Wildfires Disrupt Rail Operations in British Columbia

Wildfires Disrupt Rail Operations in British Columbia

In late June, severe wildfires raged across the province of British Columbia, Canada, causing disruptions to freight rail movement. The fires delayed rail operations in several areas, resulting in a backlog of loading and unloading at the Port of Vancouver. By July 9, a 48-hour rail traffic ban was ordered in parts of British Columbia, disrupting the transport of grains, lumber, and containers. On July 11, new rail restrictions were announced by the Ministry of Transport, requiring train companies to increase fire suppression methods and reduce speeds in high-risk areas.

Heatwave triggers wildfires near critical railway infrastructure

Amidst a record-breaking heat wave, a series of wildfires broke out in western British Columbia in late June. According to data from Everstream Analytics, the number of wildfires in Canada significantly increased in July.

Figure 1: Number of wildfires in Canada form May 1-Septemer 18 compared to the 10-year average. Source: Everstream Analytics.
Figure 2: Heat map showing the concentration of wildfires in Canada from June 30- July 20. Source: Everstream Analytics.
Figure 3: The National Rail Network map of Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway lines. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

A particularly devastating fire broke out in Lytton, B.C. on June 30, prompting a mandatory evacuation order for the town and surrounding area of 1,800 residents. The fire inflicted considerable damage on infrastructure in Lytton, including nearby railways owned by Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The fire quickly caused congestion for rail operations in the area. On July 8, CN announced an embargo for rail cargo to manage the backlog of stranded rail cars and to prevent further congestion in the area. On July 9, the Minister of Transportation of British Columbia announced a 48-hour halt to all rail activity in parts of British Columbia as government officials sought to outline new restrictions for safe rail operations in the area. The damage most heavily affected the area between Vancouver, Lytton, and Kamloops, creating a bottleneck for cargo from the Port of Vancouver to eastern Canada. 

Port of Vancouver experiences backlog due to railway congestion

Train delays and the eventual halting of operations due to damaged railway infrastructure impacted cargo movement at the Port of Vancouver. According to data received by Everstream Analytics on July 14, the Port of Vancouver reported berth delays of 72 hours to 96 hours and a large backlog due the rail disruptions. The increased dwell time forced incoming vessels to divert to other ports to avoid the congestion. The Ag Transport Coalition reported that 4,000 rail cars transporting crops were stranded during the height of the fire. The same group reported that 90 percent fewer rail cars were offloaded on July 7 compared to the average daily level seen in the previous week. On July 7, incident data from Everstream Analytics shows that Teck Resources, a Canadian mining company, suffered rail service disruptions into the Port of Vancouver. The company announced that it expects to sell up to 500,000 fewer tons of steelmaking coal in Q3 due to disruption from the fire. The delays also affected the transportation of over 30,000 barrels of crude oil per day that are normally shipped through Vancouver. According to intelligence received by Everstream Analytics on July 20, 2,700 grain filled rail cars had reached the port after being impeded by the damage from the June 30 fire. A further 2,000 grain cars are still idled on the track. 

The Port of Vancouver is still experiencing heavy delays, with recent intelligence received by Everstream Analytics on July 14 reporting a decrease of 20 percent in intermodal service and delays of up to a week for containers in the port. As of July 13, there were 41 vessels waiting for berth space and carriers expect the backlog to persist for several weeks. 

Government officials regulate train activity to ensure railway safety

Government officials have sought to regulate train activity between Kamloops and Vancouver in the interest of safety and to prevent additional fires that could be started from locomotives passing through extreme fire risk areas. On July 11, Transport Canada announced a series of restrictions on train traffic across Canada, with additional restrictions required in the area between Kamloops, B.C. and North Bend, B.C. The restrictions include slowing train speed in areas where fire danger is extreme (in some cases, by as much as 20 mph), mandating inspections every 15 days for locomotive exhaust passages, and the development of an Extreme Weather Fire Risk Mitigation Plan. In addition to the above restrictions, trains operating in fire hazard areas must ensure that they can deploy wildfire suppression capacity within 60 minutes, report all smoldering or active fires in the area, and conduct at least 10 fire detection patrols in the area every 24-hours if a train has passed through in the last three hours. These restrictions will remain in place until October 31. 

On July 20, the Minister of Public Safety in British Columbia issued a provincial state of emergency in response to the wildfires. The measure will allow local government authorities to use extraordinary powers to prevent, respond, or alleviate the effects of the fires.

Continued rail disruption expected amid predictions of further summer heatwaves

CN and CPR are both reporting that a return to normal could still be several weeks away. The backlog of cargo into the Port of Vancouver continues to mount as the two companies are forced to share a single line into the port. As both companies work to repair damaged infrastructure in the area, CN again suspended rail activity between Kamloops and Lytton due to several new fires in the area. Clearing the backlog will be complicated by new fires from summer heat. The nearby Port of Prince Rupert could emerge as a viable alternative to clear port congestion as rail lines from the port have been undamaged by recent fires. 

Companies are increasingly turning to trucking to replace intermodal shipping from Vancouver, however, fires in the province have closed several major roads and changes in wind direction could increase the severity of fires near roadways.

Recommendations

The threat of further cargo disruptions in British Columbia will remain high through the summer months. Everstream Analytics has tracked data showing that the number of wildfires in 2021 is higher than the 10-year average and those fires have burned more total area than the 10-year average.

Figure 4: Number of wildfires in 2021 by province compared to the 10-year average. Source: Everstream Analytics.
Figure 5: Area burned by wildfires in 2021 compared to the 10-year average. Source: Everstream Analytics. 

Everstream Analytics recommends those reliant on rail transport in western British Columbia to consider the following: 

  • Maintain near-real time visibility into rail disruptions: Visibility into future rail disruptions from wildfires allows supply chain managers to quickly enact contingency plans to avoid disruptions to shipments. Customers should identify and map transportation lanes to mitigate any disruption from damaged railway infrastructure.
  • Coordinate with carriers to avoid delays into the Port of Vancouver: Supply chain managers are encouraged to coordinate with freight forwarders and shipping carriers for current shipments to the Port of Vancouver and make adjustments to accommodate longer waiting times. Customers could also consider alternative ports as cargo being shipped to and from Vancouver will face delays in the coming weeks.
  • Stay abreast of regulatory developments: Changes to regulations could slow or cancel cargo movement in restricted areas. As the summer wildfire season progresses, additional regulation could be possible. High-risk areas could see bans on rail activity and increased operating restrictions like those outlined above.

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