Edmonton’s Global Connectivity Advantage
Part 2 Rail and boats
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series
Planes, trains and…boats? Rethinking the global connectivity of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region
In a past blog I explained how the Edmonton Metropolitan Region’s northern location creates a significant advantage when it comes to accessing Asia via air. But did you know that the Edmonton connection to Pacific ports can also give logistics companies a competitive edge?
Many might be surprised to learn that basing a warehouse and logistics center in the landlocked Edmonton region can outcompete communities like Los Angeles, Seattle or Vancouver in its connectivity to Asian markets. How is this possible?
A Logistics Hub
The Edmonton region includes Port Alberta, an important inland port connected to both the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert. It’s also a key hub for both class one railroads in Canada (Canadian National and Canadian Pacific) (Figure 1). Together they operate 7000 miles of track in Alberta and connect across Canada, the United States, and Mexico. CP’s pending acquisition of Kansas City Southern will create two direct routes via rail to the US Gulf Coast from Edmonton.
According to schedules from CN and CP, Edmonton has the fastest shipping times of any major city to both western ports. When we compare to Calgary, Edmonton goods arrive in Vancouver approximately half a day faster, and when connecting to Prince Rupert, a full day faster.
The region’s highway networks span the continent and extensive local road networks make it easy to connect to regional businesses. The region is rich in talent related to logistics and is home to more than sixteen rail intermodal terminals and storage facilities. Logistics industry leaders such as Westcan Bulk Transport, Rosenau Transport; and the Alberta Motor Transport Association are all headquartered in the region. And there’s a growing cluster of innovation leaders such as Drivewyze, Optessa, Titan Logix, Latium, Willowglen Systems, Correct.AI, Traiffic Labs and others. As explored in my previous blog, the region is also a strategic hub for air cargo.
For this blog, I’ll be focussing on the connection between the Edmonton region/Port Alberta and the Port of Prince Rupert, as I believe it’s this connection that will grow to become an even larger strategic advantage over time.
Rising Importance of Prince Rupert?
The Port of Prince Rupert is the second fastest growing port in North America (following only Ensenada, Mexico) (Figure 2). Currently, Canada’s two biggest ports are Vancouver followed by Montreal. Prince Rupert is expected to overtake Montreal in the next five years and total volume is forecast to surpass 40 million tonnes by 2028. Driving this growth is an impressive portfolio of more than $2.5 billion worth of capital projects underway at the port including plans to more than quadruple the port’s capacity for handling container exports.
Already the Port is being leveraged by international businesses wanting to access the North American market. Figure 3 shows that Prince Rupert exports more containers originating in the USA than Vancouver and import volumes destined for the USA are growing faster in Prince Rupert. A higher percentage of Prince Rupert’s total imports are destined for US markets (68%) compared to Vancouver (24%).
All of this cargo must pass through Port Alberta/the Edmonton region, on its way to its final destinations. Edmonton is the first major city that cargo enters after being offloaded at the Port. This makes Port Alberta and the Edmonton region the logical place for staging, clearing customs, final assembly, and value-added manufacturing for companies importing into, or exporting out of North America.
Because of the curvature of the earth, the Port of Prince Rupert is much closer to Asia than other Pacific ports (Figure 4). Sailing between Tokyo/Yokohama and Prince Rupert can save more than two days compared to sailing to or from Los Angeles.
While travel times for routes using the Prince Rupert/Port Alberta connection to logistics hubs like Chicago are comparable to those from Los Angeles, this does not consider the issue of congestion – an area where the Prince Rupert offers a huge advantage.
The Ports of Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, and Vancouver all face congestion issues that cause at least two major problems for shippers – dwell times and real estate.
It goes without saying that long dwell times will negatively impact travel times.
While the length can vary by month, the most recent data for 2021 show a clear advantage for Prince Rupert/ Port Alberta. Lower congestion time can save up to 14.5 days in travel time (Figure 5).
In September 2021 the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach saw record breaking numbers of vessels waiting off coast to unload at port.
When we look at total travel time between Asia and the US Midwest, choosing the Prince Rupert/Port Alberta route can save more than two weeks.
Containers are increasingly becoming scarce – no one wants to pay rent for containers that are sitting idle at a port. And if you own your containers, you could be missing out on extra revenue that could be generating by renting them to a third party. Dwell times increase costs and decrease alternative revenue streams.
The second major drawback of congested ports becomes evident when shippers are considering investing in their own warehousing and logistics infrastructure. Real estate for these types of green field expansions are increasingly expensive in port cities like Vancouver and Los Angeles.
Investing into Edmonton, as Western Canada’s inland port can provide a major cost advantage. Industrial real estate in the Edmonton region costs about a third less than in Los Angeles and half the cost of land in suburban Vancouver (Figure 6). At the same time, the Edmonton region maintains access to highly skilled manufacturing and logistics talent which is not often available in smaller municipalities like Prince Rupert. Greenfield expansions are also simpler in a large urban municipality where much of the available land is already serviced.
Another interesting cost-saving that occurs when choosing the Prince Rupert/Port Alberta route is related to elevation. Trains using this route save on fuel because fewer engines are required to manage the lower elevation gain (Figure 7).
Mercator estimates that the average cost savings from shipping a 40’ container via Prince Rupert to Chicago versus other ports is between $203 and $267 depending on which port and carrier. This is also a sustainability advantage as fuel savings improve environmental impact.
There’s good reason the Edmonton region is known as Port Alberta, Western Canada’s inland port and logistics hub. The region is the ideal launch point to expand into North American markets and build strong connectivity with Asia. Quality talent, supportive regulatory environment, affordable real estate, and globally connected infrastructure converge within the Edmonton region to create a strategic advantage for investment in the transportation and logistics sector.