RailState: ‘Surge in Imports Stresses Train Capacity’ at Port of Vancouver

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
(Courtesy of RailState)

(Courtesy of RailState)

In March, intermodal volume from the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia hit its highest level since August 2022, with a total of 75,110 containers moved eastbound, according to real-time network visibility provider RailState, which independently tracks all freight rail movements across Canada. This is a 10% increase over February and a 39% increase over the average monthly container volume throughout 2023, the firm reported. Compared with March 2023, monthly container volume was up 51.7%.

Intermodal volumes have been on a steady increase since the beginning of 2023, only interrupted by a dockworkers’ strike in July 2023 and a stretch of extreme cold in January 2024, RailState said. March capped off what the firm called a “booming quarter,” which saw total intermodal performance 50% higher than first-quarter 2023. 

“We haven’t seen container volumes like this in more than a year and a half,” RailState Co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer John Schmitter said in the company’s March report, released April 3. “These trains are pretty much maxed out and moving more containers will likely require more trains. We haven’t seen train volumes change too much and it’s tough to imagine big crew changes while the railroads [CN and Canadian Pacific Kansas City/CPKC] are currently in Conciliation.”

Between the Canadian Class I’s, CPKC moved slightly more containers than CN, accounting for 51.3% of total container movements out of Vancouver, according to RailState. 

Current Status

Hapag-Lloyd provided guidance to customers in late March, stating: “All marine terminals in Vancouver continue to manage through heavy congestion, resulting from an inadequate supply of railcars from major Class I railways … We expect this situation to continue into early April.”

(Courtesy of RailState)

According to RailState, in recent weeks more container platforms have moved into the port than out the port region. During the week of March 24, CN moved 88 more platforms westbound into the port and CPKC moved 161 more westbound, the firm reported.

(Courtesy of RailState)

With the existing high dwell times at the Port of Vancouver and increased import volume in the short-term forecast, RailState reported that this car capacity will be needed to clear congestion. 

Heavily Packed Trains

(Courtesy of RailState)

CPKC increased train size by 11.1% and containers per platform by 16.3% to carry 341 containers per train in March, according to RailState, which noted that is 76 more containers per train (+29%) than the 2023 average, and 120 containers more per train (+54%) than March 2023. RailState reported that the railroad’s first-quarter performance was up 35% in containers per train compared with first-quarter 2023.

(Courtesy of RailState)

CN moved slightly larger trains in March, RailState said, with platforms up just 5.2% from the 2023 average. A 14.5% in platform utilization resulted in 307.5 containers per train in March, according to the firm. That is 52 more containers per train (+20.3%) than the 2023 average, and 67 more containers per train (+28%) than March 2023, it noted. CN’s first-quarter performance was up 24% in containers per train compared with first-quarter 2022, RailState said. 

Moderate Changes in Train Volume

(Courtesy of RailState)

Daily train volume was up 13% from the 2023 average, despite what RailState said was a small decline in daily volume from February (7.48 trains per day compared with 7.66). “This growth in train volume with an increase in platforms per train (+5%) and a larger change in containers per platform (+15.4%) combined to provide the needed capacity to move the overall container numbers,” the firm said.

Train Mix 

(Courtesy of RailState)

According to RailState, intermodal trains as a share of total train volumes through the Port of Vancouver area accounted for 31.4% of traffic in March. Intermodal, it reported, was the only train type to see a notable increase in the share of total train traffic, growing 12.5% above its average share of traffic for 2023. Coal trains (-15%), tank car unit trains (-14%), potash trains (-32%) declined the most as a share of traffic compared to 2023, RailState reported. 

Prince Rupert

(Courtesy of RailState)

Total container volume hit 16,148 in March, an increase of 26.5% over the previous month and 29.1% over the average monthly performance for all of 2023, according to RailState. 

The firm reported that CN ran more trains per day (+7.9%) with more platforms (+8.4%) in March than in February, while keeping containers per platform largely unchanged (+1.1%).

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