CN Rail Autoport is adding an extra shift of workers starting this afternoon to deal with a mounting backlog of vehicles that have arrived at the Eastern Passage facility by sea. 

Luxury vehicles are unloaded at the autoport by the thousands. It is supposed to be a short-term stop as they are brought in from Europe by ship and then loaded onto railcars and trucks. 

Starting today, CN says there will be two shifts of workers driving vehicles from storage areas onto railcars. 

"We expect to be able to increase the pace of loading of railcars," said Mark Hallman, director of communications and public affairs for CN Rail.  

Union says unloading interrupted

This year, as in past years, CN says it has had to temporarily store vehicles at nearby CFB Shearwater. 

The union representing longshoremen who work at the autoport is concerned that CN is taking so long to move vehicles out of the facility and delaying the departure of cargo ships. 

Kevin Piper, who heads the longshoremen's union local, said his members have been forced to stop unloading car-carrying ships for hours at a time because there's nowhere to put the vehicles.

Kevin Piper

Kevin Piper, with the Halifax Longshoremen's Association Local 269, says for the past two weeks there have been delays moving vehicles off ships due to a backlog of vehicles. (CBC)

He said the normal operating procedure is to continue working, save for meal breaks, until crews have unloaded a shipment. But over the past 10 days to two weeks, he said that has not been the case.  

"What we see now is extended periods of labour not being hired to allow autoport to clear its dockside facility and clear its cargo to a holding area to free up space so they can continue to discharge with delays of 12 hours in between," said Piper. 

He said weather hasn't impacted the work his members are doing. 

"The delays, in the early stages, seem to be potentially as bad as they were in 2015," he said, adding at this rate it could takes months to clear the backlog. 

Hallman, speaking from Concord, Ont., would not disclose how many vehicles are at Shearwater. 

Weather creates 'bunching'

CN says part of the problem this winter is that bad weather has delayed ships crossing the Atlantic and vessels have arrived at different times than scheduled. 

Hallman says 13 ships bound for the Eastern Passage autoport were delayed due to weather this winter. 

"That in turn creates bunching of the queue, which requires some ships to wait for terminal spots to be available," he said, adding the additional shift of workers should alleviate some of the delays unloading vehicles.

There's an annual surge in spring sales so they'll be working to get them to market. 

"We expect to be able to continue to process and do the best we can and hopefully the weather conditions improve," Hallman said. 
 
Two years ago, CN stored vehicles on a golf course near the autoport. Hallman says there are no plans to do that this year.

Questions about long-term impact

Piper said he's worried the additional shipping companies will start to reconsider sending cargo to the Port of Halifax and the autoport if they are losing money due to delays. 

"The shipping industry is a very fickle industry and the vessels only make money when they're at sea. They don't want to be tied up for extended periods of time. They want to be able to get in port, discharge their cargo and get to their next port," he said.

"When a ship has to layover for 24, 48, 72 hours, those costs range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

A spokesperson for the Port of Halifax, which is separate from autoport, says there have been no losses related to weather this year and that ships have been running on time.

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CN says there's typically a surge in spring vehicle sales and it will be shipping cars out to make it to market. (Craig Paisley/CBC)