By Keith Norbury

Shipments of project cargo have picked up over the last year at the ports of Thunder Bay and Hamilton, although recent figures from the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation show that general cargo volumes have dropped nearly 10 per cent so far this year after having rebounded in 2014.

“It has picked up this year,” said Tim Heney, CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority. “We’ve seen quite a variety of things come through the port. And we’re up to 10 ships now for the season, probably another five on the books to go yet.”

Cargo includes structural steel destined for western Canada, equipment bound for the Alberta oil sands, and giant shovels for a gold mine near Fort Frances, Ont. “Some capital projects have certainly been curtailed, but the ones that were underway still have to be completed,” Mr. Heney said of oil sands projects.

Figures on Port of Thunder Bay’s website show that general cargo volumes for 2015 to the end of August totalled 13,095 tonnes, compared to just 233 tonnes in the same period in 2014. Those figures include forest products. Thunder Bay’s general cargo volume for all of 2014 was 10,405 tonnes, about six times the 2013 volume of 1,651 tonnes but less than half the 22,906 tonnes handled in 2012.

Hamilton reports surge for 2014

At Port of Hamilton, project cargo shipments in 2014 totalled 58,647 cubic metres, or 14,246 tonnes, said an email from the Port Authority. That was 51 per cent more than in 2013. Shipments in 2014 included windmill blades, power plant components, steel cables and pipes.“Finished steel also enjoyed a strong year in 2014, driven by demand in the domestic automotive manufacturing industry and others,” the Port’s President and CEO, Bruce Wood, said via email.

The more than half a million tonnes of finished steel that transited the port of Hamilton in 2014 was 211 per cent greater than in 2013 and exceeded the five-year average by 68 per cent. The steel came in as slabs, coils, and beams from overseas producers in Europe and Turkey. “Finished steel is expected to continue to be strong through 2015,” Mr. Wood said.

The port, which received wind-power shipments from Germany, Spain and Denmark in 2014 is also “well-positioned geographically to serve new and expanding wind power developments in southern and southwestern Ontario,” Mr. Wood said.

And as a gateway for Ontario-produced manufactured goods, Hamilton expects that a low Canadian dollar will have a positive effect on Ontario manufacturing that will “translate into additional shipments through the port.” Overall, cargo tonnage through Hamilton was five per cent higher in 2014, at 10.5 million tonnes, than the previous year. The port also had the highest overseas cargo volumes in a decade with one in five vessels carrying U.S. overseas cargo.

Seaway general cargo tonnage slips after solid 2014

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation reported that general cargo volumes were down 9.25 per cent this year, as of August 31, compared with the same period in 2014. The Seaway handled 1.474 million tonnes of general cargo up to August 2015 compared with 1.624 million tonnes in the first eight months of 2014. However, the Seaway carried almost twice as much general cargo, 3.165 million tonnes in all of 2014 as it did in 2013, when it handled 1.623 million tonnes. In 2012, the Seaway handled 2.049 million tonnes of general cargo.

Big crane the key to Thunder Bay success

While most of the project cargo arriving in Thunder Bay comes directly from Europe, the port has also received equipment made in Sarnia, Ont., that is destined for the oil sands, Mr. Heney said.

Thunder Bay has developed much of its project cargo business around a 104-tonne capacity Liebherr harbour crane that was installed at the port in 2012. For example, the crane was able to handle a 75-tonne transformer that is too heavy for the ship’s cranes of vessels that call at the port. Fednav’s ships, the largest on the Great Lakes, have cranes with a 35-tonne maximum capacity, Mr. Heney pointed out.

Fednav is also starting to bring its FALLine liner service into Thunder Bay, Mr. Heney said. He attributes that to increased competition on the Great Lakes from Netherlands-based Spliethoff, which recently introduced a new service to Cleveland.

Suzanne Beleau-Myrand, Marketing Director for Montréal-based Fednav Limited, said that Thunder Bay’s massive harbour crane has been the biggest factor in Fednav’s increased service to the port. “That gave us an opportunity to bring in some of the cargoes that we weren’t capturing before because we didn’t necessarily have the right crane capacity on our vessels,”

Ms. Beleau-Myrand said. “We hope to build on our presence in Thunder Bay,” she added. Fednav’s breakbulk volumes have been consistent this year with past years, she said. The company now has about 60 sailings a year on the Great Lakes and annually moves about a million tonnes of project cargo.

Steel shipments a pleasant surprise

Mr. Heney said that an influx of steel at Thunder Bay has been one of the most interesting recent developments. “It’s a regular thing, and it’s something we haven’t done before, at least not in many years,” he said. Some of that steel is coming from Luxembourg, which Mr. Heney didn’t realize is a major European steel producer.

Mr. Heney also acknowledged that much uncertainty surrounds the economy, globally and in Canada. “But projects are always being built,” he said, noting a major powerline project is scheduled to begin next year in Manitoba. (The $4.6 billion Bipole III project has stirred some controversy, not the least being that its price tag has swelled from an estimated $3.3 billion in 2011.)

Wind turbine movements have dropped off from their heyday. However Mr. Heney noted that those shipments come in waves and remain a staple for Thunder Bay. “It goes by projects. They build a bunch and then seem to wait a few years and they add more,” Mr. Heney said, adding that Alberta’s new NDP government is looking to boost wind power in that province.

A downturn in the economy can also force shippers to look at more competitive ways of moving freight, which leads them to discover that Thunder Bay is “actually a less expensive option,” Mr. Heney said. And with Asian economies faltering and the U.S. economy still going strong, European manufacturers are increasingly looking toward North America. “They need to export to somewhere,” Mr. Heney said.