Switching from trains to trucks

New logistics Farmers make alternative plans to move grain to port

It’s a long and winding road from grain growing country in southeastern Manitoba to Thunder Bay, Ont. — more than 600 kilometres one way.


But this winter, a round trip of 1,200 km through the northern Ontario wilderness is no deterrent for farmers and grain companies who are going to great lengths to move Manitoba grain.


Sources in southern Manitoba and Thunder Bay say trucks have been lining up to move grain and oilseeds from southeastern Manitoba to the north shore of Lake Superior.


Tracey Shelton, director of corporate communications, said Richardson started hauling canola to its Thunder Bay port facilities last week. 


“We are indeed trucking grain to Thunder Bay … from the southern Manitoba area …,” Shelton said. 


“We’ve got some space in Thunder Bay so we’re trucking as much as we can from where it makes sense.” 


Shelton said moving grain from Richardson’s elevator system will open up additional space in the country where capacity is limited.


Tim Heney, chief executive officer with the Thunder Bay Port Authority, said trucks have been unloading at CWB’s Mission Terminal as well as export facilities owned by Richardson.


“Trucks are being unloaded in Thunder Bay, in limited numbers, at the current time,” Heney said in a March 5 email.


“While trucking to the port is not unprecedented, we are seeing higher than average numbers.”


Moving grain by road to Thunder Bay is one of the few options available to farmers in southeastern Manitoba this winter.


Canadian oats are also being trucked south of the border.


Opportunities to move grain by rail have been slow at best.


Heney said Thunder Bay had less than 250,000 tonnes of grain in storage as of mid-February


“That’s about 55 percent below the normal five-year average,” he said.


“Total storage capacity here is about 1.2 million tonnes so there’s very little in storage, actually.”


Derek Drayson, an official with Mission Terminal, confirmed that grain is being shipped from Manitoba, but he declined to say what types of grain are moving and where the grain is being sourced.


“We are handling some trucks for some of our customers,” he said.


“Unfortunately I can’t give a whole lot (of detail) in terms of geography.”


Drayson said rail service to Thunder Bay since late fall has been slower than usual — below the level that terminals had anticipated.


Heney said rail shipments to Thunder Bay were steady until November or December. Then the ice closed in and the supply of rail cars delivering grain to the port ended.


“There never was a big supply (of grain) in the elevators here,” he said.


“It was moving almost on a just-in-time basis, so when the (shipping) season closed, they basically ended the rail shipments completely … and there really wasn’t any effort to fill the elevators at that point.”


Trucking grain to empty terminals at Thunder Bay will provide temporary relief to country grain buyers who have little or no capacity left in their facilities.


However, the costs involved with trucking are high, meaning lower returns for farmers.


Heney said the port normally sees an increase in rail movements in mid to late March.


Projecting Thunder Bay’s export volumes this year could be more difficult than usual, given that rail resources have been prioritized to serve other shippers.


Last year, Richardson had a strong shipping program through Thunder Bay. Viterra’s business was down.


“It’s hard to determine because now, without the Canadian Wheat Board, it’s really up to individual grain companies … as to how much grain they move east through the seaway,” Heney said.