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Shortline powers through remote areas to transport critical minerals, vital resources

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The Quebec North Shore Labrador Railway (QNS&L) runs through an area so remote, its construction informed the plot of a 1950s adventure novel. Its terrain is sparsely populated but rich in things the modern world needs. And today, QNS&L carries iron, nickel, cobalt, zinc, and platinum to port so they can get to clients around the globe.

Travelling along 418 kilometres of track and passing through three camps, QNS&L is owned by Rio Tinto Iron Ore Company (IOC), a leading producer and exporter of high quality iron pellets and concentrate. The line links Rio Tinto’s operations in Labrador City, Nfld., to the company-owned port in Sept-Iles, Que. 

Unlike most shortline railroads in Canada, QNS&L operates without any roads connecting to its mainline. This means QNS&L must be highly organized and in tune with the environment. 

“There are two ways to reach our mainline: helicopter or light rail train,” says QNS&L’s Superintendent, Railway Operations Marcel Le Boulaire. “We’ve got to plan very carefully. The first thing I do each day is remind myself of sunrise and sunset times, so I know what our windows are for getting the helicopter out if I need to.” 

Weather also dictates when QNS&L does its planned maintenance, as the area can see snowfall and below-freezing temperatures for about eight months of the year.

“Normally, we can only do our big maintenance projects from the end or middle of May until the end of September, sometimes the beginning of October,” said Le Boulaire. “That, too, requires a lot of good planning and organization so we can stay on schedule and stay safe.”

For the last several months, forest fires have been messing with QNS&L best laid plans. One fire that started in late May has been burning since – testing teams and emergency plans. Le Boulaire credits crews on a fire-fighting train for keeping loads running and flames at bay. 

QNS&L is vital to the local communities and regional markets it serves. Le Boulaire calls it a lifeline. And it’s a responsibility all employees take seriously.

“We do a lot for the local communities – railroads provide diesel service for places like Schefferville and hauls fuel for places like Labrador City,” says Le Boulaire. “And when forest fires cause road closures, we are the go-to for transporting resources to communities in need.” 

QNS&L also contributes to communities by providing hundreds of good, well-paying jobs. The company has hired more than 600 people. It’s a growth trajectory that shows no sign of slowing as both the Quebec and Canadian governments have made getting critical minerals to the world a key part of regional economic development strategies.

At a recent RAC shortline committee meeting, Le Boulaire outlined how QNS&L plans on increasing their iron ore production from 3rd parties. He explained how important it is that the company work collaboratively to help further growth.

“We are also in the process of rebuilding locomotives, increasing capacity on the mainline, and hiring more people in every aspect of the business,” said Le Boulaire. 

The challenges QNS&L face working in remote areas don’t stop them from making meaningful contributions to their local markets and helping communities in any way they can. 

As QNS&L enters a new chapter, they bring with them their organizational skills, resiliency, and forward-thinking to plan the best course of action to be an irreplaceable operation in northern Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.