get their forecasts wrong).

Rail is in many ways what divides North American vehicle logistics from the rest of the world; the Chinese, Indians and even Europeans envy its efficiency and scale. It would be a shame if more trucks hauled cars distances that would be better suited to rail. Hopefully providers and OEMs will manage future risks better – or else what hope would be left for the great Trans-Alaskan-Siberian railway?

Tagged with: Asia, Europe, Finished Vehicles, North America, OEMs, Rail