Rail problems backing up containers at Vancouver

Rail problems backing up containers at Vancouver

Containers from Asia are piling up at Canada's Port of Vancouver due to a shortage of intermodal railroad cars, and port executives say it could be several weeks before the backlog is cleared.

"Around 200,000 feet [of containers] are on the ground at the moment," Chris Badger, vice-president for operations of the Vancouver Port Authority, said Friday. "It's going to be a challenge to clear it."

A typical eastbound intermodal train operated by CP Rail out of Vancouver is about 6,000 feet long, meaning the backlog equates to about 35 intermodal trains worth of containers.

Vancouver is a gateway for shipments heading to Canadian inland markets and the U.S. Midwest.

Badger and CP Rail executives were scheduled to meet today in Toronto to work out a plan to get enough intermodal cars to Vancouver to help deal with the backlog.

"[We are] trying to get a handle on the footage of railcars CP will be able to provide the West Coast," he said, "and we will work out a game plan for the backlog. I'm confident we'll see the end of this in a few weeks."

The back-up is choking three container terminals of the Vancouver Port Authority and at the Fraser Surrey breakbulk/container docks on the Fraser River. CP Rail spokesman Len Cocoliccio said that "we are experiencing higher than forecasted levels of demand. Volumes of most commodities have been peaking simultaneously."

"One of the consequences of that is that we do have intermodal trains staged, awaiting movement through our British Columbia corridor, and this is causing congestion in the Vancouver area," Cocoliccio said. He said the backlog was "considerable" and the delays "substantial" but did not provide details.

The railcar shortage is compounded by a bottleneck on CP Rail's busy single-track line through the Shuswap area of British Columbia, where the railroad still is recovering from snowslides and other severe winter weather. Canadian National, which operates a parallel line on the opposite side of the Fraser River, has had fewer problems. "We are totally fluid at the Port of Vancouver. We have no backlog," said CN spokesman Mark Hallman. "We have an adequate car supply in and out of Vancouver. It's business as usual."

Badger said that the equipment shortage is rapidly becoming an industry-wide problem as railroads struggle to cope with the booming container trade from Asia.

"This is not just a British Columbia issue," he said. "Up and down the West Coast (of both countries), other rail lines are having similar challenges."

Union Pacific, the largest railroad in the U.S., last week said it would begin trucking shipments for United Parcel Service on the Dallas-Memphis leg of its transcontinental service to cope with increasing system congestion

In a letter Monday to members, Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association Executive Director George Kuhn described Canada's "broken and inadequate transport infrastructure" which requires substantial investment to cope with huge new container ships now entering service in the Pacific trade.