INTRO: William D Middleton explains why the Port of Vancou-ver’s new terminal could help Canada’s railways deliver more containers from the Pacific Rim into Chicago

ON THE WEST COAST of North America, rail and truck operators compete aggressively for market share in the Pacific Rim container trade. Financial instability in the region may have cast a cloud over the immediate future, but growth has been strong for many years and is expected to continue.

If anything, competition is even fiercer among West Coast ports seeking larger shares of the profitable sea/land container interface. With barely 5% of West Coast container traffic, Vancouver is a distant sixth after Los Angeles and Long Beach in southern California, Oakland in San Francisco Bay, and the Puget Sound ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Canada’s transcontinental railways, CN and CP, have struggled to compete with their US rivals - now reduced through mergers to BNSF and UP - for the long haul from the West Coast. The Canadians were late into double-stacking of containers, and CP in particular has complained of inequitable tax burdens which allowed US railways and ports to capture traffic bound for eastern Canada.

That’s now beginning to change. In 1996, Vancouver added container services from three additional shipping lines, and traffic through the port soared by 24% over the previous year to a record level of almost 617000 TEUs (20ft equivalent units).

Capacity was doubled last June when the Port of Vancouver opened a new container terminal designed for a 600000 TEU annual throughput. As well as the latest technology and operational techniques, Deltaport also offers faster access by both sea and rail.

Location is a key advantage for Deltaport. Vancouver’s Centerm and Vanterm container terminals are located in the Burrard Inlet inner harbour opposite downtown Vancouver. Neither has room to grow, and rail access to both is congested.

Deltaport occupies a 40ha site on one quadrant of a dredged-fill artificial island at Roberts Bank linked to the shore by a 6 km causeway. The island was originally created as an export coal loading facility which began operating in 1970; this occupies the two seaward quadrants, or ’pods’. The fourth pod is earmarked for a grain loading facility.

Choosing Roberts Bank in the Strait of Georgia instead of Burrard Inlet puts Deltaport 40 km closer to the Strait of Juan de Fuca piloting stations than Vancouver’s older terminals, or those at Seattle and Tacoma. Direct rail access is provided over an unobstructed 64 km BC Rail corridor that links Deltaport directly to the two transcontinental main lines, entirely bypassing yards and congestion in the Vancouver area.

Eyes on Chicago

While Deltaport has provided the additional container capacity Vancouver badly needed, it also gives the port and its two railway partners the capability to bid for a significantly larger share of total West Coast container traffic.

The three parties have not been bashful about stating their intentions. Even before Deltaport opened, Vancouver had begun to recapture some of the Canada-bound container traffic that had been moving through US ports.

A much greater opportunity, however, lies in the traffic currently moving through US ports to Chicago and points east. This exceeds 1 million TEUs annually, and the Deltaport partners think they can capture from 5% to 15% of it.

Deltaport possesses distance advantages and strong rail connections that should make this possible. Northern West Coast ports such as Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma are closer to Asian ports than their more southerly US competitors. Hong Kong, Asia’s largest container port, is almost 500 km - about half-a-day’s sailing - closer to Vancouver than to Los Angeles.

Rail distances via either CP or CN from Vancouver to Chicago are competitive with, if slightly longer, than US routings from Seattle and Tacoma, and are anywhere from 300 to 600 km shorter than Los Angeles to Chicago.

Advantages of distance, however, don’t matter very much if the rail infrastructure isn’t capable of delivering the service level needed to attract high-rated, time-sensitive intermodal traffic. ’He who has the best inland infrastructure will have the edge’, comments James R Powell, CN’s General Manager, Overseas Markets.

Both CN and CP have been investing heavily in the kind of improvements needed to operate a reliable double-stack service over their transcontinental main lines, and in the inland terminal facilities needed to support a high volume of international container traffic.

Last May, CN opened a new 225000 container/year capacity Gateway Intermodal Terminal at Chicago. CN has established a Superior Connection service through Superior, Wisconsin, that relies on Wisconsin Central tracks to reach Chicago. CSX Intermodal and Illinois Central connections at Chicago allow CN to offer a joint-rate intermodal service between Vancouver and points within the US beyond Chicago. Once traffic develops to the level needed to operate dedicated, double-stack intermodal trains over this route, Jim Powell says CN should be able to offer 85 h Vancouver - Chicago service.

CP offers a similar service through Minneapolis and St Paul via a link with its Soo Line subsidiary at North Portal, Saskatchewan. It has upgraded and expanded its intermodal terminal facilities at the Soo’s Bensenville Yard at Chicago to handle West Coast container traffic. CP has operated trial trips over the route in as little as 70 to 72 h, says CP’s General Manager, Intermodal, W D ’Bill’ McEwen, and expects to provide a reliable service in 80 h or less with dedicated intermodal trains.

But before Vancouver and the two railways can develop much of this new traffic, they must first persuade shipping lines to establish Vancouver as a first-port-of-call for their container ships. ’We need to get that first shipping line to make Vancouver their first call,’ says McEwen, ’and we are very hopeful that this will change shortly.’

Negotiations are under way with at least two shipping lines. The railways and the port are offering highly competitive rates and such financial incentives as reduced wharfage fees. If and when they succeed, the West Coast intermodal market is set to become even more competitive than it already is. o

CAPTION: The four track loading area (left) was formed by widening the causeway which links the Roberts Bank terminals to the mainland. A container storage area and 670 m berth face (Fig 1, right) enable Deltaport to unload two of the largest container ships afloat and despatch trains eastwards fast enough to compete with other West Coast ports (below)

Fast throughput

CONSTRUCTION of Deltaport began early in 1994 with dredging of the turning basin and site preparation for sinking the 16 concrete caissons that form the 670m long berth face. With 15·8m draught, this can berth two of the largest container ships afloat. The first ship, American President Lines’ President Truman, tied up on June 8 1997.

The C$224m cost was shared in a four-way public-private partnership. Vancouver Port Corp put up the bulk at C$180m, while Terminal Systems Inc, the stevedoring company with a long-term contract for Deltaport operation, contributed C$40m. CN and CP each paid C$2m.

The 26ha paved storage yard has a three-high container capacity of 13000 TEUs. Four-high stacks provide a refrigerated container capacity of 420, expandable to 600. Grounded storage capacity in the intermodal yard, which extends along the causeway, can take 1200 TEUs.

At least three-quarters of the terminal’s traffic is expected to move in or out by rail, and the intermodal yard can handle this level of traffic with dedicated unit trains. There are four loading tracks over 1 km long, able to handle two full-length 440 TEU double-stack unit trains at a time, plus a loco run-round track. Another 5 km of holding track is located outside the terminal.

High-speed crane and container handling equipment, together with computerised systems for positioning and equipment identification, yard and ship planning, and electronic data interchange give Deltaport a competitive edge.

Four of the largest gantry cranes in North America can lift containers of up to 50 tonnes on and off ships (opposite, left). Built in Shanghai by Zhenhua Port Machinery Co Ltd, these are 72·6m high gantries able to shift 40 containers/h. With a 47·3m over-water reach, they can unload a ship up to 18 containers wide - as large as any now afloat or planned. A fifth crane will follow as traffic grows.

A fleet of 40·6 tonne capacity rubber-tyred gantries built by Morris Mechanical Handling of Britain load containers on and off lorries and work the main storage yard. These are fitted with an autosteering system tracked by sensors which read metal plates on the ground. This allows a crane to operate up and down the rows of containers, maintaining its course within 100mm without the driver touching the steering wheel.

The rail yard is served by two high speed rail-mounted gantries, with two more planned as traffic increases. Built by P&H Material Handling of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, these cranes span 51·8m and straddle the four rail tracks, access lanes, and interim storage blocks. Moving up and down the yard at 168m/min, they can each load or unload more than 30 containers/h.

Intermodal yard switching and container train make-up are performed under contract to CP and CN by OmniTRAX Inc of Denver, Colorado (opposite, centre).

Container movements within the terminal are handled by a 250hp four-wheel drive yard tractor pulling three trailers that can carry six 20ft or three 45ft containers. The trailers have front and rear steering axles, enabling the 49 m rigs to turn on a radius of just over 27m.

Coupled with the capacity of Deltaport’s cranes, these ingenious multi-trailer rigs give the terminal a handling speed and capacity that permits ship unloading on a ’direct hit’ basis, with containers moving from ship to lorries or trains without touching the ground.

With a 30 to 35 containers/h ship-to-train overall transfer rate, TSI president Peter Senior says ’we can get a unit train out within 8 h of starting to unload a vessel.’ o