Bulk handling on North America’s vital waterway

The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System is a deep draught waterway extending 3,700km (2,340 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes, in the heart of North America. The St. Lawrence Seaway portion of the System extends from Montreal to mid-Lake Erie. Ranked as one of the outstanding engineering feats of the twentieth century, the St. Lawrence Seaway includes 13 Canadian and 2 US locks.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River have been major North American trade arteries since long before the US or Canada achieved nationhood. Today, this integrated navigation system serves miners, farmers, factory workers and commercial interests from the western prairies to the eastern seaboard.

Virtually every commodity imaginable moves on the Great Lakes Seaway System. Annual commerce on the System exceeds 

180mt (million metric tonnes), and there is still ample room for growth. Some commodities are dominant:

  • iron ore for the steel industry;
  • coal for power generation and steel production;
  • limestone for construction and
  • steel industries;
  • grain for overseas markets;
  • general cargo, such as iron and steel products and heavy machinery; and
  • cement, salt and stone aggregates for agriculture and industry.
The primary carrier vessels fall into three main groups: the resident Great Lakes bulk carriers or ‘lakers’; ocean ships or ‘salties’; and tug-propelled barges. US and Canadian lakers move cargo among Great Lakes ports, with both nations’ laws reserving domestic commerce to their own flag carriers. Salties flying the flags of other nations connect the Lakes with all parts of the world.

To realize the magnitude of this commerce, consider the impact of some typical cargoes:

  • one 1,000ft-long Great Lakes vessel carries enough iron ore to operate a giant steel mill for more than four days;
  • a similar ‘super laker’ carries enough coal to power Greater Detroit for one day; and
  • a Seaway-size vessel moves enough wheat to make bread for every resident of NewYork City for nearly a month.

For every tonne of cargo, there are scores — often hundreds — of human faces behind the scenes. On board, there are the mariners themselves, while shore side there are lock operators and longshoremen, vessel agents and freight forwarders, ship chandlers and shipyard workers, stevedores and terminal operators, Coast Guard personnel and port officials, railroad workers and truck drivers — a wide web of service providers.

Opened to navigation in 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway part of the system has moved more than 2.5 billion metric tonnes of cargo in 50 years, with an estimated value of more than $375 billion. Almost 25% of this cargo travels to and from overseas ports, especially Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. From Great Lakes/Seaway ports, a multi-modal transportation network fans out across the continent. More than 40 provincial and interstate highways and nearly 30 rail lines link the 15 major ports of the system and 50 regional ports with consumers, products and industries all over North America.


Since its inception in 1959, over 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo valued in excess of $375 billion has been transported via the Seaway. The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), on behalf of the Government of Canada, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC), on behalf of the United States Government, are dedicated to managing the Seaway channels and locks based upon the precepts found in the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability:

  • environmental – the SLSMC and SLSDC work diligently in overseeing transits into their waters, such that marine carriers move cargo in a manner that minimizes their environmental footprint;
  • economic — the SLSMC and SLSDC adapt new work practices and procedures and leverage technology to further refine their operations. The end result is a transportation system that moves tonnage cost effectively, reinforcing stakeholders’ economic competitiveness.
  • social — the SLSMC and SLSDC continue to advocate the advantages of moving cargo via the Great Lakes Seaway System, recognizing that marine transportation is the most energy efficient mode, having a very advantageous greenhouse gas footprint. 


The marine mode of transportation exhibits the best fuel economy of any mode. When compared to transportation by rail and truck, the marine mode can move a tonne of cargo much further on a single litre of fuel. Given the design characteristics of a vessel’s hull, vessels actually operate more efficiently when loaded to capacity.


Superior fuel economy also plays a key role in explaining the marine mode’s advantageous performance in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. As we face the challenge of lowering our carbon footprint and reducing the level of greenhouse gases emitted each year, the marine mode provides a unique opportunity thanks to its superior fuel economy.


Vessels sailing within the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes use a wide variety of fuels. The actual fuel used depends upon the type of engine and auxiliary power units installed in the vessel, and the vessel’s trading pattern. Most vessels, whether oceangoing or dedicated to the lake trade use heavy fuels varying from Intermediate Fuel 60 to Intermediate Fuel 700. The number indicates the viscosity or thickness. Vessels with steam propulsion normally use heavy fuels in the Intermediate Fuel 380 to Intermediate Fuel 700 range in their boilers whereas diesel-propelled ships consume lighter blends between Intermediate Fuel 60 and Intermediate Fuel 320. Marine diesel oil is also consumed by some vessels, and this fuel consists primarily of distillate fuel with a very small quantity of heavy fuel added or gas oil which is pure distillate available in several grades. Heavy fuel supplies bunkered (sold) on the Great Lakes typically has a sulphur content ranging from 1.5% to 2%.

In comparison, distillate fuels usually have .005% sulphur content.


According to Ken Westcar, marine market manager with Toromont Marine Power Systems located in Toronto, Ontario, new or repowered vessels on the Great Lakes Seaway System are fitted with engines having exhaust emission limits in compliance with International Maritime Organization (IMO) or US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. These rules are increasingly stringent, and revised International Maritime Organization standards coming into effect on 1 January 2011 (IMO II) require a significant reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from engines installed after that date. Most
shipowners are now specifying IMO II/Environmental Protection Agency Tier 2 compliant engines well in advance of the deadline.

For vessels that were once powered by steam, engine replacements featuring modern marine diesels combined with the installation of exhaust gas heat recovery devices and shaft driven alternators has, in some cases, reduced the vessels’ nitrogen oxide emissions by 75% or more. Most fleets have engine update programs that will substantially reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions on the Great Lakes when burning traditional fuels.


Air quality is an important factor in determining quality of life. The simple fact is that ships move a lot more cargo per unit of horsepower. Even if ships are not quite as clean per unit of horsepower, they burn much less fuel to move a tonne of cargo. 

When viewed from this perspective, the marine mode once again becomes the transportation mode of choice, as burning less fuel equates to fewer emissions being vented into the air.


A single Seaway-sized laker can carry about 25,000 tonnes of cargo. To carry an equivalent amount of cargo, you would need to assemble a fleet of 870 large trucks or 225 rail cars.

Moving more cargo via the marine mode provides the opportunity to reduce the amount of congestion on our busy highways and railroads.


The marine mode of transportation is the clear winner when it comes to safety. Accident definitions and reporting criteria differ somewhat by mode as well as in the reporting methods employed in Canada and the United States. However, estimates of standardized frequencies of accidents and their consequences in terms of deaths and injuries are published by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics

(National Transportation Statistics Report). These statistics show that moving cargo via the marine mode is the safest means available.

Quality of life cannot be defined strictly by the price of goods on a supermarket shelf. It is important to consider what it takes to get the goods to market. These factors include not only energy efficiency, emissions, and safety, but also factors such as spills, noise and congestion that the movement of goods brings about.

‘Spills’ in this context refers to harmful discharges into the environment occurring as a consequence of freight transportation. Within this definition, are included cargo leakages, accidental or deliberate spills, and discharges of materials used in the transportation process — most prominently fuels or lubricants used by vehicles or vessels.

Noise from transport is commonly held to be a nuisance, particularly by those living near airports, rail marshalling yards, and highways. Noise is difficult to measure in ways which represent the nuisance that it produces.

In the absence of any quantitative evidence, it can only be conjectured how noise nuisance differs among the three  freight modes. However, in view of the relative proximity of transport operations to residential areas, as well as the inherent nature of the transportation equipment and engines, it is proposed that trucks impose the greatest noise nuisance per tonne-km while vessels impose the least amount of noise nuisance.

Traffic congestion impacts a number of factors, including delays in shipments, increased greenhouse gas emissions, higher air contamination, and increased noise. In the absence of quantified estimates for traffic conditions in the region bordering the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, only conjecture of qualitative rankings is possible. It is clear from the nature of marine traffic that there are few, if any, delays on the water.

In terms of rail, some serious congestion occurs around Chicago, the largest US rail hub, and the location of substantial transshipment activity. Considering truck traffic, there is severe congestion during rush hours in all of the major cities, and some cities such as Toronto are experiencing increasing congestion even within the daytime period between rush hour peaks. 

Experience is the byword of Federal Marine Terminals 
There’s one word that best describes Federal Marine Terminals: experience. FMT started as a small operation in Chicago in 1965 and in 50 years, has grown into a multi-terminal cargo- handling company with a sterling reputation in North America.

Back then, land at 95th Street on the Calumet River was purchased, an old coal dock was resurfaced, sheds were refurbished, forklifts and mobile cranes rented, and in no time, FMT Chicago was born. The company, a division of Fednav Limited headquartered in Montreal, has a sales office in Charlotte, and operates twelve facilities in the US and Canada in the Great Lakes and East and Gulf Coast areas, employing 65 management and administrative employees and 800 to 1,200 longshore employees. FMT handles various commodities that include general cargo, dry bulk, various steel products, wind components, alloys, forest products, and project cargo.

Aside from its 50-year history, several other factors distinguish FMT and have facilitated its growth. Strategic locations of FMT terminals allow for its presence in ports where the Fednav suite — including its shipowning and chartering, liner, and logistic services — do business. FMT offers stevedoring and terminal handling for all types of dry cargo, employing specialized and efficient equipment and proprietary software for cargo and terminal management. A strong management team is supported by a well-trained and safety-oriented labour force that cares for the cargo in its custody. With solid values, award-winning environmental excellence recognition, and a focus on customers, employees, and the community, FMT has lived up to its high standards in reliable, safe, and efficient cargo handling for five decades.

The cornerstone of the company’s operations is built on the establishment of long-term relationships with business partners and with its labour force. The guiding principles that have led to the success of FMT are tried and true: concentrating on niche markets, providing consistently excellent service, and maintaining strict safety norms and guidelines.

These enduring values are paying off. 2014 proved to be an outstanding year with over 9.3mt (million tonnes) of cargo handled by FMT.

Other recent newsworthy mentions include an anniversary trio of celebrations in Cleveland last November for FMT (50 years), FALLine, the company’s liner service (55 years), and Fednav (70 years). Additionally, the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor recently recorded the highest shipments in its 44-year history where FMT is the port’s terminal operator.

Looking forward, FMT will continue to actively seek opportunities for growth, whether by increasing business in current locations or adding new ones, while falling back on its exemplary operating principles, remaining flexible and versatile, and ensuring that its work force stays current with safety and security procedures and technological improvements.

According to its chairman, Paul Pathy, FMT shows its commitment to servicing the ports in which each terminal operates, be it on the Atlantic coast or the heartland of America.“Each FMT terminal is an integral part of the services that the company offers.Together, delivering a higher standard is not only a promise, but the hallmark of the Fednav group of companies.”

Although experience defines Federal Marine Terminals, its mission is to continuously look for new growth opportunities while improving procedures and services. By increasing its presence in North American ports and treating customers like business partners, FMT looks forward to the next 50 years of handling cargo. 

Western Canadian grain surge drives Thunder Bay’s best results in 16 years  

The Port of Thunder Bay is Canada’s Gateway to the West, built as a crucial transportation link connecting the western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba with the world.

Thunder Bay is a diverse port, serving as both an export  point and inbound hub, linking to the marine highway known as the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Seaway System. In addition to Canada’s largest grain storage capacity,Thunder Bay is home to substantial cargo handling infrastructure. The following operational terminals are located in the port:
  • ?  eight grain elevators (all grain varieties);

  • ?  three dry bulk facilities (coal, potash, salt, urea, grain, etc.);

  • ?  two liquid bulk facilities (petroleum, liquid chemicals);

  • ?  one aggregate facility (stone, sand);

  • ?  one general cargo facility (project cargo, forest products); and 

  • ?  a full-service cruise ship terminal connects tourists to the picturesque port city. 


The Port of Thunder Bay has entered the 2015 shipping season amidst optimism, buoyed by the strong results of the 2014 shipping season which wrapped up in January. The port recorded its highest cargo volumes in 16 years due to a surge in shipments of western Canadian grain.

Thunder Bay’s grain volumes in 2014 were 43% higher than the five-year average. Among the increases in grain shipments, the port shipped its second highest volume of canola on record, and its highest volume of wheat since 1997.

“Canadian grain companies are demonstrating their confidence in the Seaway supply chain with the tremendous volumes,” remarks Tim Heney, 

CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority. According to Heney, shippers are taking notice of the capacity of Thunder Bay and the Seaway to handle the sudden rise in grain cargo, “The efficiency of the port’s grain elevators is key. An average of 1mt [million tonnes] of grain were loaded in Thunder Bay every month of the 2014 season.”

The furthest inland port in Canada,Thunder Bay is the Canadian terminus of the Seaway System. The Seaway is the largest inland waterway in the world, and efficiently handles 40mt of cargo annually, with capacity to grow. The marine industry is investing over $7 billion in the future of the Seaway, including major infrastructure upgrades and fleet renewal.