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Port Saint John CEO: ‘Containers are where we see major growth’

Craig Bell Estabrooks shares vision for Atlantic Canada port

A vessel calls at Port Saint John. (Photo: Port Saint John)

Craig Bell Estabrooks, president and CEO for Port Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada, eyes big plans for the port he oversees. And they’re not just big in a metaphorical sense — the national and provincial governments just announced Wednesday that more than CA$84 million (US$65.5 million) will go toward improving supply chain efficiency in New Brunswick, providing the port with an impetus to boost its annual capacity from 150,000 twenty-foot equivalent units to 800,000 TEUs. Of that $84 million, $42 millon will go to increasing cargo laydown capacity at the port’s West Side Terminal, among other improvements.

Port Saint John is already in the middle of a $205 million initiative to modernize port infrastructure and ramp up capacity to 300,000 TEUs. The improvements include a terminal upgrade and expansions of the port’s berth and channel.

By expanding capacity, Port Saint John — which serves customers in the Canadian and U.S. Northeast and Midwest — hopes to attract larger vessels and enable the port to handle more export volumes. 

Port officials believe they can attract that business. The port earlier this month celebrated a 10-year relationship with ocean liner Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MSC), while in April, Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) and Hapag-Lloyd announced an additional call into the port after an inaugural service call in May 2021. CP accesses the port through the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, while Canadian railway CN (NYSE: CNI) also has access to the port. Lastly, the port is watching how CSX’s (NASDAQ: CSX) acquisition of New England short line Pan Am Railways will impact port volumes.

FreightWaves chatted with Estabrooks about what the port complex’s expansion means for Canada and the U.S. Estabrooks became CEO in November 2021 after having served at the port previously as its vice president of corporate services, helping build a business case for the modernization project. He has also served on the port’s board for 11 years.

This question-and-answer interview was edited for length and clarity.


FREIGHTWAVES: What was the impetus for the modernization project?

ESTABROOKS: “There were really two reasons. There’s a very common [reason] as to why you’d want to put money into infrastructure and the port system. One, we needed renewal of that asset. It had reached [the end of] its life cycle and it needed some significant annual dollars, and it was better to dream big and think of a piece of infrastructure that could serve us for the next 100 years and not just try to piece together the dollars that we were spending.

“The port is actually a combination of two terminals, historically: Rodney Terminal and Navy Island have become one to create two active container berths, the second of which will be operational here in early 2023. 

Port Saint John President and CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks
Port Saint John President and CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks

“So it was the combination of both terminals and renewal, but it’s also the fact that we really felt we had a strong value proposition. You look at the history of Saint John and some of the trade that we’ve done over the last century with respect to containers and bulk and multipurpose cargo movements. We’ve had our ups and downs like a lot of old historic ports, but we really believe we have a strong value proposition because we connect into Canada’s two Class I railways — CN and CP [Canadian Pacific] — and we didn’t at the time have a have a large operator, but we knew if we put some infrastructure dollars in place and renew these assets, we would be able to go attract a really strong global player.

“And we happened to land, in my opinion, the best: DP World [a terminal operator]. Not only do they take safety seriously, they’ve got a great labor track record. They know how to operate a terminal. And they have the global reach to drive cargo and to really tell the story of Saint John and what our value is in a whole different way than we can ourselves. I just can’t say enough  — they’ve been a partner in this terminal. They won the concession in late 2016, the same timing as we were booked to start the project. We went to market and they won that concession and they’ve been a partner since early 2017. And it’s been phenomenal to work with them. I really think the future’s bright for both of us and for our community.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Speaking of the future, how do envision Port Saint John serving the needs of the country and shippers long term?

ESTABROOKS: “I’ll start with over the next 10 years. As the infrastructure gets into place here … containers are where we see the major growth, and the new terminal was built primarily for the movement of containers. 

“We have three of the largest lines — Hapag-Lloyd, CMA-CGM and MSC — that call on the port today. We’d love to have more services with those lines. And obviously, any port is in active talks with their operators to try to get more services at the port because it means more opportunity for cargo owners and, in turn, more cargo. I think we’re going to be very, very successful in the next number of months and years securing new cargo both at the new berth and at the old berth and at the container terminal. And I think DP World is also committed to truly making it multipurpose as well and pursuing project cargo and maybe some small bulk operations that could exist at that terminal. 

“We want to create more land as well. The project right now, if we had a map in front of us, you would see the two historic slips have been closed off to make way for the new pier. We do want to fill those in over time as well. It creates an extra 18 acres right behind the new cranes that DP World will bring in. So obviously that land is safe for the port and so we want to fill that in over time and … make sure that we’re continuing to make investments in that asset. I see a lot of growth in the DP World terminal. 

“But we can’t forget as a port that we’re one of the largest in Canada, not only because of containerization but because of bulk and liquid bulk as well. So from the bulk standpoint, we’ve got a thriving, growing potash terminal. You look on the West Coast, Canpotex, who supplies for [Saskatchewan potash producers] Nutrien and Mosaic, they’ve got major terminals in Vancouver and Seattle. We are their third terminal and the only on the East Coast. And our business is booming with respect to that very crucial agrifood product, potash. I believe the pandemic has taught us supply chain resiliency, especially with food, is absolutely crucial. So I think this East Coast terminal is going to be used significantly by Canpotex. And it’s a great story. 

“We also have a recycled metal facility as well. As you know, as mining becomes more and more difficult — and there are some of the environmental challenges around mining — we are going to have to recycle the metal that is already in existence in order to build new things going forward. So I think that’s a very crucial bulk operation. And then finally, liquid bulk occurs in the outer harbor. It’s not on port authority land but it’s within our navigable waters. We have oil and gas facilities: an LNG facility that’s owned and operated by Repsol and then locally, Irving Oil imports crude and then exports refined petroleum. … So it makes us a very, very large port by volume. 

“And [there is] growth in cruise as well. … Obviously, cruise is absolutely essential. Tourism is a major economic driver for the country and for our region. And we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to welcome back ships… and bring those passengers that want to be in our great city back to Saint John.”

Containers at the dock. (Photo: Port Saint John)

FREIGHTWAVES: Are there any investments to equipment or technology or to tools that could improve port flows?

ESTABROOKS: “Within the modernization, we’re obviously investing a significant amount into our intermodal and entrance facility. And that’s where the technology really shines in the port world, where you can get OCR [optical carrier recognition] scanners for rail and trucks and that back-end terminal operating system. … Data visualization is the key for us in the supply chain, and we want to make sure that we’re in lockstep with the rest of the industry and be a bit of the forefront as well.

“One area outside of the modernization where we focus a lot on is on our manifests, [which are the] reports we get through our border service agencies and through the regular movement of ships. We get a lot of manifests and there’s a lot of good data. And data is an asset: Knowing information is how you sell a value proposition — knowing what trade routes work and are attractive and what types of commodities are going through the port. Us being able to interpret that information and really have data integration with our operators and making sure that we’re able to access all the great information on the manifest is something that we’re working on in partnership with the Port of Halifax. Ports may compete in a small way for cargo but there’s really a great opportunity and technology to work together. 

“Personally, I’ve been pushing cybersecurity as well. I think our ports need to be at the forefront of shaping what a future Transport Canada policy is going to be around cyber[security]. We need to be protected. Again, we have a lot of data and a lot of information and we have a lot of third parties that rely on us for that data security. So I think we can be working very closely together on protecting the information that we have through a robust national cybersecurity plan. We coordinate on physical security a lot with Transport Canada, so it’s just natural that we do that on the cyber front as well.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

ESTABROOKS: “We at the port fundamentally believe we need to be part of supply chain decarbonization. Everyone needs to play their role. … We think we’ve got a great opportunity as a port to coordinate some of those private partners and their decarbonization plans and also be that liaison with government as well. We’ve done really well securing government funding and working on policy changes at the national level at the Port of Saint John, so we want to make sure we’re at the forefront of that. 

“We’re looking at our own consumption of electricity, natural gas, the ships that burn in the harbor. We live in close proximity to our neighbors. We are neighbors, I live two minutes away from where I work — a two-minute walk, not even a drive. So it’s deeply personal for all of our staff at the port, and we owe it to ourselves and our community and to the future climate targets that we’re all going to be trying to meet together.”

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.