Increasing Future Container Transfer at the Port of Halifax

Courtesy Eagle Rail

Published Jan 17, 2021 11:39 PM by Harry Valentine

The rebuilding of the Panama Canal to transit larger container ships prompted port developers to consider building container transshipment terminals in Canada’s Cape Breton region. Their main reason for doing so was the comparatively small terminal area at the Port of Halifax. However, the subsequent and recent development of new container transfer technologies has the potential to offer the Port of Halifax a competitive game changer.


Over a period of almost three decades, container ships gradually replaced general cargo ships to carry international trade. The progressive expansion of international maritime container traffic led to the development of progressively larger container ships including up to the maximum size that could transit through the original lock dimensions of the Panama Canal. Larger container ships were later built to sail through the Suez Canal on the Asia –Europe service and also across the Pacific Ocean between Asia and west coast North America, from where high-cost railway transportation carried higher priority containers to east coast North American cities.

Economic analysis suggested a market for larger ships to transit the Panama Canal, to sail to east coast North American ports. Rebuilding Panama Canal navigation locks prompted development of plans to establish container transshipment terminals at Cape Breton in Eastern Canada, to serve new larger ships. While a series of economic and political events have stalled port development at Cape Breton, new technologies capable of rapidly moving containers between nearby terminals have appeared. These potentially game changing container transfer technologies could increase the number of containers that the Port of Halifax could quickly transfer between ships.

Political Issues

Cape Breton region’s proposed container transshipment terminals have encountered two mainly political issues. Canadian government alleged that one of the railway companies operated the equivalent of a monopoly moving containers between eastern and central Canada. Officials used the monopoly regulation to provide support to develop a container terminal at a port served by the competing railway company, hence the re-development of the container terminal at the Port of Saint John to berth new generation Panamax ships and essentially using the identical business plan as the proposed Melford Terminal at Cape Breton.

The railway that had gained the focus of federal government officials connected to the Port of Halifax as well as to the proposed container transshipment terminals at Cape Breton, also to the proposed container transshipment terminal at Port of Quebec City. Efforts undertaken by federal officials to develop competition between railway companies have perhaps provided the proposed Cape Breton terminals with unforeseen competition. Canada had also been drawn into a trade spat between the United States and China, resulting in Chinese investors declining to help develop the proposed Port of Sydney transshipment terminal.

Halifax Area Terminals

Port of Halifax has a south terminal with a quayside capable of berthing one ultra-large container ship and a nearby Fairview Cove north terminal located on Bedford Basin, and with potential to increase quayside capacity to the northwest of the existing north terminal. A few years previously, an earlier period CEO of Port of Halifax had even considered developing a container transshipment terminal on the eastern side of Halifax at Dalhousie. However, a pair of container transfer technologies have recently emerged that could operate in semi-automated mode and rapidly transfer large numbers of containers between nearby terminals.

There is potential for such technologies to link the various nearby terminals at Halifax, transferring containers between terminals as containers are being offloaded at any of the quaysides. Further refinement of the transfer technology may even make it possible for automated cranes to be offloading containers from a super-size container ship berthed at the south terminal, with the transfer technology moves the containers to other nearby terminals where groups of automated cranes would be loading containers on to interlined ships sailing such ports as Boston, Portland, Bridgeport and even St. Lawrence Seaway ports such as Ogdensburg NY.

Surface level transfer

The North American railway industry carries containers on 2-levels aboard their double-stacked container carrier carriages. Railhaul of Western Canada has developed a semi-autonomously operated, bi-directional and self-propelled version of the double-stacked container carrier vehicles that can operate between nearby terminals. Future operation at Halifax would depend on decisions by both port management and the railway company that owns the tracks that connect between the terminals. A railway loop at Halifax south terminal allows for frequent arrival and departure of short automated self-propelled container trains while the railway line to the north terminal is free from road crossings.

The present layout of railway lines at the north terminal would require reversing the short trains upon arrival from and departure to the south terminal. One possible future option may include quayside railway lines at the north terminal to allow direct transfer of containers between ship and railway vehicle, while future installation of a curved section of rail line to the southwest of the north terminal would reduce travel duration between north and south terminals. Rapid transfer of containers offers the possibility of berthing an interline container ship at Halifax Pier 9, east of the CN Halifax intermodal terminal.

Overhead Transfer

Eagle Rail of America has developed a container transfer technology based on the overhead monorail that operates at Wuppertal, Germany. Suspended by steel arches that occupy the space of a pole for a streetlamp allows the container carrier technology to operate at high elevation above road level, allowing for easy operation of full height commercial vehicle traffic. Possible future installation of an overhead railway container transfer technology could allow access to the Dartmouth side of the inlet, where dock facilities for container ships might be a future option.


The geographic location of Halifax near the shipping lane between Newark/New York City and Western Europe involves insignificant change in sailing distance should a ship make a brief stop at Halifax. There is actually cost benefit if a single large ship sails from Europe to Newark carrying a combined load of containers destined for the combination of Newark, New York City, Boston, Portland, Eastern Canada along with containers that will be transferred to trucks and railways at those ports. Transfer of containers to smaller vessels will occur at Halifax prior to the big ship sailing to Newark.

The sailing distance between Halifax and any of Portland, Boston and Bridgeport is shorter than the railway distance via Canada, with short-sea sailing offering the lowest cost per container to move the containers within competitive transit duration to the aforementioned east coast ports, including when compared to per container railway transportation cost from Newark. Even the transportation cost per container would be less aboard the big ship upon arrival at Newark, compared to sailing several small ships across the North Atlantic to different destinations located within close proximity to each other. Such transshipment represents Halifax’s unique market niche.

Containers from Asia

Halifax and Newark are located closer to Port of Singapore transshipment terminal, Malaysian terminals and Indian container terminals with ship sailing via the Suez Canal rather than via the Panama Canal. There is potential for a super-size container ship sailing from Asia with final destination being the Port of Newark, to transfer containers at transshipment terminals located near the Strait of Gibraltar, at either Port of Algeciras or Port of Tangier. The Newark bound ship will sail via Halifax with containers destined for multiple east coast ports, with transshipment containers stacked at the upper levels.

Upon arrival at Halifax, cranes will offload the transshipment containers as inter-terminal container transfer technology rapidly moves containers to interline container ships berthed at other Halifax area terminals. Destination ports for the combined load of transshipment containers of both Asian and European origins could include Boston, Portland and Bridgeport along with Seaway ports of Ogdensburg NY and Cleveland OH. While a container transshipment terminal is planned for Quebec City, a panama size ship load volume of containers from Asia destined for ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway would justify sailing a container ship to the Port of Quebec City.


There may be scope for Dalhousie University engineering researchers to develop computer simulation that could evaluate a range of scenarios involving the operation of semi-automated container transfer technology amongst Port of Halifax terminals. Such simulation could determine the number of transshipment containers that could be transferred between large trans-ocean ships and smaller short-sea ships. The computer simulation could explore operating semi-automated container trains along existing railway lines with a variation including dockside railway lines at the north terminal where a curved section of track could ease access between north and south terminals.

The presence of coastal railway track along the west side of Bedford Basin would allow for a simulation to include a future dock located to the immediate northwest of Fairview Cove container terminal, with a simulation option to load containers at Pier 9. While a mega-size container ship of 24.000-TEU is being partially offloaded at the south terminal, simulation could explore operational strategy for surface and/or overhead container transfer technology to simultaneously transfer containers from south terminal to short-sea interline ships moored other nearby quaysides. That outcome would determine future investment in local inter-terminal container transfer technology.


New semi-automated technology capable of quickly moving large numbers of containers between nearby terminals offers potential to enhance future transshipment operations at the Port of Halifax and especially involving ships that sail from Asia via the Suez Canal and Strait of Gibraltar. Future international container trade is expected to increase over the next decade with potential for container ships of 24,000 TEU capacity sailing via Arctic or via Strait of Gibraltar, to and from Port of Newark and stopping at Port of Halifax to transfer containers to interlined ships serving Boston, Portland, Bridgeport and even Cleveland.

Harry Valentine is a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive. 

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