by Tom Peters

HALIFAX – The coastal shipping lanes of the Atlantic aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about trucking, but that might be changing soon. There’s a move afoot in the Maritimes to bring the two modes of transportation much closer to each other.

The encounter could prove interesting. Will they veer off in different directions or will the two move in tandem?

Moving cargo by water was around long before the rubber hit the road, and over its long history the marine path has gone through cycles. It remains popular for moving goods in Europe and in the southern U.S. along the Mississippi, holding a prominent place in the transportation infrastructure.

Short-sea shipping or coastal shipping, originally under sail, was the mainstay of moving goods, particularly between Atlantic Canada, New England and points as far south as Jamaica and Bermuda. It also has a history on the St. Lawrence Seaway and on the Great Lakes, plus has had some success on the West Coast.

However, as highways improved and trucks became more the favoured mode of moving product, coastal shipping — although still very much in the picture — has taken a backseat to the faster form of transportation.

Still, with such mounting concerns as the unpredictable fluctuations in the cost of fuel; the political scorn for highway congestion; the tighter security regime at the Canada-U.S. border, and the general escalating costs of truck operations, short-sea shipping is once again appearing on people’s radar — especially on the Atlantic Coast.

The federal government sure thinks the two transport modes might coexist in a fruitful partnership. It has caught the short-sea bug at least to the point where Transport Canada is jointly financing a $52,000 “Atlantica” study with Dalhousie University in Halifax and the Halifax Port Authority that looks into the potential for a sophisticatedshort-sea shipping system on the East Coast of Canada and the U.S.

Dr. Mary Brooks and J.R.F. (Dick) Hodgson, both with Dalhousie, will focus their insights on “how to develop a service you would want to use as an alternate way to move goods and for some people this is an issue about getting trucks off congested highways. For Atlantic Canadians one of those highways is the I-95 down the East Coast of the U.S.,’ says Dr. Brooks, who has an extensive background in marine transportation.

Meanwhile, one transportation analyst says the trucking industry shouldn’t be concerned about losing freight to this form of marine transport but should look at it from a point of how short-sea shipping can benefit trucking.

Sam Barone of InterVISTAS-ga2 Consulting, says the trucking industry should use short-sea to its advantage to make moves in and out of some key corridors because “the type of shipping being contemplated, I don’t think is being geared toward time definite type loads.”

He likened the situation to the trucking industry using the rail to piggyback trailers across the country. “I don’t think short sea will be a modal diversion. It should be looked at for what the economics are and the economics of shipping are very well documented,” he told Today’s Trucking. “The trucking industry can use it as they do rail, as a supplement to their own services they are providing.”

Wes Armour, president of Moncton-based Armour Transportation Systems says his company has been partnering with Oceanex Shipping Line out of Halifax to send cargo to Newfoundland and Labrador. However, he’s not convinced moving cargo from Halifax to Montreal, for example, by sea would be a great benefit because it would take too long.

Roger Swallow of Halship, a feeder short-sea operation between Halifax, Portland, and Boston, is realistic enough to know time sensitive cargo won’t work on his 500-TEU vessel. But it’s the cheapest mode of transportation, and when moving goods into the U.S., the containers are pre-cleared by U.S. Customs in Halifax before they are loaded onto the vessel, he says.

Patrick Bohan, manager of business development for the Halifax Port Authority, says for short-sea shipping to take a leap to a more practical stage it would probably be a result of trade that goes under served by trucks. He suggests the service might even be a bit of a motivator for trucking where shorter hauls from port terminals could bring costs down and less time on the road for drivers may be encouragement for people to get into the industry.

Adds Sam Barone: “Transportation is a derived demand so it is the shippers and supply chains that are deciding given the time requirements and price sensitivities. These are the combinations of modes on a blended basis that we want to have in our supply chains to deliver the goods,” he says. “We have to look at it from that respect.” 

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