By Leo Ryan, AJOT

A banner year is shaping up on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the waterway which offers shipping lines direct access to the industrial heartlands of the United States and Canada. Cargo numbers are expected to be the highest since the late 1990s, thanks to strong import steel and export grain shipments.

Statistics to the end of September show traffic up 10.5% - considerably beyond expectations. This trend should prevail in the months leading up to the traditional winter closing.

By the time the 2006 season ends in late December, Seaway officials anticipate final cargo volume to run close to 48 million metric tons.

‘For us, it’s largely a story of steel in and grain out,’ said Paul Pathy VP and General Manager of Federal Marine Terminals, part of the Montreal-based Fednav group, which is the leading ocean-going user of the Seaway. ‘Two thousand and six is shaping up as one of the best years ever for steel imports, mainly from Europe and Brazil,’ he added.

When the waterway opened for commercial navigation in late March, Seaway officials had forecast a four percent cargo increase this year, thanks notably to an anticipated rebound in steel imports from Europe and elsewhere.

In 2005, Seaway volume had dipped slightly to 43.3 million tons. Cumulative statistics to the end of September show total cargo at 31.9 million tons versus the year-earlier 28.5 million tons.

‘What is significant is that the strong increase is across the board,’ said a spokesman for Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC).

The bigger gains concern grain, iron ore and general cargo, while the number of ship transits has also climbed substantially (from 2,955 to 3,151 transits) compared with a year ago.

Steel slabs and other steel products from Europe and South America shipped to US and Canadian mills on the Great Lakes pushed up the general cargo total to the end of September to over 3.3 million tons ’ representing a 1.3 million ton increase from a year earlier.

‘We are also seeing a good balance in return cargoes as well as continued progress in new cargo under an incentive program,’ the Seaway spokesman said.

Richard Corfe, President of the Canadian Seaway entity, is especially pleased at the rate of growth of new cargoes attracted to the system by an incentive program. He is also excited about the number of shippers beginning to look for the ‘marine advantage.’

As part of its ongoing Hwy H2O program, the Seaway entity has created a new incentive toll system that has enjoyed good results. An estimated 400,000 tons of new cargo has been captured so far this year.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Seaway is still currently operating at about 60% capacity. Its existing locks and channels could readily accommodate virtually double today’s volume.

Several truck/ferry services across the Great Lakes have been proposed to reduce road congestion and pollution, with no firm commitment thus far.

Seaway executives have also taken part in trade missions to Europe and Asia to lure business away from capacity-stretched coastal ports and surface transportation through shortsea shipping initiatives.

A major goal is the revival of a container service on the Great Lakes (not seen since the 1980s). Seaway officials have been pushing to get a green light for a box service before the end of this year.

One scenario would have feeder vessels bring in boxes from the large ocean vessels calling at such ports as Halifax and Montreal.

It’s a challenging affair of intermodal dimension, rendered still more complicated by the nine-month Seaway season. ‘We are still at the discussion stage with European shipowners,’ indicated a source close to the exploratory talks.