By Alex Binkley

Keeping the Welland Canal open until mid-January would allow shipping lines to generate more business and ease highway congestion in southwestern Ontario, says Gregg Ruhl, the new President and CEO of Algoma Central. “If the Welland Canal were to remain open just a few more weeks, there would be hundreds and hundreds fewer trucks on the road,” he says. “The longer season should at least match the January 15 closing of the Soo Locks.”

Ruhl was Algoma’s COO when he proposed the longer shipping season to the Commons Transport Committee last fall as it held hearings across the country on a Canadian Transportation and Logistics Strategy. The committee released an interim report in late February that included a recommendation that Transport Canada work with The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC) and its users “to explore ways to increase year-round use of the St. Lawrence Seaway to transport goods within central Canada.” The review “should consider such issues as icebreaking capabilities, piloting fees, handling fees at terminals and docking fees,” the MPs agreed. While the government has until mid-spring to respond to that recommendation, Bruce Hodgson, SLSMC’s Director of Marketing, said the issue is being discussed with domestic and international ship operators and shippers. “We’ve looked at the market and the indications are that a longer Welland season would generate additional business. We’ll work through the process of fully considering the idea.” One possibility would be keeping it open for a few more days in late December to see what happens, he said.

Ruhl told the Committee the Welland Canal is one of the country’s biggest transportation bottlenecks because it closes in late December when there still is plenty of cargo to ship to the Greater Toronto Area, which “is the largest economy in Canada.” It would require “some significant investment, but not a lot, to keep the Welland Canal open two or three weeks longer,” he said. “It’s a bit of a wasted resource in that December-January time frame.” His remarks resonated with other carriers and shippers in Ontario especially his comment that “Obviously, having it (the full Seaway) open all season would be wonderful.”

CSL spokeswoman Brigitte Hebert said her company would like the navigation season for the entire length of the Seaway to be extended to mid-January. “The idea is to trial a longer season in the Welland Canal and then work toward extending it to the entire Seaway. However, to make that possible, adequate icebreaking is needed to ensure the safe and efficient transit of ships, and the additional cost of keeping the shipping lanes open should be borne by users.”

Steven Salmons, CEO of Port Windsor, said, “Intuitively, I think we would all like to see an extension of the Welland Canal for as long as possible and the Soo Locks too. Perhaps one day, with climate change, we may even see year-round shipping on the Great Lakes! “I would encourage the Seaway Authority to continue to consult with the shipping industry and pursue investigations as to just how feasible is it to extend the season and verify market demand and then they should be able to extend their operating season,” he said. Of course, there may also be a factor of demand that would be created by a longer season that is not immediately apparent within the existing season of operations,” he said.

There would still be seasonal and engineering limitations to year-round operation of the full Seaway. “We can’t use an ice breaker in the locks, and ultimately, we have to accept that there does need to be a maintenance period to ensure the ongoing reliability and re-conditioning of the lock system.”

Tim Heney, Port of Thunder Bay CEO, said “We applaud the efforts of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. in extending the days of operation of the system. The season is now 20 per cent longer than it was when the system opened. While extending the Welland season would not have much of an impact on Thunder Bay, as most of our shipments transit the entire system, it would, however be viewed as a step in the right direction.”

Larissa Fenn, spokeswoman for Port of Hamilton, said it makes a great deal of sense to look at extending the season, which would be beneficial to a number of port users, including those engaged in steelmaking, agrifood and general cargo carriers. “An extended season would have the overall effect of improving port capacity by reducing stockpile requirements,” she said. “It could reduce logistics costs for shippers currently being diverted to ground transport, and may create new opportunities for commodities where shippers are reluctant to use marine due to the short season.”

Mike Broad, President of The Shipping Federation of Canada, said a review of the closure of the full Seaway in late December should be made to see if a longer season was possible.

Julia Fields, a spokeswoman for Chamber of Marine Commerce, said the organization “is committed to finding ways to lengthen the Great Lakes-Seaway shipping season, one of the options being explored is delaying the closing of the Welland Canal.”

Ruhl said that a longer Welland season would enable Canadian ships to deliver more gasoline and road salt. In 2017, Algoma had ships “operating year round out of Goderich delivering salt, mostly to U.S. communities that needed it. It was a harsh winter.” However, with the Welland closed, salt had to be trucked to from Goderich into the Toronto area. “That’s a route we can make by water.”

Back in 1979, a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that navigation on Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan, as well as the St. Clair River and Lake Erie, was possible year-round, and that navigation on Lake Ontario was possible for ten months out of twelve. There would have to be provisions for halting navigation if weather conditions became unsafe for navigation.

Jean Aubry-Morin, SLSMC’s Vice-President of External Relations, told the Transport Committee that the Seaway has increased its expertise in operating during winter months and increased its season to 286 days from the 262 days from when the Corporation was created. “Climate change has allowed us to operate the Seaway in winter for a much longer period than we could have imagined twenty years ago. Water and ambient temperatures have changed by about two and a half degrees, allowing us to extend the navigation season in a safe and continuous manner. We look forward to continuing to optimize the navigation season in the future.”

Shipping experts say that among the issues that would need to be resolved to consider year-round Seaway operation are the level of additional capital expenditures that may be needed, keeping the locks free of ice, providing suitable icebreakers to keep shipping lanes open, potentially higher pilotage costs and whether there would be a sufficient increase in business to justify the incremental costs.

Any discussion of a longer season will bring to mind Federal Biscay getting stuck in the ice at Snell Lock in Massena, NY, in January 2018. It took three days to free her, during which time four other ships were held up. Eventually they all reached Montreal. High-pressurized steam was the main tool used to free the ship, though several tug boats were also deployed.