Railways see untapped potential in Atlantic Canada ports

A photograph of a Canadian Pacific train crossing a grassy field.

Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) and CN (NYSE: CNI) are vying to be the top freight railroad in Eastern Canada, with both companies seeing the Atlantic Canada ports as having untapped potential.

The ports at Saint John and Halifax have access not only to Eastern and Central Canada, but also to the coveted U.S. Midwestern market and the Eastern U.S. CN has access to both ports, while CP — with its recent acquisition of the Central Maine and Quebec Railway — has direct access to Port Saint John.

Expanding the rail network capacity in eastern Canada complements the strategy of importers or beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) that have adopted a “four corners” approach to access the North American markets, Jonathan Wahba, CP’s executive vice president of sales and marketing for intermodal and automotive, told FreightWaves in an interview. 

The four corners are ports on the northern and southern ends of the North American West Coast and the northern and southern ends of the North American East Coast. 

“Whether there are changes in the supply chain or nearshoring, the large global shippers are going to want flexibility in their supply chains,” Wahba said. “They’re going to want to be nimble. The COVID experience has taught them that people procure goods wherever they can get it.”

Both the Canadian East and West Coast ports see a sizable portion of their traffic as having a final destination in the U.S. About 40% of CP’s containers in Vancouver are bound for the U.S., while nearly 50% of CP’s containers that are handled in Montreal have U.S. destinations, Wahba said. 

Meanwhile, CN in recent earnings calls has expressed interest in expanding its network capacity, citing its exclusive access to the Port of Halifax. CN’s executives have painted the port’s potential as being the “Prince Rupert of the East,” in part because of PSA’s ownership of the Halterm intermodal terminal at the port.  

In “the Eastern network [from] Halifax to Chicago, we [have] capacity galore, meaning [that] as the industrial space in North America [has been] in slow decline for the last 25 years, we need to be relevant to … [the] consumers [who] generate freight that is a typical container freight,” said CN President and CEO JJ Ruest during his company’s fourth-quarter 2019 earnings call in January. Ruest was referring to the Eastern network’s relationship with domestic intermodal. 

CN also recently announced $10 million in capital investments to Nova Scotia, where the Port of Halifax is located, and $20 million in capital investments to New Brunswick, where Port Saint John is located. 

CMQ opens doors of opportunity for CP

Jonathan Wahba, CP’s executive vice president of sales and marketing for intermodal and automotive (Photo: Canadian Pacific)

CP sees the acquisition of the CMQ as being the linchpin in its strategy to expand network capacity in Eastern Canada. 

The railway had access to Atlantic Canada for about 100 years after its founding, but then it lost it in the 1990s and CP subsequently started to lose market share in Eastern Canada to its competitor CN in the 2000s, according to Wahba.

Following former CEO Hunter Harrison’s tenure from 2012 to 2017 and current CEO Keith Creel’s tenure from 2017 up to now, CP has been steadily gaining back market share, but it lacked direct access to a deepwater Atlantic port — until the CMQ came along, Wahba said. 

“The executive team at CP would’ve said six months, one year ago that the Achilles’ heel in our network was that we didn’t have deepwater Atlantic access and our competitor CN does at [the port of] Halifax,” Wahba said.

But when the opportunity to acquire the CMQ presented itself, CP’s leadership realized this was a unique opportunity.

“There won’t be any more railroads built in North America. The only way we would get Atlantic access is if we purchased it,” Wahba said. The only other time in recent history where a similar opportunity arose was CN’s acquisition of lines connecting to the Port of Prince Rupert on the Canadian West Coast, he said. 

CP sees numerous benefits to have access to Port Saint John. It provides Canadian exporters and importers with direct access to the trans-Atlantic-to-Europe trade lane, Wahba said.

It also enabled CP to grow its market share in Atlantic Canada. For instance, on Tuesday, CP will be responsible for handling Kia and Hyundai’s finished vehicles into Atlantic Canada. The railway will use its access to Saint John and a mothballed terminal in Saint John that will come back to life, Wahba said.

“That part of Canada is critical to serve for retailers, food shippers, automotive distributors, and then coming out of that part of the world, there’s a lot of forest products that move inland to Canada or into the United States that we didn’t have the reach to access before.”

Access to Port Saint John will be a win-win for the railway, shippers and the port, Wahba continued. Shippers will have just one length of haul operation, which is more efficient than the previous practice of having a short-line connection with the CMQ in Montreal, he said. It’s more efficient because of the consolidation of maintenance operations and the need for fewer crew changes. 

Shippers that choose CP over CN will also experience a route that’s 200 miles shorter between the Atlantic Canada ports and the Toronto/Montreal metropolitan region, and that translates into less route miles, lower greenhouse gases and lower transit times and costs, Wahba said.

Meanwhile, CP will be seeking to attract “house accounts” such as food shippers and big box stores, automotive customers, international intermodal customers and pulp, paper and tissue shippers.

Concurrently, CP, Port Saint John and terminal operator DP World will be working to secure a long-term anchor tenant at Saint John. 

“Our purchase of the CMQ is going to allow the port and DP World to accelerate their expansion plans and bring new business there faster. That ecosystem in the Port of St. John is just going to get bigger, faster,” said Wahba. 

Truckers, warehousing companies and transloading operations could also see the fruits of these efforts, he said. 

“We believe in the next two to three years we will see that ecosystem build out in Saint John now that we’re able to aggressively push traffic in and out of North America via that gateway,” Wahba said.

Ports’ expansion plans

CP’s and CN’s desire to increase market share in Eastern Canada complement Port Saint John and the Port of Halifax’s expansion plans. 

Port Saint John is in the middle of a $205 million expansion aimed at expanding port capacity from 150,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) to 300,000 TEUs annually. The expansion includes dredging the harbor and expanding one of the piers, and it will be completed in 2023.

An announcement about the port’s next expansion phase could come out in the next month or two, Wahba said.

“The presence of two Class I railways here is a critical advantage to both shippers and our existing and future growth. DP World and Port Saint John have diligently worked at building its market position as a viable and reliable gateway to Canada and the United States,” Copeland said.

She cited Port Saint John’s $205 million expansion plan, plus strategic relationships with CP and CN, the port’s labor workforce and DP World’s international presence as being factors that would help Port Saint John “grow our market position in the Atlantic to serve North American importers and exporters” in Eastern and Central Canada and the U.S. Midwest and Eastern U.S.

Port Saint John currently has marine connections with CMA CGM and MSC, and it recently had spot calls from Hapag-Lloyd and Maersk on European routing, Copeland said.

At Halifax, the port received a super-post-Panamax ship-to-shore container gantry crane in June at the developing South End Container Terminal. Hailed as the largest ship-to-shore crane in Eastern Canada, it can lift cargo by more than 170 feet, or 51 meters, from the ground and it has an outreach of 217 feet, or 66 meters, that can span across 24 containers. This is the fifth crane of this type at Halifax. 

The Halifax Port Authority is also nearing the completion of a deepwater berth extension that will help meet the growing deployment of ultra-class vessels. 

“The Port of Halifax recently welcomed our first vessel over 14,000 TEU, and we anticipate receiving the first 15,000-plus TEU vessel in the coming months. The arrival of this new crane at PSA Halifax is a significant piece of the overall strategy to ensure the Port of Halifax remains an efficient and reliable deepwater international gateway,” said Allan Gray, president and CEO of the Halifax Port Authority, in June.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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