Floods and mudslides in British Columbia have damaged or destroyed large sections of highways and railway tracks near Vancouver, severing crucial trade corridors as bottlenecks worsen at Canada’s largest port.
A supply chain made precarious by the pandemic is now even more fragile, and transportation executives warn that the fresh disruptions this week will compound existing problems getting imports across Canada and exports to destinations abroad. Some repairs are expected to get goods moving again within days, but other fixes to critical infrastructure will be longer-term projects.
“All rail service coming to and from the Port of Vancouver is halted because of flooding in the B.C. Interior,” the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said in a statement to its tenants on Tuesday.
Strong winds that followed record-breaking rainfall forced GCT Global Container Terminals Inc. to temporarily close its Vanterm and Deltaport container-shipping sites for several hours on Monday. The port is the federal landlord for tenants such as GCT.
“Unfortunately, the resulting highway and rail closures will add more delay to an already stressed supply chain,” said Matthew May, president of Western IntermodeX, which provides warehousing and other intermodal services. “We are not yet clear on the extent nor duration of the delay that we will see as both the rail and road infrastructure requires extensive repair.”
Even before the latest delays in supply chains, the Port of Vancouver’s “dwell time” – how long it takes before goods are transferred from container terminals to warehouses – had been edging upwards since mid-October.
At four terminal sites, imported goods usually spend three or fewer days on the dock, which is considered a fast turnaround. But on Monday, the dwell time was already between three and five days.
“We are working closely with our container terminal operators, railways and all levels of government to understand the impacts of these delays on terminal operations and to develop a recovery plan,” the port authority said. “Flooding has also caused numerous highway closures due to washouts and landslide debris throughout southwestern B.C., including all main routes to the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley regions.”
Dave Earle, president of the BC Trucking Association, said the ripple effects will be felt across many sectors, including forestry. “Because of just-in-time delivery, a little delay here creates a bigger delay there,” he said. “The highway network primarily moves dry goods and consumer goods, but it also moves lumber and a whole bunch of commodities.”
Mr. Earle said time is of the essence to reopen highways where possible. “If it’s washed out in one direction, the temporary fix, and it’s not ideal, is you simply start moving traffic around so you can go one lane in each direction. That’s not great, but it’ll do,” he said.
Teck Resources Ltd., Canada’s largest diversified mining company, said it has rerouted some of its coal exports by rail to the Port of Prince Rupert in northwest B.C.
Authorities are continuing to assess the damage before estimating a time frame for reopening rail lines severed by torrential rain, washouts and mudslides.
Canada’s two big freight railways are unable to operate on the tracks along the Fraser River valley and the southern part of B.C., executives for both carriers said on Tuesday.
Rob Reilly, Canadian National Railway Co.’s chief operating officer, said the heavy rain has made the tracks impassable at “a number of locations in southern B.C.”
CN’s main line into Vancouver closed on Sunday, as some regions received as much as 200 millimetres of rain. Both railways operate along the Fraser Valley, through communities such as Yale and Hope.
“Quite frankly, we’ll probably be out a couple more days. We’ve got some significant spots,” Mr. Reilly said, adding it will take several days to repair the damage and restore service to the Port of Vancouver, which handles much of North America’s consumer goods from Asia.
Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.’s marketing chief, John Brooks, said the company is trying to send some trains to Portland, Ore., and working to move the goods “as quickly as we can.”
“It’s too early to tell what the ultimate impacts are [but] they will get that main line open as soon as we physically can and we’ll be ready ... as an operating team to get that freight back moving,” Mr. Brooks said on a conference call with investors.
A track washout caused a CN train operating on CP’s network to derail on Sunday near Yale in the Fraser Canyon, CN spokesman Mathieu Gaudreault said.
“Following the heavy rainfalls in British Columbia, there have been mudslides and washouts on CN’s network,” Mr. Gaudreault said. “Crews are inspecting the affected areas and carrying out repairs which are critical to the passage of railway traffic through southern B.C. The repair work is progressing safely, but northbound and eastbound traffic from Vancouver, as well as inbound to Vancouver from east/north of Kamloops continue to be impacted.”
Treacherous track conditions caused two other train disruptions in the region on Sunday, although no one was hurt, the Transportation Safety Board said.
A CP locomotive struck a boulder, and two cars derailed after another CP train drove into a mudslide, said Alexandre Fournier, a TSB spokesman.
David Gillen, a transportation economist at the University of British Columbia, said it could be at least a week before trucks or trains can get through the affected areas.
Prof. Gillen said the floods have worsened the existing supply chain disruptions, although food can still be brought in by sea and from the United States. But he said the rail link leaving Vancouver is vital, given the heavy volumes of goods it carries. “Both CN and CP main lines are affected and these main lines carry an enormous amount of traffic,” Prof. Gillen said. “The roads are less worrisome since there are substitutes, however, they will still cause delays and higher costs in the short term.”
The entire City of Merritt. B.C. is being evacuated due to severe flooding after heavy rain. The town of Princeton, 90 kilometres south of Merritt, is also under an evacuation order. Video from the two Interior B.C. communities shows overflowing rivers and flooded streets.
The Globe and Mail
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included a photo of an old, not a current bridge washout.
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