By Keith Norbury, Cargo volumes at the port of Vancouver, Canada’s largest, likely increased in 2021, according to Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. “Generally speaking, the pandemic did not appear to have a significant direct impact on total cargo volumes,” said a statement from the Port Authority.

The Port had not yet finalized its numbers for 2021, but estimated that its 2021 tonnage will be slightly higher than 2020, in the order of 145.8 million tonnes. The Port did, however, have complete container traffic stats for 2021. According to its December 2021 accumulated container traffic report, the port handled 3,680,581 TEUs last year, compared with 3,467,521 TUEs in 2020.


“Strong North American demand for imports from Asia remains the leading driver of container growth,” the Port explained. Leading that growth were laden imports, which impacts to inland rail and road connections with the rest of the continent due to wildfires in July and severe rainstorms and floods in November.”

The biggest general impact on the port’s overall cargo volumes from the COVID-19 pandemic occurred early on — from March to June 2020 “when the uncertainty and economic shutdowns weakened the global economy and slowed international trade,” the Port said. “The surge in imports, both containers and autos, began in the second half of 2020 as the situation stabilized, government financial assistance was injected into the Canadian and American economies, and consumers, constrained from service and travel spending, used their money to instead purchase goods.”

That consumer demand caused containerized imports to surge since mid 2020.

The impact on the port’s auto sector business was more direct, though. “Semiconductor shortages curtailed new vehicle manufacturing which, in turn, reduced the number autos shipped through the port in the second half of 2021,” the port said.


In response to increase international trade demand, “the Port Authority is leading the development of more than $1 billion worth of trade- enabling infrastructure projects.” Among those projects is an expansion of the Centerm container terminal, operated by DP World (Canada) Inc. on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. “It’s actually going to be completed November this year,” said Maksim Mihic, General Manager and CEO of DP World (Canada). He added that the project, which has been in the works for a decade, isn’t a response to the current situation. “It’s just careful planning for the capacity for the market,” Mr. Mihic said.

DP World repeats that theme with all its facilities, such as its Prince Rupert container terminal. It does so by maximizing the capacity of an existing facility by utilizing technology to minimize any increase in its footprint. “For example, in Vancouver we are going to increase the footprint 15 per cent but the capacity will be increased 66 per cent,” Mr. Mihic said.

According to the Port Authority, the Centerm expansion is valued at $454 million, which includes a $28.5 million federal government contribution toward the related South Shore Access Project to improve road and rail access. The terminal expansion will increase annual capacity to 1.5 million TEUs from 900,000 TEUs at present. “We will balance the berth capacity, yard capacity, rail capacity,” Mr. Mihic said. “The limiting factor for us was rail. So the rail capacity would be almost a 100 per cent increase.”

On-dock rail will nearly double to 15,000 feet from 8,000 feet. The facility will also switch from rubber-tire gantry cranes (RTGs) to rail-mounted gantry cranes (RMGs). “And we use the advanced software to optimize the movements so we will push more through the on-dock rail,” Mr. Mihic said.


The future of another big project at the port — the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project — isn’t quite so clear. An organization called Against Port Expansion reiterated its opposition to Terminal 2 in a Nov. 18 news release. The group argued that recent wildfires and flooding in B.C. “laid bare the absurdity” of the project. Rather than expand terminal capacity in Vancouver, the group said additional capacity should be built at Prince Rupert instead.

In 2020, Delta city council voted to request that the federal government not approve the project. Council cited federal review panel report findings such as the potential effects on the ecosystem, killer whales, fish, birds, and humans as well as on First Nations cultural heritage and land use. Global Container Terminals Inc., which operates Deltaport and has its own proposal to expand that operation, has also voiced opposition to Terminal 2.

The Port Authority sees the matter differently, though. “We are clear in our view that the best project to meet Canada’s trading needs is Roberts Bank Terminal 2,” Port Authority CEO Robin Sylvester said in a Nov. 25 address to the Vancouver Board of Trade. “This project has been in Canada’s Environmental Assessment process for over eight years and we anticipate that a decision could finally be made as early as this spring.”

The Retail Council of Canada is also onside with the project. “If Roberts Bank Terminal 2 is turned down by the current (Environmental) Impact Assessment Agency of Canada process, there could be more than a decade of capacity restraint until another project is approved,” the council said in a Feb. 23 posting on its website.

According to the Terminal 2 website, during construction the project would create 18,050 person years of employment, contribute $519 million in taxes to all government levels, and generate $2.3 billion in gross domestic product. Once in operation, it would produce $1.7 billion in annual labour income.

The Port didn’t give a firm timeline for the project. However, it noted that a public comment period, as part of the environmental assessment, is now underway. “Pending approval from the federal government, receipt of other regulatory approvals and permits, market conditions and a final investment decision, construction would take approximately six years, making the much-needed container capacity available by the early 2030s,” the Port said.


In 2019, DP World acquired Fraser Surrey Docks from Macquarie Infrastructure Partners. Mr. Mihic said the acquisition is “working very well.” The new owner has plans to make it work even better, following the same philosophy as at Centerm and Prince Rupert to “densify” the operation. “It’s a great facility, the largest general cargo facility probably on the West Coast, 190 acres, but under-utilized,” Mr. Mihic said of Fraser Surrey Docks.

So far, the company has introduced a short-sea shipping operation at the terminal. It is also planning a rotating container service. “This method allows fully sealed containers to be rotated 180 degrees within the hold of the vessel to unload the contents rather than using the traditional bulk ship loader,” noted a May 2021 news release from DP World (Canada) announcing an agreement with New Gold Inc. to ship copper concentrate through Fraser Surrey using the method. The “rotainer” technology can also be used with sulphur, wood pellets, fertilizer and grains, the news release added. “What is good about this, you offer the market to the small company that couldn’t afford the bulk-loading facility,” Mr. Mihic said. The rotainer system and other facilities at Fraser Surrey complement DP World’s other terminals on the B.C. coast, he said.


Other recent developments at the port of Vancouver include the following:

  • The Tsawwassen Container Examination Facility, on Tsawwassen First Nation industrial lands, is now in operation.
  • Project and environmental review of the Annacis Auto Terminal Optimization Project is underway, with construction expected to start in fall 2022 and be completed in
  • The Port Authority signed a relationship agreement with the Tsawwassen First Nation in October and a similar agreement with the Musqueam Indian Band in November 2021.
  • The Port Authority is also embarking on a multi-phase, multi-year “Port Optimization and Digitalization” program “for making maritime transport supply chains more efficient, flexible and agile.”

Looking ahead, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is collaborating with supply chain partners, such as Transport Canada and Prince Rupert Port Authority, on the West Coast Supply Chain Visibility Program. “As a next step, in 2022, we are looking to move forward with establishing long-term direct daily rail data feeds to support the program, along with establishing similar agreements with major terminal operators and shippers,” the port noted by email. “The supply chain disruptions resulting from B.C. wildfires in the summer of Project and environmental review of the Annacis Auto Terminal Optimization Project is underway. Photo by Andrew Fyfe courtesy of Vancouver Fraser Port Authority 2021, and landslides and floods in the fall, further highlighted the importance of resiliency to our supply chain and active management in the recovery from disruptions.”

The Port Authority is also leading an Active Vessel Traffic Management system “to improve transparency, efficiency, and reliability for all port users, while also increasing throughput for trade-enabling vessels as they move through port waters.”