Originally published in the Vancouver Sun.
A Canadian National train carrying grain snakes its way along the Thompson River near Ashcroft, its cars stretching for miles through the low-rolling hills.
One day that train could potentially stop right there and unload, smack in the middle of Bob Landucci’s 130-hectare sage-cleared site in B.C.’s Interior. Indeed, that’s his intention once he gets the facility, dubbed the Ashcroft Terminal, running with everything from fleet management to transmodal and bulk transloading services.
“When we start doing business we can transload that into cars and they can take it back into the Prairies,” said Landucci, CEO of the terminal. “The traffic goes through here whether it’s coal, potash or grain.”
The terminal, which received its first containers from Hapag-Lloyd this week, has been in the making for more than a decade. Funded primarily by the Landucci family, with a $3.57-million grant from the federal government, the terminal is expected to offer an inland port for some of the 60 freight trains, including every car heading to and from Metro Vancouver, that now pass through the site each day.
The idea, he hopes, is to have some of those trains stop in Ashcroft and unload, which would limit the maze of rail rerouting that’s done now across B.C., cut the truck traffic congestion in the Lower Mainland, and provide for a faster turnaround for the railroad. Every exported container in the Lower Mainland now requires two to three truck transfers.
Lumber from the West Fraser mill in 100 Mile House, for instance, could be trucked to Ashcroft, loaded on rail and taken directly to a terminal to be shipped overseas. Right now it’s hauled by rail to Metro, trucked to lumber storage and eventually hauled to a terminal, which takes two to four trips.
“They could come in here, unload it and go back to the mill rather than trucking it to the Lower Mainland where it sits in storage until it can be loaded on an empty container,” Landucci said. “A train can stop, store and stage production here to hit the docks hot. If you want to take the pressure off the Lower Mainland, do the work outside so the people on the dock can do more work on the dock.”
Such a move has been championed by Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, who says an inland port could play a significant role in relieving truck traffic congestion and land development pressures from Deltaport and the Roberts Bank Terminal 2.
A study commissioned by Delta found that if one truck out of 28 is replaced by rail by 2031, there would be 360 fewer one-way truck trips per day to and from Deltaport and Roberts Bank Terminal 2. This represents a five-per-cent decrease in truck traffic and equates to 12 million fewer truck kilometres driven annually.
The study assumes that the majority of cargo would bypass the inland port for continued transloading in the Lower Mainland since the inland terminal would only take a small percentage of the projected growth to 2031. But not only would it take some empty trucks off the road, Jackson said, it would reduce the need for Port Metro Vancouver to turn agricultural lands into industrial for port uses.
Delta maintains there has been a huge boost in speculation in agricultural land near Deltaport, with developers holding options to buy certain sections of land if it can be taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve.
“We don’t want the expansion of the port into our agricultural lands. That’s the bottom line,” Jackson said. “Move everything out in the country where land is cheaper.”
The Ashcroft terminal is seen as an ideal location because it’s already zoned industrial and is at the nexus of where both the CN and Canadian Pacific railways cross paths before branching off on their respective tracks on either side of the river. This means Ashcroft is the last location westbound and the first eastbound at which mainline traffic can stop on the way to or from Metro Vancouver.
Landucci, who has built a rail spur line off the mainline, plans to add a twinned 3.5-kilometre loop track on the site to allow trains to pull off and unload while keeping the mainline clear. One of the tracks already built at the new terminal, he said, has been named “Lois Lane” in deference to the Delta mayor who has been supporting the project since 2008.
“Isn’t that incredible?” Jackson said. “We’ve worked so hard on this project and it’s finally starting to come together.”
Landucci and his daughter Kleo Landucci, vice-president of projects and development, maintains the terminal would only be able to serve a portion of the freight trains that come through — and only if it makes sense to the producers to use it. The plan is to start with lumber and move to agricultural products.
“If it’s more viable or cost-effective for them to do it another way, that’s the way they should be doing it,” Landucci said.
Kleo noted the terminal is big enough — significantly larger than Deltaport — that it could be used for storage, including products that are waiting to be shipped to Fort McMurray for LNG projects. It is already storing red shale from a local mine that’s used in manufacturing cement products, as well as lumber from an area north of Prince George, grain and hydrochloric acid. The terminal acts like a port, in which clients bring their own staff, containers and trucks to the site.
“All we’re doing is providing the space for them,” Landucci said. “Our job is to build more and more facilities that are efficient for the railroad. I can tell you, the demand is unbelievable, but we have to build more infrastructure. We just keep building track to meet demand and we’re way behind.”
Kleo noted the terminal also has an agricultural buffer, with its nearest resident 1.7 kilometres away.
Besides Delta, Richmond and Port Alberni have shown interest in the new terminal. Jackson maintains Metro Vancouver should also get involved. A report commissioned by Metro, however, suggests the viability of new inland terminals in the context of goods movement in the region remains ambiguous as it introduces “an additional handling step in the goods movement chain that may add time and cost to the supply chain.”
Jackson, whose staff visited Rotterdam’s inland port, said she was suspicious of the report, which was done by consultants who didn’t bother to talk to either Delta or the Landuccis.
“I’m a little bit concerned, with due respect to our staff, that we don’t have the whole story,” she said at the last board meeting. “We’ve had people from Europe and Winnipeg come speak to us. This is a huge topic and I think we need to get more involved.”
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves agreed, saying his city gave Port Metro — when it was then called the Fraser River Port Authority — hundreds of acres of industrial land with the understanding they would be using short-sea shipping, which involves inland ports, but this isn’t being done.
Peter Xotta, vice-president of planning and operations with Port Metro Vancouver, said the port is interested in any opportunities to improve efficiencies in the gateway, but stopped short of endorsing the terminal, saying it’s up to producers to decide how they want to ship and transload their goods.
He noted the advantage of transloading some of those goods in Vancouver is that the containers remain here. However, he said the Ashcroft terminal could be seen as a good bet for mining and forestry companies who tend to carry their wares by truck to the Lower Mainland. “That’s largely where the Ashcroft folks have had success so far,” he said. “What’s most effective from a service and cost perspective is what’s going to drive any inland port.”