B.C. highway washouts, closures to severely strain supply chains running through Vancouver

The last two years have brought everything from blockades and pandemic blockages to wildfires and heat waves to disrupt an already strained supply chain | Chung Chow, BIV

The massive atmospheric-river rainstorm that struck B.C. over the weekend will likely bring continued disruptions to an already strained supply-chain situation in Western Canada, as all Canadian highway access to the Port of Vancouver has been cut off.

However, depending on the type of damage that was done by the widespread mudslides from the Fraser Valley into the B.C. interior, the exact extent of the damage to Canadians’ ability to import/export through Vancouver’s port remains unclear, one official said.

“The short answer is, we don’t know yet,” said Dave Earle, president and CEO of the BC Trucking Association. “Yesterday [Monday] was all about rescue and safety – and today is all about assessment and understanding.”

According to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s DriveBC dashboard, Highway 1 and 7 in the Abbotsford-Chilliwack-Hope area continue to be closed both ways due to flooding and mudslides as of Tuesday at noon. 

Those closures effectively shut off all road access from the east, and each of the highways feeding into those routes (Highway 1 from Lytton, Highway 5 from Merritt and Highway 3 from Princeton) are also closed. Damage on these portions of Highways 1 and 5 are especially daunting, with aerial photos showing a portion of Highway 1 being washed out completely and another stretch of Highway 5 now missing a bridge.

The only other Canadian highway coming into Metro Vancouver – Highway 99 – is now also closed due to mudslides just south of Lillooet.

In a news conference this afternoon, provincial Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said crews are optimistic they can restore at least some traffic access for Highway 7 from Agassiz to Hope by later Tuesday. Fleming also confirmed that - while crews are eager to restore supply chains and road links throughout the region, the damage suffered by Highways 1 and 5 in the Fraser Canyon/Coquihalla areas is indeed likely to take some time to repair.

"Another priority is regaining access to the interior via Highway 3, which looks to be the quickest route to reopen...," Fleming said, adding that some assessment is needed to see if that highway can be restored "by the end of the weekend" to at least link up Vancouver with the rest of Canada via road once again.

"Other routes will clearly take longer, including the Coquihalla and Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon - based on the pictures people have seen," Fleming added. "The infrastructure damage there is significant."

According to ministry officials, at least five structures on Highway 5 in the Coquihalla section have been compromised, along with multiple washouts. Highway 1 has similarly suffered compromises to its infrastructure near Spences Bridge.

Reports have indicated that some stores in communities that have been stranded by the road closures are now considering hiring private aircraft for airlifting supplies to the region until roads are restored.

Both Canadian rail line operators are also reporting disruptions, although it is unclear how severe their situation is. CP Rail confirmed a track outage north of Hope that is “affecting rail service in the region,” a spokesman said. CP’s rail network map shows the Hope route as the operator’s only line into Vancouver.

For CN Rail, the company confirmed “there have been mud slides and washouts” and that ”northbound and eastbound traffic from Vancouver, as well as inbound to Vancouver from east/north of Kamloops continue to be impacted.”

Port of Vancouver officials confirmed the closures, adding that - as of now - "all rail service coming to and from the Port of Vancouver is halted because of flooding in the B.C. interior."

"Both CN and CP Rail indicate that no rail traffic is currently able to transit from Kamloops to Vancouver," a Port of Vancouver statement said. "Both rail lines are conducting damage assessments of multiple impacted sites and infrastructure threats to establish access and repair activities required. No timeframe for re-opening of the rail lines is currently available."

For Earle, there are two ways to look at the situation from the trucking transport perspective. First, as a consumer getting their goods from elsewhere in Canada, there should not be any worries because there are still flexibility within the system to get products into and out of the Lower Mainland – including the option of going through the United States.

“We are going to see some real creativity,” he said, although he declined to speculate on specific routes that may be explored. “I’m seeing inquiries about bypass routes and carrier availability about moving things through a whole bunch of different routes. 

“The message I’ve been delivering to everyone – and it’s an important message – is to calm down. You are still going to get your toilet paper; let’s not repeat what we did in 2020. Your goods will still get there. It may take a little longer, and it may have to take a different way to get to where it needs to go. It may also be a little more expensive. But it’s okay, because it will get there.”

Far more concerning, Earle added, is the implication for B.C. and Canadian producers looking to get their goods to market. Earle noted that the mudslides covering roads in the Lower Mainland area (especially near Bridal Falls) happen annually and should only take days to clean up, causing minimal disruptions.

The washouts on Highway 1 and Highway 5 north of Hope, however, is far more concerning because it is uncertain how long it will take to rebuild the sections of road that were washed away completely.

“In the short-term, the Lower Mainland disruptions on Highway 1 and 7 – I think – are regular debris flows,” Earle said. “I’m hearing one of the rail lines is anticipating getting back into service in the next 3-5 days, which is good news.

“For Highway 1 and 5, I’m concerned,” he added. “Those are the two big ones. Highway 3, as much as it is a major route, is a minor highway. The same is with Highway 99; yes, it’s a route, but it’s not a good one. From a macro-economics point of view, I am concerned, because how will mills get their goods to market?”

Ultimately, the supply chain will find a way, Earle said – because that is exactly what a supply chain does. However, the current system exists because of cost and time efficiencies – efficiencies that are now slated to be severely upended by potentially long-term closures of two major highways linking Vancouver to the rest of Canada.

“If we can’t run lumber on a vehicle from Kelowna or Merritt to the Lower Mainland, what can we do?” he added. “Can we move it on rail and go to the inland port at Ashcroft? Can we run a truck instead coming south and going east instead? There will be some solutions. It will be more costly, and it will take more time. It’s not going to be as efficient, and that’s the concern when we are talking about an already strained supply chain.”

Earle added that the entire transport industry is weary, since the last two years have seen everything from blockades and pandemic blockages to wildfires and heat waves disrupt an already strained supply chain.

“I will not be sad to see 2021 go. It’s one thing after another, after another, then after another. Everybody is feeling the pressure. Again, this is what we choose to do, and it’s always good to see how you rise to the occasion. But my gosh, can we catch a break just for a little bit?”