Good year in 2012 thanks mainly to diversification efforts

The Port of Montreal is no stranger to adapting. Regarded decades ago as mainly an exporter of grain, Montreal transformed itself into one of North America’s leading container ports. Today, it is much more than that. It is a diversified port that welcomes more than 2,000 ships annually carrying all types of cargo to and from all parts of the world.

The port’s efforts to diversify the types of cargo it handles and the international markets it serves paid huge dividends in 2012 when it handled more than 28 million tonnes of cargo, down only 0.4 per cent from its record-setting year of 2011.

“Considering the difficult economic context, 2012 was a very good year for the port,” said Sylvie Vachon, President and CEO of the Montreal Port Authority. “We are pleased that our diversified clientele had confidence in us and continued to use the port – the only truly diversified port on the St. Lawrence River – as an undeniable logistics solution.”

The port handled 12 million tonnes of containerized cargo traffic in 2012, down 3.5 per cent from the previous year. The total number of 20-foot equivalent units stood at 1.38 million TEUs, up 0.9 per cent from 2011.

Montreal is the leading port on the North American East Coast for container traffic to and from Northern Europe. “As such, we were affected by the economic situation there, and economic uncertainty in the United States,” Ms. Vachon said.

“But because we have become more of a diversified port that is connected to all continents, and because we are benefiting from the phenomenon of transshipment through the Suez Canal to Mediterranean hub ports, we have been able to maintain our strong container volumes.”

Indeed, market diversification was particularly evident in the port’s container sector in 2012, where Northern Europe accounted for almost 47 per cent of the boxes moving through Montreal, followed by the Mediterranean at 19 per cent, Asia (close to 14 per cent), the Middle East (more than 7 per cent), Latin America (almost 6 per cent) and Africa/Oceania (4 per cent).

“Because of our market diversification efforts, the pedigree of the container shipping lines that call our port, our first-class terminal operators, and our intermodal system that continues to prove itself over and over again, we are confident that the slight decrease in container traffic in 2012 is only a temporary situation,” Ms. Vachon said.

Liquid bulk traffic enjoyed another strong year in 2012, totalling almost 10 million tonnes. Although traffic in this category was down 9.7 per cent from 2011, which was a truly exceptional year thanks to a significant increase in petroleum products traffic, the 2012 results remain very positive. “Last year was still an exceptional one – our second best in this sector in at least the last 50 years – and we are forecasting that traffic in this category will continue to grow,” Ms. Vachon said.

Total grain traffic through the Port of Montreal was up a whopping 76.3 per cent to more than 3 million tonnes in 2012, the first full year of operation of the port’s grain terminal under Viterra Inc. “Thanks to Viterra, our performance in the grain sector was truly incredible,” Ms. Vachon said.

“We felt all along that engaging a world-class company and international player such as Viterra to operate our grain terminal would bring in additional traffic volumes for the benefit of the entire grain community, including local producers, as well as shipping lines, the railways and trucking companies, and this was confirmed in 2012.”

Other dry bulk traffic was up by 1 per cent to more than 3 million tonnes in 2012 thanks mainly to increased movements of iron ore and salt.

The port also welcomed almost 55,000 cruise ship passengers in 2012, an increase of close to 17,000 passengers over the previous year.

Among other highlights, the port authority continued to integrate sustainable development into all of its decision-making processes and activities in 2012. It took delivery of three more energy-efficient multiple-generator locomotives for its railway fleet, and it also developed a communications strategy with neighbouring communities that allows the port authority to share and exchange with citizens information on its activities and projects.

Looking ahead

The Montreal Port Authority is working on projects in the liquid bulk and cruise sectors “that will add value to our activities on the whole, and I am confident that we will be able to talk more about them in 2013,” Ms. Vachon said.

The port authority is moving forward with a specific and concrete action plan to develop container-handling facilities on land that it owns at Contrecoeur, located 40 kilometres downstream from Montreal. Environmental, feasibility and technical studies are continuing.

“Contrecoeur is an excellent site that has the dimensions to accommodate many developmental phases in the future,” Ms. Vachon said. “Situated on the St. Lawrence River and connected to road and rail networks, Contrecoeur is an exceptional site for our logistics platform and for future development of the container sector.”

The port authority has also garnered support from the City of Montreal and Transport Quebec for proposals that would provide trucks with greater direct access to the port and on ways to connect the port more directly with the highway network. “These projects will improve the flow of traffic to and from the port,” Ms. Vachon said.

Under the umbrella of adapting and reinventing itself, the port authority will invest some $200 million over the next five years to upgrade its facilities. The biggest project involves the reorganization of the Viau sector into a container-handling area from a bulk-handling site. The Government of Canada announced last March a contribution of up to $15.1 million toward this project and to modernize container-handling infrastructure in the Maisonneuve sector. Work on the Viau and Maisonneuve projects will be completed by March 2014.

The federal government also announced last March a subsidy of $500,000 for Phase 2 of an electronic navigation project in the St. Lawrence River channel from Quebec City to Montreal. This second phase will allow for the implementation of technology that will increase the loading capacity of vessels by maximizing the use of the water column in the channel. An announcement on the launch of Phase 2 is forthcoming.

“We thank the Canadian Coast Guard and the pilots who guide ships to Montreal for their efforts to further improve navigation to the port,” Ms. Vachon said.

Rigorous control of expenditures will also remain a top priority for the port authority “as there is very little room to manoeuvre,” Ms. Vachon said.

The Montreal Port Authority will continue to adapt into the future. “Today, you don’t manage a port like you did 20 years ago,” Ms. Vachon said. “Markets have changed. Opportunities for growth have changed. We must adapt to change, and we will continue to do so. The success of the port has been its ability to adapt, from predominately a grain port decades ago to a diversified port today.

“Running a port today is much more than just managing infrastructure,” Ms. Vachon continued. “We are a core element of the supply chain. The port is 2,000 ships annually. It’s 2,500 trucks per day. It’s 80 trains per week. It’s the 3,000 people who work on the port each day. It’s the 18,200 jobs that port activity supports, and the $1.5 billion in economic benefits that it generates annually.”