The Canadian Rockies provide Canada with lumber, coal, fresh water and tourism dollars but they also provide a major impediment to rail transportation between the West Coast and anything east of the mountains.
Other than avalanches and washouts in mountain passes Canada’s two major railways have solved most of the problems involved in mountain railroading, such as steep grades and mountain tunnels with limited clearance. To their credit, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways have now made it possible to move double stacked container trains through the Rockies at speeds that were unheard of a decade ago.
However, when it comes to huge dimensional loads and project cargoes, the mountains still offer a formidable obstacle, meaning the massive pieces of equipment required by Western Canada’s oil patch – including the Alberta oilsands - and Saskatchewan’s uranium mines need a different, easier, route.
Also, it appears as though the Port of Thunder Bay located at the head of Lake Superior is becoming the best Canadian option for shippers with project cargo to move.
For these reasons CN Rail and the Thunder Bay Port Authority have partnered to develop a route with minimal grades and ample clearances for project cargo destined from the Port of Thunder Bay to Fort McMurray, Alberta, a short distance south of the oilsands.
For those who are not aware of the immensity or scope of the oilsands, they are an oil deposit that is second only to Saudi Arabia’s reserves and have been described by Time Magazine as “Canada’s greatest buried treasure … capable of supply the world’s entire demand for oil for the next century.”
The oilsands are rich with thick petroleum, called bitumen, which is mined and then processed to provide a petroleum product that requires a condensate in order to flow through a pipeline. This process, of course, requires a plant and machinery to operate and, with the help of billions of dollars in investment, production is expected to increase from 1.126 million barrels of marketable oil per day in 2006 to roughly 5 million barrels per day by 2030.
Moving plant components and machinery to the oilsands site near Fort McMurray can be a Herculean job as some of the equipment, such as reactors used for processing the bitumen, can be massive in size.
Yet this, and other equipment destined to Northern Alberta and northeast British Columbia, is exactly what the Port of Thunder Bay is hoping to attract.
Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority, told AJOT the port, working with CN Rail, recently set a record by moving five reactors to Ft. McMurray, the largest of which weighed in at 525 tonnes.
Handling these behemoths required considerable work at both the loading and unloading ends of the line and work on the track itself. Heney said part of that work included bridge reinforcements and improving clearances on the rock cuts between Thunder Bay and the city of Fort Francis, Ontario.
“We also did some work on our pier and the rail approaches to the pier, as well as getting some engineering work done to insure the pier would support of weight,” he said. “All five of the reactors were moved to Ft. McMurray on one train which would make it the heaviest load out of Thunder Bay of its kind.”
One piece of track used by CN Rail to access Ft. McMurray was only recently purchased by the railway and had to be substantially upgraded to handle heavy movements of project cargo.
In a statement prior to the move the port and CN Rail said: “The short line railroad from Boyle, Alberta to Fort McMurray, the widening of rock cuts, and mile by mile re-measuring and inspection of rail lines has pushed the maximum envelope for project cargos. This route now permits large, heavy equipment and components to reach the heart of the oil sands project development uninterrupted over 1,500 miles of CN rail network.”
Heney said the train from Thund