Coal train snaking through mountains of British Columbia
Worldwide, industries big and small rely on the high-quality coal found in Canadian seams to power their industries. However, getting this relatively basic product to them is often a very complex process. For domestic power plants, transportation is usually simple enough, as generally mine and plant sit side-by-side. For example, the average haul distance between Sherritt International’s Genesee mine in Alberta and its partnered EPCOR plant is only about four kilometres. All of the coal is moved on 150-ton trucks via private roads, in amounts tailored to the needs of the power plant. According to Sherritt’s manager of mine operations, Chris Barclay, the biggest transportation problem they face might be an industry-wide difficulty in acquiring tires to outfit the trucks.
However, unlike their competitors in Australia, whose operations generally lie close to water, coal mines in Alberta and eastern British Columbia must often transport their products over 1,000 kilometres west to Pacific ports for export to the coal-hungry, steel-producing countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, or east to serve power plants in Ontario. For these companies, the effectiveness of their supply chain depends on delicate logistics between mine, rail, terminal and ship.
Meeting the customer halfway
When producer and consumer coordinate an order, the coal customer is typically responsible for hiring a shipping company and nominating specific vessels bound for the terminal with which the coal company has a contract. The coal shipping facilities in British Columbia are located at Ridley Terminals in Prince Rupert, and Westshore and Neptune terminals in Vancouver. Another coal terminal at Thunder Bay handles shipments to Ontario.
Eugene Nagai, vice president of marketing and transportation at Grande Cache Coal Corporation, said that the company’s choices were limited to Vancouver when it started up four years ago. “We chose to go with Westshore because that’s where the bulk coal moves out of,” he explained. “For our limited production at the time — which was less than a million tonnes — we could take part cargoes on vessels that went to Japan and Korea."
To get the coal to port, the typical mine depends on the railway whose line happens to run closest to its operations — either Canadian Pacific or Canadian National. Bill Black, manager of processing at Western Canadian Coal’s Wolverine mine, explained that trains frequently run through to pick up a new load. Each month, the mine lets the railway know how many trains will be needed. The coal is reclaimed and loaded onto cars located on the rail siding, and then a CN locomotive picks up the train. “It’s pretty near a train a day,” said Black. Between 25 and 30 trains arrive for Wolverine and a neighbouring operation every month, each leaving with at least 10,000 tonnes of freight.
Efficiency on the railway
Over the last several decades, railways have been increasing the amount of coal they can carry. Traditionally, coal was transported in steel-unit trains comprised of about 100 to 105 cars. But an ongoing trend of replacing steel cars with those made of aluminum means that more coal can be shipped on each train, as these cars are about five feet (or 10 per cent) shorter, so that the number of cars per train has increased to between 115 and 124. Aluminum cars are also approximately six tonnes lighter than steel ones, enabling them to carry six additional tonnes of coal (roughly a six per cent increase, to about 106 or 110 tonnes per car).
“The biggest change I feel that’s happening right now is the introduction of these aluminum train sets,” observed Black. Currently, two of the three CN train sets dedicated to Western are aluminum. By fall 2008, Black anticipates they will all be made of the lighter, more efficient material.