As ships wait for grain, port building boom continues in Vancouver


While grain companies are investing in major upgrades to port facilities in Vancouver, the growing number of ships waiting on the West Coast shows it has been a challenge getting grain to those facilities this winter.

Virtually all of the grain terminals in Vancouver are seeing expansion or new construction, to some degree, says Doug Mills of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, in the video below, filmed at the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Convention in Washington, D.C., last week.

The list of grain companies affiliated with these efforts to build or upgrade throughput capacity in Vancouver includes the likes of Viterra, Cargill, Richardson, Paterson, and P&H. G3 is building a terminal — the first all-new grain facility in Vancouver since the 1960s — while AGT Foods recently announced a deal to replace a forestry products facility with a new grain export terminal.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much more grain the port can handle than before the wave of expansion, says Mills: “I’m not going to put a number on it because capacity is a combination of efficiencies that need to come together at the same time.”

West Coast port capacity is surging, but can it be put to use?

While the Port Authority’s jurisdiction includes what Mills dubs “the last mile” before tidewater, the port can’t help but be affected by logistical problems further back in the supply chain.

“Ultimately, wherever it backs up, it manifests itself in our gateway. You can tell because a ship will be waiting for grain that’s not there yet,” he says.

And that’s certainly the case this winter.

“You just have to look at the stocks at the terminal versus stocks inland and compare that over the years. The story tells itself. Ships are waiting and grain is not meeting the demand for the ships at the time it’s expected.”

According to Quorum Corp’s Grain Monitoring Program, there were 35 grain ships lined up at Vancouver as of March 4, up from 31 the week prior. The peak during the 2013-14 grain backlog was 40, but these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

“There’s a bit of a misnomer there. You have to be careful when you mention how many ships are in the harbour, because at a certain point, it’s full, and then ships begin to anchor at alternative sites that are along Vancouver Island,” he says.

While waterfront capacity is growing, there are still some bottlenecks getting shipments through the urban area to port terminals. Mills says the authority has identified nine projects that need to be invested in to make sure capacity doesn’t get constrained 10 years down the road.

“The projects consist mostly of road and rail grade separations, ensuring cars and trains don’t get in each others’ way,” he says, noting tunnel ventilation upgrades are also part of the plan, allowing more frequent passages in North Vancouver.

With Canada signing the U.S.-less Trans-Pacific Partnership, major export opportunities in Asia, and the federal government aiming to boost ag exports to $75 billion by 2025, Mills says they’re well aware of the vital role of the port today and in the future, not only for Canadian agriculture, but for the Canadian economy as a whole.

Listen to Doug Mills discuss the expansion at the port, challenges getting grain to the port this year, and the future role of the port in accessing Asian markets:

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