Congestion Continues to Challenge Port Metro Vancouver

By Bill Mongelluzzo, April 4, 2014, Journal of Commerce

Truck drivers have been back on the job for about one week now at Port Metro Vancouver, but Canada’s largest port remains quite congested, and moving containers into and out of the harbor is a chore.


Under these circumstances, most drivers want to return to work, but congested terminals and equipment shortages are limiting how many trucks can be pressed into service and where those trucks can call.


“It has everything to do with start-up issues,” said Louise Yako, president of the British Columbia Trucking Association.


The four-week trucker strike over pay and working conditions delivered a knock-out punch to Port Metro Vancouver, but congestion problems had been mounting for months. The severe winter in the eastern half of North America disrupted intermodal rail service. Railroads were delayed in returning to Vancouver the trains needed to pick up the influx of newly arrived import loads each week.


As containerized imports built up at the port, the terminals began to store the inbound containers in lanes normally reserved for exports. The terminals then began to restrict the number of export containers they could accept. This led to equipment shortages as containers were stored on chassis.


As conditions in the harbor worsened, drivers — many of whom are paid by the trip — spent hours waiting in line. Nerves were frayed as drivers saw their earning power erode by the day. Finally, in late February, non-unionized truckers went out on strike. They were joined two weeks later by unionized truck drivers.


Congestion intensified to the point where some importers directed shipping lines to drop off their imports in Seattle or Tacoma. The containers that continued to move through Vancouver were mostly the intermodal inbound and outbound containers that moved by rail directly to and from the port.


Read more about the current drayage crisis


With truck traffic at the port dipping as low as 10 percent of normal on many days, the federal government of Canada and provincial government of British Columbia became involved, and finally, on March 26, an agreement in principle was reached on a 14-point action plan designed to promote immediate recovery while phasing in other measures designed to build a long-term framework for harbor drayage.


Terminal operators believe a return to normalcy is imminent. Eric Waltz, president of TSI Terminals, the largest terminal operator in Vancouver, said on April 4 the Vanterm facility is back in full operation in terms of handling both inbound and outbound containers. The large Deltaport terminal should be back in full operation in a couple of days, he said.


Waltz said TSI is advertising and running night and weekend gates in addition to the normal daytime gates. However, relatively few truckers are making use of the extended gates. The flood of traffic he anticipated would materialize at night and on weekends has in reality been only a trickle, Waltz said.


The harbor trucking community, however, is beginning to respond in creative ways to the port congestion problem. Harbour Link on April 2 announced the opening of an off-dock container yard in Richmond, B.C., near Vancouver. Gordon Payne, owner of the drayage company, said the yard will allow truckers to dray containers to the facility as soon as they are discharged from the vessel, thereby relieving congestion on the docks.


The yard features anti-intrusion technology and round-the clock security, and Harbour Link worked with Canada Customs to extend its bonded authority to the new location. Computer-tracking systems and EDI connectivity enhance container inventory control, container tracking and gate-interchange activities, he said.


Harbour Link stores containers for larger accounts in blocks, which should promote efficient turn times for truckers serving the retailers and other large accounts, Payne said. Furthermore, the Richmond yard is open to other trucking companies as well as Harbour Link.


Payne sees development of similar off-dock container yards as playing an important role in the future of Port Metro Vancouver. As with large U.S. gateways, Vancouver will be served by fewer but larger vessels discharging and loading much larger container volumes than were handled in the past. Off-dock sites can help relieve congestion at the ports, he said.


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