Cablegate: Port of Halifax Grapples with Competition

Published: Fri 1 Apr 2005 09:09 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. SUMMARY: Following Danish-owned Maersk Sealand's February
decision to eliminate Halifax as a port of call on its last
remaining shipping line, the continued viability of the Port of
Halifax in relation to its U.S. competitors is again being
called into question. While Halifax Port Authority officials
continue to tout growth in cruise line stops and container cargo
as signs of positive change, it is unclear whether this growth
is a result of changing external circumstances or a result of
improved competitiveness. Observers suggest that the Maersk
Sealand pullout may indicate that the former is perhaps more
accurate, leading some to question the future economic success
of the Port of Halifax. END SUMMARY.
2. Fingers are pointing every which way in Halifax following
the news that shipper Maersk Sealand has decided to eliminate
Halifax from its Med-Gulf line's port calls, having previously
discontinued the North Atlantic line in April 2003. Local 269
of the International Longshoreman's Association blames Canadian
National (CN), the only rail service provider at the port, for
inefficient shipping of containers, but CN officials counter
that high labor costs and low productivity are to blame for the
pull-out. Maersk Sealand, on the other hand, is staying mum on
the exact reasons for the departure, citing higher operating
costs and vessel charter rates as an explanation. Maersk
Sealand represented 17% of Halterm's (one of the two container
piers in Halifax) annual container volume and 5% of all Halifax
container volume.
3. This pull out may be yet another signal that the Port of
Halifax is facing serious challenges to its position as a major
contender on the Eastern seaboard, yet the Halifax Port
Authority continues to emphasize growth and expansion in the
amount of traffic coming through Halifax. Containerized cargo
saw a record year in 2003 with a total of 4.6 million metric
tons (MT) of containerized cargo moving through Halifax, and
2004 saw only a minor decrease at 4.5 million MT. A record 122
cruise vessels stopped in Halifax in 2004 with over 210,000
passengers spending between C$14 and $16 million in the city.
These cruise vessels included two of the world's largest,
Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas.
4. With the concern over the port's future, local port
authorities are studying the impact of several global trends.
They cite major up swells in Chinese exports to North America
that have put severe pressure on West Coast ports like Vancouver
and Long Beach, leading to significant backlog of container
ships. This has led certain shipping companies to consider
Halifax as an alternative port. Although it adds two weeks to
the shipping time and increases costs by an estimated 35%, the
alternative is a three-week wait in Vancouver. Similarly, the
New York-New Jersey port is currently in the midst of a massive
dredging project designed to give the port post-panamax (ships
with capacity of over 4000 20-foot container equivalent units,
or TEUs) capacity. This construction is not slated for
completion until 2009-2011. In the meantime, Halifax is the
only post-panamax capable port north of Virginia. However, as
both Vancouver and New York-New Jersey expand their capacities
and complete their construction projects, they will be able to
recapture most, if not all, of this shipping traffic leaving
Halifax in the cold.
5. Halifax's existing post-panamax capacity gives it the
potential to participate in the "hub and spoke" trend in
international shipping, where the increasing size of ships makes
it more economical to make fewer stops at "hub" ports and ship
cargo via rail, road, or regional shipping lines to their
destination markets. Post-panamax ships are also making it
cheaper to run up the Suez Canal from Asia, through the
Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic, where Halifax is the
first potential port of call. Since it is approximately two
days faster to off-load cargo in Halifax and ship it via rail to
the U.S. Midwest than it is to take the cargo via sea to a
closer port, Halifax is an attractive first port of call for
time-sensitive shipping. However, it is also six to seven times
more expensive to ship via rail. Given the fact that most
containerized cargo is price -- not time -- sensitive Halifax's
attractiveness is heavily reliant on the cost and efficiency of
onward transport from Halifax. Although CN has made efforts to
keep its prices down, the restructuring it implemented in 2003
reduced the number of train departures per day from four to two
and resulted in a backlog of off-loaded containers. The irony
is evident: in order to keep down its prices and attract more
price-sensitive cargo, it has decreased its efficiency and
jeopardized its existing time-sensitive market. At the same
time, however, CN counters that port workers are inefficient, an
allegation, observers note, that has some substance. Halifax
sits well back compared to other North American ports in terms
of the number of TEUs off-loaded per crane per hour, although it
is more efficient in its dockyard organization. Thus, analysts
suggest that there are improvements to be made in both the
off-loading and rail-shipping aspects of the Port of Halifax.
6. Not only is Halifax challenged for its spot in the
international hub and spoke network, it is fighting to hold its
own in the competition for national shipping as well. Canada's
second largest port, Montreal, saw growth of 11.2% in
containerized traffic in 2004, an increase of 1.1 million MT,
despite the fact that Montreal is not post-panamax capable; the
large ships are incapable of navigating the St. Lawrence River.
Halifax claims that Montreal is able to maintain this growth in
large measure due to subsidized federal government services such
as river ice breaking, unnecessary in coastal ports. Officials
from the Halifax Port Authority have also expressed dismay at
how little of the federal money for security improvements came
to them and are lobbying the federal government to receive equal
levels of funding, which Halifax could then put toward port
development and improvement.
7. Another factor in assessing the long-term competitive
position of the port of Halifax is in its corporate structure.
Some local analysts suggest that the character of the ownership,
operation and control of port operations stymies the port's
ability to adequately attract more business. Halifax has two
container terminals each leased by separate, privately-owned
corporations. The first is Halterm, which is owned by the
Halterm Income Fund and jointly managed by CN and a private
Canadian shipping company, Clarke Transport; the second is
CERESCORP, which is owned by Kristos Kritikos of Chicago. These
two corporations lease the facilities that are owned by the
locally managed Halifax Port Authority, which also provides
leadership to stakeholders, and has a mandate to develop new
8. The situation is further complicated by the existence of
four different labor unions: the International Longshoreman's
Association (local 269), the Checkers Union, the Maintenance and
Gear Men's Union, and the Watchmen's Union. Cooperation with CN
is also important both for the continued viability of existing
terminals as well as the construction of a third terminal
sometime in the future. The Halifax Port Authority has
spearheaded the Smart Terminal Initiative to provide for more
consistent service and increased cooperation between the
different levels of government. However, local analysts note
that there are still many obstacles to overcome in this area.
9. An addition factor influencing growth of the port is the
fact that neither Halterm nor CERESCORP can use their land and
facilities as collateral on credit for capital and investment
projects. These companies also pay charges on gross revenue (5%
on the first $60 million) to the federal government and must
have their business plans approved by the federal government.
The local argument is that this requirement prevents a long-term
commercial vision, limits profitability while maximizing the
return to Ottawa, and discourages regional reinvestment for the
10. COMMENT: Port stakeholders and industry analysts conclude
that the Port of Halifax is at a crossroads in that it has a
limited window of opportunity to capitalize on changing trends
in international shipping. It can either establish itself as a
less-profitable regional port, or make significant investments
to present itself as a "hub" port in the new hub and spoke
system. The recent pull-out of Maersk Sealand has local
analysts suggesting that Halifax is slipping behind its U.S.
eastern seaboard competitors in terms of marketing itself, and
that any gains in container traffic can be attributed more to
external circumstances (backlog and construction in other ports,
for example) and not an increase in efficiency or
competitiveness in the port itself. While the Port of Halifax
is making important steps towards the goal of establishing
itself as a hub port of call, most observers agree that the
competition will be fierce. END COMMENT.
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