The Port of Vancouver — the main gateway for consumer goods entering Canada from the manufacturing powerhouses in Asia — is among the worst performers, ranking 368th out of 370 ports around the world, according to a new report. Compiled by the World Bank and S&P Global Inc., the report brings fresh information to conversations on port performance, a subject that the authors note is notoriously difficult to evaluate due to poor data and inconsistent tracking metrics around the world.

Port efficiency has taken on a new level of urgency, given the extreme supply disruptions in the past two years. Policymakers are parsing whether West Coast ports that experienced congestion, such as Vancouver but also Los Angeles and Long Beach in the U.S., underperformed, or were simply overwhelmed by a heightened demand for consumer goods.

The ranking is based on data gathered in 2021, an unusual year that saw global demand recover surprisingly quickly from the epic collapse caused by early waves of COVID-19. Several experts said even the most efficient ports would have struggled to cope with the surge in demand for goods that occurred during the pandemic. Nathan Strang, director of ocean trade lane management at Flexport Inc., said the impacts of the pandemic combined with unexpected demand for consumer goods created a one-two punch that lead to congestion at ports on the West Coast.

At the port of Vancouver, for example, trade publications reported in December that 60 ships were waiting to berth, even as mudslides from wildfires had severely limited rail service out of the port. But far from deterring traffic, between January and April, the port reported that inbound container laden traffic grew 30%.

The “ranking in this report reflects an analysis of a unique point in time that includes impacts from last summer’s wildfires in B.C. and the severe flooding in November, which cut off the Port of Vancouver from national supply chains fully for eight days and partially for an additional nine days,” the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said in a statement when asked for a comment on its poor showing. A port authority spokeswoman added that more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvement projects are under construction across the Lower Mainland.

But as the country faces the highest consumer price inflation since the late 1980s, extra costs and product shortages added to by bottlenecks at any port, including many others along the West Coast of Canada and the U.S., are drawing attention.

Delivering cargo from Asia to a West Coast port is almost always faster than delivering to an East Coast port, Strang said. For example, Strang estimated that traveling through the Panama Canal to an East Coast port in New York or Virginia could add an extra 20 days to a trip.

Meanwhile, many East Coast ports received high rankings in the recent report: the Port of Halifax ranked 46th overall and third in North America, after the Port of Virginia and Miami, respectively. But Strang said traffic to East Coast ports was mitigated by delays moving through the Panama Canal, in addition to being numerous and distributed as opposed to concentrated in a few places.

Martin Humphreys, lead transport economist for the World Bank and one of the authors of the ranking, declined to comment on any specific port, saying each location requires independent investigation. The goal of the report was to create an “indicator” that sheds light on the relative operational performance of ports and provide a reference point for “improvement,” he said. 

The report considers numerous variables, from the time a ship spends at various stages, the size of ships that dock at a particular port, and the size of the port itself. The report noted that a number of unseen factors, such as infrastructure quality and expertise of employees, contribute to overall efficiency.

In total, the report’s authors examined 164,500 port calls involving 257.4 million container moves at 826 container terminals at 443 ports worldwide. (The authors left the smallest ports out of the final analysis, settling on a sample of 370.) The ranking tries to estimate the efficiency of a port and provides two rankings, one that is purely statistical and one that is administrative that tries to account for missing data.

The report notes that maritime transport carries more than 80% of global merchandise trade by volume and an inefficient port will result in “slower economic growth, less employment, and higher costs for importers and exporters.” Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s CIBC World Markets, said port congestion has contributed to inflation, particularly earlier in the pandemic when consumer spending shifted away from services to durable goods.

Still, there is little doubt that the images of ships lined up outside West Coast ports, shortages of some products and subsequent price inflation have had a cascade of consequences felt throughout the country. The federal government in its most recent budget allocated $450 million for its National Trade Corridors Fund to help ease the movement of goods throughout the country. Transport minister Omar Alghabra has announced $42 million in upgrades at two New Brunswick Southern Railway terminals and an expansion of Port Saint John, with contributions from J.D. Irving Ltd., the New Brunswick government, and the port authority. The funding will allow for construction of new rails that can carry double-stacked containers and other improvements designed to increase efficiency of the port there.

Source: Financial Post