By R. Bruce Striegler

Intermodal centres changing the nature of North American rail shipments

CN Rail’s Vice-President of Intermodal Services, Keith Reardon, tells us, “Our intermodal operations from the port of Prince Rupert originate at the Fairview Container Terminal operated by Maher Terminals.” It sits on a 24-hectare site with direct on-dock access to the rail line and is the first dedicated intermodal terminal in North America with operational capacity to move 750,000 TEUs (twenty foot equivalents units) per year. “We run about two trains per day from Prince Rupert, transferring containers loaded with imports from the ships to trains, which then move that cargo out to destinations across North America.” He says each train is about 10,500 to 11,000 feet long (approximately 100 to 110 cars), pulled by two high-horsepower locomotives. Trains arriving in Prince Rupert carry both loaded containers for export, along with empties, which are all transferred to the waiting ship.

CN has built an integrated transportation network across the continent that includes rail, intermodal, trucking, freight forwarding, warehousing and distribution. But intermodal, called “piggy-backing” in the 1980’s when trucking companies began shipping their trailers via rail, has changed the transportation industry and has become an engine of growth for railways, trucking companies and ocean carriers over the past two decades. The Association of American Railroads reports that in 1980 the North American rail industry moved just a little over three million trailers and containers.

In 2013, Intermodal Association of North America, which tracks intermodal business in detail, estimated this year’s volume may top 15 million units. A 10.2-per-cent year-over-year increase of domestic container volume in the first quarter of 2013 represented the sixth consecutive quarter of 10-per-cent-plus increases, and the second highest volume in domestic container history. Technologically advanced intermodal centres allow fast transfer of containers to or from ships, trucks and trains. CN Rail operates the largest rail network in Canada, and covers about 20,600 route miles serving nearly 75 per cent of the U.S. population, all major Canadian markets and ports on the Atlantic, Pacific, the U.S. Gulf Coast and Mexico. The company has spent millions building 19 strategically located intermodal centres across the continent, positioned to expedite cargo distribution to and from Canada’s ports.

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CN increases rail capacity to Prince Rupert container and coal terminals

Mr. Reardon explains that ocean carriers that bring their vessels into the northern port as a first port-of-call achieve a significant saving of sailing time. “Prince Rupert’s location and the extremely efficient operations at the terminal, including the very low dwell times (two days average), means we can have those trains loaded and moving to the Midwest before that vessel could even been brought alongside a dock at any of the other west coast ports.” The port of Prince Rupert is about 500 nautical miles closer to China than even Port Metro Vancouver. The rail line from Prince Rupert has the benefit of being the lowest grade crossing over the Rocky Mountains, which means longer trains. The northern line also experiences less congestion than southern routes and has fewer weather-related interruptions.

Along with siding expansion near the Fairview terminal, the railroad has also been busy with other improvements, and Keith Reardon explains: “We’ve either extended or constructed twenty-one 12,000-foot sidings since 2004 when we first envisaged the container terminal at Prince Rupert. We’ve expanded, at a cost of $12 million, a locomotive reliability centre in Prince George to meet rising traffic.” Prince George is more than 700 kilometres east of Prince Rupert and Reardon says this central interior B.C. city is the confluence of CN’s lines from the four points of the compass. “Prince George is a busy place, but is very different from Prince Rupert which is an import/export centre. The Prince George location is an aggregator of domestic raw materials such as lumber or pulp.” He adds that CN constructed a transload facility in Prince George for the containerization of exported forest products. “This has been a significant and beneficial move for our customers, and we continue to evaluate the size of the facility, to expand capacity as required on an annual basis.”

Reardon explains CN’s solution to another challenging northern situation. “When confronted by questions of how to transport freight to Alaska, instead of building a new rail line we developed the Aquatrain, a 43-car rail barge that links Prince Rupert to Whittier, Alaska.” The service is operated by Foss Marine for CN, using the largest rail car barge in the world and makes more than 30 round trips per year. It transports loaded rail cars which are then passed on to the Alaska Railroad for delivery across the state, and Reardon says that the cargo mix includes construction and mining products.

Prince Rupert’s Fairview container terminal undergoing expansion

Mark Schepp, Senior Vice-President, Maher Terminals, recalls that from handling one ship call per week when Fairview Terminals began operations in October 2007, service calls have now risen to four per week. “The highlights of the terminal are the rapid ship-to-rail transfer, the high level of crane productivity, which is around 31 to 32 moves per hour. This combined with the speed of rail transit to North American markets including Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and eastern Canadian markets including Montreal and Toronto makes for great reliability.” He adds that the consistency of the network from the carriers to the longshore personnel to CN’s support has allowed a tremendous amount of growth in the face of a couple of difficult economic years worldwide.

With an 18.7-metre berth depth, Maher’s Fairview Terminal can accommodate containerships with a capacity of 12,500 containers. Cargo is offloaded using 1,800-tonne super post-panamax cranes with a reach of 22 containers. The yard can hold 9,000 TEUs and has outlets for refrigerated containers. In August, the terminal took delivery of a fourth crane, raising its capacity from 750,000 containers to 850,000 TEUs. Mark Schepp continues, “The berth is about 360 metres to support those four cranes, the container yard and seawall yard comprise about 55 acres and we have 21 re-stackers. We’re a re-stacker operation and everything we do is with re-stackers, as it gives us quite a bit of flexibility on a small footprint.”

Further expansions could increase the capacity to 2.3 million TEUs. Mr. Schepp says that the Port has received environmental approvals to build a second berth and to take some further upland space. “We are currently in the midst of our detailed design process, which will take us to an award of contract so as to potentially begin building in 2014.” These terminal expansion plans will effectively quadruple the capacity to two million TEUs and involves adding a second 360-metre berth and additional on-dock rail. “Currently CN is completing a 12,000-foot siding just south of our gate, but it is for Fairview Terminals use.” The expanded facility will have an on-site storage capacity of 28,560 TEUs at five high. The expansion will create the second-largest handling facility on the west coast, with the expectation that the new facility will alleviate congestion at existing west coast ports and create significant economic opportunities for Canadian importers and exporters.

Mr. Schepp says that the Maher Terminals operation in Prince Rupert employs about 22 persons in management which include operations, safety, administration and maintenance. He says that there are about 340 registered longshoremen in Prince Rupert, and on a busy day Fairview Terminal can employ as many as 225. In a 2012 economic impact study commissioned by Port of Prince Rupert, direct employment from the port amounts to 2,300 jobs, with those employees earning approximately $130 million in wages, yielding an average of $58,000 per person year of employment.

“It’s a small community but it has all the resources we currently need to sustain the operation. The city has supported our development, and since our proposed new development is away from the city centre we continue to get that support.” Schepp says that the success of Prince Rupert is unique, “The partnerships that have been formed to give us this reliable network are a credit to the steamship companies who call here, and the men and women who have boots on the ground loading and unloading ships and trains. It’s also a credit to our friends at CN who have done a tremendous job moving the trains in and out.”

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