Vancouver, Canada’s largest container port, until now has been limited in its capacity to grow by a lack of surge capacity at its rail operations, which serve eastern Canada and the US Midwest. “Deltaport has the berth and container yard capacity. It was limited by rail,” said Eric Waltz, president of GCT Canada. Container volume in the first half of 2018 is up 5 percent to a record 1.64 million TEU, according to a port release.
By increasing surge capacity and making the transfer of containers between ships and trains more efficient, the $300 million, semi-automated operation will allow GCT Deltaport to handle growing container volumes, and to recover more quickly from events such as the disruptions from severe weather that compromised performance at Canada’s Pacific Coast ports last winter.
Vancouver: most containers transported by rail
About 70 percent of Vancouver’s imports and 55 percent of total container volume move by rail. By increasing the efficiency of the rail facility with the installation of eight semi-automated cranes, and expanding railyard capacity 50 percent to 1.9 million TEU a year, the project will increase GCT Deltaport’s overall container throughput capacity 30 percent to 2.4 million TEU, Waltz said.
In addition to handling larger ships, the expansion and densification project will facilitate a faster recovery from disruptive events, such as last winter’s snow and cold weather that resulted in terminal congestion and a doubling of container dwell times to six days or greater. Dwell times recovered to three days or fewer this spring, but an early start to the peak-shipping season in the eastbound Pacific caused dwell times to increase beginning in July. For the week of Sept. 21, dwell times at GCT Deltaport returned to the ”red zone” of five to seven days, according to the port of Vancouver website.
The reconfiguration project has increased GCT Deltaport’s surge capacity so it can recover quickly from seasonal or unexpected events. GCT Deltaport handles about 34,000 feet of intermodal train movements a day. If there is a spike in volume during peak season, or a container backlog builds during a weather event, the new surge capacity will enable the terminal to handle a full 34,000 feet of train, plus any container backlog that built up, he said.
Semi-automated equipment — key to increasing capacity, velocity
The introduction of semi-automated operations are the key to increasing capacity and velocity. Eight electric, low-emission, wide-span Kuenz intermodal cranes lift containers on and off rail cars. The cranes are fed by manually operated auto-decoupling yard tractors that deliver containers from the vessel. The containers are dropped off at the rail transfer facility. “The crane doesn’t wait for the tractors,” Waltz said. Also, the frequency of dual transactions increases, which improves efficiency through reduced container dwell times and increased velocity.
Safety is enhanced because the cranes are operated remotely from the tower, which means most of the labor has been removed from the rail yard and operates from the secure environment of the tower. The project was developed through collaboration with International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 502.
Incorporating semi-automated features allowed GCT Deltaport to improve productivity on the same footprint at a 210-acre terminal that isn’t flush with land. Semi-automation enabled placement of the tracks closer together than in a manual operation served by cantilevered rubber-tired gantry cranes. The reconfigured rail operation can handle 30 train switches per day, up from the mid-20s in the manual mode, Waltz said. “There is continuous flow — no dead time,” he said.
Vancouver last winter experienced unusually long container dwell times of up to six days, up from less than three days, because of rail service issues, severe weather, and rapidly rising container volumes. Container volume in 2017 jumped 10.9 percent to 3.25 million TEU, according to port authority figures. Construction activities at the railyard added to the congestion, but construction is now over and the next bout of winter weather has not yet arrived.
Nevertheless, GCT Deltaport is proceeding cautiously, alerting customers that during any major transition to a new operating mode, it takes time to work out the glitches. “We tested the systems. We know they work. We’ve already done trials. Now it’s about optimization,” Waltz said.
GCT Deltaport has advised its customers to expect a four to six-week ramp-up period, he added.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.