By Tom Peters, Craig Bell Estabrooks, Saint John Port Authority’s new President and CEO who moved into the organization’s top job in November, inherited a port that was been on a bit of a high in 2021. Bell Estabrooks was appointed to the position following the appointment of former President and CEO, Jim Quinn, to the Canadian Senate.

Overall cargo tonnage at Port Saint John for the year was 28.8 million metric tonnes (MT), an 11 per cent increase over 2020. In the container sector, TEUs were up 10 per cent to 86,949 and container tonnage increased to 617,312 MT or per cent over 2020. This was the fifth consecutive year of growth in the container sector.

Potash, in the bulk sector, was the big story, said Bell Estabrooks. It is one of those commodities that is crucial for global food supply chain. Bell Estabrooks said it was a record year for potash with the port handling nearly 1.7 million tonnes. The potash was railed to the port by CN from Saskatchewan. A major customer for the commodity is Brazil.

The potash and an increase in recycled metals helped bulk cargoes increase by 123 per cent to 1.9 million tonnes. Recycled metals experienced an increase from 174,471 MT in 2020 to 254,125 MT in 2021. The liquid bulk sector experienced an increase of 7 per cent, driven primarily by increased export petroleum products.

Rail was also a big story for Saint John. CP Rail launched its East Coast Advantage strategy and rail services through the port following its acquisition of the Central Maine and Quebec Railway (CMQR). The CMQ’s network links CP directly to the Atlantic Ocean port of Searsport, Maine and to Port Saint John through connections with Eastern Maine Railway and New Brunswick Southern Railway. Saint John is the only East Coast Canadian port served by two Class 1 railways, CP and CN. “It is the game changer at the core of our value proposition going forward to have access to both,” Bell Estabrooks said. “CN has been a very dependable service for decades here and CP has made us, and this is their language, the East Coast advantage,” he added.

Bell Estabrooks says there is a third story in the rail situation for Saint John with major American carrier CSX’s proposal to purchase Pan Am Railway. “CSX said Saint John was one of the drivers in the purchasing (plan) of Pan Am rail,” said Bell Estabrooks. The purchase would connect Saint John to CSX and several North American markets through the New Brunswick Southern Railway short line into the northeast US. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board held hearings on the proposed purchase in mid-January with a decision on the sale expected in mid-April.

Saint John’s $205 million West Side Modernization project continued throughout 2021 with completion scheduled for 2023. “The West Side project really encompasses many sectors. It is the foundational piece and it’s going to set us up for future growth,” said Bell Estabrooks. There is room for future expansion if required through the infilling of some lagoons. When the project is complete, Saint John will be able to accommodate the 8,000 to 10,000 TEU capacity ships. “We will be in that game and be complementary to what other ports are doing. Instead of going through US East Coast ports with cargo destined for the Mid-West and Chicago, they can come to Saint John,” Bell Estabrooks said.

Saint John serves three major carriers, MSC, CMA CGM and Hapag- Lloyd, calling at its DP World operated container terminal. Bell Estabrooks said the port would like to increase the number of lines calling the port but would also like to see an increase in services and routes being offered by its three present carriers.

On the cruise side, Saint John is looking forward to a new cruise season but at the same time “we have got to be safe and respectful of the community accepting the cruise ships. We are working with Transport Canada and the province,” to provide all the necessary safety measures and protocols for an efficient restart, Bell Estabrooks said. Saint John is expecting approximately 70 cruise calls in 2022.

Despite COVID, the port of Halifax had a busy 2021 with a number of highlights and some obvious successes. In the cargo sector, even though the port had a slight decline in cargo in the third quarter, Halifax’s two container terminals handled a record 595,751 TEUs beating the previous record of 559,242 established in 2017. Some of those containers arrived at the port’s Southend terminal, operated by PSA Halifax, on two of the largest container ships ever to dock at a Canadian port, CMA CGM vessels Marco Polo in May and Jules Verne in August. Each vessel had a cargo capacity of 16, 022 TEUs and each had a length of 396 metres.

MSC shipping line, which earlier in 2021 added a second call into Halifax, announced in September it was establishing the first direct call between the West Coast of India and Halifax. “Direct connection to India’s northwest states offers Canada’s importers and exporters great opportunity in this trade and complements our connected inland and coastal services through PSA Halifax,” said Jan Van Mossevelde, CEO of PSA Halifax. “We already enjoy a strong working relationship with MSC, and with the addition of the Indus 2 Service, we are building on solid foundations,” he said. Van Mossevelde took over the CEO’s job at PSA in 2021, succeeding Kim Holtermand.

In the real estate sector, Halifax Port Authority (HPA) officially opened The PIER in November in the historic Seaport District. The PIER, being recognized as Canada’s first “living lab”, is short for Port Innovation, Engagement, and Research. It was established for Halifax and Canada’s transportation sector and brings together different stakeholders to develop innovative solutions for supply chain and logistics challenges that no one company can tackle on its own. The PIER currently has six founding partners, one industry partner, five resident members and 16 ecosystem members with additional partners and members expected to join as this innovative workspace develops. “A key strength of The PIER is the diversity of its membership. Having different transportation and supply chain partners all working under the same roof will create the conditions for the free flow of ideas. From that will come innovative solutions with benefits that reach far beyond those traditional sectors,” said Capt. Allan Gray, HPA’s President and CEO. Founding partners include CN, OMC International, PSA Halifax (a member of PSA International), Saab Technologies Ltd. and Bell Canada.

With the past two years of cancelled cruise calls, HPA is anticipating a strong return to the sector this year. Lane Farguson, HPA’s Manager of Media Relations and Communications, says the port is expecting approximately 85 per cent of the number of calls the port received in 2019 which was 179 calls and 323,709 passengers. He said it is not known what passenger capacity limits Transport Canada may impose at the port and what impact Covid may have on the sector. However, the Port is optimistic it will restart its cruise sector in a strong position.

Among other projects initiated last year were the rail solution project, under the National Trade Corridor Fund, designed to get container trucks out of the downtown by using the port’s southend rail cut more efficiently. And, at Fairview Cove, near the Ceres-operated container terminal, HPA will construct a marine container examination facility. “An appropriate marine container examination facility within the Port of Halifax is required to optimize rapid and reliable container inspections for Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA),” said Farguson. Both rail and container projects are in the planning and design stages.

The loss of cruise of cruise traffic in 2021, the second year in a row, made it a tough year for the Port of Sydney, NS, says Marlene Usher, CEO, Port of Sydney Development Corporation. However, said Usher, management did have more time for planning.

“The current cruise pavilion and infrastructure have been designed and marketed for cruise traffic. We have decided to rebrand the site to become a waterfront destination for the local residents, tourists and cruise visitors,” she said, adding that “To do this we need infrastructure which costs money. The Port has commissioned a design to encompass a ‘fisherman’s cove concept’ and an urban market inside the pavilion. The project costs approximately $7.6 million which will require all three levels of government support if it is going to proceed. Usher said the port corporation is confident that cruise ships will return to the port this year. “There are 90 ships currently booked with approximately 180,000 passengers. We expect that the actual number will be less due to lower passenger counts and some cancellations,” she said.

The federal government, along with input from other cruise ports, is developing detailed protocols and requirements for cruise resumption. “The Port of Sydney is part of this program and intends to comply with all requirements to ensure the safety of our community and the visitors. We are optimistic for a recovery year and a growth year in 2023,” she said. Sydney now has a second cruise berth known as the Liberty Pier which can host a second cruise vessel. “There are 17 days with multiple ships and we will plan a celebration on the first double cruise ship day. The second berth has provided the port with additional berthing capacity which has resulted in additional vessel traffic. We are hoping to resume Port Days in 2022,” Usher said.

In addition to cruise which is the Port’s main revenue source, the Port draws revenue from 18 food and retail tenants and manages and rents berths at the port’s marina.

The port continues to be optimistic that Novaporte, the proposed container terminal, will still be built at some point. “It’s hard to believe that eight years have come and gone and we’re still grinding it out in Cape Breton,” said Novaporte CEO, Albert Barbusci. “That said, the supply chain crisis seems to be bringing everything to a boil. We remain cautiously optimistic Novaporte will have shovels in the ground sometime in the near future,” he said. Barbusci said that he is “not one that likes to use the Covid line but it has taken two years of marketing away from us. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us before we can make any positive comments and the rail situation has not changed.”

The section of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway between St. Peter’s and Sydney has been closed for several years due to a lack of business. However, the Nova Scotia government has entered into a Rail Line Preservation Agreement with Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway Limited (CBNS) which provides the railway $30,000 a month to maintain that section of rail line with the idea that the railway will generate enough business, possibly through the construction of a container terminal, to justify re-opening it. The present agreement, which expires on March 31, 2022, has been renewed from April 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023.

Information from St. John’s Port Authority indicates 2021 was a year of decline for the major East Coast port in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the dry bulk sector, cargo dropped 45.3 per cent to 77,989 MT in 2021 compared to 142,647 MT in 2020. Liquid bulk declined 18 per cent in 2021 to 470,087 MT from 573,416 MT in 2020. General cargo was the only bright spot showing a modest increase of 1.8 per cent to 817,832 MT in 2021 up from 803,394MT in 2020. Total cargo through the port declined 10.1% to 1,365,908 MT from 1,519,455 MT in 2020. Overall vessel arrivals at the port dropped 14.7 per cent in 2021 with the offshore sector, related to oil and gas exploration, showing a 29.3 per cent decline.