The Option of Roll-On Roll-Off Operations at Port of Quebec

Maersk Gudrun
Maersk Gudrun

Published Jan 23, 2020 6:21 PM by Harry Valentine

The 15-meter low tide water depth at Port of Quebec inspired the decision to develop a container transshipment terminal to berth new generation Panamax ships and transfer containers to railway and truck transport. The development of overhead railway container transfer technology allows for development of a nearby terminal for Ro-Ro vessels for trucks trailers carrying containers for delivery at upstream ports at Montreal, along the Seaway and around Lake Ontario.


The port of Newark is currently East coast America’s busiest container port, with new generation Panamax ships sailing from Asia via the Panama Canal and also from European ports. To the north of Newark, sufficient water depth along the Lower St Lawrence River allows new Panamax ships to sail to Port of Quebec City, but not to Port of Montreal. Future climate change would likely allow such ships to sail seasonally via the Canadian Arctic, enhancing future business prospects for Port of Quebec and especially if overhead technology to transfer containers were introduced at the port. 

Overhead railway container transfer technology (from Eagle Rail) would allow containers to move from ship quayside to off-site nearby terminals at Quebec City, for loading aboard trains and trucks. Like Port of Halifax, Port of Quebec City has limited terminal area and overhead railway container transfer allows for development of off-site terminals within a few miles of the main container terminal. At Halifax, overhead railway could move containers between the north and south terminals, thereby increasing surface area for container storage and transfer amongst ships. An off-site container transfer terminal appears possible at Quebec City. 

Antwerp – Cleveland Precedent

During the Seaway navigation season, ship of under 1,000-TEUs capacity feasibly carries containers from Antwerp, Belgium via 15 navigation locks to Cleveland on Lake Erie. A ship of 10 times the capacity sails from nearby Rotterdam to Newark and interlines with a high-cost railway connection to Cleveland. There is greater railway distance between eastside Quebec City to northwest Toronto intermodal terminal than Newark – Cleveland, with seven navigation locks between Montreal and Lake Ontario. A ship of 1,000-TEUs could feasibly sail from Western Europe to Toronto or Hamilton competing with much larger ships sailing to Quebec City to interline with the railway.

Lower St Lawrence River

The Lower St Lawrence River is able to transit a vessel of 44 meters (144 feet) beam and 10-meter (33-foot) draft as far as Port of Montreal, allowing a Ro-Ro vessel of 360 meters length to operation between Ports of Quebec and Montreal. Due to larger population than Quebec City area, more containers of overseas origins would be destined for the Greater Montreal area. The comparatively short distance between Quebec City and Montreal enhances future prospects of Ro-Ro vessels carrying road trailers with containers between these cities. Assembly of such a Ro-Ro vessel would need to occur on the St Lawrence River.

Upon arrival at Montreal, trucks would move laden trailers from Ro-Ro ships for distribution across the Montreal area. The relatively calm water surface along the Lower St Lawrence River would allow for lengthwise coupling of pairs of extended length Ro-Ro vessels. The combination of a crewed bow tug and remotely controlled stern tugs would provide propulsion. River transportation involves lower transportation costs per container-kilometer than roadway or railway transportation, reducing carbon emissions while adding less than 24 hours transit duration to a 28-day voyage at 16 knots from Eastern Asia.

Sailing Routes/Distances

The voyage from Ports of Qingdao, Shanghai or Busan to Quebec City is shorter via the Panama Canal than via the Suez Canal, with almost identical via either route from Port of Fuzhou. The Suez Canal provides shorter sailing distance from Ports of Xiamen, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Future development of the Kra Canal would reduce sailing distance via Suez Canal by 1,200 kilometers from Ports of Shanghai, Ningbo and Qingdao to Quebec City, leaving Korean and Japanese trade to sail via Panama Canal. The future seasonal trans-Arctic passage offers competitive sailing distances from Singapore and Tajun Pelepas.

Shorter sailing distance via Suez Canal between Eastern Asian ports and Quebec City would include transshipment at Western Mediterranean ports to reduce per container transportation cost. Future 315-m wide twin channels at redeveloped Suez Canal would transit vessels of 20-meters draft by 67-meter to 70-meter beam, leading to possible development of container ships of 28,000 to 35,000-TEUs for the Eastern Asia – Western Mediterranean service. Port of Tangier and Port of Algeciras would provide container transshipment to smaller ships sailing to Western European, North African and eventually trans-Atlantic sailing to St Lawrence, Seaway and Great Lakes ports.

Future Transshipment

At the present time, the largest container ships sailing between East Asian and Western Mediterranean ports have sufficient capacity to serve present European and North African transshipment requirements. To include trans-Atlantic transshipment to these markets would require a considerably larger ship that would likely enter service following completion of Suez Canal twin channels and Kra Canal. 
Expanding Indian export markets have prompted expansion of several Indian ports with potential for future mega-ship sailing to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports to connect to European markets while enhancing prospects for combined trans-Atlantic interline service extending into the St Lawrence River and Seaway.

Seaway-size Ro-Ro

Due to summer time traffic congestion conditions on the island of Montreal resulting from roadway repair, Seaway-size Ro-Ro barge vessels could bypass Port of Montreal carrying road trailers laden with containers to Seaway ports such as Valleyfield QUE, Johnstown ON and Ogdensburg NY. Seaway Ro-Ro vessels could also sail to Lake Ontario ports at Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton. To reduce per container transportation cost that results from domestic Canadian cabotage regulation, bow coupled tug propulsion would allow for taller Ro-Ro and container barges ships to sail under Seaway bridges, with vessels using retractable outriggers to improve sailing stability.

Upon arrival at a navigation lock, forward outriggers would retract before the vessel enters the lock. As the vessel enters the lock, rear outriggers would retract. Upon departure from a lock, forward outriggers would deploy first followed by the rear outriggers after the ship stern has moved beyond the lock. During sailing, deploying outriggers would increase overall beam to 105 feet, improving storm weather sailing across Lakes Ontario and Erie. An innovative tug-boat design from M.I.L. Davie shipyard offers potential to reduce transportation costs upstream of Quebec City, using tug-barge technology.

Short Catamaran Tug

Canadian cabotage regulations along the St Lawrence River and Seaway allow tug barges to move the equivalent number of containers at lower cost than self-powered vessels. The catamaran tug-barge concept at Davie can eliminate tug pitching and allows very short tugs to push and navigate extended length large barges carrying additional payload through the Seaway navigation locks. It may be possible to adapt the catamaran tug concept for bow coupling to eliminate tug pitching while allowing for higher stacking of lighter weight containers on container barges that could sail under St Lawrence River bridges.

The combination of bow coupled tug, remotely controlled stern tug and retractable outriggers on barges could redirect the bow wave to reduce shoreline erosion, allowing faster sailing along the inland waterway. On the Quebec City – Montreal link, the combination of bow and stern tugs connected by remote control could sail and navigate a coupled three-unit Ro-Ro barge vessel of 300-meter length each (900-meter) and 44-meter beam along the inland waterway. Precise navigation by fore and aft tugs could facilitate discussion about possible future 46-meter beam, to allow pairs of Seaway size barges to be coupled two-abreast by four units lengthwise.

Multiport Operation

Coupling several Seaway-size barges together reduces overall per container transportation cost and especially if authorities were to allow passage to a vessel assembly of 46-meter beam. A train of eight-coupled vessels navigated by fore and aft tugs could sail from Quebec City to Montreal for uncoupling, with four-barges going to terminals at Montreal and Varennes. Tugs would each sail individual barges upstream through the navigation locks to ports at Valleyfield, Johnstown, Toronto and Hamilton. On the Upper St Lawrence River, a lengthwise coupled train of two-barges could sail some 250 miles to Toronto, with one barge continuing to Hamilton.

During warmer weather, a river train sailing from Quebec City to Montreal could tow an assembly of smaller barges built to 35-feet beam by both 130-feet length and 200-feet length (Mississippi size). A pitch-stabilized catamaran mini-tug of 20-feet length would propel the smaller barge carrying 72 to 96-TEUs along the Ottawa River to a terminal near Ottawa. A larger tug could navigate coupled groups of Mississippi size barges carrying seasonal overloads of retail-trade containers to small ports located along the Upper St Lawrence River. 

Transportation Costs

Part of the business case for Port of Quebec City container transshipment terminal depends on the numbers of containers that will arrive mainly from Eastern Asia and sailing via Suez Canal, where per container transit tariffs are lower than at Panama Canal. It costs $1-million to transit 10,000-TEU via the Panama Canal and under $500,000 to transit 18,000-TEU through the Suez Canal. Super-size container ships carry containers to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports at low per container transportation costs, extending the cost competitiveness to smaller ships of over 6,000-TEUs capacity sailing trans-Atlantic to Quebec City. 

The high cost of railway container transportation between Quebec City and Brampton enhances the competitiveness of Seaway-max ships carrying containers from Western Mediterranean transshipment terminal to Great Lakes ports. Another part of Quebec’s business case would revolve around transferring containers from trans-Atlantic container ships of 4,500 TEUs to 8,000 TEUs capacity to Seaway-max vessels sailing to upstream and Great Lakes ports. The railway would carry the winter base load of containers throughout the year, with waterway transportation moving the annual June to November retail-related seasonal peak of container traffic.

Political Strategy

Government of Canada has long supported and protected the commercial interest of the Port of Montreal and has invested in developing container terminals in the region. However, much larger container ships can sail into Port of Quebec City. Implementing the Ro-Ro option between Quebec City and Montreal justifies container terminal development at Montreal. While Port of Quebec City focuses on transferring containers from large ships to railways and trucks, introducing overhead railway container transfer technology at the port would complement construction of a nearby terminal to load Ro-Ro vessels and container barges that will sail the inland waterway. 

The Canada – Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) included upgrading Port of Montreal to European standards and could restrict transshipment from Port of Algeciras to Hamilton or Toronto. Transshipment destined for these ports would best occur at Port of Tangier, using crane equipped Seaway-max ships to offload containers upon arrival (at Hamilton). Acting to protect the commercial interest of Port of Montreal, Canadian authorities may actually be able use CETA to require ships sailing from Port of Algeciras to Toronto or Hamilton to be offloaded at Montreal and containers sent by rail or truck to their destinations. 

American Seaway Ports

It would be cost competitive to transfer containers from East Asia via Western Mediterranean transshipment ports from large ships at Port of Quebec City to smaller inland waterway vessels sailing to American ports of Ogdensburg NY, Cleveland OH and possibly Detroit. However, sailing a Seaway-max ship from Western Mediterranean transshipment ports directly to Chicago would be cost competitive with additional transshipment at Port of Quebec City, leaving the Chicago are with two maritime options to minimize per container transportation costs. For sake of convenience, Canadian bound containers could be offloaded at Ogdensburg and Detroit for transfer to truck.

Montreal-max Ship

A ship of 44-meter (144-feet) beam, 10.5-meter water draft and 52-meter height above water could sail the Lower St Lawrence River to Port of Montreal. A ship such as the 320-meter length Hapag-Lloyd Dalian Express class is built to 42.5-meter beam will carry over 7,500 TEUs sailing a maximum draft of 14.5 meters. However, it typically sails at 11.8 meters to 12.4 meters draft. There will need for research to determine whether a modified version of the Dalian Express class of vessel could sail partly laden at 10.5 meters freshwater draft to Montreal and pass under bridges of 52 meters height above water.

The 367-meter length Gudrun Maersk class is built to 42.8 meters beam and 8,500-TEUs capacity. It sails fully laden at 14.5 meters draft in seawater. There will be need for research to determine if a modified version of this vessel could sail partly laden at 10.5 meters freshwater draft to Montreal and pass under bridges of 52 meters height. By partially offloading containers from Montreal bound ships built to carry 7,500 to 8,500 TEUs, Quebec would function as a companion port to Montreal until market demand requires that container ships of over 9,000 TEUs sail to Quebec City.


A large percentage of future containers arriving at Quebec would likely involve Western Mediterranean transshipment to trans-Atlantic vessels that would be too large to sail to Montreal. Lowest per container transportation costs would likely be achieved through the combination of Seaway-max vessels sailing upstream of Quebec, vessels four-times the size on the Western Mediterranean – Quebec service and super mega-ships on the Asia – Western Mediterranean service. The only future direct sea route between East Asia and Quebec would likely be the seasonal trans-Arctic route, except for possible future of a seasonal container transshipment terminal at Nuuk.

In the absence of development to facilitate vessel-to-vessel transshipment of containers at Port of Quebec City, the low cost option by which to move low-priority containers from Eastern Asia to Eastern Canada’s biggest market for international container traffic would involve transshipment at Port of Tangier to crane-equipped Seaway-max ships sailing to Toronto or Hamilton.

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