Open season on grain in Thunder Bay: Northwest port surges into shipping season.

Author:Ross, Ian

Grain may be backlogged at elevators on the Prairies, but it remains smooth sailing at the Port of Thunder Bay this spring.

Though still early in the Great Lakes navigation season, port authority CEO Tim Heney views no change in activity at the western Lake Superior port.

"It's starting to roll pretty good now. We're not seeing anything unusual."

The port opened to navigation on March 27 with the arrival of the first grain vessel, the CSL Welland.

The backlog that's the subject of many national media stories is mainly affecting the Port of Vancouver, Canada's main West Coast grain port, explained Heney.

The major Class 1 railroads have experienced one of the worst winters in quite a while, plagued by cold temperatures and plenty of snow through the Rocky Mountains.

It's the second time in four years that freight has been stalled in elevators on the Prairies, and many grain haulers are blaming the railways.

Some of the pain for grain growers, Heney said, might have to do with some of the after-effects of Ottawa's decision to de-monopolize the Canadian Wheat Board in 2012. Western farmers may be hanging onto their grain longer, causing a transportation backlog downstream.

"Everyone's a grain trader," said Heney. "The price starts to go up, and they all want to deliver at the same time. The (transportation) system is not designed for that. The Wheat Board used to call it in and controlled the flow."

Heney said railroads and the shipping companies want to run steady all the time and have trimmed their rolling stock and fleets to do that. In decades past, Canada's rail and marine network was set up to handle the spring and fall grain surge.

"Those days are gone. It's not like that anymore," said Heney.

The last time this happened, Ottawa tried to legislate the railways into moving grain faster, under threat of stiff penalties.

Heney remembers the late Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian National Railway at that time, wanted to divert grain to Thunder Bay.

"The more you legislate to Vancouver, the more jammed up it becomes."

For the large Panamax ships anchored in the Port of Vancouver waiting to take on cargo, Heney said once they reach seven days in demurrage (the cost of leaving a ship at anchor), they must move to re-anchor further offshore.

"Once you get a backlog of ships, it takes a lot to clear that."

Vancouver's headaches represent a great promotional opportunity for Thunder Bay.

With 1.2 million tonnes of storage capacity, the city's...

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