British Columbia

Container congestion in Vancouver a sign of global supply chain chaos

Inland terminals in Vancouver, B.C., are facing a massive build-up of empty shipping containers as a surge in COVID-19-related consumer demand wreaks havoc on the global supply chain. 

Empty shipping containers which once contained consumer goods from Asia are piling up in Vancouver

A pile-up of containers at the yard of Amandeep Bassi's trucking company, Can-American Enterprises. (CBC)

When Amandeep Bassi looks out on the yard of his Vancouver-based trucking company, he sees almost double the number of shipping containers he normally would.

"We have more than 100 containers sitting in my yard ... before it was 40, 50, 60 containers," Bassi said. "Right now, it's really hard to store the containers."

Bassi's transportation company typically picks up goods from the Port of Vancouver, delivers them to a customer, and then returns the container to the port. 

But there's little room at the port to return them. Yards and inland terminals like Bassi's are facing a massive build-up of empty shipping containers as a surge in COVID-19-related consumer demand wreaks havoc on the global supply chain. 

"We've all been staying at home. We haven't been able to spend on services or travel. So we bought stuff," said Trevor Heaver, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

"These goods are moved in containers and it's caused a surge in volume and different patterns for the shipping business."

Watch the story below:

Import surge straining Canada’s supply chain

2 years ago
Duration 2:31
Hundreds of empty shipping containers are stacked in Vancouver’s port and it’s straining the supply chain because there’s a larger demand for imports to Canada than exports. The backlog is hurting truckers and could mean longer waits and higher prices for consumers.

Across the West Coast, there have been record-breaking line-ups of container ships waiting to get to port transporting consumer goods from Asia to North America. 

Robin Silvester, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority President and CEO, says while the congestion isn't as bad compared to California, there has been a 12 to 15 per cent increase in volume of imports. 

Normally, Silvester says, the port is very balanced. Exports like grain from the prairies, seafood from the coast, and beef from Alberta would return via the containers back to Asia. 

"But because of this surge in imports, our supply chain is out of balance. That's causing a surge internally with a lot of empty [containers] waiting around the system to get back on ships back to Asia," he said. 

On a river sits a cargo ship docked at a port with colorful storage boxes on the ship and on land. Red cranes are pulling cargo off the ship. In the water you can see small boats and other cargo vessels with small blue cranes. In the background you can see buildings at the base of some mountains.
The port of Vancouver, pictured on March 4, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Eric Waltz, president of GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., says the system is so out of balance, "the biggest increase in Canadian exports we've been seeing is air," as empty containers are rushed back to Asia to fill up with more goods.

But Waltz says his terminal, one of 19 at the port, which has extended hours and operations to deal with the surge in volume, still only has limited space for these containers.

It's what has led to the buildup at inland terminals like Bassi's. 

Harry Rattan, who owns a trucking company in Vancouver, is facing long hours and a buildup of shipping containers due to a surge in imports. (CBC)

The surge in volume also means transportation companies are working longer hours.

Harry Rattan, who owns a Vancouver-based trucking company, says he feels "squished right in the middle."

His company has to meet demand from his customers in picking up these sought-after goods, putting in longer hours and configuring to the port's extended schedule. 

"I'm working at least 12 hours a day. I have loyal customers, doing their work for the last 32 years. I can't let them down," he said.

"[But] my family life is getting destroyed too because you got to put long hours." 

With files from Lyndsay Duncombe