Head shot of Mathieu Charbonneau
Mathieu Charbonneau
Director General - CargoM

Montreal: A Growing North American Transportation and Logistics Hub

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TheFutureEconomy.ca: A lot of cities like to brand themselves as a logistics hub. What are Montreal’s key advantages if we look at the big picture?

Mathieu Charbonneau: The main thing I would highlight is the fact that we have all 4 modes of transportation present on the Island of Montreal itself: we have the Port of Montreal, Trudeau international airport, the railway system and and all the major roads that give us access to 110 million people within two days. Having all the major players – maritime, air, rail and road – in a concentrated area is key to developing a transportation cluster. On top of this, the fact that these major players decided to work together to create CargoM really sets Montreal apart.

Another important fact is that the Quebec provincial government and Montreal municipal administration are oriented towards our sector. We have a maritime strategy that is now in effect since 2014 that really values the Saint Lawrence River and the companies that want to utilize it. In the Greater Montreal area, the logistics and freight transport sector accounts for 6,000 companies and 50,000 direct jobs so it is very significant.

“Having all the major players – maritime, air, rail and road – in a concentrated area is key to developing a transportation cluster.”

What are some of Montreal’s measurable logistical advantages in North America?

Montreal is an end port so all container ships must stop here; if you take Halifax for example, it has a deep-water port so it welcomes big ships up to 12,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU). But usually this kind of port is on a route so only about a quarter to a third of a ship’s containers will be exchanged there. In Montreal, we welcome container ships up to 6,000 TEUs but all cargo comes off and the ships are immediately loaded again so it makes for a lot of capacity and high turnovers. In this sense, Montreal is a balanced port as we handle as much imports as exports. This is what we want in a hub to really give capacity to our clients. Of course there are big players who can handle more capacity, but there are a lot of smaller companies that maybe ship 20, 30 or 40 containers a year and they always look for hubs that have a lot of capacity and a lot of movement.

The port really is the epicenter of our hub with 2,500 trucks coming in every day and the whole industry revolving around that capacity and movement. Today, the container dwell time at the Port of Montreal is less than North America East Coast standards, whilst in New York it is 4 days, so we are really focused on maintaining that fluidity and it has been one of our greatest successes.

Also, the fact that Montreal is down a river gives us two advantages: first, since our dwell time is basically half of what it is on the East Coast, as soon as ships get in the port, they basically get back into the logistics chain. And since inland transportation is faster from Montreal, we recover those two days very rapidly. Secondly, with two days of navigation into the heartland instead of trucking or railway transportation, you save a lot of money as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to using ports on the East Coast.

“10 years ago, almost 0% of containers at the Port of Montreal came from Asia. This year, we are at about 22 to 24%.”

On top of that, when talking to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and to our friends south of the border, we are seeing that transporters are looking for other gateways in the East. Montreal is quickly becoming one of those solutions for coming in and out of North America; it is easier, and we are seeing European companies saying they will use Montreal as a hub to the US. This will be very positive for us in the long run.

Another great example is the Asian market. 10 years ago, almost 0% of containers at the Port of Montreal came from Asia. This year, we are at about 23%. We see a lot of Asian containers coming to Montreal through the Suez Canal these days. The supply chain is longer – about six to eight days more than Vancouver – but it is more efficient from a logistical sense.

What goals have you set for yourself in terms of growing Montreal’s logistics and transportation ecosystem?

Our first goal is to get ourselves better known. So we do a lot of promotion through tools that we create ourselves and by leveraging our members’ reach throughout the world. We give the maritime companies, the rail companies, the airport, and the airfreight companies the tools to promote Montreal as a hub. This is really important because people tend to have knowledge about one of the mode but we want them to know about the full logistics hub and transportation network available here.

Next, our Minister in charge of the Quebec Maritime Strategy, Mr. Jean D’Amour, travels to promote the Quebec and the Greater Montreal as a hub. In fact, we were recently together in the UK at the Poole Maritime Festival to present Montreal’s logistics hub and what we do in Quebec.

Then of course, we need users. So we try to make it easier for people to use our logistics chain. Zoom Greater Montreal (zoommtl.ca) is a great example of that. It is basically an interactive online database that acts as a realtor and provides users with information on commercial and industrial sites available in the Greater Montreal area. We cross reference land and economic data so users can find the perfect site for their operations, whether it is in terms of access to the port, railway or any other key infrastructure in the area. Zoom Montreal was created by the Montreal Metropolitan Community in partnership with the City of Montreal, Montreal International, the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal and CargoM. We promote it a lot to specific target industries.

Which are those industries you are targeting?

We look for big industries outside of the Montreal region that use the entire logistics chain and that add value to the merchandise; so import/export is always interesting for us. Obviously, we want the merchandise to pass through Montreal, but we want to touch it as much as we can. So agri-food is an interesting one for a city like Montreal because it is labour intensive. Of course we understand that Quebec and Canada have vast natural resources too but those are usually handled outside of the main city centers, which is why we have logistics hubs that are being created in Vaudreuil and Contrecoeur. These hubs will serve as an extension of the Port of Montreal. We obviously welcome everybody but we are generally more interested in value added merchandise.

“We look for big industries outside of the Montreal region that use the entire logistics chain and that add value to the merchandise.”

Montreal is increasingly known for the development of its artificial intelligence (AI) sector. Is AI being leveraged to analyze traffic and logistics data?

The City of Montreal has its Urban Mobility Management Centre, which is basically their control center for traffic flow in the Montreal region, and they are collecting a lot of data that we could utilize more for our sector. So applying artificial intelligence to that data to help us better plan traffic in real time will be the next step. The City is starting on Notre-Dame Street with a Bluetooth detection booths that will compile information, and provide it to the trucking companies before they hit traffic. For now, we are still collecting data and letting people do their own analysis, but getting a system that is automatic will be even better.

All our members have a lot of data, but they are not use to share it. If you look at mass transit for example, a lot of data is available and there are lots of studies so it is easier for the Ministry of Transport or the City of Montreal to implement changes. In our sector, you will see trucking company or rail company with their own dataset but in order to optimize our logistics chain, we need to share more of that information and develop best practices for the whole ecosystem. This is one the main challenges our sector faces and is the main focus for us and for our sector, as it will help us in terms of planning and fluidity.

The electrification of transport is an important topic in Montreal, with the city aiming to lead the way in this area. How are recent advances in this area being integrated into the city’s freight and logistics sector?

For our companies the key issue is power. Freight transport requires more power than electric vehicles can provide. That is why we’ve worked with Gaz Métro and their projects around liquefied gas for instance, and we saw Robert Transport buy 150 trucks that use that alternative fuel. So electric is not yet present in long distance transport directly but we do see it with indirect equipment like cranes, and with frozen containers that are now plugged in a lot more on port grounds instead of using generators. Shunters, which are the smaller trucks that move containers inside railyards, are now also 100% electrified and we will start a pilot project focused on this soon. So electrification is coming and the power issue is being resolved but it is not something that is present in mass transit directly yet.

“By getting better data and sharing it, we will improve our route planning and see our fuel consumption come down.”

What are some of the sustainability challenges that are being tackled within the sector?

There are a lot of committees at the city and provincial levels that work to reduce GHGs and we are often asked to participate. The good thing about our sector is that reducing fuel consumption generates savings for our clients. So they are really inclined but it also depends on the subsidies that are offered because companies are balancing sustainability with business performance.

Obviously, electrifying equipment and using different types of new fuels are always interesting but the main gains will come from better planning and increased fluidity. Getting more trucks in and out of the Port of Montreal outside of peak hours can generate huge savings in idling time, which is more efficient for the companies, safer for everybody and also reduces fuel usage considerably. Data sharing will make a big difference in this respect; by getting better data and sharing it, we will improve our route planning and see our fuel consumption come down.

What are three key areas of opportunity for the Montreal transportation and logistics sector in the coming years?

We first go back to the Maritime Strategy; I think utilizing more of the Saint Lawrence River is going to be very interesting for us on the freight side. But land capacity is a big challenge and one of the first things businesses ask is if we have land, if they can use it and if it is industry-ready. This is why the logistics hubs were created in Vaudreuil and Contrecoeur, and why they also created the Montreal Industrial Port Zone. It is all about getting our land ready and making it easy for companies to come in by promoting movement and business development in Montreal.

Another key area is collaboration. This is something that we do not see very often with freight companies. In some ports the trucking and the rail companies will work together on specific issues but rarely will you see all four major modes working together at the same table like at CargoM. Right now we have a French company that wants to establish itself here; they use mostly maritime but they need airfreight for some of their products. Here in Montreal, we can get them talking to people on the airfreight side right away and that makes a big difference.

And of course we can leverage our knowledge capacities. With the Interuniversity Research Centre on Enterprise Networks, Logistics and Transportation (CIRRELT) and the new Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO) cluster, we are open to the sharing of data and ideas in Montreal and in Quebec in general, so I think that business intelligence is going to help separate our sector from the rest in the next couple of years.

“Since the 2008 financial crisis, the numbers have been going up every year and every year we have a new record in terms of tonnage at the Port.”

What are some of the key trends you foresee on the horizon?

The city’s core is pretty much saturated in terms of infrastructure. On the eastern end of the island, you still see a lot of petrochemical plants being closed or re-affected, so there will be a lot of change there. Meanwhile, we are receiving a lot of companies that want to utilize the Port of Montreal for auto manufacturing for instance, so you will see a shift from the petrochemical sector to other types of industries in the East end. Then, from West to East of Montreal, the new Vaudreuil and Contrecoeur hubs will grow rapidly.

Again, one of our key objectives here is fluidity for the Island of Montreal so utilizing the technical tools that we are creating at CargoM will be very important going forward.

So you will see a lot more information panels announcing the major traffic flows and helping trucks get to their final destination quicker. I think you will see those tools being deployed a lot more in the future.

Is Montreal about to boom in your opinion?

Yes. Just take the statistics of the Port of Montreal; since the 2008 financial crisis, the numbers have been going up every year and every year we have a new record in terms of tonnage at the Port. Last year it was 35.4 million tonnes; a new record. So even though the economy is not always on point, freight keeps growing. On top of that, big international players have been coming to Montreal in recent years, and with the level of knowledge they have, they know that something good is happening in Montreal. And lastly, we are very happy with the fact that governments, both provincial and municipal, now see our sector as a tool to grow our economy. This is going to help us a lot in the near future.

Head shot of Mathieu Charbonneau
Mathieu Charbonneau
Director General - CargoM

Mathieu Charbonneau holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social and Urban Geography from UQAM and an MBA from its School of Leadership Science. He joined the Quebec Transport Association (AQTr) in 2004 as Technical Director. He became Director of the Association’s training centre (TransForm) in 2007 and then the AQTr’s Deputy Director General in 2009. In December of 2012, M. Charbonneau was elected Director General of CargoM, Montreal’s new logistics and transportation cluster. He is a member of the Advisory Committee of Mobilité Montreal and the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s Metropolitan Employment Council.

CargoM, Montreal’s logistics and transportation cluster, was established in 2012. Its mission is to gather Greater Montreal’s multimodal logistics and freight transportation players around common goals and concerted actions to increase the sector’s cohesion, competitiveness, growth and expansion. More specifically, CargoM initiates developmental projects to promote Montreal’s position as a hub for the transportation of goods, ensure the sharing of best practices and technologies, influence the harmonization and simplification of regulations, and promote attraction and retention of labour in different sectors of the industry.