By Tom Peters

CN’s Executive Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer, J.J. Ruest, threw down the gauntlet at Halifax Port Days last September, challenging Halifax port stakeholders, including his own CN, to focus on speed and efficiency in the movement of cargo if they want to make and keep Port of Halifax competitive with New York and other major East Coast ports. Several months later it would appear the port/CN community took Ruest’s challenge seriously and has risen to the occasion.

“CN has changed in a big way recently,” said Calvin Whidden, Senior Vice-President at Ceres-Halifax, operator of the port’s Fairview Cove container terminal. “They are more cooperative and more supportive of our common customer needs by supplying more rail cars on a more timely basis. This has reduced the average dwell time for import containers on our terminal significantly while import volumes have increased. At the end of August the import container dwell time on our terminal was 4.6 days. Since Sept. 1, 2015, our average import dwell times are less than two days,” Whidden said. “CN has always been and continues to be able to deliver the exports on time for the vessel calls at Ceres.” Whidden said Ceres and CN “collectively communicate more often and in more detail to achieve a better working plan which has also contributed to a better and more efficient service to our customers.”

Ashley Dinning, CEO and Managing Director at Halterm said although he wasn’t at the port days’ conference to hear Ruest speak, comments from his staff have been positive.

He said Halterm’s Chief of Operations, Kim Holtermand, has been working closely with CN to ensure there are railcars in place at the right time to service Halterm customers. “He has seen an improvement in that regard,” Dinning said during a telephone conversation en route to Australia.

Richard Moore, President and CEO, Halifax Employers Association (HEA), said based on his observations, CN has upped its game plan with customers in Halifax to try and improve service levels. “The relationship between CN and stakeholders in the port has definitely improved over the last few months, especially following a difficult period last winter when the weather played havoc with everyone’s operations,” Moore said. “HPA (Halifax Port Authority) has played a significant role in fostering this relationship.” Moore said there has been at least one port stakeholder meeting of late with representation from CN, HEA, the council of ILA locals, port officials and container terminal operators. “The discussion was very constructive, open and frank. I believe all parties are committed to improving our competitiveness. We have been and are working with the ILA to improve the staffing levels by hiring and training more individuals and this will continue through 2016,” Moore said.

Atlantic Container Line, a long time CN customer, also gives kudos to the rail line. Fritz King, ACL’s Managing Director, said “Our recent experience with Canadian National has been positive. Considering the severe weather the region experienced last winter, delays even at that time were within levels of tolerance and have been very good subsequently. Volumes at the port overall this past year, however, were not heavy. We, unlike many of our competitors, are a fairly well balanced carrier in terms of traffic flow and consequently provide an excellent fit for rail (CN). Rail carriage is very much a key component of our total performance package for the large majority of our clientele, and it’s essential that service continues to work to the best advantage possible,” he said.

CN has a long and strong relationship with Halifax Port Authority and its two container terminal operators, Halterm Ltd. and Ceres-Halifax Corp., said CN’s Mark Hallman. “This is evidenced in the fact that Halifax was the first port at which CN implemented a service level agreement to promote increased supply chain collaboration and accountability, better communication and continuous performance improvement,” he said.

At both Halifax container terminals, container dwell numbers have generally improved as have total transit times from vessel arrival at the port to container availability at CN’s inland intermodal facilities in Toronto, Detroit and Chicago. “CN, the port and terminal operators and their employees are excited about growth prospects that have been absent at the port since 2010,” said Hallman. In 2015 these collaborative efforts led to the G6 Shipping Alliance (Hapag Lloyd, OOCL, MOL, NYK, Hyundai and APL) adding an export call to the Port of Halifax on its Asia Suez Express (AZX) service, and to CMA CGM adding Halifax as a first port of call on its Columbus Service. These collective efforts are paying off for all involved. CN’s Q4-2015 rail volume in TEUs over the port of Halifax was up over 40 per cent from the Q4-2014 period. “The bottom line is that we are all in this together,” said Hallman. “The key to success is an effective supply chain mindset with proactive communication; port terminal dwell time of one to three days and to be the first port to deliver the container inland; and solid partnerships with realistic expectations and common goals,” he added.

Halifax Port Authority works closely with CN as well as the terminal operators to consistently improve efficiency by reducing dwell times for cargo containers, said the Authority’s Lane Farguson. “What we look for are supply chain solutions that work for us and for all our partners. Commercially, we are very pleased with the model we now have in place, he said. Farguson said HPA welcomed Ruest’s comments. “We were very excited to hear his enthusiasm about working with Halifax to further utilize assets and facilities. Our focus is to continue working with key partners and stakeholders including CN to fill the capacity we have in Halifax.”