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Monthly ship to carry cargo, containers between Duluth, Belgium ports

Port officials said it will be the first liner service from Duluth to Europe in decades.

A red, green and white ship sits in the water.
The saltie Florijngracht is seen through haze as it sits at anchor off Park Point in July 2015. The ship is owned by Spliethoff.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH β€” A Dutch shipping company is set to launch a monthly liner service between Duluth and Antwerp, Belgium, allowing cargo and containers to traverse the Atlantic Ocean on a regular basis.

Amsterdam-based Spliethoff expects the first ship could arrive at the Port of Duluth-Superior on May 5. Additional ships will arrive in the port approximately once a month until the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, closes in late December.

Joe Swartout, Spliethoff's vice president of the Great Lakes and Midwest, said adding the monthly liner is driven by "customer need."

It's taking too long for containers to travel by train from East Coast and West Coast ports to the Midwest, and Chicago, a major rail hub, is congested, Swartout said.

"We're adding Duluth because customers are interested in the Minneapolis market, and just up in Duluth the Cargo Connect up there has been very effective on the rail side of things. ... Duluth is like an inward market that a lot of customers want to reduce their cost, not have to deal with the dwell time of the rail," Swartout said.

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Jayson Hron, spokesperson for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said he hasn't been able to find the last time a liner service has connected Duluth to Europe. It's safe to say this will be the first in decades, he said.

Oceangoing vessels, or salties, regularly move through the Port of Duluth-Superior, but they have historically been chartered by one shipper on an as-needed basis. This liner service will instead follow a regular schedule and allow multiple shippers to use the same vessel.

First foreign shipment of container cargo set to leave Port of Duluth
A gantry crane loads a 20-foot shipping container on the saltie Nunalik as a part of the first shipment of container cargo originating from the Port of Duluth on May 27, 2022. The container containing beans from Chippewa Valley Bean Co. was headed to Europe.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"When you can get to stage where you have a vessel that's making a regular calling that has space available, it creates more opportunities for the shippers that can't really pay for or cover the entire ship by themselves," Swartout said. "It suddenly makes freight more economical for them."

It will also allow the ships to carry a range of cargo at the same time: containers, bulk cargo and equipment.

"You can kind of put anything anywhere if it fits," Swartout said.

It won't be the same ship every month, as Swartout said a one-way voyage between the ports takes 20-25 days.

The liner might arrive in Duluth with containers and project cargo like wind turbine blades and agricultural equipment and then leave for Europe filled with grain and other containers, Swartout said.

First foreign shipment of container cargo set to leave Port of Duluth
Gantry cranes unload wind turbine cargo from the saltie Nunalik on May 27, 2022, at the Port of Duluth. The Nunalik will then be loaded with containers containing cargo from Chippewa Valley Bean Co., of Menomonie, Wis.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"We feel we've got great opportunities here, not just with the import, but especially our market tends to be heavy on the export opportunities," said Jonathan Lamb, president of Duluth Cargo Connect, a partnership between the public Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the private Lake Superior Warehousing.

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He hopes it will mean businesses in the region have an easier way to send products to Europe. The liner service will "help business in our region be more competitive on a global scale," Lamb said.

The port began moving containers by ship last year, becoming only the second U.S. port on the Great Lakes capable of handling containers after Cleveland.

Historically, the Port of Duluth-Superior has been configured to carry bulk cargoes like iron ore pellets, grain, salt, coal and limestone, but recent improvements to the Clure Public Marine Terminal have made it easier to move cargoes β€” including shipping containers β€” by ship, truck and rail (there are four Class 1 railroads that go through the port).

With 200 containers of beans loaded and bound for four European countries, the Twin Ports officially enters the cargo container market.

That access to rail and truck made Duluth attractive for this liner service. Antwerp plays a similar role in Europe, Swartout said.

β€œThis liner service can be a significant supply chain advantage for regional customers, reducing cost and supply chain delays, and it’s also a win for the environment," Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said in a statement to the News Tribune. "Sailing those cargoes to and from Duluth β€” North America’s furthest-inland seaport β€” maximizes the waterborne leg of the journey, which significantly reduces carbon emissions and land-based congestion.”

more by jimmy lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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