Berth Announcement at Port of Halifax

Editor’s Note: Rick Grant, who keeps an eye on all things port, attended a rare Open House at the Port of Halifax on Friday and offered to report on what he saw for the Spectator. I accepted, although Halifax is usually beyond the scope of my reporting, because Grant and I are in agreement that what is happening at the Port of Halifax has obvious implications for any port plans in Sydney. 


It’s been a big week for the Port of Halifax: the official completion of a huge terminal expansion that doubles its capacity for ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs).

On Friday, HPA CEO Allan Gray snipped a red ribbon to officially open a critically important extension to the PSA Container Terminal in South End Halifax.

PSA now has a continuous berth 800 meters long with a water depth of 16 meters — the longest and deepest container berth in Eastern Canada. This means it cannot only accommodate the largest container ships in the world – which are over 365 meters in length, according to Gray – it can service them two at a time.

To put that in perspective: the CMA-CGM Brazil is the largest container ship ever to call at a Canadian port and now, PSA Halifax can handle two Brazils simultaneously. (The first caller at the newly opened berth on Friday, though, was a more modest vessel, the Zim Tarragona, which is 261.06 meters long and has a capacity of 4,250 TEU.)

Kevin Piper, president of the stevedores union ILA Local 269, proudly proclaimed that the expansion, “puts us in a different category. We’re on the next level.”

And just as importantly, PSA has the equipment to do it.

The Singapore-based company has an option to purchase another Ultra-Post-Panamax crane for Halifax, like the one it put into service this summer. A PSA executive declined to say if the company planned to exercise its option but if it does, it will put six giant cranes along the berth.

When asked if PSA, the world’s largest terminal operator, has formally taken over the port’s other terminal, Ceres, in North End Halifax, the executive would not comment.


Strike benefits

Although Friday was a day of great news for the terminal and port, the past year has been a baptism by fire for the new HPA President, Allan Gray.

Since his arrival from Freemantle, Australia in November 2019, Gray has managed the port through a rail strike followed by rail blockades, the loss of Northern Pulp exports, then COVID-19, the cancellation of the cruise ship season plus a port strike in Montreal that pushed Halifax’s capabilities to the limit.

Still it wasn’t as grim as had been feared at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Halifax’s container business was forecast to plunge 20%, but Gray says that will now be about 10 %. The CEO says the Northern Pulp closure accounted for about 4% of the port’s loss.

Cranes at PSA Terminal, Halifax

PSA Terminal cranes. (Photo by Rick Grant)

The most obvious reason why the port didn’t suffer as severely as expected was the strike by port workers in Montreal. Many Montreal-destined ships were diverted to Halifax, some to Saint John and some to the U.S.

Halifax terminals and longshoremen worked around the clock for about a month.

There were hiccups at first, says Gray, “the supply chain did a knee-jerk reaction without thinking it through properly. Terminals aren’t designed to take a 50% surplus in a month. No terminal in the world is designed for that.”

He says the workload doubled over night and there were some labor shortages initially, but in the end, the job got done. It’s a point of pride for Gray who says, “It demonstrated that we could react. We do have the capability of dealing with it.” However, no new business stayed in Halifax after Montreal management and union declared a truce. Gray said that, “Nobody has said because of Montreal we’re going to move.”

But the Cape Breton Spectator has confirmed that PSA Halifax is getting new business — and it seems to be a direct bonus for work it took on during the strike at the Port of Montreal.

MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) has chosen Halifax and PSA for what MSC calls its Cannex Service. According to the Halifax Port Authority, MSC wants to turn ships around quickly to return to Europe.

Although the first ship, MSC Martina, is due in Halifax on November 4, a Wednesday, it appears the service will be weekly with calls on Saturday. The schedule shows the next three arrival dates as the MSC BRIANA –NOV 7, the MSC ANIELLO — NOV 14 and the  MSC SARISKA — NOV 21.

An MSC spokesperson was not available for comment this morning.

MSC diverted a number of ships to Halifax during the Montreal labor dispute. Although Captain Gray says Halifax didn’t get any new business because of the port’s performance in handling of the unexpected Montreal business, it seems oddly coincidental that MSC has chosen Halifax for the new service.



Union boss Kevin Piper and Gray agree there is no shortage of labor in the port now, although Piper added that COVID-19 rules are affecting work in the port. He said moving cars at Auto Port in Eastern Passage, across the harbor from the PSA, has become very labor-intensive because of new rules.

Piper said that prior to COVID-19, when a car ship came in, it took 48 people about four hours to move up to 1,500 cars from the vessel to storage. Now, with COVID-19 restrictions, he says it takes up to 80 people eight hours to do the same job. That, Piper explained, cranks up the pressure for trained labor at the container terminals.

As port workers grappled with the Montreal surge, Halifax customers were the number one priority. Before Montreal backlogs were cleared, giants were on the horizon – Halifax began welcoming 15,000 TEU ships like CMA-CGM Brazil. (TEU is twenty-foot equivalent – meaning the vessel carries the equivalent of 15,000, 20-foot containers). So far this fall, three such vessels have tied up at PSA.

Last week, it was reported (by that executives from Canadian National – which services Halifax – and Canadian Pacific – which services Saint John — forecast monster growth over the next four years in the two maritime ports they serve.

But Gray is more cautious: “I feel it’s overly aggressive in the estimation. Certainly not the planning that PSA and the port are looking at.” He suggests growth will be in the 4% range. To grow more, he says, Halifax would have to be stealing traffic from New York.

And it’s not like other ports are standing still.

Next year, the Port of Montreal will begin construction of a new $750 million to $950 million terminal in Contrecoeur, Quebec, which is scheduled to open in 2024 and handle 1.1 million TEU annually. It’s the same year Halifax will open a rail shuttle service intended to take 75% of container trucks off downtown streets.

And Quebec City has plans to compete directly with Halifax for the ultra-large container ships – it’s planning a terminal that can handle the 13,000 TEU ships that can’t get to Montreal.

Gray says Halifax can easily handle 1 million TEU annually now at its two terminals (PSA and Ceres) and it’s next priority will be to expand the terminal and rail capacity at PSA Halifax.

The berth expansion that opened on Friday can accommodate up to 800,000 TEU annually; however, PSA’s terminal capacity is 570,000 TEU. So, Gray says the focus now must be to work with PSA and CN to increase terminal and rail capacity to match that of the berth.

But they’ve got time — while Montreal and Quebec City are building new terminals in anticipation that the business will come, Gray said Halifax can handle anticipated growth for years to come. There won’t be a need to expand terminal size for another 10 to 15 years.




Rick Grantl



Longtime CTV reporter Rick Grant began his television journalism career here on the Island. He is now based in Halifax.