“We pulled something off that is benefitting customers, commuters and our operations as well. Now we can actually get some track time to do work without impacting service. That’s how well things are working.”
In Q4 2016, when operations were threatened along the South Shore Corridor in Vancouver, Operations and Engineering Services collaborated to streamline operations, increase capacity and improve service for all stakeholders.
Trouble was brewing at the south shore Port of Vancouver. The combination of a late grain harvest, with a surge in intermodal traffic due to a temporary reduction in capacity at Deltaport—the largest container terminal at the Port of Vancouver—and normal daily commuter traffic in and out of the Vancouver City Centre, led to a period of congestion. In short, customers were not getting timely service and commuters were arriving at their destinations late.
“We had a breakdown of core terminal processes, which at the time were neither fully established nor followed,” said Robert Johnson, Executive Vice-President, Operations. “We didn’t know how bad things were until increased volume exploited our deficiencies. The volume upswing coupled with a lack of process was a perfect storm.”
With customer concerns increasing, a team of CP executives, including Johnson and Mark Redd, Senior Vice-President, Operations, Western Region, stepped in, made significant personnel changes and assembled a team to devise a solution that would effectively serve the interests of those with a stake in safe, effective rail service in the region.
Flipping the switch
At the time, CP was not only handling its own traffic but providing switching services for Canadian National (CN) under a longstanding co-production agreement. After a call between Johnson and President and CEO Keith Creel, Mr. Creel decided to amend the co-production agreement to no longer provide switching services for CN. This quickly decreased the overall volume of traffic to the south shore and increased capacity for our own customers.
“We were acting as an agent for CN to do their switching at the intermodal facility,” said Redd. “This means we brought all cars from the south shore to Coquitlam for them; we’re talking about 120,000 feet of traffic in and out every day.”
Redd, along with Greg Squires, General Manager, Operations, Pacific Division and Corey Wolak, General Superintendent, Operations, sat down to further streamline operations at the port, plotting their vision on a napkin.
”We drew up what the track configuration should look like, then redefined what the switch and leads looked like,“ said Redd. ”That opened up more capacity for Viterra’s Cascadia facility. This realignment morphed from napkin to map. We worked off this map to show what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.“
Johnson was shown the map on December 29 and after further debate regarding the addition and removal of switches, engaged Justin Meyer, Vice-President, Engineering and his team to help make the map a reality.
Within hours of seeing the vision of the Operations team, Meyer along with Howie Soliman, Assistant Chief Engineer, B.C. and Robert North, Director, Track and Structures, Vancouver began bringing that vision to life.
'Tis the season to overhaul track configuration
So, while most of us were enjoying the holidays, spending time with loved ones, hitting the mall to take advantage of Boxing Day savings or planning our New Year’s festivities, engineering crews led by Soliman and North worked around the clock to overhaul Williston Yard along the south shore to improve service for our customers.
“We had a short window of opportunity,” said North. “The port shuts down for three days, from December 31 to January 2. We knew this was our best shot to make necessary changes to Williston Yard to improve the productivity of switching operations for our customers.”
These modifications would amount to complete track reconfiguration at Williston Yard, also referred to as L Yard—a satellite yard at the Port of Vancouver that services CP customers along the south shore. The extensive track work involved the installation of 10 turnouts (including three crossovers), the removal of 11 turnouts and the installation of more than 1,000 feet of new track.
Breaking it down, building it up
Before any of the work could begin, Soliman and North had to source the essential materials in less than a week. Just before Christmas, they set out to get the turnouts from Coquitlam Yard, 20 miles east of Vancouver.
“We had to remove two turnouts from Coquitlam and transport them to Vancouver in preparation for this project,” said Soliman. “At the time, we didn’t know the full scope of the project but knew we would’ve had to put in at least one set of crossovers. We secured that first set of crossovers by Boxing Day.”
Turnouts enable trains to be guided from one track to another. Each turnout has two switch points that can be lined back and forth to determine which route the train takes. A crossover is a set of turnouts that connects two parallel tracks so trains can transfer from one track to another.
Removal and installation of turnouts is no easy feat. Each turnout is about 200 to 300 feet in length and normally takes about six hours to install on the main line. Since time was a luxury we did not have, multiple crews worked 24/7 at different locations to complete the work. While one crew was removing a turnout, another was installing one and while track was being removed, surveyors forged ahead to determine exactly how the next turnout would be engineered for the curvature of the track. The frantic pace meant a lot of decisions had to be made on the fly.
“We had a plan on paper, a general idea of what we wanted to do. But paper doesn’t always translate to the real world,” said Soliman. “Justin Meyer, Robert North and I had to look at every turnout and determine where each one was going to be.”
Once locations were determined, they were marked and the excavation began immediately. Precision was key; there was no time to rethink a decision—within 10 to 15 minutes someone would already have track cut out to be removed. Despite the fast pace, Soliman was impressed with the seamless work.
“I’m proud of how we came together for a project of this magnitude,” said Soliman. “Working in Engineering on a project of this size, within that time frame, is not something you’d normally be involved in. It was amazing to see it all come together.”
North echoes that sentiment, citing the folks on the ground as the real heroes.
“A lot of the unionized employees normally have those statutory days off,” he said. “They came in on their holiday days, sacrificed time with their families, worked through snow and rain to help complete the project. And on top of that, they completed the work safely.”
With construction complete, everyone stood back on the last day and watched with satisfaction as trains rolled by to service customers. The L Yard had been streamlined and the overall efficiency of operations improved.
“Seeing the switching going on, knowing our customers are all being serviced on time, one can’t help but feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment,” said Soliman. “We pulled something off that is benefitting customers, commuters and our operations as well. Now we can actually get some track time to do work without impacting service. That’s how well things are working.”
Solidifying our customer relationships
During his 36 years in the industry, Johnson hadn’t experienced anything quite like what the Engineering team accomplished.
“It’s simply amazing what can be achieved when we are all aligned and work for a common outcome,” said Johnson. “Justin, Greg, Corey, Howie, Robert and many engineering professionals put forth extraordinary efforts to complete so much within a short time frame—it was like winning the Super Bowl of railroading.”
Just one month after track modifications were complete, CP’s switching service performance hit 100 percent, prompting praise from several customers along the south shore.
“Over the past two months, we have seen exceptional changes to the level of service and that, combined with considerable cooperation between the terminals and CP has helped us achieve or exceed our targets on a weekly basis,” said Dave Kushnier, CEO, Alliance Grain Terminal.
“Since January, service from CP has improved immensely,” said Rob Jones, Director of Sales, West Coast Reduction (WCR). “The investments made along the South Shore Corridor in Vancouver have allowed WCR to have timely switches, plus second switches when required. Keep up the good work and we look forward to increasing our volumes.”
By putting some actions in place quickly, streamlining switching operations and increasing capacity, CP has been able to focus on its customers. With the L Yard almost unrecognizable and CN managing their own traffic, we’ve created the capacity to handle increased volume if and when our customers need it.
“I can’t say enough about the transition Vancouver has made,” said Johnson. “We are now able to provide the quality service our customers expect and deserve.”