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There’s no easy solution to Port of Vancouver trade pressures

Posted on June 1, 2022

Trade specialist Jordan Atkins has a hard time squeezing container shipments out of the Port of Vancouver past the tsunami of inbound containers on transpacific routes, particularly to destinations other than Asia.

Demand to bring containers into the port from Asia, then return empty containers to manufacturers to be refilled, is so high other routes are being shortchanged and the port’s reputation crushed, said Atkins, vice-president at the logistics firm WTC Group.

Atkins said his company is getting about 20 to 25 per cent of the containers that they want onto the limited number of container ships serving routes to the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Mediterranean.

“The bigger picture is that the ports on the West Coast of North America have suffered from an unprecedented imbalance in trade flows,” Atkins said, which was a big part of the Port of Vancouver’s low ranking on an international index of 370 facilities.

The problem isn’t necessarily something that the ports themselves can fix on their own, Atkins added.

“There’s an increase in consumerism in North America which needs to subside,” he said. “We need to start spending more money on services and vacations and restaurants rather than products, which has been an issue for us since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”

The Port of Vancouver was 368th, ahead of only the Port of Long Beach in 369th and Port of Los Angeles 370th, on the 2021 Container Port Performance study compiled by a division of the World Bank Group and S&P Market Intelligence.

Authors of the report note that inefficient ports “increases the cost of imports and exports (and) reduces the competitiveness” of countries.

However, Atkins said that when you increase imports to North America and decrease exports “to almost nothing, and then expect (the system) to work as it did before, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.”

Peter Xotta, a Port of Vancouver vice-president, said the agency is working on projects aimed at improving its resiliency to handle surges in trade, such as an expansion of the Centerm Container Terminal that will increase its capacity by 60 per cent that is almost complete.

“Relative to the 2021 results, obviously Vancouver and most West Coast ports experienced some challenges that brought the numbers down,” Xotta said.

“Frankly, I see it as a point-in-time issue,” he added, that was also influenced by devastating wildfires last summer, catastrophic floods that cut off rail access to port facilities for eight days in November, and a CP Rail strike.

On Monday, Xotta acknowledged that the port had five containers ships at anchor waiting to berth at terminals “which is certainly more than we would like to have,” but is an improvement on the worst period of delays in December.

And dwell time, the amount of time it takes for a container to taken away by truck or rail after being unloaded from a ship, has dropped 40 per cent since December.

“We have not rebounded quite as quickly as most of our shippers would probably like us to, but we’re seeing steady improvement in the supply chain performance over the last three or four months,” Xotta said.

Xotta said all West Coast ports have experienced “whipsawing” demand for containers through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trade virtually collapsed in 2020 at the start of COVID-19 as factories shut down in Asia, then surged back as housebound consumers started spending on things such as home electronics and home renovations.

“And it has really been whipsawing up and down since then,” Xotta said, with the port bracing for another wave as factories that were shut down in China due to new outbreaks of COVID reopen.

“That’s been kind of a challenge throughout the pandemic,” Xotta said.


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