Project cargo shipments at Keefer Terminal in the port of Thunder Bay are moving at record pace this summer in the midst of ongoing infrastructure expansion and upgrades. 

As of July 31, the general cargo facility had handled more than 105,000 freight tonnes of project cargo, besting last year’s total of 100,000 freight tonness with several months still remaining in the navigation season.

So far this year, the cargo has consisted mostly of wind turbine towers, blades and nacelles arriving from Europe and destined for Western Canada and the Upper Midwest United States. The facility has also become an important link in the supply chain for heavy, dimensional cargoes headed for the oilsands and mining projects in Western Canada.

With direct access to CN and CP railways and the Trans-Canada Highway as well as a strategic location at the head of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway System, freight forwarders have taken notice of what Thunder Bay has to offer for heavy, oversized cargoes.

The Port, historically known as Canada’s Gateway to the West, hasn’t always been in the project cargo business, but surging development in the oilsands and mining in Western Canada caught the attention of Port Authority executives about eight years ago. “We saw an opportunity to provide a valuable service and cost savings to shippers at our strategic location, the furthest inland port in Canada,” says Thunder Bay Port Authority CEO Tim Heney. “Since the port has historically been an export point for grain from the Prairies, the railways in Canada were designed to carry Western Canadian crops to Thunder Bay. We got the idea to capitalize on the existing rail service to move cargo West.”

Championing a new project cargo corridor can be a daunting challenge. However, with the right location, the right infrastructure assets, and by working with logistics providers, Thunder Bay Port Authority realized that it was capable of meeting that challenge.  Getting into the project cargo business was a means to accomplish the Port Authority’s strategic objective of diversifying and increasing the port’s cargo volumes. Each time a project cargo shipment is discharged at Keefer, both objectives are met, especially when the vessel carrying the shipment goes on to load with outbound grain, coal or potash at one of the Port’s bulk cargo facilities.

Infrastructure improvements at Keefer Terminal totaling more than $7.5 million have been ongoing for the past eight years in order to satisfy growing demand. Additions in 2012 include expansion to the facility’s acres of laydown areas used for storing and staging cargo as well as the facility’s most important acquisition to date, a Liebherr LHM 320 mobile harbour crane.

The 90-acre site includes a modern 10-acre rail intermodal yard serviced by CN and CP. This spring, the intermodal yard provided a staging area for rail shipments of wind turbine towers.

Keefer is also home to four warehouses with a combined 550,000 square feet of storage space, including 55,000 square feet of heated storage. The warehouses have been used in many capacities, including to store temperature-sensitive project cargoes and to facilitate fabrication of cargoes upon vessel discharge.

Project cargo volumes at Keefer Terminal have increased every single year for the better part of a decade, and now account for over 10 per cent of all project cargo handled on the Seaway. “We’ve developed an attractive gateway for project cargo heading West by continuously investing in our most vital assets,” says Heney, “The most important thing for us is to provide the customer a flexible, reliable, and cost-effective alternative when comparing routes to Western Canada.”