Mark Szakonyi, January 13, 2014, JOC.com
The Port of Prince Rupert says it can handle more diversions of U.S-bound cargo after import traffic jumped 72 percent last month, a likely result of shippers rerouting cargo away from congested U.S. terminals.
U.S. shippers’ fears of a U.S. West Coast port lockout — like the one experienced for 10 days in 2002 —rose after the Pacific Maritime Association warned on Monday that International Longshore and Warehouse Union slowdowns and the withholding of skilled labor was bringing terminals to the brink of “complete gridlock.” The latest tit-for-tat between the two parties, which have been negotiating a contract for eight months, comes despite the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announcing on Jan. 5 that talks would be held under its auspices.
With an annual capacity of 850,000 TEUs and volume hitting 618,000 TEUs last year, the Prince Rupert Port Authority said its Fairview Container Terminal has “room for increased traffic.”
“That being said, we are very protective of our low dwell times and terminal efficiency, so we are planning carefully for increased cargo volumes in conjunction with our terminal operator, Maher Terminals, and (Canadian National Railway) our transportation partner,” Michael Gurney, manager of corporate communications at the port authority, told JOC.com today.
CN, which offers direct intermodal service from Vancouver to Chicago and some points beyond, is also preparing for a potential surge in import traffic, he said. The railroad declined to comment on whether it was preparing for more diversion traffic and whether it could add more intermodal trains services, citing its corporate policy of not engaging” in what-if scenarios arising from the labour negotiations of other parties.”
A surge of U.S.-bound cargo in the summer slowed the movement of import containers from the Prince Rupert docks to the CN line, with shippers seeing dwell times of 10 days on average. Operations normalized in the fall. How well Rupert handles the potential increase in U.S.-bound cargo will determine just how much cargo U.S. shippers permanently route through the gateway located a few days closer than Southern California to China on the Great Circle route plied by trans-Pacific carriers. Sixty-six percent of shippers surveyed by JOC.com in mid-December said they planned to ship less freight though U.S. West Coast ports because of the congestion experienced last fall, and 28 percent of those with such plans said Prince Rupert and Port Metro Vancouver would be the biggest recipients of the permanently rerouted cargo.
The 61.9 percent year-over-year jump in import volume at Prince Rupert last month was likely a result of cargo diversion, but it will take a few months before the port authority will get a sense of just how much of the traffic growth was caused by shipper diversions, Gurney said. Total Prince Rupert container volume in December rose 50.6 percent, helping the major gateway for U.S. bound cargo to end the year with 13.8 more traffic than in 2013. The Port of Oakland on Tuesday reported that its December import volumes were up 20 percent, its highest month for imports since last May, which it attributed to diversions from the still-gridlocked Los Angeles-Long Beach ports.
While container growth has been steady, import traffic at Prince Rupert in December was uncommonly strong. On a year-over-year basis, import volume rose 5.2 percent in November, while traffic shrank 3.7 and 1.3 percent in October and September, respectively.