By Brian Dunn

There’s nothing like good news to start off a new year. Port of Montreal handled a record 35.2 million tonnes of cargo in 2016, up 9.3 per cent per cent from 2015. This year could well be another record breaker with the help of the official opening of the 350,000 TEU-capacity Viau Terminal.

“Last year was a record for us in terms of volume. With Viau in full operation, we expect 2017 to be even better,” said Julian Dubreuil, General Manager of Termont Terminal. “Trade with the Mediterranean has increased, because MSC has increased the size of the vessel used on that route.”

Termont isn’t planning any major capital investments this year, following the $44 million investment on equipment and container handling services to support strategic growth at Viau. The terminal can increase capacity to 600,000 TEUs if new business warrants it. “Phase II will be based on market demand and it’s hard to say when that would take place, but I expect it to happen within the next five years,” said Mr. Dubreuil.

Volume was down slightly last year compared to 2015 at Empire Stevedoring, according to president Andrew Chodos, which he attributed to an energy sector “hit hard” in Newfoundland. The overall commodities market was also tough which impacted steel and copper imports. “We’re a little more optimistic this year, because we’re handling about four times more copper than last year due to imports from Chile and we still think there will be a decent amount of steel imports.”

There’s not much happening in capital investments after spending “a lot” in 2015, but the company is renewing a portion of its on-dock rail tracks. “Last year saw the culmination of our equipment upgrade program as Empire had completed its acquisition of new equipment and specialized handling gear of $6 million over the previous years in order to upgrade its container handling capacity and its general cargo handling capacity, most notably for steel products.”

Logistec was a bit of a construction site last year with work to complete the Viau terminal which was encroaching on its bulk operations, said company President and CEO Madeleine Paquin. “There are opportunities for project cargo for the construction of the Champlain Bridge for all Montreal terminal operators as opposed to Valleyfield or [The Port of] Côte-Sainte-Catherine. And Viau is now fully operational. We just need customers, because now we can handle more cargo.”

The new Champlain Bridge represents one of biggest worksites in North America. It will cost $4.2 billion to build and is expected to be completed by December, 2018. Just connecting the bridge to the South Shore of Montreal will require 18,500 tonnes of steel and 17,000 cubic metres of concrete, according to project manager SNC Lavalin, which doesn’t yet have a total figure for the completed structure.

This year is more encouraging, following a weak 2016 with container carriers struggling, suggested Ms. Paquin. “The economy was down and a lot of projects didn’t happen, but commodity prices are firming up which should help exports. In the last two years, we’ve invested heavily in MtlLINK (an intermodal warehousing facility close to the Port of Montreal) and in both Contrecoeur and Montreal.”

Logistec is also improving its environmental footprint, particularly in Contrecoeur where it is installing sheds and dust minimization equipment. “We’re also investing a lot of time to work with (logistical and transportation cluster) CargoM and the port to develop the distribution business and to encourage importers to establish themselves in the Greater Montreal region. We’re all trying to make Montreal an attractive place to do business, but trying to copy Savannah is not easy. We’d just like a piece of that business.”

Montreal Gateway Terminals (MGT) has been very active under its new owners, a consortium led by Fiera Axium Infrastructure Inc. The consortium comprises Fiera Axium Infrastructure Canada II L.P., Desjardins Group, via its insurance subsidiaries and its Pension Plan, Manulife, Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Industrial Alliance. “We have a very engaged Board. There is more optimism that was definitely not there last year and more positive thinking,” said Michael Fratianni, President and CEO of MGT. Last year was flat compared to 2015, but the terminal operator is projecting about three per cent growth in 2017 from a general improvement in the Canadian and European economies. “We’re expecting more organic growth as some lines are using bigger vessels calling at Montreal. I think we’ve hit rock bottom in terms of freight rates and capacity is tightening up a bit.” Business will also get a boost from the EU-Canada free-trade deal, Mr. Fratianni added.

MGT is first Canadian container terminal facility to convert two rubber-tired gantry cranes from diesel to electric power, Mr. Fratianni noted. The retrofit will reduce MGT`s greenhouse gas emissions, noise and fuel consumption as well as improve operational efficiency.

Globally, container shipping has gone through a never seen before transformational cycle. Over the last twelve to eighteen months there have been a number of mergers and acquisitions, three new mega alliances were formed and a mammoth carrier went bankrupt. Hopefully all this change will lead to a much needed sustained recovery, for an industry that some experts are saying will have lost close to $10 billion last year. “There still remains some level of unpredictability and unknowns, both beyond our control. So we will stay focused on improving operating performance by investing in new equipment and through modernizing processes,” Mr. Fratianni said.