Port of Montreal has historically operated as a terminus port with ships sailing directly to the port fully loaded, unloading all their cargo, then reloading completely before turning around to sail to their new destination.

This experience of unloading entire shiploads of containers has given the port a unique advantage when faced with the challenges of handling larger vessels. When an Ultra Large Container Ship (ULCS) stops at a U.S. East Coast port, the vessel may only discharge one quarter of its 10,000-TEU or larger cargo. While those volumes of boxes are creating headaches for port and terminal operators unaccustomed to handling such high volumes of containers at once, it’s a common practice at Montreal, where vessels completely discharge and reload.

Draft restrictions on the St. Lawrence River in the summer and ice in the winter promise to prevent ULCSs from calling the port. This past summer, the Termont group partially opened Montreal’s new Viau Terminal. A partnership between Logistec Corp., Cerescorp, and Terminal Investment Ltd., which is two-thirds owned by MSC, Termont will invest about $42 million to equip Viau with two new ship-to-shore post-Panamax cranes, five rubber-tire gantry cranes, six reach stackers, reefer stations and other equipment.

Madeleine Paquin, President of Termont Montréal Inc., and President and CEO of Logistec Corp., said Viau’s capacity will add 600,000 TEUs to the port, bringing Montreal’s container capacity to 2.1 million TEUs. “The interesting aspect of shipping containers to and from Montreal is the fact that a ship fully discharges and reloads,” Ms. Paquin said. The proximity of the 110 million people from the (U.S.) Midwest to Ontario and Quebec adds up to a pretty big market to serve.” Better transit times are not found for shipping to the Greater Montreal area, said Ms. Paquin.

The additional capacity provided by the Viau Terminal will allow somewhat larger ships to call Port of Montreal despite its draft restrictions, according to Sokat Shaikh, Managing Director of MSC (Canada). The 4,860-TEU MSC Carouge became the largest container carrier to call Montreal in 2011. “If you look at the order book for the top container carriers, MSC has about 713,000 TEUs of capacity coming online in the next 2-4 years,” Mr. Shaikh said. “That is about 27 percent of our fleet still to come in.

“What that means for the East Coast of Canada is as the bigger ships such as MSC Oscar and MSC Oliver go into the main trade lanes, Montreal will get larger ships than it is getting now, just not the megaships because of the draft restrictions of the river.”

While Montreal will remain a terminus port, Ms. Paquin doubts megaships will ever resort to single calls at other ports. “The rotation concept of making 2-3 calls on one coast won’t change with bigger ships,” she said. “Because of our experience handling large volumes of containers in one call, I believe Montreal will have no trouble remaining a niche facility that will hold its own competing in the marketplace. “Our experience makes us quite fluid in terms of getting boxes onto trains or trucks,” Ms. Paquin said. “Viau will allow the port to grow its footprint to stay competitive.”