North America: regional snapshot

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North American Regional Report

Well-established market that experienced good port growth in 2017 – utilisation rising on all coasts

There are a number of key gateway ports meeting import-export container demand in North America. Excluding the Mexican Pacific ports and ports in Hawaii, the North American container port market totaled an estimated 56 million TEU in port volumes in 2017.

North America is a mature and well-established market, that continues to serve important container trade lanes, most notably:

• The Transpacific from Asia (via both the Suez and Panama canals).

• The Transatlantic to/from North Europe and the Mediterranean.

• Growing North-South routes to/from East Coast South America, West Coast South America and northern Central America

A highly-developed intermodal network allows ports to target more distant hinterlands, beyond just immediate port vicinities:

• Pacific South – Long Beach/Los Angeles, Oakland

• Pacific Gateway – Vancouver (BC), Prince Rupert

• Pacific Northwest – Seattle-Tacoma

• North Atlantic – NY/NJ, Montreal, Halifax, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Hampton Roads (Virginia)

• South Atlantic/US Gulf – Charleston, Savannah, Houston

Port competition for key inland discretionary markets is strong, with Chicago and the US Midwest served from all four ‘corners’ of North America, plus the US Gulf. This reflects the geographic location of the continent’s biggest container ports.

The quality of facilities, intermodal rail connectivity to discretionary markets, local market demand and container trade lanes served are all vital competitive factors.

Other factors can influence port competitiveness – workforce disruptions, investment in infrastructure, dredging and ‘step-change’ events like the Panama Canal expanding.

The majority of ports across all Coasts are seeing further good growth in 2018, to continue the trend from 2017, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, which show confirmed total port volumes for a range of major facilities across the WCNA, ECNA and US Gulf.


A close relationship exists between development of GDP, total trade volumes and container port demand – all variables to continue to move in tandem.

Port volumes include loaded and empty units. There is a North American trade imbalance, especially to/from Asia, with shippers searching for backhaul cargoes, which is expected to continue in the future.

North American container port growth to 2020 is expected to reach 63.2 million TEU (excluding Mexican pacific ports), as shown by Figure 3. The Base Case growth option will see an increase of 4.4% p.a. over this short-term period.

The impact of this continued throughput growth will impact the supply-demand balance on all Coasts, with the estimated utilisation expected to rise.

This is despite the ongoing efforts of almost all major container ports in North America continuing to invest in infrastructure and facilities, along with deepening access channels and at berths to cater for the increased demand.

A likelihood of further vessel cascading, especially on routes from Asia, means that ever-larger ships could be calling to many US and Canadian regions moving forward, placing further pressure on infrastructure.

Figures 4 to 6 outline the impact of growing volumes for each Coast in relation to confirmed short-term expansion capacity projects (with capacity listed at 100% but also an 85% figure, to reflect a more realistic working capacity). While the specific impact on individual ports is not shown, the overall regional impact is clearly identifiable.