Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

CN Withdraws Port Vancouver Rail Service

with 4 comments

Journal of Commerce

The Port Authority at Vancouver, British Columbia, is canvassing its options, including legal action, after Canadian National Railway switched its rail service to trucks for three of the port’s four container terminals.

CN “unilaterally” withdrew rail service temporarily to the terminals July 13, without informing or discussing it with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, vice-president Chris Badger told the Journal of Commerce.

The Authority will monitor the effects until next week of the rail-to-trucks switch between CN’s Vancouver Intermodal Terminal and the downtown terminals Centerm and Vanterm and Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River and then “take whatever action is open to us,” Badger said.

The Authority is looking at terms of contracts and whether there are negative effects on truck flow. “We are looking at all available options,” including legal action, Badger said.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said container supply to the dowtown terminals had dwindled and some steamship lines had moved their calls to Deltaport. CN still provides rail service to this fourth and largest box terminal.

Trucking rather than rail will “more efficiently serve the (three) terminals and improve transit times,” Hallman said. “The terminal operators are fine with this.”

The port isn’t – and neither should we be, and maybe this is the sort of story that the mainstream media should be jumping all over. It is not just that the railway did not tell the port what it was going to do – that’s bad enough, and shows a really bad attitude. My concern is over the increase of truck traffic. It has seemed to me in recent months that I have been seeing larger number of trucks with the tractor units painted in CN livery hauling containers. It is also unclear to me why the decline in the number of units being shipped – and the switch of port of call to Deltaport instead of other terminals justifies ending rail service entirely.

The Vancouver port call serves the Canadian market in general. Given the distribution of our population that means most goods are destined for Ontario and Quebec. The majority of containers go from the ship side onto a train and back east. Much of the rest still goes that way – but the contents of the full containers get split up and reloaded back onto other containers or truck trailers for onward distribution. And again, a lot of this is not destined for this region so it goes by rail. Rail service from Vanterm, Centerm and Fraser Surrey Docks may not need to be quite so frequent or on such long trains, but I do not understand the logic of extra handling of containers when there is already the infrastructure in place for the rail haul.

The key word seems to be “temporary” – well how long is that? And what savings does CN make? Obviously the communities directly impacted by these truck movements have an interest – and CN of course does not consult with them at all. CN also likes to portray itself as a good corporate citizen – and has all kinds of PR stuff about the efficiencies of railways and how good that is to reduce truck traffic. So to make a decision which increases truck traffic locally and which is sprung by surprise and with no detail on why it is necessary – “more efficiently serve” and “improve transit times” – how? And how does increasing the number of times a container is handled reduce cost?

What would make more sense – and would of course be even more of a concern to communities – is if this change is not really temporary at all and CN is looking to turn its tracks into developable real estate. Now CP have been trying to do that for a while – with the Arbutus line – with little success. Is that what CN is after too?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Railway

4 Responses

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  1. I have also seen many more “CN Intermodal” trucks on the highway in recent weeks. The arrogance and unwillingness of CN and CP to do anything but focus on profit is quite distasteful.


    July 25, 2009 at 12:59 pm

  2. How can you blame the rail companies? Our provincial govn’t is bending over backwards to make trucking attractive with road subsidies.

    Look at what happened on the Island when the previous govn’t, in their wisdom, built a large highway with taxpayer money. It was not long till the local industries shifted to truck base transport.

    Why pay for upkeep of your lines if the taxpayer will pay for the roads for you?


    July 26, 2009 at 10:08 pm

  3. Corporations only exist to make profits. They cannot be expected to do anything – like care about the common good – which is why we have to have some measure of regulation.

    In this case CN needs to understand that its behaviour is not going to win it any esteem – which is something all corporations like to cultivate which is why they hire PR flacks. Moreover, given the structure of railways costs – and how much is tied up in infrastructure and long life equipment – this decision is hard to understand from an economic perspective, though it obviously creates some appeal using their accounting system.

    Stephen Rees

    July 27, 2009 at 7:33 am

  4. In connection with Corey’s comments above, difficult to understand how he can lump both CN and CP in the same category, they are both very different companies in the manner in which they deal with customers, their employees and the stakeholders in the Port of Vancouver. There is nothing about CP that is arrogant or unwilling, that is not the case with CN, the former Canadian railroad who now follows an american business model where a select few executives make huge salaries and bonuses at the expense of their employees and customers, who get bullied on a daily basis.


    February 27, 2010 at 9:40 pm

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