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Duluth port celebrates rail revival: CN container service opens new possibilities

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, the Port Authority's Vanta Coda, CN's Keith Reardon, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and Lake Superior Warehousing's Jonathan Lamb (from left) cut the ribbon Wednesday on the 6-month-old container shipping arrangement between Duluth Cargo Connect and CN -- one that has rail shipments into and out of Duluth reaching all of the North American coasts. Brady Slater / bslater@duluthnews.com

Keith Reardon stepped to the dais at the Clure Public Marine Terminal on Wednesday and immediately added perspective to the day's proceedings.

"We flew in from Los Angeles, where we were selling very hard the Duluth terminal," said Reardon, Canadian National Railway's vice president of intermodal and automotive. "In the coming weeks, we'll be going to Asia, where we'll be selling very hard the Duluth terminal."

A host of commerce heavyweights and politicians were gathered to celebrate the 6-month-old arrangement between CN and Duluth Cargo Connect — one that has seen the port diversify from water-based logistics by amplifying its rail network.

"When you think of Duluth, everyone thinks water," said Glenn Nelson, a chief executive with the North Dakota-based international logistics firm Valley Worldwide. "But this is happening because of the rail system that's here."

CN is taking container cargoes from Canadian ports on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts — Prince Rupert, Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax — and the Gulf Coast ports of Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, and shuttling those cargoes through Duluth. The turnaround by rail is a week to any of the ports — and five days either to or from New Orleans and Montreal.

"You've got quartz countertops, grinding balls for milling and paper products that go all over the world," said Reardon, who added that as the service becomes more established, consumer goods will be making their way through the Duluth terminal.

The gala luncheon featured a program with Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, and both Vanta Coda and Jonathan Lamb — the leaders of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and Lake Superior Warehousing, respectively, which banded together last year to create the new logistical brand, Duluth Cargo Connect.

Nolan praised Coda, the Port Authority's executive director, saying, "You're getting it done." And Lamb, the LSW president, praised the union stevedores who broke from their shifts to attend the event along with one of their hulking cargo container movers, called a "reach grabber."

"Without you doing what you do, we wouldn't be here," Lamb said to his staff, some of whom nodded along in agreement.

Conversations about a partnership with CN started in December 2015, and it wasn't long before the CN executives realized they'd found a nearly turnkey operation in the Duluth port. The Clure is now one of almost 20 CN terminals throughout North America that is being used to help reinvent supply chains — taking some of the emphasis off of trucking and putting it back on rail to the coasts.

"Some people do the same things over and over again," Reardon said, "but we prefer creating new ways to get products to market."

Brian Hanson, president and CEO of APEX, a Duluth business development firm, watched the proceedings thinking the possibilities were endless.

"It's creating a whole new target industry for us," he said, describing how container shipments can combine with taconite iron ore, coal, grain and wind turbines to make an even more vital port — one more attractive to "a whole new category of prospect companies."

To describe how the new arrangement is going, Nelson compared Duluth to a similar relatively new CN rail terminal in Indianapolis.

"The volume in the first three months in Duluth took us a year there," he said.

Mayor Larson talked about how she's always believed the port was the city's best-kept secret, but added, "I feel like the secret is out."

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