Churchill export plans depend on rail cars

Port relies on CN for cars | OmniTrax worries that government-mandated targets may discourage CN from sending cars north

NIPAWIN, Sask. — The Port of Churchill is hoping to export more than 700,000 tonnes of prairie grain this year.

However, achieving that goal will hinge on Canadian National Railway’s ability to deliver a steady supply of grain cars to the port’s rail head at The Pas, Man.

OmniTrax Canada president Merv Tweed said the Port of Churchill is in line to have a near-record shipping season this year, but the availability of grain cars will be an ongoing concern.

“We’re going to try to push as much grain as we possibly can through Churchill,” Tweed said during an April 2 presentation to the Hudson Bay Route Association (HBRA).

“We can do more grain if we have more cars. The challenge is that CN has a lot of pressure being put on it by government to ship east and west.”

Tweed said his company hopes CN will commit to delivering 8,000 cars of grain to The Pas this year.

From there, the Hudson Bay Railway (HBR), also owned by OmniTrax, would finish the haul to Churchill.

Tweed acknowledged that minimum weekly grain targets imposed by Ottawa have put CN in a tough spot.

Meeting the government-imposed targets could affect CN’s ability to deliver cars to HBR train yards at The Pas.

“We rely on CN to actually spot cars at The Pas for us, and that’s probably the biggest challenge this year,” Tweed said.

“With the government’s new bill suggesting that rail companies CN and CP (Canadian Pacific Railway) have to meet a certain target, we have a challenge now of making sure that they supply us with the rail cars that we need to push the product north.”

In the meantime, OmniTrax is exploring other ways to increase its annual grain handlings.

The company is setting up a grain transload facility at The Pas, hoping grain will be trucked from northwestern Manitoba and northeastern Saskatchewan directly to the HBR railhead, reducing dependence on CN trains.

Recent provisions in Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, also expand railway interswitching distances to 160 kilometres from 30 km.

If those measures are implemented, HBR and OmniTrax could potentially extend their reach as far south as Hudson Bay, Sask., not far from the province’s northeastern grain growing regions.

Tweed said OmniTrax will also explore the possibility of setting up a temporary grain loading facility at Hudson Bay, which would allow it to source more grain directly from farmers in northeastern Saskatchewan.

The company is also in the final stages of establishing two new grain transloading facilities along the Carleton Trail Railway (CTR) in north-central Saskatchewan.

Tweed declined to say where the CTR loading sites would be located but said he hoped they would be in place later this year.

The company has also requested that the federal government supply 250 hopper cars that HBR could use exclusively to haul grain between The Pas and Churchill.

A similar request has been submitted to the Saskatchewan Grain Car Corp., seeking 100 or more hopper cars.

Tweed said OmniTrax is optimistic that an agreement can be reached with CN, ensuring that a steady flow of grain cars will be delivered through the northern route.

Despite all of the challenges, the port sees its grain business growing this year.

Much of the grain shipped through Churchill has traditionally been old-crop grain carried over from the previous crop year.

There will be no shortage of old crop grain this year. By some estimates, carryout stocks could be as high as 20 to 25 million tonnes.

HBRA president Sinclair Harrison said that bodes well for the port’s grain export program.

“Churchill navigation opens up around the end of July,” he said.

“Some years when July rolls around, there’s not much grain left. This year is going to be a much different situation … so the potential for a record year for Churchill this coming year is going to be very positive.”

Speakers at the HBRA’s annual convention in Nipawin said operational changes at Churchill, combined with a reliable supply of grain cars, could conceivably push the port’s grain exports above a million tonnes per year.

Jan Andersen, a captain with the Danish shipping company Norden Tankers and Bulkers, said additional shifts and ensuring that grain vessels are loaded 24 hours a day could increase annual load-outs by nearly 40 percent.

“It’s simply hours of work,” said Andersen.

“It’s got nothing to do with technology or anything like that .… It’s just a matter of running the port 24 hours a day.”

The HBRA continues to push for a Coast Guard presence at Churchill and improved access to vessels with ice-breaking capabilities.

Andersen said extending Churchill’s shipping season by two weeks could increase annual grain exports by as much as 250,000 tonnes.

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