Friday, September 8, 2017

CN Bagged Gondola Loads Halifax-Fort Saskatchewan

At Pier 9 of Halifax harbour, CN lifts gondolas loaded with bags of minerals that I'd heard variously described as nickel ore, mine tailings, ore concentrate, possibly nickel or zinc. Actually, it's from a relatively new nickel laterite mine, initiated in the 1950s and upgraded in 2001 in Moa, Cuba, though its west mine is nearly depleted. This may account for the use of the term 'tailings' by some. Ships carry the nickel from Moa Bay, Cuba to Halifax. Another similar mine is being developed in Ambatovy, Madagascar. The shipments from Cuba began around 1994, after Sherritt investment in the site was initiated in 1990.

Strict instructions are provided, at least in the days before Cuba and the US normalized relations: "DO NOT SHIP THROUGH USA". The bags are loaded in a row, above the cars' centre sill. Blue and red tags are readily visible trackside, though I haven't taken the opportunity to climb aboard and get close-up shots! (Hey, I've always wanted to 'catch-out' for a trip to Alberta). One or several cars at a time are picked up by the CN switcher and added to a Toronto-bound freight for furtherance on an Alberta-bound train. The bags' destination is Fort Saskatchewan, AB, to a 1952-built Sherritt metal refinery which produces nickel and cobalt. A satellite photo of the refinery shows gons with bagged loads outside a large covered building.
The mine in Moa now accounts for 95% of the refinery's nickel feedstock. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mine needed to find a new destination for its product. 

From Fort Saskatchewan, the finished product is shipped by container overseas, via the Port of Montreal.

The gondolas used when I first noticed this traffic were CN 65-foot gons, with a capacity of 3150 cu ft, i.e. series CN 157000-157299. CN 156387 with IC-style reporting marks was westbound on CN No 305 on May 21, 2007 (top photo). The red and blue tags on the top of each bag are just visible.
My Kingston Sub observations, with date, car number, CN train on, notes:

Jul 5/97 CN 156295 on No 307 dest Fort Saskatchewan
Oct 18/97 CN 157135-156015 dest Fort Saskatchewan on tailend of No 307
Apr 10/98 CN 156024-157070 plus five others with bagged loads on No 307
May 20/08 CN 157101 on CN No 309
July 5/08 CN 157079, ATW 400522-400488-400561 and eight others on No 305
Sep 14/08 ATW 400598-400566-400592 on No 321
March 27/2010 ATW and NKCR gondolas, no CN gondolas.

Eventually, whether due to age or capacity, the CN gons were replaced by new NSC-built ATW (Atlantic & Western) and Trinity-built NKCR (Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado Railnet) gondolas. ATW gondolas have a capacity of 3675 cu ft and a gross weight of 286,000 lbs.

Ron Visockis shared this overhead mid-train photo of CN No 305 with a large cut of bagged load gons, including ATW 400541 in the foreground, westbound through Belleville on March 9, 2016:
Here's NOKL 360087, one of a dozen black gondolas on CN No 305 at Kingston on March 12, 2017 including IC and ATW cars:
On September 10, 2017, CN No 305 had examples of two of the types of gondolas used in this service. ATW gons are prevalent, the IC gons less so:
 ATW 400494 (above) and 400572 (below):
 IC 3681 with tops of bags more visible:
John Richard kindly shared this overhead photo of some of the gons on CN No 305 at Moncton Gordon Yard on August 9, 2017: 
John also included an April, 2016 close-up photo of the bags, each apparently weighing about 1600 kg. UN 3077 is "environmentally hazardous substance, solid, not otherwise specified, not including waste" and applies to a wide variety of substances. Thanks, John!
Jakob Mueller also got (and kindly shared!) overhead views of the bagged loads at Halifax....
This was at the end of the CN gondola era, with the ATW cars looking quite new. Jakob's first encounter with the gons was in September, 2008 (above) and again in June, 2009 (below):
Chris Mears was on the Tower Road bridge while CN was switching gons including IC 3766. The bagged loads they were carrying arrived on an apparently sketchy-looking Cuban-flagged trawler/freighter. Barely seaworthy, the trawler was unloaded by a specialized forklift - October 2017:
And at the other, western end of their journey, Trevor Sokolan kindly shared this photo of CN's Scotford Industrial Switcher switching the gons across the Dow duck pond in Fort Saskatchewan on May 18, 2018. Note the tired-looking CN 'switchers':

Lots o' links:
Running extra...
Kingston is fortunate to have some notable RCAF visitors this week for the CFB Kingston Family Fun Fest: the Snowbirds (above) and Captain Matthew Kutryk with the CF-18 Demo Team, flying CANADA 150 188734 still with its under-fuselage fool-me-once faux cockpit:
and it's proudly presented by VIA Rail Canada, with passengers through Kingston station reminded of the event by this dumpster shelter banner!
Watch for Trackside Treasure's upcoming September Sale. From my collection to yours?


Zartok-35 said...

Never noticed any bags before, but I suspect this accounts for the occasional blocks of gondolas seen on CN 314, the Toronto-Scotford "Hopper tanker".

Eric said...

So true, Elijah. Before containers, when freights were all Boxcar-Boxcar, we had to guess as to the contents. Hopper-Tanker is a bit easier. And open Gondola-Gondola is the easiest. As John Richard's photos that I added to the post illustrate, it's just a matter of looking in or down! That's what makes freight cars so interesting to me/us. What's in it, where did it come from, where's it going, what's it used for?

Thanks very much for your comment,

GP9Rm4108 said...

Hard to believe you've never seen these before! They're going through on 313 nearly every day!

Chop said...


Great work. Some questions:

- You say the cars are moved out of Halifax 'one or a few at a time' by a CN switcher. And others report seeing these cars on regular trains. Yet the photos show strings of ten or more. Those strings are on manifest trains, and not unit trains?

- You say the product comes back in containers to the Port of Montreal. I wonder why not to Halifax, and why not to other destinations via, say, Vancouver?

- Okay to use this story in my newsletter?
Chop Hardenbergh, editor
Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports
weekly newsletter covering
New England, the Maritimes, and eastern Quebec
PO Box 357, Freeport ME 04032
207-865-2922 fax 866-484-4490

Eric said...

Hi Chop - thanks for your questions.

The number of cars is indeed variable per westbound CN freight trains ex Halifax. I don't know how the number of loaded cars is related to the size of the shipment received by ship. The bagged loads are moved in regular manifest trains.

The nice thing about bagged loads in gons is that they're visible. Indeed, loyal Trackside Treasure readers have sent better interior photos than I had! But if the finished product is shipped out in containers, it's impossible to tell without shipper information where they're headed. Perhaps shipping from Montreal gives an indication that this material is heading for Europe - pure speculation on my part!

Yes, perhaps sharing this in your newsletter will generate more information. Just credit Trackside Treasure/Eric Gagnon if you would.


Unknown said...

Eric, I will give you credit, definitely, thanks.

if I may, how do you know that the finished product does go out Montreal?


Eric said...

No problem, Chop. The first link in the article provides a lot of information. I quote in part,

"The briquettes form 90% of the product, and are shipped in 2-t bags to customers in Europe and Asia. (With the metals originating in Cuba, these products may not be sold to the United States.)"

Hope this helps,