December 13, 2017 - A very busy peak season, combined with the onset of winter weather in parts of Canada, has created severe impacts across the entire supply chain, especially for inbound intermodal marine containers.
The Port of Vancouver reports significant delays in vessel arrivals at Vancouver, which creates "bunching," wreaking havoc with crane and on-dock operational plans and contributing to increased dwell times. Implementation delays with GCT Deltaport’s new rail improvement project means some expected additional capacity will not be available until next year. The peak season – which this year started early and continues strong – has pushed inbound container numbers to unexpected highs, with no end in sight.
On December 11, the port’s Daily Import Rail On-dock Footage Summary reported total on-dock footage in the red, at 5 to 7 days’ dwell. But remember, those are averages and include local truck freight and containers trucked off dock to rail in as few as 1 or 2 days. Many customers are experiencing on-dock dwell times of up to two and, in some cases three, weeks for containers destined to inland terminals via rail.
Once rail equipment is available and trains are moving, they face winter conditions – meaning shorter trains and delays due to freezing and snow. Traffic had already been building due to landslides in British Columbia in late fall; a derailment at Ashcroft added to the delays. This combination of factors has created a domino effect across the chain, creating additional schedule unreliability, bunched train arrivals and heavily congested rail terminals.
Alberta – Edmonton, in particular – has seen a dramatic increase in freight. In one dray operation alone, a 400% increase in traffic in Edmonton was reported last week, compared with typical volumes. Along with the increased volumes, wait times at rail terminals have increased steadily at Edmonton and Calgary, and meeting scheduled truck appointment times became impossible. Similar to complaints at Toronto and Montreal rail terminals since the spring, drivers in Alberta have been unhappy about wait times outside the gate and longer-than-usual service times once they finally get in.
Although wait times at Edmonton’s CN terminals had lessened by December 8, down to 52 minutes from 76 in November, again remember, these are averages. These averages cover a 24-hour day, including those hours from 2 am to 6 am when drayage activity is extremely low, and so turn time might be as little as 20 minutes. CN has announced that more resources are planned at the Edmonton terminal in terms of cranes and operators to relieve congestion, similar to commitments made at Brampton, but this will take some time to implement. New employee training is expected to be completed and additional cranes in service in both terminals by Q1 2018.
Setting expectations with customers is critical. The good news is that Canadian cargo volumes have been unexpectedly high this year and continue strong. The bad news is that we’re heading into the Christmas holiday season and winter weather with already congested terminals and longer-than-usual transit times.