Upgrading road and rail links a complex cargo puzzle

A year after floods, infrastructure upgrades are underway, but concerns remain

Canada’s railways restored service quickly after flood devastation, but adding options in B.C. is either overly expensive or impractical | Photo: Rob Kruyt

A year after the historic rainstorm that washed out almost all domestic land transport routes into the Port of Vancouver, the focus on keeping Canada’s trade infrastructure operating through thick-and-thin has never been stronger, officials say. 

But most officials also agree that while the ability of B.C.’s land transportation system to deal with severe weather events will be improved, factors such as mountainous terrain and exorbitant costs of new capacity mean that the province will remain one major disaster away from serious disruptions. 

Last winter’s flooding and subsequent landslides destroyed or blocked parts of most Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) and CN Rail (TSX:CNR) lines into the Lower Mainland, as well as parts of key highways such as the Coquihalla. Although the rail lines were partially reopened in about two weeks’ time (and the highways in subsequent months), experts estimated backlog and disruptions to shipping lasted until as late as March 2022. 

“I can’t say that I’ve seen another like this in my lifetime – certainly not one that approached the scope of the damage that was inflicted on mainline infrastructure,” said J. Marcel Beaulieu, director of research and analysis at Quorum Corp., which monitors grain transport in Canada for the federal government. 

“I mean, [the effect’s] span had a physical footprint that I think ran about 150 miles or so. And, depending on the rail line, they had anywhere from 30 to 50 places where the track had been washed out or culverts taken out and bridges collapsed.” 

Beaulieu noted, however, that while backlogs continued into the spring for Prairie grain heading to the Port of Vancouver, the lower harvest numbers at the time meant the stress on the transport system wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He added that, with the harvest at or near record levels this year, both the CP and CN rail lines have handled grain transport demands admirably, reporting no major bottlenecks or delays despite extremely high volume. 

That, Beaulieu noted, is a credit to how quickly the rail lines were repaired and an illustration that the system, at least when it comes to mitigating the effects of natural disasters, is working as it should. 

Dave Earle, president and CEO of the BC Trucking Association, echoed that praise on the roadside. He noted that trucking companies “ran during the floods and continue to run after the floods” as operators found alternative routes (such as going through the United States and using smaller highways) to keep the network working, albeit with delays and added costs of using longer routes. 

Earle added that higher levels of government have been especially supportive since the flood in terms of tackling B.C.’s transport infrastructure needs seriously – one of the key and most positive outcomes of the disaster. Back in November 2021, within days of the floods, Ottawa earmarked $4.1 million to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to provide relief (specifically creating storage capacity for shipments caught in limbo) to the disruptions. 

More importantly, the flood disruptions moved the nation’s trade infrastructure bottlenecks to the forefront of conversation among decision makers, Earle said. 

The National Supply Chain Summit in January was followed by the creation of a task force dedicated to the cause, and a final report from the group was published in October. The report cited urgent needs and required actions, many of which pertained directly to the situation in B.C.: The need to ease port congestion, address labour shortages, protect key corridors and gateways and create a federal office to oversee the entire process. 

“One of the things we did learn from the floods is we didn't have the best handle – from that 30,000-foot view – of what’s going to be where when there’s a whole bunch of things that are moving around all the time,” Earle said. “It’s a really complicated web to unravel, and there’s now a lot more attention paid to better understand the extent of our supply chains.”

In October, federal transport minister Omar Alghabra visited Vancouver to announce another $136 million in funding for digitizing supply chains. 

Earle noted that having such intelligence and data around the province’s supply chain operations, demands and capabilities will be crucial – as Metro Vancouver’s stakeholders learned by having their united, intermodal approach to engage Ottawa achieve stronger feedback because it presented solutions with lower costs and higher returns. 

“It’s remarkable that we got the lion’s share of [federal] funding on the coast because we were thoughtful,” Earle said. “We said things like, ‘Rather than spending $3.5 billion and punching a tunnel through North Burnaby to align with North Shore ports, why don’t we spend $20 million to improve ventilation [in our existing tunnel] so we can increase our capacity and move more trains through it?’ That’s happening now, and that will carry us ... to a point.” 

Those comments bring the discussion back to the elephant in the room: Increased capacity is expensive. On the rail side, for instance, the cost and complexity of creating new rail lines through B.C.’s mountainous terrain is the reason the province is unlikely to see new lines anytime soon. 

It means that while Canada’s ability to recover from disruptions may be top-notch, its ability to minimize the initial disruptions from something like large-scale washouts is limited, according to Quorum’s Beaulieu. 

“Marshalling such forces to make extraordinary repairs is entirely different from what is needed to manage railway capacity and to move traffic efficiently over the network,” Beaulieu said. 

“I have no doubt that [the flood last year] would have raised the rail lines’ sensitivity to the need for more resiliency. But they’re also trying to do the best that they can with what they’ve got. They don’t want to make huge, long-term commitments if it’s not necessary.” 

In a discussion about Port of Vancouver’s freight traffic being down in 2022’s first half, in part because of flooding backlogs, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority president and CEO Robin Silvester linked the disruptions to the need for larger investment – such as the one required to fund the controversial multibillion-dollar Roberts Bank Terminal 2 container facility that’s awaiting a final decision from Ottawa. 

“We are doing a lot of work on gateway projects to structurally de-bottleneck the last mile of rail and road to get longer trains in and out of the port more effectively to stimulate more private sector investments,” Silvester said. “We are doing a lot of work on using technology to further optimize our supply chain. But the single biggest issue for us and for Canada in the next six months is getting Terminal 2 approved so we can fill a need that we know we are already too late for.” 

In the meantime, there are other key high-cost projects locally – such as a larger capacity replacement for the Massey Tunnel – that require immediate attention, Earle said. 

“We really have to get deadly serious about what infrastructure and the movement of goods mean to British Columbia,” Earle said. “We need to stop destroying the infrastructure we have and start considering the investments that are required to meet the demands of the future. 

“There’s an ongoing issue of employment land, land allocation and land-use policy. We drive around and we can see the pinch-points that exist.... We are developing land in Surrey but seeing only one lane in each direction for streets going in and out. The [province] cancelled the Massey replacement that would have been in place this year, and now we may see one at the end of the decade. We have to recognize that these are not decisions we can take lightly; there are sacrifices that have to be made.” ■