America weighs in on the future of Prince Rupert super-port
By Miro
Vancouver Sun
Friday, May 30, 2008

VANCOUVER – The dreamers behind Canada’s Pacific Gateway, a 21st-century version of the St. Lawrence Seaway now taking shape on the West Coast, got a bit of a scare a few days ago.
Barack Obama, the man who might very well be the next man to occupy the White House, seemed to be trying to kill the dream of transforming Prince Rupert into a truly global port. Obama is speaking out against a $300-million deal designed to extend the Port of Prince Rupert’s reach deep into the U.S. industrial heartland.

The Illinois Senator is throwing his weight behind a small village outside of Chicago that doesn’t want Canadian National Railway Co. to buy up the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway. The intent is to avoid the bottleneck of Chicago by going through Barrington Village, and get the trains to Memphis, Tenn., cutting 17 hours of travel time. But that would dramatically expand train traffic through the area. Obama, known for both his protectionist sentiment and grassroots politicking in Chicago, had this to say about he project: “Cities and towns … along the EJ &E line must be assured their commerce and their safety are not imperilled by slow-moving trains that could be as much as two miles in length.”

Other members of Congress are weighing in with their opposition as well, hoping to derail the $300-million deal, which is now before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. The crux of their argument is that the 198-mile railway includes 130 crossings and creates a safety hazard, and will alter the nature of the community. With trains as long as two miles in length constantly trundling through Chicago suburbs, it’s also expected that billions of dollars will need to be spent on new infrastructure, such as underpasses and bridges. Senator Obama and others want to foot the bill.

With a potential president as an opponent, the residents of Prince Rupert can be forgiven for thinking that their dream of rapidly enlarging their port – there are plans to quadruple the container port from the current 500,000 TEUs (those semi-truck sized containers atop freighters) to two million TEUs by 2012 – might be in jeopardy. But they need not worry. It’s a safe bet that even Obama won’t be able to derail Canada’s newest addition to the Pacific Gateway.

The reason is that while the railway loop around Chicago may be controversial in the sleepy suburbs of Illinois, its construction is clearly in the United States’ economic and strategic interest. If Obama is elected to the Oval Office in November, he will quickly realize that there is broad consensus amongst the U.S. political and business class that the rapid expansion of Canada’s tiny and still obscure container port is important. The backyard political interests of the Senator in Chicago will be trumped. There’s bigger stakes here.

Prince Rupert’s container facility opened for operation just before midnight on Oct. 31, 2007, when the MV CoscoAntwerp sailed in from Yokohama, Japan. It wasn’t a moment that got a lot of attention. But it was a historic event.

The $170-million Prince Rupert Container facility, with its single berth, represents the first Trans-Pacific transportation corridor built in a century. It is also a new and modern model that will quickly make it a favoured Pacific port. Here’s three reasons why:

– Time. In the world of global trade, where companies like “just-on-time” delivery, B.C.’s new container port wins, hands down. A container leaving on a ship from Yokohama will arrive in Prince Rupert three days earlier than if it headed to Long Beach, Calif. In the world of $130-a-barrel oil, those three days also translate into a major energy savings and less of a carbon footprint. (1,800 metric tonnes less of CO2 per year, per ship.)

– Efficiency. Prince Rupert’s container facility is a new model for how a port operates. Since it was built from scratch in a relatively unpopulated area, there are no trucks that are needed to transport unloaded containers to a distant rail terminal. The rail cars can park right on the dock’s edge. A ship is unloaded – or loaded – within 24 hours. And the containers don’t sit there for long. The “dwell time” of a container in the new port is about two days. In older, more conventional ports, dwell time can be three days or even much more.

– Security. The Prince Rupert container facility was built post-9/11, with anti-terrorism in mind. That means every single container coming into Prince Rupert is scanned for radiological leaks that may indicate a dirty bomb or worse.

That makes it quite possibly the most secure port on the continent. And it makes the people at the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security very happy. As a result, the CN trains that pick up containers and head to Chicago and Memphis don’t need to stop at the U.S.-Canada border. The train merely slows down, and 100 per cent of containers are X-rayed for contraband at the border crossing. The train travels to Chicago in about 90 to 100 hours.

All three of those elements – times savings, efficiency and security – mean we’ve created a remarkable trade artery between Asia and the U.S. industrial heartland. When a Yokohama container is put on the Prince Rupert route, for example, it will be in Chicago in about 12 days. A container that took the California route from Yokohama would at best just be leaving the port at Long Beach when the Prince Rupert container is already delivered.

So far, Prince Rupert’s new port facility isn’t running even close to its capacity. In its first four months, since November, it handled about 40,000 TEUs, well below the 160,000 capacity at full operation. That 80-per-cent shortfall was not unexpected, however. It’s partially because the facility is a start-up, so shipping companies want to make sure it works as billed. Container traffic has also slowed worldwide because of a downturn in the global economy, the U.S. sub-prime meltdown that has hit the U.S. economy, and the spike in fuel costs. Shippers think twice before running a half-empty container ship across the Pacific.

But short of the unlikely scenario of a collapse in the Asian economy, the future of Canada’s newest container port – and the City of Prince Rupert – seems assured. With a container port this efficient, and with global trade routes more important then ever, even a President Obama can’t kill the dream.

Charles Hays would be happy. He’s the railroad man and visionary who had the original idea. A century ago, he was the first to realize that Prince Rupert was days closer to Asia than the established West Coast ports. He even built the Grand Trunk Railway, laying the rail route now used by CN.

But Hays never saw his dream come to pass because of a fatal choice in 1912. He was returning from London with the financing to complete the final 200 kilometres of track to the port of Prince Rupert. But he never made it back. He boarded the RMS Titanic.

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