Shippers capitalize on Thunder Bay efficiency: official

The Ontario port saw more business from grain handlers as well as shippers importing steel and equipment

Another shipping season is nearly in the books at the Port of Thunder Bay.

Tim Heney, chief executive officer of the Thunder Bay Port Authority, says the final ship of the season is scheduled to leave port Jan. 14.

He described the 2015 season as “very strong,” with good total tonnage and encouraging grain volumes.

“Our estimate (for grain) … is eight million tonnes, compared with 8.3 million in 2014,” Heney said. “Last year (2015) was basically our second highest (grain total) in the last 15 years, and 2014 was our highest, so that’s pretty encouraging.”

Heney said the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board appears to have had a positive impact on grain volumes.

As well, he said railways view Thunder Bay as an efficient haul with relatively short unload and turnaround times.

Haney said large grain handling companies have increased their Thunder Bay tonnages now that they are in complete control of their supply chain logistics with no CWB.

He added that less prairie grain is being moved by rail to Eastern Canada because grain companies with facilities in Ontario and Quebec are choosing to move grain through Thunder Bay.

Eastbound domestic shipments are unloaded at the port and transferred onto lake vessels, which complete the haul.

“They (eastbound grain trains) used to bypass the port, but now it seems like the railroads are happy to come this far with grain but not necessarily past here.”

Other factors have also influenced grain traffic at the Lakehead.

Historically low ocean freight rates have encouraged more prairie grain to move west through Vancouver, to the detriment of Thunder Bay.

However, Heney said less expensive ocean freight combined with a stronger U.S. dollar have also increased the number of empty ocean freighters arriving at Thunder Bay. Most of those ships deliver steel and other dry bulk goods to U.S. ports on the Great Lakes before they are dispatched to Thunder Bay for a backhaul of grain.

Thunder Bay loaded 125 ocean vessels in 2015, compared with a record 127 in 2014.

Heney said the port has also benefitted from higher tonnage of incoming freight, including wind turbines, steel components and equipment.

Lower grain volumes at the Port of Churchill in 2015 were assumed to have had a slightly positive impact on Thunder Bay’s grain business.

The first ship of the 2016 shipping season is expected to arrive in Thunder Bay around March 25.

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