The Seaway at 60

The St. Lawrence Seaway is embarking on its 60th anniversary with innovative technology and renewed infrastructure that will soon welcome a lot more vessel traffic from around the world.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is embarking on its 60th anniversary with innovative technology and renewed infrastructure that will soon welcome a lot more vessel traffic from around the world.

Its administrators continue a stellar model of binational collaboration that began some years before the system officially opened June 26, 1959, with some 20,000 people in attendance.  Since then a vessel traveling between St. Lambert, south of Montreal, and Lake Erie seamlessly crosses the Canadian-American border 27 times.

Craig Middlebrook, the deputy administrator at the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC) for 23 years, says he’s continually impressed with the level of integrated binational cooperation.

“About every five years, someone on either side of the border examines the Seaway model as a potential solution for a multijurisdictional governance question,” Middlebrook says. “The latest is U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski who has introduced a similar model as legislation for a multijurisdictional waterway that borders Alaska.”

Seaway collaboration has paid off for both nations. An economic impact study completed last July indicated that shipping on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway portion of the Waterway supports 237,000 Canadian and U.S. jobs and $35 billion in business revenues.

Middlebrook and his Canadian counterpart, Terence F. Bowles, the president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), credit the foresight of earlier legislators. Those politicians saw the importance of giving the Seaway administrations a clear mission to move vessels efficiently and safely, but also the flexibility to make good business decisions to keep the system competitive and reinvest in its long-term success.

Modernizing the Seaway

As a result, the Canadian and U.S. Seaway authorities have continued to invest in the research, development and ultimately implement various technologies, such as electronic charting and later automatic vessel identification, and draught optimization.

The latest technological improvement is the hands-free mooring (HFM) that has been installed at all the major Canadian locks and will be part of both U.S. locks by autumn.

“HFM is the biggest technological advance since we modernized our vessel traffic control system with an automatic identification system back in 2001,” says Bowles. “It fundamentally changes the way ships move through the system by replacing wire lines with double-pads that lock into place.”

Welland Canal locks

Technology reducing transit times

On the U.S. side, there’s already a noted difference at the Eisenhower Lock where HFM was installed last September.

“We’re finding – and this is a conservative estimate – that we’re saving five to seven minutes per lockage,” Middlebrook shares. “That might not sound like a lot, but when you add that up over the course of a round-trip Seaway transit, we estimate a three- to four-hour saving in transit time.”

Such time savings can garner the interest of project cargo shippers that account for an increasing proportion of the Seaway’s use, as well as just-in- time breakbulk and containerized traffic. “We also expect cruise traffic to increase,” Middlebrook adds. “And HFM shaving three to four hours off a Seaway transit makes a huge difference to cruise operators.”

Fewer work days lost to injury

The primary goal has been to modernize the system to make it easier and, above all, safer to use. “If you look at the severity of the accidents we’ve had since implementing HFM over the past three years, the number of work days lost to injury has been reduced by a factor of five,” Bowles notes.

“It’s also easier for captains now who don’t need to have crew on deck to handle lines,” Bowles says. “And the new computerized Seaway jobs are a better match with what young people want to do as work.”

The largest difference is expected to be the number of vessels that call upon the Seaway once HFM is installed at the second U.S. lock. “There are currently about 800 ships worldwide that are properly equipped for the Seaway,” Bowles explains. “Once we’ve eliminated the need for special fittings, that number will climb to 8,000, which will definitely help us to attract new business.”

“A number of companies abroad have already expressed interest,” Middlebrook adds.

Reducing operating costs

HFM at the 13 Canadian locks has cost approximately $100 million, but the payback is proving to be fast with operating expenses reduced by 13 per cent and fewer claimed injury days.

The modernization has also facilitated the rebound in Seaway traffic that has accompanied the economic recovery.

“We did almost 41 million metric tons of cargo last year, which gets us back to the levels prior to the huge financial crisis in 2008,” Bowles says.

Bowles was appointed to the SLSMC in 2010 to improve business operations and safety. “We had to reduce operating costs to compete for limited tonnage with rail, trucks and Mississippi barges,” he recalls.

The SLSMC now operates, maintains and controls the Canadian side of the system on a not-for-profit basis that involves covering all operating costs along with approximately 30 per cent of asset reinvestment.

From its operating budgets, the Seaway has contributed about a third of the $1 billion in asset renewal since the Canadian side’s commercialization 20 years ago. “We have a well-maintained and modernized system ready to handle additional capacity,” Bowles says. “Plus we’ve worked at optimizing the season to open 10 days earlier than two decades ago.”

Confidence in the system’s future is evidenced by a 2015 study indicating that Canadian and U.S. governments together committed almost $750 million in Seaway investments. Altogether, public sector stakeholders and private entities (including the Seaway, ports, carriers and terminal operators) have invested almost $7 billion in asset renewal and infrastructure along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway.

“Nothing speaks louder as when people are willing to spend their money,” Middlebrook says. “So there’s no bigger vote of confidence in the Seaway as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.”

The public sector and private entities have invested almost $7 billion in asset renewal along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. "Nothing speaks louder as when people are willing to spend their money. There's no bigger vote of confidence in the Seaway as it celebrates its 60th anniversary."

Craig Middlebrook, Deputy Administrator, SLSDC Tweet

Other changes on horizon

Other changes are on the horizon. “We’re just starting to look at voyage management from origin through to destination and back out of the Seaway,” says Middlebrook.

Pilots and others involved in vessel movement would be able to log into the system to verify when exactly their services are required. Ship captains would know when a lock is occupied longer than anticipated and could slow steam for a period to arrive just as the lock clears.

“It’s a significantly more complex approach that will require the involvement of more stakeholders as well as data, but the potential gains in efficiency from a real-time dynamic tracking system are enormous,” Middlebrook says.

By Julie Gedeon