Photo: ETR President Terry Berthiaume is proud of non-subsidized accomplishments. Photo courtesy of the Essex Terminal Railway Company.

Did Anybody Notice? Essex Terminal Railway CompanyStrikes New Deal With FCA

The Essex Terminal Railway Company (ETR) reminds me of the old fable, The Little Engine That Could.

The fictional engine lugging a trainload of toys up a steep hill, huffing and puffing, and repeating the refrain — “I think I can, I think I can,” demonstrates the value of optimism and hard work.

ETR, my modern day equivalent of The Little Engine That Could, was actually founded in 1902, long before the storybook by Author Watty Piper was published in 1930.

Rail line construction happened between 1902 and 1918, and ETR has been chugging along ever since as a switching or short-line railway that assists industry and major rail companies in coupling and uncoupling cargo cars efficiently. And in case you haven’t noticed, ETR has spread its wings.

Last year, in January of 2018, it purchased the barren brownfield property once occupied by the General Motors Transmission plant on the doorstep of ETR’s headquarters and main terminal at 1601 Lincoln Road in Windsor.

Without fanfare, it recently purchased two other small parcels and transformed the 46 acre brownfield into a huge parking lot, dubbed Motipark Automotive Storage. Most of the cars are Pacificas and Grand Caravans from the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) assembly plant, less than a kilometre away.

How it happened is a reflection of the hard work and acumen of ETR President and CEO Terry Berthiaume and his management and ownership team.

“A couple of years ago, we were contacted by an offshore car manufacturer looking for a distribution centre on this side of the world,” explains Berthiaume.

The company was aware of ETR’s reputation for good service, right in the middle of North America, through mutual dealings in marine transportation.

The prospective partners entered into two years of negotiations, which ended when circumstances caused the offshore company to pull back.

“A lot of money, time and effort went into it,” says Berthiaume. “We realized it was a good idea.”

It turned out to be more than that.

“It was a eureka moment,” chimes in ETR Vice-President Tony De Thomasis.

ETR approached close neighbour Fiat Chrysler with the proposition of storing its products on the former GM property. FCA ultimately decided to move its distribution centre, adjacent to Home Depot on Provincial Road, to the infinitely more convenient locale.

ETR has spent in excess of $10 million to first rent, then purchase the property from investor group Orchard Heights Canada Company and get it ready to accommodate up to 5,300 bins, or vehicle parking spaces.

A new car repair facility, on Seneca Street between Kildare and Walker Roads, cost $1 million. Other improvements included landscaping, lighting, security cameras, fencing and drainage.

FCA saves copious fuel costs with the lot so much closer. So it’s environmentally friendly. And the short trip from the assembly plant lessens the chances of the new vehicles picking up nicks or malfunctions, says De Thomasis.

“It’s a win-win — good for us and good for FCA,” says Berthiaume. As well it is also good for nearby residents, since there is no real traffic congestion. Cars, transport trucks and rail cars stacked with vehicles enter and exit on remote Munsee Street off Walker Road.

ETR punches well above its weight. Its mainline stretches only 35 km and roughly parallels the Detroit River, from the east side of Windsor, through LaSalle and terminating in Amherstburg. The total track, including sidings and spurs, is 70 km.

The volume of cargo it moves in a year — 12,000 loaded rail cars — is spectacular for this unique short-line company with such a low public profile. While there is still romance in passenger train travel, there is little overtly sexy about a railway with a “Go Slow” safety policy that limits train speed to 15 km per hour.

Its value, however, to local customers engaged in the lumber, steel, agriculture, scrap metal, alcohol, and liquid petroleum gas industry sectors, is profound. ETR offers in-plant switching services to customers with trucks and rail cars clogging production processes. It reduces shipping costs, improves safety and increases efficiency and plant capacity.

ETR operates with only four regularly rebuilt locomotives, worth approximately $500,000 each. But, don’t be fooled. ETR and sister company Morterm Limited provide far reaching rail access from CN, CP and CSX railways to ships traversing the Great Lakes to load and unload cargo, connecting these customers to any point in the rail networks of North America.

Local industries served by ETR are: ADM Agri Ind. Border Reload Inc., Canadian Salt, Dainty Foods, Diageo Canada Inc., Hiram Walker (Penrod Ricard), K Scrap Resources, Petro Gas, and Plains Midstream Canada.

“There are a lot of spinoffs to big companies,” Berthiaume indicates. “A lot of industries depend on rail. ADM, Hiram Walker, Dainty Foods . . . they can’t operate without rail.”

“We’re not the kind of business that needs to be in the public eye,” adds Berthiaume when asked why ETR generally operates under the radar screen. “We advertise in trade magazines, to targeted audiences.” (Note: In these publications, ETR stresses its cost effectiveness to attract new business on the rail line).

In 1983, ETR merged with Morterm Limited, a full service marine terminal, under the corporate banner Essex Morterm Holding Company. That year there was a change in ownership with a private local investment group purchasing the company from Canadian Salt.

Morterm, located on Maplewood Drive in west Windsor, is a story in itself.

It was built in 1917 by U.S. Steel. A large portion of the docking facility was expanded using debris from the 1967 Detroit riots no less.

Today it is a thoroughly modern marine facility. It recently purchased $500,000 in state of the art lift truck equipment to accommodate the transport of cumbersome cargo, such as wind turbine components, across the country.

ETR is forever on the prowl for new business. One opportunity would be to attract a big manufacturer to redevelop 140 acres of land idled for five years with the closure of the Honeywell chemical plant in Amherstburg. ETR has a track there waiting to be reused.

Berthiaume is prideful of the fact that his company has never been subsidized by government. In fact, ETR and its sister companies pay an estimated $850,000 a year in municipal taxes while employing a dozen core staff and 60 employees during peak operations.

He allows that ETR might pursue tax deferment under the city’s Community Improvement Plan (CIP) as it explores other opportunities for converting brownfields.

With governments liberally tossing money around to private companies with little proof of sustainable payback, I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.

*If you have a comment on my opinion about this topic please post it below. If you have any questions I will try to answer them.