CN boss backs Quebec City container terminal amid public opposition


Canada’s biggest railroad sees a future $775-million container terminal in Quebec City as a key cog in a plan to steal market share from the Port of New York and New Jersey — even as local opposition to the project grows.

Canadian National Railway Co. and Hong Kong’s Hutchison Ports have set aside $500 million to build the “state-of-the-art” Beauport terminal by 2024, chief executive officer Jean-Jacques Ruest said Monday. CN, which also will have rail access to the Port of Montreal’s proposed container facility in Contrecoeur, is in discussions to take part in a possible expansion of the Port of Halifax, he added.

“Our pitch is, let’s see if we can try to create a competitive edge together with other partners,” Ruest told reporters Monday after a speech to the Canadian Club of Montreal. “More and more you will see us do commercial and financial alliances with partners to ensure the Eastern Canadian ports play an important role in the U.S. Midwest.”

Containers are already a major component of CN’s business, representing one-quarter of the company’s revenue in the first nine months of 2019. Volumes will probably benefit from new trade deals such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

CN is eager to replicate the success of its 12-year-old container terminal in Prince Rupert, B.C., which is again being expanded after setting volume records.

While CN has found growth in Prince Rupert, “in the east it’s not happening fast enough,” Ruest said. “That’s why we say: let’s see if we can participate in the investment, be part of the solution and reconquer some of the market share that was lost.”

Quebec City’s port authority is looking to build a deepwater wharf in Beauport. The port says it’s operating at full capacity and traffic at its wharfs is “at a critical business threshold.”

Rail would be the dominant mode of transportation in Quebec City, with 85 per cent of containers entering or leaving the terminal by rail, port documents show. Major markets for the freight would include Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis, Ruest said.

“Our vision for Quebec City is a port which would do a lot of rail, like we do in Prince Rupert, and go as far inland as we can,” Ruest said.

To be sure, the project is contingent on the port authority securing environmental approval and infrastructure funding.

The first part alone could prove to be a tall order. A local petition to demand that the expansion be scrapped received more than 15,000 signatures last year. Opponents argue the construction will have a “permanent, negative” impact on area wildlife, isolate the city’s lone public beach and pollute central neighbourhoods.

“More and more people are having doubts about the project,” Alice-Anne Simard, managing director of Nature Québec, a non-profit group that’s leading the charge against the expansion, said Monday in an interview. “To us, it’s not justified.”

Still, Ruest is undeterred.

“Whether it’s Montreal, Contrecoeur, Quebec City, Halifax or others, we as a country need to invest,” the CEO said.

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