Grain shipments delayed in B.C. fire aftermath

Both Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway lost rail infrastructure in the fire at Lytton, B.C., including ties and in CN’s case a critical bridge.  | Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier photo

Rail service in and out of Vancouver has been restricted by the damage from a major wildfire on CN and CP’s main lines

Rail traffic, including grain, is backed up in British Columbia due to forest fires but the size of the problem is unknown.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” Branden Leslie, policy and government relations manager at the Grain Growers of Canada, said July 12.

Grain companies contacted about the backlog said they either couldn’t or wouldn’t comment.

All commodities, bulk shipments and containers, are backlogged because of fire damage at Lytton, B.C. In turn, ships are waiting at the Port of Vancouver and there have been reports of at least two re-routed to Prince Rupert.

As of July 12, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority reported four grain ships at berth and nine at anchor.

The delays come after strong grain movement in the last several months as the crop year winds down.

Milt Poirier of QGI Consulting said during a Grain by Train podcast last week that he had observed the one thing that could disrupt movement was an external shock and that certainly happened June 30.

The fire that day during a record-breaking heat wave destroyed the community of Lytton, B.C., and stopped traffic on both national railways, which run through the area.

Both Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway lost rail infrastructure including ties and in CN’s case a critical bridge.

CP was able to resume operations by July 5 but an order from federal transport minister Omar Alghabra shut both companies down again for 48 hours beginning July 9.

Effective July 11, new orders are in place nationally and regionally to address fire risk concerns. For example, trains will run at lower speeds where risk is greater and no locomotives can run in areas where the danger is considered extreme unless they have been inspected in the previous 15 days to ensure combustible material such as accumulated oil has been removed.

The orders are in place until Oct. 31. The railways have also been ordered to be able to respond to any fires within 60 minutes. Patrols of the rail lines in the Kamloops to Boston Bar area will be stepped up.

The cause of the June 30 fire is still unknown. The Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether a train was responsible.

Poirier said the impacts of the fire could be felt longer than some think.

“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that there’s going to be not an insignificant impact on order fulfilment performance in weeks 49 and 50,” he said. “This is not going to be a fast fix.”

The delays affect loaded trains heading to port but also mean empties can’t be returned to the Prairies.

He said people have to understand that this backlog isn’t just grain but all commodities. Railways will have to prioritize traffic as it begins to move.

Poirier said railways can be affected by unexpected events like this, but not usually in the same place at the same time.

Fortunately, noted Leslie, this isn’t the height of the grain-shipping season.

In a memo to customers late last week the port said demand for large vessel anchorage was exceeding capacity.

“All anchorage class assignments are experiencing heightened demand. Vessel operators are slow steaming to delay arrival in Vancouver,” the memo said.

Delays at port will add demurrage issues to the mix.

A CN spokesperson said the company is engaged in both the fire investigation and relief efforts for the community.

“Traffic northbound and eastbound from Vancouver, as well as traffic inbound to Vancouver from east/north of Kamloops continues to be affected by this situation,” said a July 12 statement. “CN has been working with the local authorities and First Nations to allow authorized CN representatives to inspect the area. Once the scope is further established, CN will be in a better position to estimate the time needed for repairs.”

CN is working to detour traffic as much as possible to alleviate congestion.

Both companies have contributed to relief efforts. CP has pledged $1 million while CN has promised $1.5 million.

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