Expanding Barge Transportation along the Lower St Lawrence River

Port of Montreal
Port of Montreal

Published Apr 4, 2018 10:18 PM by Harry Valentine

Barge trains have historically sailed along America’s Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and Europe’s Danube River. A development in Canada could introduce barge train operation along the Lower St Lawrence River, with the Port of Montreal as the western terminus.

The older generation of Panamax ships has traditionally been the largest vessels to sail Lower St Lawrence River between Port of Montreal and the Atlantic Ocean, the result of depth and overhead clearance restrictions. In recent years, there has been substantial investment at the Port of Montreal to increase the number of container ships that arrive there. Recognizing the depth and overhead clearance restrictions between Montreal and Quebec City, the Port of Quebec City recently announced their interest in developing their terminal to berth new generation neo-Panamax ships that carry more containers that earlier Panamax ships.

American Barge Train Precedent

Developing Port of Quebec as an intermodal container transfer terminal could connect ocean ships with river vessels, railways and truck transportation. Earlier studies undertaken in the U.S. revealed that inland river vessels carrying 100 containers could incur lower per-container transportation costs than railway transportation. The absence of navigation locks between Montreal and Quebec City could allow for the operation of coupled vessels along that section of the Lower St Lawrence River, duplicating the river navigation precedent that occurs between New Orleans and Memphis in the southern U.S., involving barge tows measuring 140-foot width by 2,000-foot length.

While the Mississippi barges were traditionally built to sail at nine foot draft, the Lower St Lawrence River offers over three times the navigation depth. The combination of additional water depth, minimal wave conditions and projected volume of container traffic could allow for operation of a different design of barge than which sails along the Lower Mississippi River. While the largest container ships that presently sail into Port of Montreal rarely exceed 3,500-TEU capacity, a coupled barge train sailing between Quebec City and Montreal could easily carry double that number of containers at lower per container transportation cost than railway transportation.

Technology Options

Several years ago, a group called Sea-Snake designed an articulated ship concept of equivalent length as a modern oceanic container ship. In Northern Canada, the Northern Transportation Company tested coupled trains of barges along the Mackenzie River. Each barge measured 450 foot length by 50 foot beam and 18 foot sailing draft and can carry 480 TEUs over four levels. The maximum allowable sailing beam along the St Lawrence River is 140 foot to 144 foot by unrestricted length, allowing bow and stern tugs to navigate eight coupled barges measuring 100 foot beam by 2,700 foot length. A two-section coupled ship is also possible.

The American Crowley Group has developed bulk carrier coastal tug-barges of 105 foot beam and up to 600 foot length capable of sailing through six meter ocean waves. A two-section coupled vessel concept offered by the Pollinger Group of Washington was originally intended to sail along the Lower Mississippi River and can be adapted to sail the Lower St Lawrence River. It could involve an older generation Panamax container ship built to 105 foot beam being converted to a barge being pushed and navigated by a powered and shortened unit (over 1,600 foot overall length) and carry up to 6,000 TEUs.

Seasonal Container Market

Much of the retail industry related containers that would transfer at Port of Quebec would be seasonal and coincide with the operational schedule of the St Lawrence Seaway. The railways would negotiate with customers to carry the winter minimum of container traffic throughout the year. However, the peak in retail related container traffic would occur during warmer weather when the St Lawrence Seaway would be operational, allowing the maritime sector to carry containers of mainly European origins from Quebec City to ports located upstream of Montreal, including Valleyfield, Ogdensburg/Johnstown, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit and possibly Chicago.

Container Priority

Depending on delivery priority, containers from Eastern Asia arrive at New York and Newark by two different routes. The high priority containers are transferred from ship to train at Pacific ports, while low priority containers remain in transit for an additional four days sailing via the Panama Canal and offering savings of over $2,000 per container in transportation costs. The Port of Newark is America’s busiest east coast port and transfers mainly lower priority containers from eastern Asia. At the Port of Quebec City, higher priority containers would transfer from ship to either railway or truck transportation. 

Lower priority containers that inland river transportation would carry to upstream destination ports would incur lower transportation costs between Quebec City and the inland port, where local truck transportation would likely carry the containers to their final destinations. Trucks would also carry containers from intermodal railway terminals to their final destinations, with minor differences in truck transportation cost on the final portion of the container journey. While the Port of Quebec may want to focus on transferring containers from ships to railways and trucks, there may also be a market for inland waterway transportation.

Space and Port Innovation

While there is merit in seeking to develop a container transfer terminal at Quebec City, there is concern about the small area of the terminal at the suburb of Beauport. Research will need to determine if automated floating cranes (located in calm water) could rapidly transfer massive numbers of containers from ocean ships of 6,000 to 10,000 TEUs to various configurations of inland waterway vessels. While some of the inland waterway vessels could be extended-length coupled barges that would sail to Montreal, smaller self-powered vessels would carry containers to inland ports located upstream of Montreal.

A container ship that arrives at Quebec City’s Beauport terminal would be too deep and too high to sail upstream of that location. Given the restricted area of the terminal, there could be some difficulty totally unloading a ship of 10,000 TEUs and transferring containers to railway and truck transportation. Using floating cranes to transfer containers between ocean vessel and waterway vessels could greatly reduce the number of containers that terminal (land) based cranes would need to transfer from the ship to railways and trucks. Floating cranes doing ship-vessel container transfers may become essential at Beauport.

Ports' Competition

The Port of Newark is presently the busiest container port on the North American east coast, transferring containers from neo-Panamax ships to railways and trucks, with some containers being transferred to barges that sail the short distance to New York City. There are plans to develop ship-railway container transfer terminals for neo-Panamax ships at Saint John and at Cape Breton where the proposed Melford terminal has many times the area of terminal than Beauport. Quebec City has the advantage of offering shorter railway, truck and inland water distance to Montreal and ports located upstream of Montreal.

The lack of available space at the proposed Beauport container terminal at Quebec City could be problematic if the terminal is intended to be an exclusive ship-railway container transfer terminal. However, if automated floating cranes could rapidly transfer large numbers of containers from ships to inland vessels that will sail upstream, then Beauport could operate seasonally to coincide with the sailing season of the St Lawrence Seaway. The Port of Sydney could be competitive if super-size container ships arrive from Asia and transfer containers to coastal and inland waterway vessels.


Depth and overhead height restrictions between Montreal and Quebec City restrict the size of container ships that can sail to the Port of Montreal. There is merit in developing a port that can service larger container ships at the Port of Quebec City. Due to possible competition from Port of Sydney involving container ships that arrive from Asia, Beauport could transfer containers from ships arriving from Europe and destined for ports and cities located along the St Lawrence River. Due to limited space at the terminal, Beauport would need to consider floating cranes for ship-vessel container transfers. 

Barges are transferring containers between New York City and Newark, also between some European ports and nearby cities. Extended length coupled vessels could transfer massive numbers of containers between Quebec City and Montreal at lower per-container transportation cost than either railways or trucks.

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