BUSINESS

St. Lawrence Seaway carries 40 million tonnes in 2014 on bumper grain crop

01/12/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT
The St. Lawrence Seaway says 2014 was its best season in six years, as a bumper grain crop boosted the amount of cargo passing through the system to nearly 40 million tonnes.

Tonnage was up seven per cent from the prior year, and the most since the nearly 40.8 million tonnes shipped in 2008, despite a late start to the season because of severe ice on the Great Lakes last winter that reduced the Seaway's shipping season by six days to 280 days.

The number of vessels passing through the system remained steady at about 3,900, but there were more ocean vessels within the system in Canada and the United States.

More than 12 million tonnes of grain passed through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system, the highest volume in 14 years and up 44 per cent from 8.37 million tonnes in 2013.

The corporation that manages the Seaway's operations said a "blowout volume of grain" moved through the system as farmers and grain merchants "furiously sought avenues" to move the crop that had clogged rail lines.

"It was certainly a slow start, so it was good to see us rebound the way we did throughout the year in that we lost the equivalent of about four weeks at the start of the year because of ice," said Bruce Hodgson, director of market development.

In addition to higher grain volumes, the Seaway received $4.2 million of extra revenues from transporting 2.5 million tonnes of new business, mainly from imported road salt, as a result of marketing initiatives and toll incentives.

Dry bulk was up nearly 12 per cent to 10 million tonnes on strong shipments of salt to replenish inventories depleted during the harsh winter of 2013.

General cargo nearly doubled to 3.1 million tonnes on higher shipments of finished iron and steel products destined mainly for the recovering auto sector.

However, iron ore slipped to third place among cargo as falling prices caused volumes to drop by nearly one-third to 6.7 million tonnes. Coal and liquid bulk were also down about six per cent.

Overall, the year would have been average had it not been for the bumper grain crop, Hodgson said.

Grain producers and shippers are signalling that the 2015 grain crop will be smaller and of poorer quality. "We think there should be ample grain to move next year, (but) we don't know at this point what that is going to equate to," Hodgson said in an interview.

Demand for imported steel should continue to be strong because of the U.S. economic recovery and growing automotive sector. "And we expect a rebound in terms of wind turbines and energy-related products moving through our system," Hodgson said.

The Seaway is spending $500 million over five years to modernize the waterway and make it more efficient. By the end of 2017, all 12 Seaway locks in the Welland and Montreal-Lake Ontario systems will be equipped with the automated equipment, eliminating the need to manually tie-up vessels with lines.

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