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Trucking’s challenges fuel short sea shipping growth

DELTA, B.C. - Vancouver Island is one of the fastest growing regions in Canada, but serving the island by truck is no easy task. Because there's no bridge linking the island with the Lower Mainland, t...


SETTING SAIL: Two Seaspan Coastal Intermodal vessels set sail for Vancouver Island. The company says fuel prices and driver shortages make short sea shipping an ideal alternative.

SETTING SAIL: Two Seaspan Coastal Intermodal vessels set sail for Vancouver Island. The company says fuel prices and driver shortages make short sea shipping an ideal alternative.


DELTA, B.C. – Vancouver Island is one of the fastest growing regions in Canada, but serving the island by truck is no easy task. Because there’s no bridge linking the island with the Lower Mainland, transportation providers must rely on B.C. Ferries or short sea shipping companies to move their freight across the Strait of Georgia.

With a driver shortage and escalating fuel costs impacting the trucking industry, it’s not surprising many carriers are opting for the short sea shipping route. Adrian Samuel, sales and marketing manager with Seaspan Coastal Intermodal (SCI) says business has been brisk as trucking companies have turned to short sea shipping to help better utilize their assets. Still, he says many trucking companies are unfamiliar with short sea shipping and there are several myths he’d like to dispel.

Short sea shipping to Vancouver Island is appealing to carriers that don’t want to tie up a driver and tractor for the six-hour round trip. SCI offers a scheduled, drop-trailer service allowing fleets to free up their tractors and drivers for other deliveries.

“A round trip with B.C. Ferries is about six hours, so most importantly you’re not paying a driver to sit there for that time,” explains Samuel.

Usually, the larger trucking companies will have their own tractors and drivers awaiting the load on the island, but in some cases Samuel says fleets will farm out the pickup and delivery on the island. Because SCI doesn’t transport passengers, its vessels can carry dangerous goods unlike B.C. Ferries which is limited as to what it can allow on-board.

“If it’s on rubber tires, it can go on our service,” explains Samuel. “We’re the only way of getting certain types of dangerous goods back and forth to Vancouver Island.”

Another reason why more trucking companies are opting to short sea ship their trailers to the island is that SCI boasts a very flow-through operation. Samuel says delays are rare, and truckers don’t have to compete for space with passenger vehicles during peak travel seasons. The company also does most of its deliveries at nighttime, which is preferred by most LTL trucking companies and distribution companies on the island. But despite the benefits of short sea shipping to Vancouver Island, Samuel says the trucking industry doesn’t have a good understanding of the concept.

He says the further east you travel from the Lower Mainland, the less trucking companies know about short sea shipping and the services that are available.

“Marine is the most efficient way to move goods of all modes, so the larger the marine component you have, the more efficiency you can realize,” Samuel insists.

As the Port of Vancouver sees its container traffic skyrocket (container traffic on the West Coast is projected to triple over the next 20 years), Samuel says short sea shipping will play an important role in addressing capacity issues.

“There’s no way there’s going to be enough drivers to manage that growth, so there will be a look to short sea shipping to help alleviate that shortage,” he says.

Currently, SCI moves about 600 trailers per day between its Delta terminal and its two Vancouver Island-based terminals. Its fleet consists of four self-propelled ferries that can transport 38 trailers each as well as two articulating tug and barge units capable of carrying 50 trailers each. A typical crossing takes three and a half hours so a round-trip frees up a trucking company’s tractor and driver for about seven hours. Samuel also points out SCI is further inland than B.C. Ferries so an extra 40 minutes of driving time is shaved off a round trip, saving the carrier fuel and driving time.

But despite the benefits and the rosy outlook for short sea shipping, Samuel says there are still many misperceptions about the industry – the biggest one being that marine shipments are unreliable.

“Trucking can be on-demand but traditionally there’s a connotation that tug and barge can be slow,” he admits. “There needs to be a change in mentality from Just-in-Time to Just-on-Time.”

He says SCI nearly always departs and arrives within five minutes of its scheduled time.

“Coastal waters are relatively sheltered so we can adhere to our schedule relatively well,” he says.

Then there are concerns about the additional handling of the trailers and the loss of control some trucking companies feel when their driver drops the trailer off at the terminal.

Samuel says SCI is working to improve tracking capabilities so customers can have the peace of mind of knowing where their trailers are at all times. It has also reduced the amount of handling that occurs at the terminals so the drayage is kept to a minimum, he adds.

While SCI has thus far focused exclusively on its two lanes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, Samuel is confident more opportunities will arise for short sea shipping in the near future.

For instance if border congestion continues to worsen and fuel costs rise, it may become more feasible to ship trailers to ports in Seattle and Los Angeles. He admits, however, the demand for those services isn’t yet there.

“If you were just to take it as a financial cost perspective, short sea shipping may look more expensive than other alternatives,” he admits. “But when you start factoring in the reduced need for infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and you can assign some value to that, short sea shipping becomes very attractive.”


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