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Business at the Border

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U.S. Customs Agriculture specialist Kelly Elliott is gathering beetles with a brush and placing them in a vial of alcohol, just as an entomologist would.

Her task? Verifying whether the beetle hitchhikers she’s collecting from inside an intermodal container could create a biological threat if allowed to cross the 49th parallel from Canada into the U.S.

Inspections like this one used to result in dozens of delayed containers daily for CP at the Portal, North Dakota border crossing. With the recent introduction of our new Portal live lift, unnecessary delays have been eliminated.

The live lift permits CP crews to quickly remove any containers from a train that are flagged for inspection. Elliott and her colleagues can then take all the time they need to scrutinize a container’s contents, permitting other customers’ containers to continue unimpeded to their destination.

Small change, big impact

To understand why the live lift is a significant service enhancement, it is helpful to understand the nature of railcars that carry shipping containers.

CP train 198, the Vancouver, British Columbia to Chicago, Illinois daily intermodal crosses the border at Portal and frequently handles railcars with multiple containers. Because containers typically carry less weight than a loaded boxcar or hopper, it is possible for a single railcar to carry up to 15 containers.

A worker opening the rear doors on a container.

At Portal, our customers were experiencing a disadvantage to this otherwise efficient concept. If Customs wanted to inspect just one container, CP had no choice but to delay the entire railcar, affecting the schedule of all containers on board.

On this particular day of Elliott’s beetle inspection the operation looks very different with the live lift in service. Train 198 stops beside a newly poured asphalt pad roughly two kilometres south of Portal. The three-person crew from Terminal Operations Management, a CP contractor, uses a top-lifter to remove the four containers that have been selected for inspection.

Train 198 is en route to Minneapolis and Chicago within 20 minutes. Meanwhile, a tractor pulls up with an empty chassis and hauls the selected containers to a nearby warehouse where Elliott will perform her inspection.

“Under the old system, Customs would hold the containers of interest for inspection, forcing non-offending containers to sit at Portal until they could be moved to destination by a subsequent train,” explains CP’s Manager of Transborder Strategy Allan Schepens. “Live lift allows offending containers to be removed directly from 198 without switching, which is an important operational improvement. Non-offending containers remain on board, enabling CP to move customer freight across the border without delay. This is a win-win for CP and our cross-border intermodal customers who depend on timely delivery.”

A cross-border company

CP is a cross-border company, with about two-thirds of our network in Canada and one-third in the U.S. In 2016, cross-border business generated almost one-third of CP’s revenue. Pushing that business across the border efficiently is critical to our success.

A forklift moving a large cargo container.

Intermodal trains are highly complicated to move across the border. “They receive the most scrutiny,” Schepens says. Bills of lading for individual containers are conveyed to CP and then U.S. Customs, sometimes many days in advance of a shipment arriving at the Port of Vancouver.

“This allows our customers who don’t have any involvement or problems with customs to get their freight moving through the border without any delay.”

“The procedure starts with our customer submitting an electronic bill of lading to CP. From that, we create a U.S. customs manifest,” Schepens explains. “It’s all done electronically within our system. We submit that manifest to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection offical inspecting cargo.

It takes team effort to move a shipment across the border. The shipper is responsible for providing the value of the goods in the container as well as any licences or permits to Customs directly through their customs broker. By regulation, rail carriers are required to send Customs a final consist list of the train a minimum of two hours before the train reaches the border.

A container from overseas is more likely to be inspected than a shipment from Canada due to the likelihood that it might contain exotic pests or fraudulent merchandise. Carload business seldom requires an inspection. In addition to working from the provided documentation, Customs examines the snapshot it receives from the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), which scans each shipment as it crosses the border. The VACIS measures the density of what’s inside the container and creates a black and white image.

Customs provides CP with a list of containers likely to receive an inspection even before the train arrives at Portal. Once 198 clears the VACIS, the agency promptly provides CP with a final list and Terminal Operations Management coordinates with the train crew to have these containers removed from the train.

Under scrutiny

The beetles Elliott collects will be photographed under a microscope at Portal and photos sent to an off-site lab for identification. If they are invasive, the container will be returned to where it originated from; if not, customs will authorize its continued travel to destination.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection offical inspecting a vial of liquid.

Once the container receives the all-clear, it’s reloaded and given a new seal bearing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection logo. If possible, Terminal Operations Management will load it on tomorrow’s train 198.

The Portal live lift is one of several incremental improvements that are giving our critical cross-border intermodal services a boost. For our sales and marketing teams it brings to mind the famous line from 1989’s film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.

We are building it, they are coming and we are not done yet.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection offical inspecting a container raised on a forklift.

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