Annus horribilis

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by Emily Atkins

Just when we thought the wave of bad news for supply chains around the globe was finally breaking, torrential rains brought Western Canada’s transportation links to a standstill.

Emily Atkins is the editor of Inside Logistics

On November 14 and 15, 300mm of rain fell on southern parts of British Columbia, leaving a trail of devastation. Towns were left completely under water and highways submerged as rivers overflowed their banks. Mountainsides came crashing down, trapping hundreds of motorists, and bridges and rail lines washed out.

The havoc not only destroyed homes, cars and livelihoods – and tragically resulted in a least one death – but also cut off the Lower Mainland from the rest of the country. All the major arterial roads that wind through the mountains eastward from Vancouver were closed. CN reported that a washout had caused a partial derailment of a train on its tracks, and CP also reported a track outage.

As I write this, the situation is still unfolding, with transportation managers scrambling to find alternate routing for their cargo. CP reported it was trying to reroute product through the U.S., while shippers with containers coming in through the Port of Vancouver bleakly forecast that it was going to take at least two weeks before shipments started to move again.

This year has proved to be truly extraordinary in the challenges it has presented for global commerce. As if the Covid-19 pandemic alone weren’t enough, the closures and shutdowns it caused started a cascade of supply chain disruptions that were exacerbated by accidents like the Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal, alongside natural disasters like B.C.’s floods and wildfires, and smaller mishaps like the Zim Kingston losing containers overboard off Victoria.

The question is how and when will things resolve. Or will they? When dire situations cause supply chain breakdowns, corporations and small enterprises alike start to talk about changing the way they do business.

Nearshoring starts to look better and better. But in this world of instant gratification, free shipping and carefree returns, will consumers be willing to spend the extra it will cost to pay for items manufactured on home soil (or at least nearby)? There will be a trade-off.

Will people be willing to wait for the cheaper overseas-manufactured item, or will they pay for the privilege of having the more expensive option delivered tomorrow? Their preferences will be what dictates the shape of supply chains in the future.