Vancouver Fraser Port Authority investment in shipment visibility paying off

Although rail can be a blind spot for many ports, a partnership between the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and the primary railroads that serve it is generating more reliable data for use in forecasting demand.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s work to achieve greater multimodal shipment visibility also could become a model for other gateways.

“The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has made good progress, together with Railinc, by investing more heavily in information and analytics. The port authority’s effort has drawn interest from other ports and could become a national model. Already, the initiative has been rebranded the Canadian West Coast Visibility Project,” said Bill Fahrenwald, executive director of James Street Associates, which has produced a case study on the port authority’s multimodal data-sharing and analytics efforts.    

According to the newly released case study, the initiative by Canada’s largest port was designed to help shippers get their products to market more effectively. “The fast-growing port is also gaining an important edge in the highly competitive market for new business,” it said. 

The British Columbia port handled 144 million metric tons of cargo in 2019 and forecasts an additional 35 million tons over the next four years. It is operated by a federal agency, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

“International trade is a key driver of the Canadian economy. In order to remain competitive and deliver efficient, reliable service, the port had to find a way to increase its capacity and reduce shipment delays without requiring expensive new infrastructure,” the case study said. “Nearly 60% of shippers use delivery reliability as the primary factor in deciding which port they will use, according to a WESTAC [Western Transportation Advisory Council] report.” 

James Street Associates’ report said the Port of Vancouver “found its answer in data and is now investing more heavily in information and analytics.”

The port authority began by optimizing the flow of trucks, according to the case study. “It equipped all port-licensed trucks with GPS systems to more accurately capture their turn-and-wait times at container-handling facilities. But it wasn’t just about collecting data. The effort was also about making the data available so that all participants could improve their role in the supply chain. Truck drivers, for instance, can now see in real time which railroad crossings are occupied by trains so they can avoid delays.”

Standardizing and incorporating rail data

While this first effort produced beneficial results, the port authority understood that incorporating rail and terminal data would help it deliver a substantially larger impact, James Street Associates said.

“More than 90% of the port’s cargo touches rail — and often rail is a blind spot for ports in general,” the report said. “Once a shipment is loaded onto railcars, it can lose visibility until it arrives at its destination. But through a partnership with the two primary railroads that serve the port, it now has a tool that’s unique in the industry.”

A dashboard launched in July 2018 features 33 measures tracked in nearly real time. Daily updates show the number of railcars on their way to Vancouver for unloading; the time cars spend at terminals; the average time it takes to unload them and release them to railroads; and a comparison on the number of empty versus loaded cars in the greater Vancouver area. 

Putting data to work

James Street Associates’ report said the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority also can measure how efficiently cargo moves through the gateway. The gateway cycle time measures the amount of time it takes for cargo to travel round trip from a marshaling area well outside of Vancouver to the port for processing. 

“It’s not just about demonstrating performance, however,” the report said. “The initiative also was undertaken to collect data that helps all participants in the supply chain anticipate issues and improve response. Near real-time data gives port and logistics operators leading indicators they can use to get ahead of potential service issues. 

“To attain these goals, the dashboard is available to all industry participants who need a consolidated view of their supply chain network through the Port of Vancouver. This allows them to assess the fluidity of their operations there,” it said. 

The port authority intends to use the data to improve its planning, according to the case study. “Previously, planning was done assuming best-case scenarios, but optimal conditions do not always exist. Knowing how various factors affect operations and being able to measure the magnitude of their impacts help the port, railroads and terminal operators plan and prioritize improvements,” it said.  

Multimodal dashboard creates buy-in

Terminal operators and many shippers have joined the effort to make the dashboard multimodal. The case study found protection of confidential competitive data was paramount. 

“Stakeholders can access the dashboard only by providing the needed data to support the dashboard reporting, and the indicators are presented only in aggregate form,” it said. “A railroad can’t even draw out its own data since simple math would reveal its competitor’s figures.”

While the port authority serves as the system coordinator, it does not dictate how operations are run, James Street Associates said. “The dashboard gives participants information to help them improve their piece of the overall puzzle.”

Ensuring data tells the truth

The case study said the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority looked to Railinc, which provides data and messaging services to the rail industry, when creating the dashboard.  

“Railinc provided guidance on how to identify, format, ingest and process large amounts of data. It also made it easier for the railroads to participate by allowing them to share their data without requiring time-consuming or expensive formatting efforts,” the report said. 

“The quality of any insights, however, is closely tied to the quality of the data itself. Much of the rail data comes from trackside readers that record when railcars equipped with special tags pass by. In the process of setting up the data collection, Railinc checked reported locations against a map and found that some readers weren’t where they were reported to be. In some cases, the positions were off by 10 miles or more, the result of the readers being moved after their initial installation. Correct and standardized location information allows the port and the railroads to better track the shipments,” it said. 

Vancouver leads the way

James Street Associates noted that the Prince Rupert Port Authority has taken the first steps to create its own dashboard modeled after the work in Vancouver.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority also has received CA$6.5 million from Transport Canada to expand the platform to monitor all cargo. The report said those funds have been matched by the port, bringing the total investment to CA$13 million.

The port authority is working to expand its dashboard. The first version tracks only grain, coal and fertilizer shipments, the case study said, but the port authority is planning to add containers, forest products, vehicles and specialty crops as it works toward monitoring all cargo that moves through the gateway.

“Longer term, the port authority is exploring the addition of predictive analytics, machine learning and AI, all of which would assist industry stakeholders move cargo through the port more efficiently,” the report said. 

“Over time, these advancements in data, visibility and analytics across all modes will help drive more sophisticated optimization tools and processes, yielding greater throughput and enhanced fluidity throughout the port and for each of the stakeholder’s operations.”