A giant piece of machinery bound for the oilsands of northern Alberta from Japan has arrived in Thunder Bay, Ont., marking the opening of a new all-Canadian shipping route.

"This is the first of many components for the oilsands to move through the port of Thunder Bay," said Tim Heney, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority.

The 450-tonne reactor, a tube-like structure the size of three railcars used in oilsands extraction, is heading to Fort McMurray on its way from the manufacturer in Japan. It arrived in Thunder Bay after being carried by freighter through the Panama Canal, up the eastern seaboard and west through the St. Lawrence Seaway.


Crews unload a reactor, a component of an oilsands upgrader, in Thunder Bay, Ont., last week. ((Thunder Bay Port Authority))

The machine, the largest single piece of cargo ever unloaded in Thunder Bay, was placed aboard special railcars last week and will remain in storage until January, when it will be shipped to Alberta, a trip that is expected to take about three weeks.

In the past, such large cargo had to go through Houston, Texas, or Duluth, Minn., to be shipped north to Alberta.

Canadian National has upgraded its rail lines, widened rail corridors, and strengthened bridges along the route linking Thunder Bay and Western Canada to accommodate such large cargo.

"And [with] this corridor — it's their all-Canadian corridor — CN can go right to the dock in Thunder Bay and take it directly to Fort McMurray," Heney said.

The route is also important, said CN spokesman Bryan Tucker, because West Coast ports are not an option for shipments so large.

"The clearances it would require wouldn't make it though the Rocky Mountains — through some of those passages, through the tunnels there — it just would not be feasible."

The route is expected to become more important in the future as oilsands development expands, said Heney, who noted the port's grain shipments have dropped off to about a third of what they were in the 1980s.

'There are many positive spinoff effects across the country from Alberta's oil industry, and this is just one of many examples.' — Alberta government spokesman David Heyman

The Alberta government has also been closely watching the development of the new route.

"There are many positive spinoff effects across the country from Alberta's oil industry, and this is just one of many examples," said government spokesman David Heyman.

"More and more it's the energy industry and the Alberta economy that are supporting social programs like health care that Canadians value so highly."

With files from John Archer