March/April 2011

Voices from Industry

A 21st-century St. Lawrence Seaway

By Terence Bowls

Canada's mining and shipping industries have enjoyed a historic and mutually beneficial partnership, dating back over half a century to the opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway in the spring of 1959. In the decades since then, more than 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo -including iron ore from eastern Quebec and western Labrador, coal from western Canada and aggregates and road salt from Ontario have moved safely, economically and efficiently through the waters of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

This historic partnership has changed greatly over the last half century. In the 1960s and 1970s, the seaway was bustling with traffic from morning until night. Upbound ships loaded with iron ore and downbound vessels carrying western grain kept the seaway's locks, canals and shipping channels operating at peak capacity until traffic declined sharply during the recession of 1981-82. Although the economy recovered, iron ore shipments did not return to their previous levels because American steel producers spent much of the 1980s downsizing and reducing production.

More recently, the recession of 2009-10 delivered another sharp blow to both the seaway and the shipping industry. In 2009, the seaway's 50th anniversary year, cargo volumes fell 30 per cent to their lowest levels since 1961. Despite such adversity, the seaway, shipping companies and port authorities have invested well over $1 billion in the past three decades to ensure that the marine mode remains an efficient, competitive and reliable means of transport.

The seaway has installed a number of leading-edge technologies and adopted many best practices to reduce transit times and enhance the safety of the system. These measures include a state-of-art traffic control system, remote control operation of bridges and the conversion of the Weiland Canal locks from mechanical to hydraulic drives. As well, the seaway has been testing hands-free mooring technology that would eliminate the need to tie up vessels while transiting a lock and has implemented a self-spotting system for vessel mooring positioning. These initiatives hold the potential to raise productivity within our system.

Canada's leading shipping companies have demonstrated their faith in the future of marine transport by undertaking major fleet renewal programs. Over the past decade, Montreal-based Fednav International and Canada Steamship Lines, and Algoma Central Corporation of St. Catharines, Ontario, have either ordered new vessels or 94 I CIM Magazine I Vol. 6, No. 2 commissioned upgrades to existing ships, amounting to a total investment of more than $1 billion.

Another positive sign is the emergence of small, yet innovative new shipping companies. In the mid-1990s, Hamilton-based McKeil Marine launched a tug-and-barge service and currently operates the largest fleet of these units on the Great Lakes. Shallow draft barges can sail in and out of ports inaccessible to seaway-max lakers. They can haul bulk commodities, liquid commodities and project cargo such as windmill blades. As well, they can be used on short-sea or long-haul runs.

Increasingly, Canadians expect their governments and the private sector to pursue economic growth in ways that are environmentally sustainable-and marine transport has a vital role to play in achieving this objective. Ships consume less fuel, generate less noise pollution and fewer emissions than either trucks or trains. They are involved in fewer accidents and are responsible for fewer spills. Furthermore, increased use of marine transport would greatly ease the congestion on our roads and railways. One fully loaded, 222-metre Iaker can move as much cargo as 870 transport trucks & ·225 rail cars.

The St. Laurence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) and its partners recognize the global nature of world trade and the incredible demands that places on primary producers in Canada's mining sector. Raw materials must move seamlessly and efficiently from pit to rail to port, and must travel thousands of kilometres to meet the demand for ores and metallurgical coals in Europe, China, India and other points in Asia. It is worth remembering that Canada's marine transport system offers safe, reliable and cost-effective solutions to the mining industry's logistical challenges. It should also be noted that the seaway and the shipping companies have excess capacity that can be put to work moving commodities from points of origins in Canada to the markets of the world.

The seaway reaches 3,700 kilometres inland, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the head of Lake Superior. There are 50 ports on the system. The Canadian shipping industry has an enviable record of moving cargo quickly, safely and cost-effectively. As for the SLSMC itself, the investments in new technology and improved operating procedures ensure that vessels loaded with ore can move from the upper lakes to the lower St. Lawrence and onto the ocean in one smooth, hassle-free journey.

The SLSMC will continue to refine its strategy, becom-ing more nimble and productive in the process. In collaboration with our stakeholders, the SLSMC is committed to enabling North American industries to thrive in a 21st century global economy.

Terence Bowls is the president and CEO of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, incoming president-elect of CIM, and former president and CEO of the Iron Ore Company of Canada.

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