Submitted by Shipping Federation of Canada – By Michael Broad

Canadian winters can be brutal – as Mother Nature has all too vividly reminded us over the last few years – and keeping Canada’s roads, rails and shipping lanes open to move cargo can be a daunting challenge. Given that another winter is almost upon us, the time is ripe to take stock of our readiness and put the necessary pieces in place to ensure the most efficient winter navigation season possible.

Perhaps the most logical place to start is with the Canadian Coast Guard, which is responsible for providing and maintaining the icebreakers that make winter navigation (and trade) possible in the first place, especially in potentially dangerous and ice-laden areas such as the north-east coast of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Without adequate icebreaking services, most of the St. Lawrence River and Saguenay ports, which are used by some of Canada’s largest exporters and importers, would suffer serious impacts.

Despite its essential role, the Coast Guard’s current fleet of icebreakers is in a precarious state, and has been so for a number of years. The fleet consists of several vessels that are between 30 and 40 years old and are in continual need of maintenance and repair. It also suffers from a lack of replacement parts, meaning that a significant number of units are operating at less than full capacity at any given time. As a result, the fleet has very limited ability to respond to extreme or unexpected circumstances, such as those presented during the early and brutally cold winter of 2013/2014, when numerous ships were delayed awaiting icebreaker assistance. Although the government has allocated funds for “life extensions” of these vessels, it is debatable how long one can extend the life of a vessel that is already 45 years old, or for that matter, how wise an investment of public funds doing so would be.

The only logical means of ensuring the provision of adequate icebreaking services in the long-term is for the government to reconsider its funding priorities (which currently include construction of a billion dollar polar icebreaker for use in the Canadian Arctic), and start investing significantly in the renewal of the existing icebreaker fleet. As part of this process, the government may also need to start considering the feasibility of building icebreakers overseas, as it is our understanding that Canadian shipyards are so busy with smaller Coast Guard builds and Department of Defence contracts that their first available slot to build an icebreaker would be seven or eight years down the road – a timeframe that is less that optimal given the state of the icebreaking fleet today. Although we appreciate the rationale for the “made in Canada” policy that currently governs the construction of government ships, the introduction of a more flexible approach that allows for building overseas in a limited number of cases would save both time and money, and ensure the safety and reliability of winter operations along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes sooner rather than later.

Although the acquisition of new icebreaking units is a priority from the shipping industry’s perspective, the industry also has other tools in its arsenal for ensuring that cargo continues to move this winter, regardless of how harsh or unexpected conditions may turn out to be. A key tool in this respect is the Shipping Federation’s annual pre-season ice meeting, which serves as a forum in which regulatory authorities, ports, service providers and carriers join forces to plan for the upcoming winter navigation season. Among the items on the agenda are environmental forecasts from the Canadian Ice Service, reports from the Coast Guard’s regional ice centres on vessel deployment plans, and updates from Transport Canada on regulatory requirements governing ice navigation in Canadian waters. The information that is garnered and shared during this meeting provides a baseline scenario for the winter conditions that lie ahead, and enables stakeholders to more efficiently plan and allocate the necessary resources.

In a similar vein, the Federation has arranged a meeting in Vancouver this October at which the railways, ports, terminal operators and ocean carriers will share their plans for the 2015/2016 winter season from an intermodal perspective. We have all seen the havoc that severe winter conditions can wreak on railway operations, and how the resulting delays can reverberate through the supply chain all the way to the marine terminal. Short of developing and building new infrastructure, the best means of avoiding such potentially devastating ripple effects in the future is for supply chain participants to exchange information and work collaboratively not only on maximizing the system’s capacity, but improving its resiliency as well.