The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) is making a concerted marketing and diversification push to steer more freight off of the highway and onto rail.

The North Bay-headquartered Crown agency has been drawing attention in recent months by establishing multimodal yards in Timmins and Cochrane to cater to heavy industrial clients.

And in the past year, the northeastern Ontario rail carrier has picked up more than 15 new customers and is looking to grow on the agrifood-related side of the business.

Heavy loads or large bulk commodities are usually associated with using rail, but the ONTC is looking to convince large and smaller shippers to consider the economics of using the train to move goods to distant markets.

“That’s part of our strategy to be knocking on doors and trying to attract as much business as we can,” said Jon Corley, Ontario Northland’s director of rail transportation.

“As they see more people using rail, using intermodal hubs, maybe it’ll catch on and more customers will definitely have a good hard look at rail.”

Working out of the Englehart office, Corley is a 16-year railway veteran who moved into the position in late November. He started with the ONTC as a brakeman and worked his way up to conductor, engineer and into management.

His division manages 700 miles of track spanning from North Bay to Moosonee and from Calstock (near Hearst) to Rouyn-Noranda in northwestern Quebec.

Corley finds there’s plenty of new business to chase as well as service existing and smaller companies that were overlooked in the past along with some potential off-line customers that could be accommodated by transload facilities.

“That’s where these intermodal hubs come in,” said Corley, “where we can allow these customers to access rail to off-load and load onto rail car after a short distance by truck.”

The $1.4-million Cochrane terminal at the ONTC’s yard there caters to the needs of the Detour Gold Mine north of town, but the rail carrier and town are working to draw in more forestry and agriculture-related freight.

In Timmins, rail is a key to the $5 million, 36-acre industrial park on Hallnor Road where anchor tenant Texas-based INEOS Calabrian has sited a liquid sulphur dioxide plant and more companies are expected to set up shop there.

If all goes well, Corley suggests more hubs could be strategically established across the northeast.

“There’s been quite a bit of conversation right now with customers looking at what we could do. What logistics would have to be set up, and what infrastructure would be needed to accommodate their needs.”

The ONTC’s growing new business is in the agricultural sector of the Timiskaming-Cochrane Claybelt.

Two-way traffic is being generated with outbound grain commodities like wheat, canola, and soybeans while bringing in fuel and fertilizer on the backhaul.

“It’s an area (where) they’re developing new lands, they’re looking at different methods of growing crops – with climate change playing a role – and as a sector, we’re there to support that growth,” said Corley.

Historically, trucking has been used to haul agrifood products to southern Ontario destinations.

But the longer the haul distance, the more sense rail makes.

To cost-effectively reach the export markets in the U.S., Corley explained rail burns less fuel per ton, per mile.

It’s also a greener mode of transport and doesn’t contribute to highway congestion.

The ONTC is out to convince agrifood shippers in the region to climb aboard.

“It’s relatively new and it’s growing every year,” said Corley. “Last year, for a single customer, we shipped 80 carloads that went into U.S. Midwest.”

Ontario Northland interchanges with Canadian National at three locations and hooks up with Canadian Pacific at its southern terminus in North Bay.

Customers can ship throughout the North American rail network and into Mexico.

Corley said the commission has set no freight or sales targets to boost the 27,000 carloads of freight they hauled last year.

The focus is on continuous improvement and finding ways to service the customer better.

Any upticks in traffic or customer demands for more rail cars can be easily handled by sourcing rolling stock from various leasing companies.

“We do lease gondolas and boxcars, and some customers – agriculture included – are affiliated with groups that own fleet that we move in and out.”

Despite the closure of Kidd Metallurgical Site in Timmins in 2010, Glencore’s Kidd Mine operations remain a big customer.

The railway hauls all the metal concentrate to the company’s Horne Smelter in Rouyn-Noranda in western Quebec and brings out all the product and byproduct.

With 40 miles of track in Quebec, Corley feels there is an opportunity to generate more business there.

“Historically, there were a number of small customers in there and we’ve reopened some discussion to try and attract more business to the rail.

“Things are picking up, our trains are getting larger, we’re moving quite a bit of freight and it’s a very positive time at Ontario Northland.”

There are also job opportunities at ONTC with a slew of retirements slated to take place within the next five to 10 years.

“That’s one of our challenges in the next couple of years, getting out and recruiting young talent,” said spokeswoman Rebecca McGlynn.

New conductors were undergoing training in February and there were jobs posted for a range of positions from car inspectors to a rail marketing analyst.