Deep-freeze delays Vancouver boxes

Deep-freeze delays Vancouver boxes

Severe winter weather is delaying intermodal traffic heading from Canada's Pacific Coast inland and to the U.S. Midwest as railroads battle bitterly cold temperatures and containers pile up at the Port of Vancouver.

The condition is likely to last for at least two more weeks, those in the industry said.

At DeltaPort, the largest of Vancouver's box terminals, located 25 miles outside the city, containers arriving from abroad are sitting idle for four to five days before being loaded on eastbound trains, said Morley Strachan, director of marketing and strategic planning for TSI Terminals Services Inc., Thursday night. At the smaller Vanterm facility in Vancouver Harbour, also operated by TSI, "it's probably two to three days."

P & O Ports Canada, which operates the downtown Centerm terminal, did not immediately return calls for information on conditions.

Railroads Canadian National and Canadian Pacific in January and February have been chilled by continuous arctic temperatures ranging from minus 30 to minus 40 degrees Celsius -- without the wind chill - over the Rockies and across the Prairies, significantly slowing rail service to and from Vancouver. Avalanches in mountain passes have also stopped rail traffic for up to 48 hours in both directions.

:It's more than a nuisance -- it's very serious, actually," said Ron Gray, general manager of a leading West Coast freight forwarder, Locher Evers Intl. "You can't rely on the traditional knowledge that once a container reaches Vancouver from abroad, in another five days it's in Toronto or Vancouver [or Chicago or Detroit]. It's hit-and-miss now, depending on weather and on equipment availability, and we have only the two railroads to choose from."

Gray said Canadian Pacific had temporarily stopped accepting containers of perishable goods because their temperature-control mechanisms "are freezing up." This could not be immediately confirmed with the Calgary-based railroad.

Both CN and CP Rail have shortened the length of trains traveling across the Prairie provinces, because the cold was affecting the air brakes and performance of locomotives. Trains are also carrying fewer containers than usual, and the steel tracks were turning brittle and breaking in the frigid conditions.

Canadian National spokesman Mark Hallman said the cold weather "has in a number of cases required us to run shorter trains," and "we haven't been able to cycle as many of the containers as we would have been able to cycle in better winter conditions." TSI's Strachan said that the Vancouver docks were becoming congested, and at the same time there was a shortage of loaded or empty containers headed to Vancouver.

Hallman disputed this, saying "at the present time we have a good car supply for container traffic at Vancouver, and a good pipeline of cars headed there as well." CN had not embargoed any traffic, and Hallman expected the backlog to be cleared "probably within the next 10 days to two weeks."

Strachan estimated it could take a little over two weeks for DeltaPort, served primarily by CN, to return to normal operations, and an additional week at Vanterm, served by CP Rail. DeltaPort handles more than 800,000 TEUs a year and Vanterm about 450,000 TEUs, Strachan said.