by Mark Cardwell

As a veteran short-line railway executive who now heads a company with only 34 km of track, Louis Gravel knows that size doesn’t matter when it comes to the big role that small railways can play in the lives and dreams of entire industries and regions.

“We’re a small railway with high intensity traffic,” said Gravel, CEO of the Société ferroviaire et portuaire de Pointe-Noire (SFP Pointe-Noire), a key railway and logistical hub that handles and hauls iron ore from the Labrador Trough to two wharves in the port of Sept-Îles for export to world markets.  “Our goal and raison d’être is to support and promote the economic growth of the iron ore industry and the communities in northeastern Quebec and the North Shore region that depend on it.”

Owned and operated by a public-private partnership that involves three mining companies – Tata Steel, Quebec Iron Ore and Tacora Resources – and the Quebec government, which bought the railway from Cliff’s Natural Resources in 2016, SFP Pointe-Noire offers and provides multi-user access and sharing of assets for the last-mile movement of iron ore concentrate to the port of Sept-Îles.

Despite its short length, the company’s steel rails and other infrastructure and equipment have played a critical role in both the relaunch and expansion of several mines in the Labrador Trough.

Since 2016, SFP Pointe-Noire has enjoyed a slow but steady annual increase in volume of material handled.  This year it will haul a record 11 MT of iron ore on 611 trains – enough to load 65 ships – which is just shy of its current capacity of 12 MT.

However that capacity will nearly double in Q4 2022, when the second and final phase of a $135-million expansion project is scheduled for completion.

Announced in late 2020 and financed mostly by the Quebec government, which is contributing $120 million ($70 million in loans plus a $50 million grant), the project aims to modernize the railway’s infrastructure, improve its year-round reliability in a harsh environment, and increase annual carrying capacity to more than 20 Mt.

For Gravel, who joined SFP Pointe-Noire in March 2020 after a decades-long career in both front line and management positions in the North American railway industry, the expansion project will greatly enhance his company’s efforts and ability to support and enable the development and expansion of Quebec’s iron ore industry.

“It will allow us to do so much more,” said Gravel, who notably served years-long stints as general manager of Rio Tinto/IOC’s nearby Quebec North Shore Railway and port operations, and president of Genesee & Wyoming Canada, which owns and operates a dozen short-line railways and operations with nearly 1,400 miles of short-line tracks in four Canadian provinces and three American states.

In addition to new conveyors and upgrades to the workshop where SFP Pointe-Noire services its four locomotives and can carry out fee-based repairs on the 1,600 ore cars owned by Quebec Iron Ore (1,200) and Tacora Resources, the expansion project includes the construction of a track extension and addition to accommodate more trains at interchange and yards.

The extension will help to both decrease turnaround times and allow for the addition of a second daily train of 240 cars by Quebec Iron Ore.  Currently, both Quebec Iron Ore and Tacora Resources each have one train that makes the daily 450 km run from their respective mining operations to the SFP Pointe-Noire yard at Arnaud Junction at the head of the bay of Sept-Îles.

Another big part of the railway’s expansion project is the addition of a $50 million ore stacker and reclaimer.

Built in Europe by global engineering and equipment maker FLSmidth, the system notably features a state-of-the-art bulk handling platform with a membrane that catches and treats runoff water.

Once delivered in Q2022, assembled on site and put in operation next fall – an event that Gravel says will mark the end of the expansion project and likely be celebrated with an official ceremony of some sort – the 100-foot-high effluent manager will be the first of its kind in North America.

“The timing of our expansion is perfect because it will allow us to handle the increased volume from the big $600-million, Phase-II expansion that Quebec Iron Ore will complete in March 2022,” said Gravel.  “Their capacity will double from 8 MT to 16 MT.”

In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of SFP Pointe-Noire’s fast-expanding short-line, heavy-tonnage rail line services, Gravel said his focus will shift to the development of the 5-square-kms of property that SFPP Pointe-Noire has available once the expansion project is complete.

“We’re looking beyond iron ore to other projects like green energy or processing – not projects that involve petroleum or LNG or other fossil fuels,” he said.  “Like the Port of Sept-Îles, our business model and values are now being guided by green development that considers all the associated social and environmental impacts or projects.”day.’