Improved Prospects for Container Ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway

file photo
file photo

Published Oct 6, 2018 7:26 PM by Harry Valentine

The St. Lawrence Seaway was completed during the late 1950’s to allow the most popular size of ocean ships on that era to sail to the Great Lakes. Prior to that, a domestic inland ship transportation industry had developed over a period of decades on the Upper Great Lakes and involving mainly bulk carrier vessels. While a very small percentage of ship transport on the Great Lakes involves international ship transport, the operation of a comparatively small container ship between Antwerp and Cleveland provides a precedent for expanded container shipping along the St. Lawrence Seaway.


Container ship transportation began on the St. Lawrence Seaway during the 1960s, involving small vessels of 150 TEUs. At the time, there was a container terminal at the Port of Chicago that connected to the most heavily populated metropolitan area on the Great Lakes. During the 1970s and 1980s, progressively larger vessels carried containers along the Seaway until ships too large to transit the Seaway locks entered oceanic service. Larger container ships sailing the ocean resulted in expansion of maritime – railway terminals with trains carrying containers to inland destinations including cities on the Great lakes.

Between eight and 10 years prior to the development of plans to expand the Panama Canal, a pair of studies undertaken in the U.S. compared the cost of railway, maritime and truck based container transportation involving sailing across ocean as well as along inland waterways. For a load of 100 containers and 21 navigation locks, river barge transport was cost competitive with railway transport. Between the ports of Long Beach and Memphis, an extended length voyage carrying 5,000 containers via the Panama Canal involved significantly lower per container transportation cost than the overland journey involving double-stacked containers aboard extended length railway trains.

The Cleveland Precedent

The Cleveland precedent involves a small container ship of 1,000 TEUs carrying containers across the North Atlantic and through 15 navigation locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Erie. A small percentage of the market delays arrival of their containers in exchange for savings on the per container transportation cost as compared to the railway journey between Port of Newark and Cleveland. While Cleveland invested heavily in container port development to initiate the service, the economic performance of this service over the next 12 months will determine the future competitiveness of maritime container service to Ports of Chicago and Toronto.

On a larger scale, neo-Panamax container ships sailing from Asia to Port of Newark via the Panama Canal and involving a transit fee of $1 million per ship, would offer savings of $2,500 per container to customers willing to delay delivery of their containers by four days. The faster delivery would involve transferring containers to the railways at Port of Long Beach. For small container ships sailing from Europe to the Great lakes, the Cleveland precedent could be applied to the Greater Chicago Area with a population of 9.7 million and the Greater Toronto area with a population of 6.4 million.

Logistics Game Changers

The construction and recent opening of container transshipment terminals in the Western Mediterranean region for mega-size container ships represents logistical game changers for smaller container ships sailing across the North Atlantic. Container ships that arrive at Western Mediterranean ports carry trade from major Asian ports such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, are much larger than neo-Panamax ships that sail via the Panama Canal to East Coast American ports and involve lower per container transportation costs. Seaway-max container ships could carry interlined containers from Asian directly from Western Mediterranean to Great Lakes ports such as Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland.

While the Montreal – Toronto railway distance is shorter than the Newark – Cleveland railway distance, depth and height restrictions along the Lower St. Lawrence River limit the maximum size of container ship that can sail to Montreal to a third of the capacity of ships that sail to Newark. The voyage to Toronto involves passing through seven navigation locks compared to 15 locks for Cleveland and Chicago. One of the regular container ships that sails to Montreal is the 2200-TEU Maersk Pembroke series which is marginally bigger than Seaway-max size of ships of up to 1,500 TEUs.

International Connections

The sailing distance between the four ports district of Hong Kong – Shenzhen – Guangzhou - Canton and Gulf of St. Lawrence is shorter via the Suez Canal than via the Panama Canal and identical distance involving Port of Fuzhou. While Port of Shanghai involves slightly greater distance via the Suez Canal with a lower per container transit tariff than the Panama Canal, the mega ship offers lower per container transportation cost than a neo-Panamax ship. The combination of a mega-ship from Asia interlining with a North America bound Seaway-max ship at a Western Mediterranean port could offer competitive rates to the final destination.

Peak container delivery for the North American retail trade occurs between March and early December, when the Seaway is open for navigation. The railways would seek to negotiate to carry the equivalent of the winter minimum of container deliveries throughout the year, between a sea port and Great Lakes port city. Western Mediterranean ports offer customers at Great Lakes cities, through transshipment to Seaway-max ships, the option of competitive container transportation costs from such ports of origin such as Fuzhou, Canton, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shantou, Xiamen, Tai-Pei, Manilla, Djakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Colombo.

Seaway Market Niches

During an earlier era of Seaway and Great Lakes container ship transport, the container sector was without a clearly defined market niche. In the modern era of mega-size container ships sailing the ocean between super ports, some of which offer transshipment services, the combination of ship and railway transportation often involves significantly higher transportation rates in exchange for faster delivery. A market segment in the New York City area is willing to wait a few days for delivery, to save on transportation costs, hence the neo-Panamax container ships sailing via the Panama Canal. 

The metropolitan area populations of Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto are sufficiently large to provide a market segment interested in delaying delivery of containers from overseas origins, to save on transportation costs. Seaway-max ships sailing from Western Mediterranean transshipment terminals to Seaway ports will only cover a fraction of the total sailing distance from Asian ports of origin. The combination of mega-ship interlined with Seaway-max ship on the Asia – Seaway/Great Lakes service offers the possibility of lower overall transportation rates from Asia, compared to faster delivery involving Pacific ports and transcontinental railway journeys. 

Atlantic Neo-Panamax Transshipment

There is less sailing distance between Port of Fuzhou, China and Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Suez Canal than via the Panama Canal. Asian ports located west of Fuzhou that involve less sailing distance via Suez Canal include Xiamen, Canton, Macau, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Singapore and Colombo. Market demand would determine the feasibility of sailing neo-Panamax ships between these Asian ports and Quebec City future transshipment terminal. Neo-Panamax container ships sailing via Suez Canal to Port of Newark could call at Port of Halifax to transfer containers to smaller ships sailing to Boston and Seaway/Great Lakes ports.

While mega-size ships may carry Eastern Canadian bound containers from Asia to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports, ships of 4,000-TEU capacity could carry these containers to Montreal. If Port of Montreal were able to offer transshipment services between March and December of each year, Seaway-max ships could carry peak season interlined containers from Montreal to Great Lakes ports of Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto metropolitan areas where customers who delay arrival of their containers would save on container transportation costs. Railways would carry the winter volume of westbound late December to late March container traffic volume throughout the year.

Montreal Barge Transshipment

Container-on-barge operation along the St. Lawrence River would involve tug barges carrying 100 to 300 TEUs at lower cost than railway or truck transportation, sailing to smaller ports located upstream of Montreal. Several navigable tributaries flow into the St. Lawrence River and could transit barges carrying 24 containers at lower cost than truck transportation. If Port of Montreal were able to transfer containers between ocean container ships and inland waterway vessels that sail to upstream destinations along the Upper St Lawrence River and Ottawa River, customers at smaller cities would save on peak season container transportation costs.

Canadian Mega-Ship Terminal

Plans are underway at Sydney, Nova Scotia to develop a transshipment terminal for the largest container ships afloat that will carry containers from Asian ports, via the Suez Canal or via the Arctic route to the North American east coast. Plans call for smaller vessels to carry containers to several ports located along the Atlantic coast, St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. The expected twinning of the Suez Canal and expected extended Arctic shipping season could involve ships of 23,000 to 28,000-TEU sailing between Asia and east coast North America, offering very low per container transportation costs.

Interlining mega-ships with Seaway-max ships at Sydney would offer very competitive transportation costs of up to $2,000 per container to customers located in the greater metropolitan areas of Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto. Tugs pushing and navigating single barges and possibly towing a second barge would be able to sail across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to smaller ports located along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway into Lake Ontario. After entering the Lower St. Lawrence River, barges could be rearranged into a coupled train with tug at the stern.

Trump’s Trade Tariffs

Higher trade tariffs would increase the price of numerous consumer goods at American retail outlets and department stores. One method to remain cost competitive would be to seek to reduce per-container transportation from Asia. Delaying delivery of containers would result in container ships carrying an increased volume of containers to destinations where the combination of maritime and long-distance railway transportation carried the majority of containers. U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs could divert some of the container trade from the railways to the waterways that incur significantly lower per-container transportation costs, including to destinations such as Chicago and Cleveland metropolitan areas. 

One method of reducing per container transportation costs involves carrying the same or slightly less volume of trade aboard the largest ships available for the longest portion of the voyage, before using transshipment to transfer containers to a fleet of small vessels that short-sea sail to multiple final destinations. Unfortunately, the proposed transshipment terminal at Sydney in Nova Scotia is presently unavailable for service that could otherwise have sustained regional JIT distribution networks that would now process reduced trade. Neo-Panamax ships sailing via the Arctic to Newark could include partial offloading for transshipment at Halifax.

Vessel Technology

Size restrictions are in effect for vessels that sail the navigable waterway between Quebec City and the Great Lakes, the most stringent restrictions being in effect upstream of Montreal. While Panamax ships that sail to Montreal are built to a beam of 105 feet, the navigation channel can transit a vessel of 140 feet beam and carry 30 percent more containers. Removing the engine from the vessel and placing it in a floating towed power generator would increase payload, with azipod propulsion installed under the hull of the container vessel. The technical layout could allow for trans-North Atlantic sailing.

The towed power generator concept may be applied to a Seaway-max size of ship to increase payload and allow for trans-North Atlantic sailing. Semi-autonomous navigation combined with computer control could allow a single power generator to allow a three-unit train of two container vessels and power vessel to sail across ocean to/from Montreal, where the train would be disassembled. One Seaway size container vessel would sail to Toronto and the other to Chicago if Seaway navigation locks were lengthened to transit longer vessels. Larger vessels arriving at Montreal could interline through transshipment with smaller vessels sailing to upstream destinations.

Seaway Container Port

At the present time, Seaway-max size container ships sail to two ports located upstream of Montreal; Ogdensburg NY and Cleveland OH. The Port of Ogdensburg is located on the south side of the Upper St. Lawrence River, seven navigation locks upstream of Montreal and across a river bridge from Eastern Ontario that is home to several distribution warehouses that regularly receive containers from Asia. There is scope to connect Ogdensburg to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports and provide a competitive container delivery service to Eastern Ontario logistics warehouses, perhaps even to the new Amazon logistics hub at Ottawa.
Small Port Investment

Numerous small ports are located upstream of Montreal and with docks where small vessels carrying containers may be moored. At small river ports, modified versions of container lift trucks that operate at railway container terminals have been adapted to operate at river ports, using extendable booms to help lifting containers from and placing containers on barges moored at quayside. Standard designs of tugs and standard designs of barges are readily available and may be used to move containers at lower cost than competing truck transportation from Montreal, to several upstream ports. 

Investing in Large Inland Ports

There is the possibility of a unique market niche for Seaway-max size container ships sailing between Western Mediterranean port and Great Lakes ports located next to heavily populated metropolitan areas. That possibility will require making a case to invest in developing and further developing container terminals at Port of Chicago, Port of Toronto and possibly Port of Hamilton ON. Containers from Asia destined for both regions have traditionally been carried aboard trans-Pacific ships and transcontinental trains. Customers willing to postpone arrival of their containers would save on transportation costs courtesy of maritime container service into the Great Lakes.

Some 500,000 containers arrive annually from Asia in each of the Greater Chicago and Greater Toronto areas. Diverting 20,000 containers in each area from railway to all-maritime transportation could save over $1,000 per container, or $20 million annually to the business communities. The potential savings to these communities could entice investment in developing additional container terminals on the Great Lakes with Port of Cleveland setting the precedent for such possible investment. Such investment would depend on the long-term viability of the Antwerp – Cleveland container ship service, with the next 12 months of that service being especially crucial.


1. In the Greater New York City region, a percentage of customers are willing to delay arrival of containers by having ships carry containers from Asia to Newark, via the Panama Canal and bypassing the more expensive transcontinental railway journey. Customers located along the Seaway and Great Lakes may seek to do likewise, with sufficient number to sustain container ship traffic to some Great Lakes ports.

2. The opening of Western Mediterranean container transshipment ports provides opportunity, through ship-to-ship interlining, to offer competitive container transportation costs to Seaway and Great Lakes ports. This is achieved through bypassing more expensive transcontinental railway container transportation.

3. For transshipment in Eastern Canada, Halifax is presently the only port capable of transferring up to 5,000 containers from neo-Panamax ships of 13,000 TEUs sailing to Newark from Asia via the Suez Canal, to smaller ships sailing Boston and to Seaway and Great Lakes ports. Halifax would be especially competitive for transshipment involving container ships carrying India – North America trade.

4. The Europe – Cleveland container ship service serves a regional metropolitan population of 2.7 million around Cleveland. Larger regional populations of 6.4 million around Toronto and 9.7 million around Chicago could provide for a viable market for maritime container transportation to and from their ports.

5. Canadian maritime regulation would result in lower per container transportation rates between a transshipment terminal at Montreal or Quebec City and an American port such as Ogdensburg NY compared to Johnstown ON that is located across the same river at the north side of the international bridge.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.