Short line uses automation to streamline border crossings

June 8, 2004
Short line uses automation to streamline border crossings The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad ( is not the first name most shippers come

Short line uses automation to streamline border crossings

The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad ( is not the first name most shippers come up with when they think of international commerce via rail. But the 164-mile short line railroad connecting Quebec and New England has carved out a niche for itself, and it's not about to let government reporting requirements that go into effect in July stand in the way of smooth border crossings.

Running from Portland, Maine, to Ste. Rosalie, Quebec, the SL&A interchanges with the Canadian National railroad, which connects it to five western Canadian deep-water ports. Most of the SL&A's freight originates in the U.S. or Canada and crosses the border at Norton, Vt.

As part of a group of short line railroads held by Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the SL&A learned that one of its sister railroads was using an automated manifest system (AMS) from RMI ( in Mexico trade. The SL&A implemented the AMS module in December 2003.

“We cut a waybill on a load, and if it's on our line, we put it in the system and send a control document to the customs broker,” says Robert Pratt, customer service manager for the SL&A. “We send a 309 [complete manifest] message to the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and they pair it up with the information they received through the automated broker interface (ABI). If everything matches, and they have the quantities and everything else, we get a good 309.”

The process can start with the shipper providing the railroad with an electronic bill of lading, adds Paul Pascutti, vice president of marketing for RMI. The bill of lading can be transmitted by conventional electronic data interchange (EDI) or over the Internet. About 90% of SL&A's customers are using the Internet, Pratt notes. In some cases they use EDI formats, while a few still fax their waybills to the railroad.

“Cross-border trade isn't very forgiving of errors,” says Mario Brault, the Montreal-based president of SL&A. With three parties handling the information — the shipper, the broker and the railroad — the error is usually someone entering something incorrectly, agrees Pratt.

“We handle 2,200 cars a month over this border,” Pratt explains. The percentage of shipments affected by errors is small, but when they occur, the railroad may have to pull a car off the train and set it aside because the railroad tends to cross the border in the evening.

Shipments that originate in Asia and pass through western Canadian ports are usually no problem for the SL&A. The requirement to file advance notice with CBP ( required under the Container Security Initiative and the Trade Act of 2003 means the railroad will often see the shipment information six days before the shipment arrives. The cars carrying those goods receive a line release number, and move in bond across the border.

The electronic advance manifest system allows the SL&A to work with shippers in the U.S. Midwest who ship to the eastern U.S. and cross those shipments into Canada in Michigan and back into the U.S. in Vermont, cutting days off the transit time for a similar shipment that would move entirely within the U.S.

The next challenge for the railroad and its shipper customers is agricultural security. The SL&A is already looking at advance notice requirements under the Food and Drug Administration's bioterrorism rules. LT

For more information about border security, go to and click on Rules and Regulations.

June, 2004

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