There’s a predominant theme in the Port of Thunder Bay these days: momentum. Many port industries and initiatives are prospering, from the rise in bulk commodity shipments to the setting of cargo volume records in the project and breakbulk sector.

Cargo volumes in the Port of Thunder Bay were very strong in May, bolstered by significant grain shipments and decade-high potash volumes. Year-to-date, volumes of most of the Port’s key cargoes are well above average.

Grain Days in the Port of Thunder Bay

The Port of Thunder Bay, Canada’s second largest grain port and the biggest grain export port on the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway, is shipping its largest grain volumes in decades. The port is now in its fourth consecutive season of above-average grain shipments, something the Thunder Bay Port Authority Chief Executive Officer calls “a new normal.”

Thunder Bay is a hub for Western Canadian grain exports, located on the northwest shore of Lake Superior at the head of the Seaway System. The furthest inland port in Canada, Thunder Bay’s proximity to the Prairies makes it a gateway for cargo destined to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and South America.

Tim Heney, CEO of the Port Authority since 2004, notes that several factors have contributed to the influx which has led to grain volumes at the port hovering 25% above average for the past three years: “Tremendous capacity and proven efficiencies at the port’s elevators have enabled the capture of greater market share,” says Heney, “following regulatory change that brought free movement to the Canadian grain transportation flow.”

The regulatory change to which Mr. Heney refers is the abolishment of the Canada Wheat Board’s monopoly on the sales and marketing of Western Canadian wheat and barley. The regulation came into effect August 1, 2012. By 2014, Thunder Bay elevators began to experience higher grain volumes moving across their docks. Prairie farmers experienced their most successful harvest ever in 2013 and shippers opted to utilize the Seaway corridor to export the additional production. As of 2016, Western Canada has produced its four biggest grain harvests in consecutive seasons, including the 2013 record.

“The port’s eight grain elevators collectively shipped an average of one million metric tonnes every month in 2014, sending the port’s cargo volumes to a 17-year high,” says Heney. The eight terminals exporting grain from Thunder Bay recorded double-digit increases in 2014 over 2013, “and grain volumes have been maintained at the higher levels ever since,” Heney adds. “Shippers took notice of the capability of this port to accommodate a surge in grain, and have continued to capitalize on that advantage.”

Home to the largest grain storage capacity in Canada, the port’s elevators have developed significant efficiencies in both rail unloading and marine loading. Thunder Bay’s grain terminals are well-served by both Class 1 Canadian railroads. In a panel discussion at the recent Canadian Transportation Forum, Murray Hamilton, CP’s Assistant Vice President for Intermodal and Grain, revealed that Thunder Bay is the shortest railcar cycle on the railway’s grain route. Dedicated trains can complete just over three cycles per month from the Prairies to Thunder Bay, a benefit derived from good geography and the port’s efficient unloading. On average, a dedicated unit train takes just 0.85 days to unload at the port’s elevators.

Grain Diversity

The diversity of grain moving through the Port of Thunder Bay is expanding, a trend which is likely to continue, given the growing diversity in consumer demands. Thunder Bay’s grain elevators are shipping more flax, soybeans, and lentils than ever before, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of these commodities annually. On a larger scale, the port’s canola volumes have nearly tripled over the last decade, reaching a record 1.8 million tonnes in 2016 and accounting for 25% of the port’s total grain shipments.

Thunder Bay is the ideal transshipment point for a varied palette of grain products given its storage capacity. The composition of the elevators, hosts to a significant number of storage columns, makes them suitable for storing smaller volumes of varied grains or for combining grades to develop desired product mixes for specific customers.

Potash Surge

Outbound potash shipments tallied 134,000 metric tonnes in May, the highest monthly volume of potash for the port since April 2007. The port is already closing in on the average annual tally of potash – 300,000 tonnes – with more than six months remaining in the shipping season. The majority of the shipments in May were direct-export to international ports in Brazil and Europe.

The Port of Thunder Bay is the only potash loading point on the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway System. Both Thunder Bay Terminals and Mobil Ex Terminal offer marine loading of the commodity.

Thunder Bay Terminals, the port’s largest dry bulk facility, handled the potash surge last month. The facility maintains separate dry-bulk handling systems for its main two commodities: one for coal and another for potash that can accommodate a variety of other free-flowing bulk commodities including urea, grains and agricultural products.

Product is railed to the facility via Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways, both of which service the site. The coal handling system provides for the unloading of 120 car unit trains using a single barrel rotary dumper. For other cargoes, trains of up to 120 bottom-dump hopper cars can be handled via a dedicated loop track.

With outstanding cargo capacity, the facility is available to service other dry bulk industries, including agriculture. General Manager George Strandberg says the site’s size of over 300 acres is a strategic advantage. “The facility has 11 million tonnes of throughput capacity and 2 million tonnes of ground storage providing for flexibility of various products,” he says, “Thunder Bay Terminals also has exceptional vessel loading rates of up to 6,000 tonnes per hour.”

Port Records Fall

As Port and Seaway operations continue to evolve, improved efficiencies have led to higher benchmarks. Single-load cargo records were rewritten three times during the 2016 navigation season.

On June 14, 2016, MV CSL Assiniboine departed Thunder Bay Terminals with a port-record 32,567 metric tonne load of coal, beating its own record set the previous season. On August 16, 2016, CSL Assiniboine again bettered its record by taking on a shipment of coal totaling 32,801 metric tonnes.

The single cargo load record for grain has also been improved upon numerous times in recent seasons. Most recently, on August 16, 2016, MV CSL Welland set the port’s grain record, loading 31,064 metric tonnes of wheat at the Viterra A elevator.

Canadian Shipping Companies Boosting Efficiency

The roll-out of a new fleet of vessels on the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway System is improving still the efficiency of grain shipment via Thunder Bay. Over the past five years, more than 15 new lakers have been introduced on the System by Canadian shipping companies Algoma Central Corporation (Algoma) and Canada Steamship Lines (CSL). Other companies with new or significantly improved lake assets include G3, Lower Lakes Towing, and McKeil Marine.

The brand new vessels operated by Algoma and CSL are significantly more environmentally friendly than their predecessors and offer greatly improved fuel efficiencies. State-of-the-art design has enabled these vessels to carry larger volumes of cargo.

Steady Summer Anticipated

Total cargo volumes for the Port are now 20% higher than average, year-to-date. Thunder Bay Port Authority anticipates a steady summer for port facilities, including its own general cargo facility Keefer Terminal. Keefer experienced a 19-year high in cargo volumes last season due to record quantities of project and breakbulk cargo. For more details on the story behind Thunder Bay’s project cargo hub, see next page.