Traffic at Canada’s largest port has been cut off by what local officials are calling the storm of the century, the latest snag to hit the North American supply chain. Days of torrential rain have pelted British Columbia, triggering floods and landslides that have blocked the tracks of the nation’s two major railways and washed away parts of its main east-west road artery, the Trans-Canada Highway.
It’s the second time in less than five months that British Columbia — a major conduit to Asian markets and home to one of the busiest ports on the West Coast — has been paralyzed by extreme weather: wildfires and a record heat wave choked the region in the summer. This time the disruptions threaten the movement of goods ahead of the busy winter holiday season.
Flooding has halted rail services to and from the Port of Vancouver and also shut all main routes by road, the port said in a statement. It’s not yet known when Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National Railway Co. will be able to re-open their lines, it said. Nearly 1,000 rail cars carrying grain are idled in the Vancouver corridor, according to estimates from Ag Transport Coalition.
British Columbia Transportation Minister Rob Fleming called it “the worst weather storm in a century” at a news conference. Highway 3, an older route that runs roughly parallel to the U.S. border, may be the first to re-open, he said, without providing a time frame. The Trans-Canada and another major artery, known as the Coquihalla, will take longer, he said, noting the dramatic images emerging out of the region, including chunks of highway falling into rushing waters. “The infrastructure damage there is significant.”
“This has been an extreme weather event,” said Mike Farnworth, the deputy premier of British Columbia. “The impacts have been significantly greater than expected.”
About two-thirds of containers in British Columbia are transported by rail, said Dave Earle, chief executive officer of the B.C. Trucking Association. “There’s going to be disruption,” he said by phone. “We just don’t know how much for how long.”
There is enough grain at port terminal elevators to keep exports moving for a “few days and perhaps a week,” said Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., a grain transportation monitoring company in Edmonton, Alberta. “After that, it’s about the wait.”
Following reports of food shortages and hoarding at grocery stores, Canadian food retailer Save-On-Foods said in a statement that all shipments in and out of the Lower Mainland have been put on hold due to road conditions. When asked about the buying panic at a news conference, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth encouraged B.C. residents to be patient, saying there are alternative solutions to transport food and there is “lots of supply.”
Port terminals rely largely on railways to deliver containers to load on ships, as well as transport imported and exported goods. “When the cycle of inbound rail cars stops, that’s when congestion starts to build at the port terminals,” Hemmes said.
Canadian Pacific said its track remains closed near Hope, about 150 kilometres (93 miles) east of Vancouver. Canadian National said multiple mudslides and washouts have damaged tracks and that repairs are progressing, but that outbound and inbound traffic in Vancouver is still affected.
The flooding is also disrupting energy infrastructure. Enbridge Inc. shut a segment of the Westcoast Pipeline, which delivers gas from the interior to the Vancouver region, as a precautionary measure early Tuesday due to heavy rain and increased river flow, spokesman Jesse Semko said by email.