'Massive congestion' at the Saint John port has resulted in shipping delays

David Roberts in his windowless home in British Columbia. The missing windows were sitting in a shipping container on the docks in Saint John for more than six weeks.  (Submitted by David Roberts - image credit)
David Roberts in his windowless home in British Columbia. The missing windows were sitting in a shipping container on the docks in Saint John for more than six weeks. (Submitted by David Roberts - image credit)

David Roberts couldn't exactly say his shipping container was lost in transit.

After all, he knew precisely where it was for more than six weeks — sitting idle on Saint John's waterfront.

Inside that shipping container are windows for his new home that's now well under construction. Roberts was able to trace the container's precise location since it left the European manufacturer, but the travel log came to an abrupt halt in Saint John in September.

"They're kind of just stuck there," Roberts said earlier this week.

It all started with a plan to build a super-efficient home in Pemberton, about two hours north of Vancouver.

Roberts, who recently retired from the software industry, said he felt it important to try to set an example for how homes can be built.

Submitted by David Roberts
Submitted by David Roberts

"It's one of these homes where it actually generates as much energy as it uses, and so hopefully it will inspire other people to do the same."

But in order to maintain the high efficiency of the building, it required special windows that he couldn't get in North America. He ordered about $150,000 worth of windows from an Austrian company and arranged to have them shipped inside a 40-foot container from the port of Hamburg to Saint John.

From Saint John, the container was to have been loaded onto a "well car" and transported by train to Vancouver. That cross-country trip, said Roberts, normally takes about six days.

The first part of the journey went as planned, with the container arriving at the port of Saint John on Sept. 25 and unloaded from the ship the next day.

And that's where it remained.

Meanwhile, snow has fallen in Pemberton and, without windows to seal the house from the elements and potential thieves, work cannot continue inside.

'Massive congestion' in Saint John

Roberts spent weeks trying to track down the issue. He contacted the international shipping company that he hired to get the windows from the manufacturer to the site of his $5-million home.

From everything he's learned, Roberts said "there seems to be apparently massive congestion at the container terminal, and what seems to be happening is that new containers are getting offloaded and put onto rail wagons, and the old containers are just sitting there. So it's almost as if they've been abandoned."

According to an email chain from Roberts, the Swiss shipping company contacted their "local partner" and Hapag-Lloyd, the container company.

An official with Hapag-Lloyd in Montreal said the "container in question is not abandoned, as we are very much aware of this container since there are 21 other containers sharing the same date of discharge as your shipment which also have yet to load to rail."

She said there are another 138 containers that have been there even longer than Roberts' container.

Port Saint John
Port Saint John

"I understand that this is far from reassuring, but the information I'm providing today is to hopefully shed some light that this is a much larger operational issue than this one container dwelling at the port for an extended period of time," she wrote.

She said recently arrived containers are often loaded to rail ahead of the ones that have been there longer in order to "ease the congestion at the terminal."

She also said "upper management is very much aware of the prolonged dwell time in Saint John and working with the port and rail terminals to see what improvements can be made to help ease our customers' frustrations."

Movement at last

Earlier this week, CBC reached out to all of the companies involved in the shipping chain, from Vancouver to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Late Thursday, the Canadian headquarters for DP World responded by email, saying Roberts' container had been shipped out of Saint John by rail earlier in the day "and is now on route to its final destination."

"We apologize for the inconvenience experienced by this customer for the longer than normal dwell times," wrote Angela Kirkham, the company's director of communications.

She said delays have been caused by a "significant increase in container volumes in Saint John," and the company has taken a number of steps to try to alleviate the backlog.

"DP World Saint John has implemented a recovery plan together with our supply chain partners to address the container volumes — which has reduced dwell times to just over two weeks. We expect operations to normalize by the first week of December," said Kirkham.

DP World is a multinational company based in Dubai, whose operations include 78 ports in 40 countries, including in Saint John, according to its website.

'Critical capacity'

Hapag-Lloyd is a German international shipping and container transportation company. On Monday, the company said DP World in Saint John is "currently operating at critical capacity."

It said several changes have been made to improve operations and layovers, known in the business as dwell time, including "improved track capacity."

The report from Hapag-Lloyd said CP Rail committed to provide DPW "with 8,000 feet of railcars daily and car storage capabilities at Moosehead rail siding in Maine, USA."


The company has also diverted one 216-metre container ship from Saint John to Montreal to help ease the congestion.

The Valencia Express, which left a Belgian port on Nov. 4, is currently in the Atlantic and expected to arrive in Montreal on Nov. 14.

As for Roberts, he's just relieved that his windows are on the way.

"My builder and the shipping agent and I, we're all really surprised that it was so difficult to get a container out of the Saint John port."