A shipping revolution: Sure to make the world a smaller place

Each year, billions of dollars worth of goods arrive on our shores by sea: oil, cars, electronics and food. But how those shipments make their way to our ports is undergoing dramatic change in two significant areas.

The first is the Arctic Ocean, thanks to global warming now free of ice many summer months and open to traffic. Oil from Norway can now reach Japan by sailing “over” Russia rather than sailing through the Suez Canal, a 40% time/cost savings. And goods from China, the world’s largest shipper, can arrive in Europe cheaper and faster (by up to two weeks), by sailing the “Arctic Golden Waterway,” rather than going through the Panama Canal.

Ironically, the Northwest Passage between Alaska and Greenland is not as accessible as the Russian waters. Canada claims the waters to be their own while the U.S. says they are international.

Of course, both Arctic routes depend on continued warming and are only passable a few months each summer. And both passages are very dangerous. Though the seas may be free of ice, salt spray hitting the ships’ superstructure freezes instantly at -20 degrees. If enough ice builds up, ships can literally capsize from the weight.

Not to be outdone, the Panama Canal is expanding in a $5.25-billion project approved seven years ago. When completed, the wider and deeper channels and locks will handle vessels triple the size of the already enormous “Panamax” ships of today.

What does this mean for the U.S.? Plenty!

To handle the new mega-ships, U.S. ports need to be dredged and widened as well. Almost $46 billion has already been spent for cranes, higher capacity train lines and deeper channels at ports like Jacksonville, Baltimore and, yes, even New York.

The Port Authority of NY/NJ is about to spend $1 billion to raise the height of the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the taller mega-ships, though environmental challenges may delay the project ’til 2016, after the new canal opens.

U.S. railroads are also gearing up. While it used to be cheaper to ship containers to Long Beach, Calif., and then carry them by rail across the U.S., the new Panama Canal may see those containers arrive on the East Coast and be carried west by train. American coal may find new markets overseas by being shipped directly to Atlantic ports for on-loading to ships.

But rail service between the Pacific and Atlantic is not limited to the U.S. The governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras are looking to build a dry-canal (railroad) between the oceans that may be cheaper to use than paying the tolls extracted for shipping through the canal.

And in Nicaragua, the Sandinista-controlled national assembly has backed a $40-billion plan for a Chinese company to dig a rival to the Panama Canal. But there are many who doubt it can be done or that its length, triple that of Panama, will be economically viable.

All of these efforts add up to one thing: as the ships get bigger, our world gets smaller.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years. He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM. You may reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or trainweb.org/ct.