Re-Assessing the Proposed Eastern Canadian Transshipment Terminal

container ship

By Harry Valentine 02-13-2020 04:47:48

Going back several years before the ship named Emma Maersk first sailed, proposals emerged for developing container transshipment terminals in Eastern Canada to serve super-sized container ships. Subsequently, ship technology and the transportation market have changed and will change in the future, hence the option to re-assess future prospects for an Eastern Canadian transshipment terminal intended to serve the largest container ships afloat.


Going back a decade, the largest container ships arriving at American east coast ports were the Panamax size vessels of 105-feet beam by under 1,000-feet length and built long prior to the rebuilding of the Panama Canal to transit larger vessels. Larger container ships of double the carrying capacity of the old Panamax ships emerged from the ship yards and began to sail trans-Pacific services as well as via the Suez Canal on the Asia – Europe service. At the time, none of the American east coast ports were capable of berthing such a large container ship.

The Port of Newark raised the air draft under the Bayonne Bridge and dredge port to prepare for the arrival of larger container ships. When the 11,000-TEUs Emma Maersk first sailed, a business case developed in Eastern Canada for a container transshipment terminal to transfer containers from a ship the size of Emma Maersk that sail via the Suez Canal from Asia, to a fleet of smaller ships that would sail to multiple American east coast ports. Then the ports of Charleston, Jacksonville, Savannah, Baltimore and a few others were rebuilt to serve larger container ships.

Partial Transshipment

At the present time, the single berth at Port of Halifax south terminal serves neo-Panamax and Emma Maersk size of ships. While two sizes of container ship can each sail directly from Rotterdam of from a port in India to Boston and Newark, there is a reduction in transportation cost per container if a single larger ship carried the combined load of containers to Halifax for partial offloading of 2,000 to 3,000-TEUs. A smaller ship would carry transshipment containers from Halifax to Boston. Arriving at both Newark and Boston, transshipment offers lower transportation cost per container.

Introducing a technology such as the Eagle Rail overhead container transfer system at Port of Halifax would provide easy movement of containers between their north and south terminals. The container transfer technology would increase the partial offloading of containers to include a ship of 18,000 TEUs while a small fleet of smaller interlining ships lay over at Bedford Basin. Once laden, the smaller vessels would sail to such ports as Boston, Portland, New Haven and St John’s while the big ship sails to Newark. 

Future Container Ships

Within a decade, the Canadian trans-Arctic passage north of Victoria Island is likely to open seasonally for three months per year, allowing deep-draft container ships shorter access between China and the North Atlantic region. Occurring concurrently are plans to develop parallel navigation channels at the Suez Canal, offering deeper sailing draft and with the assistance of innovative technology, allow passage to ships of extreme beam measurement. These changes will prompt research into and design of container ships in excess of 30,000-TEUs, with ships of 35,000-TEUs likely emerging from the shipyards within a decade.

The prospect of such ships entering future service would prompt operators of transshipment terminals at ports in Asia and Western Mediterranean region to dredge port areas to berth ships of around 18.5-meter water draft, up to 68-meter beam and 525-meter length. Such ships will carry the equivalent number of containers as several of the new-Panamax size of ships that presently arrive from Asia at American east coast ports via the Panama Canal. American political intervention in international trade could reduce the number of containers arriving at all east coast ports to that of a single future mega-giant container ship.  

Eastern Canadian Terminal

The possibility of a ship of almost double the capacity of Emma Maersk emerging from an Asian shipyard within the next decade invites a re-evaluation of future business prospects for an Eastern Canadian transshipment terminal. At 15-knots sailing speed, most ships take over 30 days to sail via the Panama Canal from eastern Asia to east coast American ports, while sailing via the Suez Canal can take an additional one to two days. Customers for these containers will exchange longer delivery time for reduced transportation cost per container, with coast-to-coast railway transportation being much more costly than maritime transportation.

Replacing a procession of three to four ships carrying 8,000 to 11,000 TEUs with a single ship of 35,000 TEUs offers significant reductions in per container transportation cost between Asian and Canadian transshipment terminals. The ships of 8,000 to 11,000-TEUs would sail a comparatively short distance between the Eastern Canadian terminal and American east coast ports located between Newark and Jacksonville. For the American ports, the exact same size of ship would arrive at their container terminals as if it had sailed from Asia, except to offer customers significant reductions in transportation costs, essential the business case for the Canadian terminal. 

Railway Connection

Container trains would travel the railway line between the Eastern Canadian transshipment terminal and cities across Canada’s Atlantic region, delivering containers from Asia to railway – truck intermodal terminals. During the Seaway operating season, Seaway-max ships would connect the terminal to American ports along the Seaway, mainly Ogdensburg NY that is within close proximity to several retail related distribution warehouses located on the Canadian side of the border. In the interest of regional political dignity, containers from Asia destined for Ports of Montreal and Quebec City sail a different route such as via a European transshipment terminal.

The Numbers

An earlier proposal for an Eastern Canadian transshipment terminal involved container ships of 18,000 TEUs transferring containers to smaller ships sailing to small ports along the American east coast plus Seaway ports. A politically approved consultant was commissioned to scrutinize the proposal and concluded that the numbers did not add up. At the present day, several American east coast ports have been modified to berth post-Panamax ships of up to 12,000 TEUs and even non-Panamax ships of 18,000 TEUs. The non-Panamax ships would need to sail via the Suez Canal or via the Arctic between East Asia and eastern U.S.
U.S. east coast ports receiving containers from China include Newark-New York City, Norfolk (Virginia), Savannah (Georgia), Charleston (S. Carolina), Jacksonville, Baltimore and Delaware ports. The total number of containers arriving annually exceeds five million TEUs or over 400,000 TEUs per month. If 80 percent of the containers were to be carried via future Suez Canal aboard a ship of 32,000 TEUs capacity, then such a ship would need to arrive every third day at the Eastern Canadian transshipment terminal. It is perhaps a forgone conclusion that a politically approved consultant will again be hired to dispute the numbers.

Politics and Regulation

An Eastern Canadian maritime container transshipment terminal built in Cape Breton would be subject to domestic regulation and likely be required to fulfill political objectives. There may be scope to load all transfer containers aboard smaller interlining ships sailing to U.S. east coast ports and U.S. Seaway ports. As a result, containers from Asia sailing via Suez Canal to Canadian destinations located along the St Lawrence River and Seaway would be transferred at Western Mediterranean European terminals, likely incurring little difference in overall per container transportation costs from a terminal at Cape Breton.

Sailing a large container ship of 43 meter beam and over 7,000 TEUs capacity along the St Lawrence River would fulfill political objectives that include future development of the ports of Montreal and Quebec City. Other objects would include enhancing future Canadian – European trade negotiations and enhancing the image of Port of Montreal as an important international maritime terminal. A ship based on Gudrun Maersk would need to be modified with a low-height forward bridge placed above the bow to meet water draft and air draft when sailing partially laden between Quebec City and Montreal.


The combination of future changes at the Suez Canal, opening of a seasonal trans-Arctic navigation passage and future innovation in ship design offers the possibility of container ships being built to 30,000 to 35,000-TEUs capacity. A market for such capacity already exists between transshipment terminals on the East Asia – Western Mediterranean service, with transshipment interlining extending from Western Mediterranean into the North American St Lawrence region. The same size of ship could also sail between transshipment terminals in East Asia and Eastern Canada, to reduce per container transportation costs arriving at American east coast container ports.

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