SAINT JOHN – It was certainly a blow when Tropical Shipping moved its Maritime base of operations from Saint John to Halifax last December. After all, Tropical accounted for about half the container volume that passed through Port Saint John each year.
It took nearly a year to replace that service, but port and union officials believe that CMA CGM – which made the first of weekly calls on the port last Friday – actually represents a greater growth opportunity than Tropical, and not simply the replacement of one shipping service for another.
For Tropical it was a choice between Halifax and Saint John, but that was not the case with CMA CGM, which began talks with Port Saint John very shortly after Tropical’s announcement last November. CMA CGM runs nine shipping services out of five Canadian ports, including Halifax, and it sees the various ports as “complementary” to one another, says Remi Samad, general manager of CMA CGM.
Samad said Halifax serves primarily Europe and Asia, and Saint John will mostly focus on the Caribbean and South America, much like Tropical did when it was in Saint John. But Samad said the north-south shipping line out of Saint John could also serve Asia, if need be, through the port in Kingston, Jamaica.
“Saint John’s service will be focused more on the Caribbean and South America, although we do have, through Kingston, very good coverage to Asia,” said Samad, who was in Saint John when the first ship docked here last Friday. “It depends on which market you are serving. That’s why we have multiple ports.”
While CMA CGM and the port want to maximize the export opportunities beyond the north-south service and into Asia, they are more focused on the opportunity to increase the import business through the port.
Jim Quinn, president and CEO of Port Saint John, said a lot of cargo out of Kingston is destined for Canada and arrives in North America through other Canadian and U.S. ports. Quinn said it makes sense for some of that cargo to come by ship to Saint John, which could have closer road and rail connections that reduce inland costs for shippers depending on the final destination.
There is the opportunity to get into the import business in a more significant way,” said Quinn. “To me that’s one of the more exciting propositions that CMA CGM brought to the table.”
Samad said Saint John could indeed become a “gateway” into Canada for some of CMA CGM’s shipments. He said that cargo can be offloaded in Saint John and be in Montreal or Toronto within 48 hours.
“[We] have the opportunity to route some cargo that is ending up in the Montreal and Toronto area through the Port of Saint John,” said Samad, who is based in the company’s Montreal office. “It’s efficient and we expect to have good success and traction with our customers.”
Samad said they will look at the opportunities for Saint John through the lens of providing customers an efficient and reliable service through its various Canadian ports. Most of the cargo currently comes in through B.C. ports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, he said, and then makes its way to central Canada by rail or truck.
I won’t say that we’ll be switching all of what we do to Saint John to Vancouver, but I think Saint John could also be an option,” said Samad.
“I believe it’s good for us to have multiple options. A few years ago there was a strike on the west coast and the goods couldn’t get through to the final destination. As we open the gateways and have multiple options obviously we reduce the risk of cargo being stuck for external factors.”
Obviously, the port and CMA CGM are in the early stages of exploring the various opportunities for growth on the export and import sides of the business, but they all feel optimistic about the possibilities, including the port union that lost a lot of work when Tropical left late last year.
“[This will] provide our guys with more hours when all is said and done,” said Pat Riley of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “It’s a much better opportunity to grow the Port of Saint John because of the connections [CMA CGM] has globally. It more than offsets the loss of Tropical…we believe we’re better off.”