Ro-ro ships carry trucks and other road vehicles across the Baltic Sea and also across Cook Strait, providing onboard overnight accommodations as well as food services. There may be scope to adapt that operational precedent to bypass roadway traffic congestion on the St Lawrence Seaway.
Many nations restrict the duration truck drivers may be in service before requiring compulsory resting periods. Drivers on overnight rest breaks may check into roadside motels or sleep aboard their trucks. It is possible for drivers’ compulsory resting time to begin when the truck arrives at a ro-ro ferry terminal, allowing overnight ro-ro ferries to serve as mobile motels for drivers while also carrying their trucks. By the time the ro-ro ferry arrives at its destination, truck drivers are well rested, have a meal and resume their on-road duties.
There are locations around the world where a navigable waterway runs parallel to major motorways that undergo severe traffic congestion problems. In Ontario, Canada, the main east - west highway that connects between Detroit MI and Montreal QUE passes through chronic traffic congestion that occurs at Toronto. There may be scope for overnight ro-ro ferry service to serve as mobile motels that carry trucks around that congestion.
The Upper St Lawrence
During winter, ferry services operate on a section of the Upper St Lawrence River while some winter shipping actually continues on the Upper Great Lakes. The Port of Montreal operates during the cold northern winter months, serving ocean traffic while the navigation locks between Montreal and Lake Ontario remain closed for the winter. Ferries also cross the Lower St River near and downriver of Montreal. Also during winter, ice booms are installed on the Upper St Lawrence River downstream the Port of Ogdensburg NY to assure smooth water flow into the international power dam.
The Port of Ogdensburg NY and Port of Hamilton ON are both located further south than the Port of Montreal, with an absence of navigation locks between them. Hamilton is location west of the chronic traffic congestion that occurs on main east-west highway while Ogdensburg is located well to the east of that chronic congestion. The competing east – west railway line and related intermodal railway/truck terminals in the Toronto and Montreal areas operate at or near capacity, with long delays to transfer trailers and containers. There may be a market niche for ro-ro ferries that bypass the traffic congestion.
St Lawrence Ro-Ro Ferry
Coordination between the truck transportation industry and the maritime sector could introduce ro-ro ferry services that operate between Hamilton ON and Ogdensburg NY. Canadian ‘cabotage’ regulations would actually make ferry service between these two ports more viable than between two Canadian ports. An international bridge and a short roadway connect Port of Ogdensburg to the main east-west highway that links Montreal and Detroit. Drivers would drive their trucks on the highways east of Ogdensburg and west of Hamilton. Innovative scheduling would require drivers to begin their compulsory rest time as they arrive at one of the ports.
The ro-ro ferry would be designed to carry trucks, provide onboard overnight motel/hotel accommodation and offer onboard restaurant services. Its bow and possibly its hull would require structural reinforcement to contend with winter ice that forms on Lake Ontario. While the ferry would carry trucks that are accompanied by drivers, services could also allow drivers to pull trailers to and from each terminal and for the purpose of exchanging outbound and inbound trailers.
Research by Professor Jerry Fruin from the University of Minnesota compared the transportation cost of containers aboard truck, railway and inland waterway. For loads in excess of 100 containers, maritime incurred much lower transportation costs per container than trains, while short trains carrying 25 containers incurred lower per container transportation cost than trucks. A Seaway-max ship could carry up to 1,200 40-foot containers and a ro-ro version could carry a few hundred truck-trailer combinations, with potential to build the ship to Upper Great Lakes dimensions to improve cost-competitiveness as a mobile truck stop.
Delays caused by congestion and mishaps along the main Detroit – Montreal highway raise the cost of truck transportation. A ro-ro vessel could sail between Hamilton and Ogdensburg on an overnight voyage. The drivers’ overnight compulsory rest period plus the distance sailed would put the freight about two to three hours ahead of a road schedule, upon arrival at the destination port. The overnight accommodation and restaurant costs would be little different to an overnight motel stay while the transportation cost carrying trucks between ports would be lower than the road journey.
There may be scope to assemble a large vessel on the Upper St Lawrence River or on inlet on Lake Ontario. Existing vessels such as tug-barges could carry pre-fabricated sections of a larger vessel either from shipyards located downriver of Montreal or on the Upper Great Lakes, to an assembly location. Using air chamber assistance, floating lower sections of a ship hull may be connected to each other to form a floating lower section of a ship measuring 105-foot beam. The floating section may be towed to deeper water where additional pre-fabricated sections would be added.
The ship may be built to the same length (740-foot) and draft (26-foot) as Seaway-max ships to access Lake Ontario Ports. Given that Lake Ontario wave conditions are much gentler than ocean waves, there may be scope to consider a Lake Ontario-max ship of 1,000-foot length. Initially, an older Seaway-max ship converted to ro-ro operation could sail the Hamilton – Ogdensburg service. It would require a reinforced bow to contend with winter lake ice conditions. Construction of a larger vessel would be contingent on market demand and feasible operation of the smaller ship.
There are many large cities where road traffic congestion approaches gridlock, where vehicles may move a few hundred vehicle lengths per hour. At some locations, intercity truck freight travels along motorways that pass through such cities and where railway transportation is unable to meet market demand. If the city is located along a coast with ports located on either side, perhaps an overnight voyage distance apart as is the case for Hamilton and Ogdensburg, then there may be a market for ro-ro ferry vessels to provide coastal transportation service carrying trucks along with their drivers.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.