By Tom Peters

In July 1998, the Regina Maersk sailed into Halifax Harbour and became the largest container vessel to ever call the port. The ship, built in 1996, had a capacity of 6,200 twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs), small by today’s standards but a sign that ships were getting bigger. Today, Maersk has its Triple E Class ships that can carry over 18,000 TEUs and there is talk in the industry of building vessels capable of carrying 22,000 TEUs.

But as ships get bigger, fewer ports can accommodate them. Port of Halifax is one of the few ports on the North American East Coast that is capable of handling the big ships. With over 16 metres of water depth at its terminals, Halifax is one of the deepest natural ice-free harbours in the world. “Terminals located within the Port – commercial terminals and Halifax Port Authority facilities – are able of providing unencumbered service to any container vessel up to 16,000 nominal TEUs,” said HPA’s Lane Farguson. “Larger capacity vessels will require a review among the vessel operator, terminal operator and HPA, taking into account the vessel’s specific characteristics and the policies of the vessel’s operator,” he said.

The port is serving big ships now, larger than the Regina Maersk. Vessels in the 7,500-TEU size have been calling the Fairview Cove terminal, operated by Ceres, since July of 2013 and those are the largest ships calling Halifax to date. “The infrastructure is already in place to allow both commercial container terminals in the port of Halifax to accept vessels of this size and up. Vessels of this size will become the industry workhorses, moving goods up and down the east coast of North America,” Farguson said.

In the past number of years, Halifax Port Authority and private operators have been building port infrastructure to make Halifax even more “big ship ready.” Halifax is able to handle large volumes of containerized cargo, in excess of a million TEUs annually, and project cargo of any size, said Farguson. Over $35-million has been invested into the South End container terminal in recent years for such projects as a pier extension, new truck marshaling facilities and new gates. Macquarie Infrastructure Partners, parent of South End terminal operator Halterm, recently invested $20 million in two super post-Panamax cranes. The terminal is capable of utilizing four super cranes on one ship and do 130 lifts an hour. In addition, a pier extension at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal was recently completed and this allows for a more efficient operation when two large vessels are berthed at the same time. “The extension has been used and needed on a few occasions since it has been completed,” said Calvin Whidden, Senior Vice-President at Ceres, the terminal operator. “We have vessels calling our terminal that are over 320 metres long. Until the berth extension, we could not dock and work all bays with another 300-metre vessel alongside. The extension allows us to dock and effectively work all bays on both vessels simultaneously,” he said.

In addition to the container terminal work, Farguson said range finders have been installed on the two harbour bridges to allow for more accurate draft measurement, and HPA is working with Halifax Harbour Bridges to have the bridges raised as they undergo necessary redecking work. “These steps are to ensure the long-term viability of the Port,” he said.

Geographically, the port of Halifax is the closest full-service container port to Northern Europe, two days closer than any other North American container port on the East Coast, said Farguson. From Europe, Halifax is served by 17 shipping lines, more than any other Canadian port and is connected to every single European Union country.

“And because Halifax is a big ship port, trade with Asia through Halifax continues to grow. Asia now accounts for 46 per cent of the containerized cargo moving through the Port. Europe is responsible for 41 per cent and Latin America and the Caribbean make up 12 per cent,” he added. “We believe container port gateways, like Halifax, will act as hubs and expedite the movement of cargo from port terminals to linked inland logistics centres. The predominant mode in North America will be rail intermodal unless there is a significant shift in the price of fuel or emission regulations,” he said.