CTA investigation report cites traffic volumes

Review of rail freight service issues in Vancouver finds increased car volumes last fall could have been a possible factor

A federal investigation into rail freight service issues in Vancouver last year has identified increased traffic as a potential contributing factor behind service delays and congestion.

In a second inquiry report released last month, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) said car volumes arriving at Canadian National Railway’s Thornton Railway Yard in Surrey during October and November last year were 16 percent higher than the same period in 2017 for intermodal platform cars, 18 percent higher for rail cars to be interchanged with BNSF Railway Company, 11 percent higher for grain cars destined for North Shore grain terminals and 16 percent higher for wood pulp cars destined for the North Shore.

CN’s Thornton Railway Yard is an important staging area for rail traffic arriving in Vancouver.

Trains and rail cars that arrive in the yard are processed, sorted, reassembled and rerouted to their next destinations, which includes exports terminals in the Port of Vancouver and markets in the United States.

Data collected by the CTA in late 2018 and early 2019 showed that the number of rail cars on hand at Thornton Yard, as well as rail car dwell times, increased sharply between early October and mid-December of last year.

Cars dwelling in Thornton Yard that were destined for North Shore export terminals rose by 186 percent between Oct. 1 and Dec. 13 last year.

“The number of carloads on hand (at Thornton) started rising in late October 2018 and the majority of delivery delays appear to have affected North Vancouver customers,” the CTA report stated.

“North Vancouver cars on hand rose throughout November 2018 and the first half of December 2018, before falling in mid-December….

“Cars on hand in Thornton peaked on December 7, 2018, with North Shore cars accounting for over 40 percent of the total cars on hand that day.”

Information supplied to the CTA inquiry also suggested that when congestion occurs in the Thornton Yard, the impact is likely to be “disproportionately felt” by so-called manifest trains that require switching and reassembly before delivery.

Manifest trains are described as trains comprising different types of rail cars, carrying different types of freight for multiple shippers.

The vast majority of incoming manifest traffic that is moved by CN in the Vancouver area is routed through CN’s Thornton Yard.

Unit grain trains destined for North Shore terminals typically bypass Thornton but smaller blocks of grain cars destined for terminals on the north and south shore of the Burrard Inlet are normally sorted at Thornton before being shipped to their final destinations.

Congestion in the Thornton yard late last year resulted in rail delays through much of the Vancouver area rail network.

In an effort to address congestion issues, CN and Canadian Pacific Railway issued 15 rail freight embargoes in late 2018 and early 2019.

In the agriculture sector, the embargoes affected the movement of canola, canola meal, flaxseed and special crops, the CTA stated.

The decision to launch an investigation was based on comments received from shippers and other groups that alleged poor service and discriminatory treatment against certain shippers and commodities.

The CTA investigation, which is ongoing, was aimed at determining:

  • whether there was evidence of discriminatory treatment against certain commodities
  • how freight rail permits and embargoes were being used
  • whether railway companies in the Vancouver area were fulfilling their service obligations

Last month, the CTA continued its investigation, asking railway companies to provide more information about congestion and service problems that occurred in Vancouver.

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