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Supplying a Pandemic:

A Closer Look at Edmonton’s Transportation and Distribution Network

Trimac Edmonton.

When the global health pandemic reached Albertan borders, many industries were forced to adapt and alter their operations. For some, this meant a complete shutdown but for transportation and distribution, shutting down was never an option.

Besnik Gasi, area manager for Trimac Edmonton, shares an inside look at what adjusting to a pandemic looks like for those responsible for transporting essentials.

“The immediate questions we asked ourselves were how do we keep our professional drivers, mechanics and loaders safe and how do we keep office and other supporting staff safe to play our part in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” he says. “The first step was to double down on communication and focus on the facts available to us at the time. Immediately, we set up a pandemic response committee in charge of daily communication updates and purchasing PPE for all our locations in North America.”

Trimac was fortunate enough to have invested in technological solutions pre-pandemic, allowing the company to communicate with customers without a paperwork exchange. By March 2020, the company had 97 per cent of their staff working from home.

“Once we had the essentials in place, we then transitioned to re-imagining how we continue our business in a pandemic. This included innovative ideas such as holding virtual safety meetings with our drivers and customers.”

He continues, “We also started thinking about the mental health of employees and encouraged our drivers to use an app that we partnered with focusing on mindfulness. I would conclude the experience of going through an uncertain pandemic, with minimal face time, has made us grow closer. We have been able to leverage technology to fill in the gaps and safely operate in the communities we serve.”

While Trimac has found success in their adaptation plan, the pandemic has not come without its fair share of obstacles. Accurate forecasting on the goods hauled continues to be a notable challenge as the pandemic remains an uncertain factor in the local economy. Gasi notes this feature of the pandemic environment has caused a freeze or delay in capital spending, reducing overall shipments; however, while some commodities have taken a hit, others have seen growth.

“We are glad we’re diversified in terms of the various commodities we haul, which allows us to redeploy assets quickly. There are other commodities or products that are increasing in shipments. An example of this is with online shopping. There are now more shipments than ever being ordered online, which means more resources required to deliver the products to consumers,” Gasi shares.

Online shopping habits are not constrained to luxury goods and household items. Every day, essential commodities rely on professional truck drivers to reach their destination.

“The pandemic has shone a light on how essential professional truck drivers are. The majority of goods and essential products required to reduce the impact of the pandemic are shipped by our drivers. This includes oxygen to hospitals, hand sanitizer, water treatment plant products to keep our water clean, cement products to build communities, propane to keep our homes warm, and the list goes on as online shopping has increased. All of these commodities impact us on a daily basis,” Gasi says. “There’s a proud factor for me that at one point or another, it was shipped by a professional truck driver.”

Ensuring Edmonton’s transportation and distribution sector continues to flourish is pivotal for not only the local economy, but further for industries across the province and the country. Often referred to as the “gateway to the North,” Edmonton services northern communities and supports sectors vital to the Canadian economy.

“Edmonton serves many critical sectors including mining, forestry, chemical, oil and gas, construction, farming, and retail as just some examples,” Gasi says. “Our region has the rail and road infrastructure required to distribute to other geographies whether it’s the northern communities, prairies, west through the Rockies to the ports, or south to the USA.”

In addition to servicing the northern regions of the country, Edmonton is also a key access point to major international markets. This characteristic has opened the city up to major development when it comes to establishing transportation and distribution centres servicing an international clientele. Myron Keehn, vice president of business development and air service at the Edmonton International Airport, explains.

“Edmonton is one of the closest major cities in North America to many parts of Asia due to circumpolar air routes. Edmonton has often been called Canada’s ‘gateway to the North,’ but Edmonton provides a geographical advantage for access to and from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and onward access into the rest of Canada and the United States.”

As Keehn shares, Edmonton serves as a strategic location for international distribution with closer proximity to Beijing and Guangzhou than any city in the lower 48 American states. The Alberta capital further out-competes most North American jurisdictions in proximity to Seoul, Tokyo and Manila.

“This little-known fact is a key part of a strategy that has been years in development for Edmonton International Airport to position our airport – and our entire region – as a key entry point into North America, both for cargo shipments from Asia and as a location for companies looking to expand.”

Edmonton’s strategic position has established a robust local industry. Logistics and transportation support approximately 73 thousand jobs in the region. Keehn notes this industry has a major opportunity for development – operations at the EIA are slated for growth with the recent announcement of an expansion project for their cargo services valued at $36 million.

“The pandemic has significantly increased demand for e-commerce. The Airport and its partner cargo companies handled 46,000 metric tons of cargo, a 7.5 per cent increase from 2019. This included medical supplies and equipment as well as increases in e-commerce. Those numbers may be small compared to major global hubs, but from 2014 to 2018, EIA recorded a 25-times increase in international overseas exports from its facilities.”

While the global health pandemic played a large role in accelerating the development of e-commerce and express cargo goods, Keehn notes these trends were already present and are expected to continue.

“Handling this growth and preparing for future growth is our ongoing focus. As our cargo operations look to the future, we plan to incorporate technology and innovation and our systems will be designed to maximize efficiencies,” he says. “Cargo flights from Asia to North America will carry predominantly e-commerce products.”

The global health pandemic has influenced changes to how industries in the province carry out their daily operations. While the future remains uncertain, the local transportation and distribution economy appears to be keeping pace. Whether transporting PPE to hospitals around the province or fulfilling overseas shipments, Edmonton professionals remain key players in both the local and international transportation and distribution market.