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Canada's trucking sector may face 'inflection point' in 2015, say observers

MONTREAL - High personal debt levels and rising taxes in Ontario and Quebec are constraining Canadian economic growth needed to support a recovery of the trucking sector, says the chief executive officer of TransForce, the country's largest trucking company.

Alain Bedard also said the industry was hit by plant closures in the manufacturing heartland of Ontario and Quebec, but he is hopeful that a recovery will begin next year.

"At best, we will probably see some improvement in 2015, slowly, very slowly in Canada," he said in an interview.

It's a viewpoint shared by David Bradley, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents carriers, owner-operators and industry suppliers.

"I think it's approaching our time," said Bradley who estimates the industry is "probably 90 to 95 per cent" back from its low point, with some parts of the country and customers doing better than others.

The sector has been under pressure since 2006 when a rise in the Canadian dollar choked off southbound demand that had been growing for 20 years. The industry then moved into "unchartered waters" in 2008 when the financial collapse caused a 30 per cent reduction in volumes, forcing many drivers to flee their rigs.

The Canadian industry generally tracks the economy, so the outlook this year is for "modest choppy growth," said Bradley.

"Increases in volumes have been modest but sustainable and I think that people are generally optimistic," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "People have long memories and it wasn't too long ago that we were in a multi-year great recession."

Analyst Walter Spracklin of RBC Capital Markets recently raised his estimates for Canadian trucking companies on evidence pointing to improved industry fundamentals.

"We believe the industry is approaching an inflection point where demand (via higher volumes) is beginning to overtake supply, affording carriers greater pricing power that should translate into improved financial results going forward," he wrote in a report.

Spracklin said private trucking companies have a more positive assessment of current freight activity than public carriers.

"We see the positive commentary from the private carriers as a precursor to what we believe will be a formal shift in guidance by public company executives, possibly as early as this quarter."

He said TransForce and Ontario-based Contrans (TSX:CSS), the largest specialty trucker in Ontario, are best-positioned to profit from the improving outlook. The two companies agreed on a friendly deal Thursday that would see TransForce (TSX:TFI) become a dominant player in the country's specialized trucking sector.

Bedard said TransForce's goal is to increase its pre-tax operating income (EBIT) by one percentage point annually through internal cost cutting.

The Canadian dollar hovering around 94 cents US may also provide a little boost to exports, he added.

Edward Malysa, president and chief operating officer of Trimac Corp. (TSX:TMA) has another concern. He says a shortage of drivers is the biggest challenge facing trucking industry during the next decade.

"We can see some pricing increases (but) I don't think that we're overly optimistic that tomorrow the prices are going to go up 10 per cent, because we can't get drivers," he said in an interview.

The Conference Board of Canada says the country is headed for a severe truck driver shortage because many drivers are set to retire and few candidates waiting in the wings.

Its study released last March said Canada could experience a shortage of about 30,000 truck drivers by 2020.

It said a change in policy to recognize trucking as a skilled trade could attract more domestic and immigrant entrants into the industry.

Malysa also said salaries will need to increase, perhaps by 10 per cent, to help offset the lifestyle hardship facing long-haul drivers who spend long periods of time away from their families.

Trimac is short about 100 drivers, or a little less than 10 per cent of its workforce of 1,200.

Malysa said the improving U.S. economy has exposed challenges because so many drivers left the field during the downturn.

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