Port of Vancouver not the weak link in grain movement

Harry Siemens – Located in a naturally beautiful setting on Canada’s west coast, the Port of Vancouver is Canada’s largest port. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s role is to facilitate Canada’s trade through the port responsibly.

“We work together with port terminals and tenants to ensure the efficient and reliable movement of goods and passengers. Integrating environmental, social, and economic sustainability initiatives into all areas of port operations,” said Doug Mills, the senior account representative at the Port of  Vancouver at the annual convention of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.

There is a current debate re poor grain movement to the West Coast port, but this is not the fault of the port nor those who own grain handling facilities.

“One of our jobs is to ensure fluidity and capacity through the gateway. I think we do a pretty good job of measuring and monitoring that activity, and I think what you’re referring to is grain moving through the port,” said Mills. “To that extent, I guess reports of backups at the port, are perhaps misunderstood. Some people say when ships are waiting at anchor, and a number of them were stacking up, and therefore, that constituted a bottleneck.”

Although stacking ships is a problem for the residents who see lots of vessels, it doesn’t mean the supply chain necessarily is being backed up. In fact, the ships are waiting for the grain to arrive.

“I think if you ask some of the experts in the field of the measuring the movement of grain through the port, you’ll find that most of the time we were running out of cars to unload,” he said.

In a recent visit to the North Shore at the Port of Vancouver, there is much expansion whether expanding existing facilities or building new ones.

“Absolutely! We did go through a rather tough time going back about 10 to 15 years ago when we first started to see the influence of the Asian economies, and the volume of cargo growing dramatically. It did catch us a little off guard,” Mills said. “In fact, we had a couple of winters there that were as bad or worse than we see now. As a result of that, the port with its customers and stakeholders did some extensive work in determining where the bottlenecks were.”

He said they formed the Asian-Pacific Gateway Corridor Initiative, a funding partnership that allowed them to invest in significant infrastructure to support access into the gateway, known as the port.

“This helped us mitigate the risk of having another bottleneck as we invested over $7 billion 15 years ago jointly by the federal government, provincial governments, ourselves, our partners, our customers,” Mills said. “I think the badge that proves we succeeded is the private investment that followed and that virtually included every grain terminal in our jurisdiction. So, you see Richardson adding an annex onto their facility that allowed them almost to double their capacity, Vitera putting in a new ship loader and virtually doubling their capacity. You see investments in Cargill, at Cascadia, and then a brand new terminal coming, by G3. We have a permit application for a new grain terminal on the Fraser River called Fraser Grain Terminals. It will add Parrish and Heimbecker to the mix of owners of terminals. We have Fibreco who have a permit application to expand and redevelop their facility from wood chips to agri-products.”

The Port of Vancouver is the largest exporting port in North America total tonnage and Canada’s principal gateway to economies around the work, so they take it very seriously.

“We’re in front of the government now to look at the next set of spending that is necessary, so that we can continue to grow 15 and 20 years out.”.

The new G3 terminal will allow them to use the loop train concept used in other industries for a long, long time. There are changes in business practice that have to occur to allow that to happen. “You need lots of grain in one place to fill a unit train, several unit trains if you’re doing it efficiently to feed some of these large terminals on the coast,” said Mills. “The G3 terminal will be able to take three full unit trains at one time. The train never stops but unloads as it’s still moving. So, essentially, what you have is a never-stopping, never-uncoupled train that is continuously supplying Canadian agri product assets. That’s an excellent news story.”

He said railways say that velocity is key to making money, and stopped trains don’t make money. So, yes, if they can move their assets more regularly full and in large numbers of cars, it benefits everybody.