From freight train to vessel: How Canadian potash is transshipped

Logistics specialist Sebastian Herzig is responsible for loading the potash products from Bethune at the K+S Potash Canada logistics and storage facility at the port location in Vancouver (Port Moody).

This place makes you think more of water sports or vacations than large-scale goods handling: the port facility in Port Moody is idyllically located in the far corner of Burrard Inlet on the edge of Vancouver, in the far west of Canada. Surrounded by mountains, forests, and fancy houses, this is a rather unusual location for a large logistics site, at least from a European perspective.

Sebastian Herzig (37) is responsible for the smooth handling of potash products from the Bethune plant. "This potash loading facility plays an important role for our logistics in Canada," he emphasizes. The K+S facility is part of the terminal site of the Canadian operator Pacific Coast Terminals (PCT). Among other things, it includes an unloading station for freight cars, 1,260 meters of conveyor belts, and a huge, 263-meter-long, and 40-meter-high storage shed for a total of 120,000 tonnes of potash products.

Unloading occurs fully automatically

The large freight trains from Bethune are unloaded here fully automatically in just eight to ten hours. Vessels with a capacity of up to 70,000 tonnes have space on the quay of the plant. KSPC shares some parts of the facility, such as the gigantic loading crane, with Sultran, because in addition to potash, the PCT facility in Port Moody also handles large volumes of sulphur, rapeseed oil, and glycol.

"All in all, the cooperation here at the terminal works very well," assures Herzig. "But all processes have to be precisely planned and coordinated in advance."

Each freight train from Bethune consists of ~170 individual rail cars and is three kilometers long, pulled by up to four locomotives and loaded with a total of around 17,500 tonnes of potash. The train takes three days for the 1,800-kilometer route. The load of around three full trains then fits into a large vessel. If there is no empty vessel on the quay when a train arrives, the potash is first stored temporarily in the huge storage shed. Two to three freight trains roll from Saskatchewan to Port Moody every week.

On arrival, the train enters the unloading facility. Railcar after railcar is unloaded automatically by opening the hatches at the bottom of the railcars. The potash falls onto a conveyor belt that transports the freight to the storage shed below ground level. Herzig and his colleagues only have to monitor this process. From the storage shed, the potash is then stored again for loading onto a vessel, which also takes place via a conveyor belt that leads to the loading crane on the quay of the plant.

Two types of products in the warehouse

The storage shed is divided into two sections: One section stores "MOP gran pink" (granulated potassium chloride), which is mainly destined for Brazil and Latin America, and the other stores "White Standard" (dust-free potassium chloride), which is delivered to Asian countries such as China.  

It usually takes 28 hours to load a large bulk carrier. The potash is transported either directly from the train unloading area or via another conveyor belt from the storage shed to the crane around 100 meters away. From there, the potash trickles down a chute some 20 meters into the vessel’s hold. "When it rains, we have to stop loading the vessel because moisture would damage the potash." It can therefore happen that the loading process takes longer than usual. Once the vessel is fully loaded, it makes its way out of the Burrard Inlet towards the Pacific when the tide comes in. A vessel needs around 16 days to reach Brazil if it sails through the Panama Canal. The other route leads around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, and takes around 10 days longer. A vessel usually needs at least two and a half weeks to cross the Pacific to China.

Ready for ramp-up

In 2023, the Port Moody facility handled around 2 million tonnes of potash. Tyler McDougall, Head of KSPC's Logistics Unit in Vancouver, says: "We are currently preparing for the planned ramp-up in Bethune to a total production of four million tonnes a year. The capacity here at the facility can handle the increased volume in the short term, but we are also looking at alternative port options across North America."

From time to time, there may also be disruptions to the usual process, such as when port workers in western Canada go on strike, as they did most recently in July 2023. In the event of a strike, the entire facility comes to a standstill. "In these cases, we have to divert our freight trains from Bethune to other transshipment points such as Thunder Bay on the Great Lakes or Tampa in Florida/USA," says Herzig. "This worked quite well in July, but logistically it is an additional effort."

International job environment

As part of his job, Herzig commutes back and forth almost daily between the KSPC office in Port Moody and the PCT transshipment and port facility around 3 kilometers away. KSPC's logistics team has a total of six people, two of whom are logistics specialists in Bethune. The nationalities are very diverse: "I work here with colleagues from Canada, China, and India. We have a great atmosphere here and work extremely well together," says Herzig enthusiastically.

In his free time, Herzig, who comes from Saxony, enjoys the diversity here in Western Canada. He particularly likes sushi restaurants as well as the lacrosse events and their community. The city of Vancouver offers numerous leisure activities, and the mountains and forests are also ideal for excursions. As it is also not far to the United States by land, he occasionally meets up with friends and relatives in Seattle or on vacation in California on his days off. "As an expat, I really enjoy my stay here in Vancouver," says Herzig. It is not yet clear what will happen after his five-year expat period. "In any case, I will continue to work in logistics. Perhaps at another K+S site somewhere in the world."

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