Ins and outs of a new deep-water port.

🕔Nov 19, 2007

It’s all riding on the rails. After more than 100 years, a long-held dream is about to come true.
Back in 1906, Charles Hays, then president of the Grand Trunk Railway, touted Prince Rupert as the perfect port for a shortcut between Asia and Europe. His grand scheme involved connecting the rail line from Montreal—gateway to the Atlantic—to the Pacific Ocean. But Hays went down with the Titanic in 1912 and, although the railway was built, his larger dream sunk with him.
Flash forward to 2007, and a new era in transportation in the Northwest. The first container ship from China arrives at the new and improved Fairview terminal in Prince Rupert on October 31.
If all goes as planned, trains loaded in Prince Rupert will arrive in American hubs like Chicago and Memphis two days ahead of those passing through the congested container ports in southern California. Getting products to market faster may be a boon for manufacturers in Asia and retailers in American urban centres, but what will the new transportation corridor mean for Northern BC?
During Phase 1 of the new container terminal, 500,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units are projected to move each year. Barry Bartlett of the Port of Prince Rupert says this will mean one to two more trains each way, every day. But by 2010, when Phase 2 is up and running, the capacity at the port will quadruple, along with the train traffic. Out of all this, the port is predicting 1,000 new jobs per year in the region, many from niche export industries taking advantage of the new shipping route.
Along with the warehouse and container stuffing facilities at CN’s new Prince George Intermodal and Distribution Centre, BC’s north seems ready to jump into the game.
But what will we send?

Time to specialize
Northern British Columbia’s riches have traditionally come from resources, but many are saying it is time to move beyond a commodity-based economy. Rick Brouwer of Northwest Timberlands, a Terrace-based consulting firm, says northerners need to be flexible enough to start specializing.
“We have to do what we do best in every region,” he says.
Temperate coastal forests are one of his region’s biggest assets. “You can’t stop trees from growing here,” he says of the abundance. But traditionally, the forests between Terrace and Prince Rupert have been considered good for pulpwood and not much else.
Pulp is not generally considered a high-value forest product and markets are especially weak now, but he thinks the quality of the long-fiber hemlock available in northwestern BC could be seen as a strength and not a weakness.
“You have to think outside the box,” he says. Prince Rupert pulp was always considered high quality and, according to him, companies would mix pulp from the North Coast with other pulp to strengthen the fibre. He thinks there must be a higher-end product to use our hemlock for.
Brouwer has been looking into emerging industries like natural-fibre polymer composites. A growing worldwide interest in creating a more sustainable kind of composite—something that can be used in construction to replace things like fiberglass panels—is leading the way.
Brouwer is also excited about the possibility of biofuels—like turning hemlock fibre into ethanol. But the science is still in its infancy and he doesn’t know of any research being done on forests particular to the northwest.
“We need a Centre of Excellence to take a look at these things,” he says.
What the new port will mean for communities along the Highway 16 corridor depends largely on who takes what initiative, says Graham Kedgely, executive director of the Northwest Corridor Development Corporation.
His job has been to push the port idea for the last 10 years, so he’s had a lot of time to think about creative ideas. Take, for example, malting barley from the Peace River country. It’s some of the best in the world, he says, and right now it’s being shipped to distillers in Europe and Japan. With the beautiful water in the north, Kedgely says making whiskey is a real possibility.
Or leather products. Northern BC has its fair share of cattle, but no tannery. What about the aluminum ingots produced at Alcan in Kitimat? Why doesn’t someone produce something out of these—like pots and pans for example, he says.

Northern advantages
But part of the challenge of getting northerners involved in this transportation boon relates to one of the reasons Prince Rupert is considered an attractive place for a port in the first place.
The population in the area only adds up to not much more than 100,000 people, says Katherine Scouten, director of economic development for Initiatives Prince George.
Conventional wisdom in the container port world is to locate these large transportation links in urban centres where a ready market awaits the consumer products coming off the ships. But part of Prince Rupert’s competitive advantage is a lack of congestion; meaning containers and all the goodies they hold will make their way inland faster.
“It’s unique that so few people are driving this magnitude of an opportunity,” she says of changes along the Highway 16 corridor.
Every community has its own advantages, she says, but they tend to want to do it on their own. Her philosophy is that communities should be aggressive about developing their ambitions. “Then bring those to the party and make the pie bigger for everyone,” she says.
The region has many shared advantages. Land is cheaper for industry, and that’s an advantage in attracting the labour market too. “It’s a cheaper place to live than Vancouver,” she says. Businesses are also attracted to BC’s cheap and plentiful hydro power.
Increasing the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the North over the next few years is essential, she says. Piggybacking with other opportunities is also key. She says the BC-Canada Pavilion in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics will be there to help businesses connect. And the province recently announced an $11 million expansion of the Prince George Airport’s runway, adding new air cargo potential into the mix.
Wayne Ward of Northern Capital Wood Projects, a Prince George-based manufacturer of cabinets, wood signs and other specialty-milled products, says the new transportation corridor could be a double-edged sword. The corridor opens up a market from BC to Asia, but it also brings more goods from there to here, including wood products that northerners might specialize in such as flooring and doors.
He says some companies will get around this by shipping sanded but not finished wood products to China, where they can be finished and shipped back for less cost than finishing them here. But this isn’t perfect, for several reasons. “China has quality-control issues,” he says. And it also takes jobs that could be handled here and moves them to Asia.
The upside of this equation is that quality products are part of Northern BC’s competitive edge. And with Asia’s growing middle class, quality products are in higher demand, he says.

On the other hand…
Smithers-based activist Dave Stevens has a different kind of quality concern.
“There will be an increase in diesel pollution—there’s no two ways about it,” he says, thinking of the trains that will pass through his community with increasing frequency.
Already plagued by winter inversions that trap high levels of particulates from wood smoke and vehicle exhaust in the Smithers airshed, Stevens worries about rail workers and nearby residents who will breathe the extra pollution.
“Pollution doesn’t stay where it’s made,” he says, noting that the rail line is situated right up against the mountain that towers over the town, helping to further trap the particulates.
Stevens predicts that California will lead the way for emissions standards in the US and, now that CN has bought an Illinois-based railway, he worries the company will move the older particulate-emitting locomotives to BC where standards are lower.
Increased train traffic brings other concerns. Like waiting at the region’s various train crossings for trains to pass that could be up to 12,000 feet long (that’s almost four kilometres), and safety concerns with more trains coming through our towns.
Rick Braam, regional project manager from the Ministry of Economic Development, says funding was just announced for two new overpasses in Terrace and Smithers, but that’s a tiny percentage of the crossings across the Northwest.
But all in all, he’s optimistic about the port and the other changes happening in the region. He points toward large projects like the Northwest Hydro Corridor, Nova Gold and the Alcan modernization as players in the coming boom.
He says CN is recruiting rail workers in Smithers, the Port will need workers in Prince Rupert, and there will likely be other container-related businesses springing up across the north, be it repair work or packaging.
“We were kind of quiet,” Braam says of the Northwest. But that may be about to change.