Expansions promise to boost port traffic

Government and private funds | Improvements in co-ordination are reducing bottlenecks and increasing capacity

Many farmers perceive the port of Vancouver to be congested, ridden with labour strife and the cause of heavy charges for delayed loading of cargo ships.

But the port’s director of planning says the reality is far different.

“The amount of investment that we’re seeing today is staggering,” Jim Crandles of Port Metro Vancouver said during the Canada Grains Council annual meeting.

“Significant investment is being made all around the port.”

He said more than $700 million is being spent on export terminal expansions and additions, while billions have been spent on Vancouver infrastructure improvements to help cargo flow better through the highly-populated area.

“It is about trade-related traffic,” said Crandles.

“It is about the movement of goods in Vancouver.”

Vancouver has a big population and its port is squeezed between people, mountains, rivers and the ocean, but that doesn’t prevent it from building extra capacity.

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Crandles said much of the money spent on improving rail lines, port facilities and roads comes from the federal government, but commercial users are also making large investments.

Those improvements should allow more commodities to flow through Vancouver by removing bottlenecks in the system and boosting rail car unloading, container handling and intra-port goods transfer.

Companies are expanding terminal facilities and building new container facilities.

Crandles acknowledged that many people perceive the port to have labour problems and frequent disruptions, but in reality “we are the envy of our competitors to the south,” with eight-year labour agreements that give exporters stronger assurances than any other port in North America.

Crandles focused on the large infrastructure investments, but he said improved co-ordination and communication is also maximizing capacity.

“It’s more about these partnerships in getting these things done than it is just about the dollars that we’re able to bring,” said Crandles.

“Our competitors to the south are seeing that Canada’s got its act together and being able to bring some focus and energy and money to the West Coast and reducing bottlenecks and help provide that kind of infrastructure that is going to be the key to our growth.”

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One improvement in particular should mollify longstanding farmer annoyance. Vancouver has frequent rainfall, but grain ships can’t be loaded in the rain.

Mark Hemmes of Quorum Corp., the grain logistics system overseer, said 12 to 14 percent of Vancouver’s capacity is lost because of rain delays.

However, companies have recently begun tarping to partially protect exposed holds from the rain. That should allow some of the lost capacity to be regained.

Hemmes said he also hopes rail car unloads can increase to early 2009 levels, when 5,000 per week were unloaded, partly because the world financial crisis led to a collapse of most non-grain commodity traffic.

Unloading has since slipped back to 4,000 per week, which have often been the standard, but he believes the 5,000 level can be achieved again if the system is operated better, regardless of competition from other commodities.

“We can do this. We can move these volumes,” said Hemmes.

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