By Keith Norbury

A modular hotel from Poland is among the recent shipments of project cargo to arrive at the port of Thunder Bay this year. The hotel, consisting of about 156 modules, was still in the yard at Thunder Bay in late September when port CEO Tim Heney spoke with Canadian Sailings. “It’s something we’ve been working on for awhile — unusua­l but not a complicated move,” Mr. Heney said. “All the modules are basically the same in size but it just kind of catches the imagination a little bit, I think.”

The modules are from the Polcom Group, headquartered in Topola, Poland, about 125 kilometres south of the Baltic Sea port of Gdansk. Laurie Ritter, modular cargo/international trade specialist with Polcom USA LLC said working with the Port Authority “has been an absolute pleasure.” She added that the logistics portion of such a project “requires a relationship to be established well in advance of arrival” and that pricing can affect where a Polcom vessel arrives.

“Thunder Bay provides a cost-effective water-arrival option to central and western Canada without compromising security, inland resources and specialty needs,” she said.

Other recent projects Thunder Bay has handled include Enercon wind turbines shipped from Emden, Germany and destined for northern B.C., wood pellets from Norway, and “the usual structural steel from Spain and Luxembourg, headed for western Canada,” Mr. Heney said.

Excavators coming soon

On the horizon are excavators arriving from Europe destined for mines, most likely new gold mines being established in northern Ontario near Fort Frances.

“Projects are interesting. They’re all different every year,” Mr. Heney said. “The only repeat business we have is really the structural steel and rail that we’ve had over the last couple of years. And that can be, of course, increased due to economic activity in the west. But we’re seeing some return to wind turbines, which kind of goes in cycles. The hotel is something new. But we’re out there trying to promote it. So it seems to be getting a bit more traction now.”

Other recent shipments include transformers from Europe for Manitoba power projects, a reactor for a potash mine in Saskatchewan, and railway steel. “It started with a new line in Alberta that they’re building,” Mr. Heney said. “But now they’re starting to look at the refurbishment market too, which is large. Rail is always wearing (out).”

The port is also beginning to receive inquiries about scrap rail being shipped overseas. On the other hand, Thunder Bay hasn’t handled as much project cargo destined for the Alberta oil sands as it has in past years. “We haven’t seen any big push for the oil sands lately,” Mr. Heney said.

Road and rail both used

Cargo to and from the port can travel by road or rail. Structural steel is often shipped by rail, but road can be a competitive option, depending on the size and weight of the load, he said.

Wind turbines can and have been shipped by rail, he said. But if they need to move by truck for any distance, the cost of transloading can make that too costly. “You might as well just put it on the truck all the way,” Mr. Heney said.

To the end of August, general cargo volumes at the port were down slightly for the year — to 13,282 tonnes compared with 14,092 tonnes in the first eight months of 2016. But Mr. Heney said he expected that figure to rise once the September numbers are calculated.

Overall, the port handled considerably more cargo to the end of August — 4.8 million tonnes to 4.1 million — compared with 2016 figures. A more than doubling of potash volumes — to 372,924 tonnes from 151,667 tonnes — accounted for much of that increase.

In 2016, the 31,540 tonnes of general cargo was the most the port had handled since 2008 when 65,818 tonnes passed through. In 2002 and before, the port’s general cargo tonnages routinely reached six figures, peaking at 823,222 tonnes in 1966. Overall annual tonnages also often surpassed 20 million in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly driven by annual grain volumes of up to 17.6 million tonnes.

Terminals upgrades proposed

Looking toward the future, Thunder Bay is working on a terminal reconfiguration project that is expected to cost $12-15 million over the next few years. The next phase is rail upgrades as well as a heated storage building. “We’ve just had preliminary work on planning and some of the surveying work,” Mr. Heney said. “But I think we’ll see that kicked off next year in terms of real spending.” To assist with the expansion, the port has put in a request to the federal government’s new National Trade Corridors Fund. The government has allocated $2 billion to the fund over the next 11 years for “strategic projects,” such as ones that reduce bottlenecks and address capacity issues. The size of Thunder Bay’s project will depend on how successful the port is in its application, Mr. Heney said. “But certainly some of it we’ll do on our own.”