Farmers await Churchill sale, but 2017 season in jeopardy

Grain shippers in northeastern Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba are still hopeful that some grain will be moved through the Port of Churchill this year.

But time is running short, says the president of the Hudson Bay Route Association.

If a deal to sell the port and the Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) is not reached quickly, another shipping season will be lost.

“What we heard is that OmniTrax (the current owner of the port and HBR) is very, very close to making a deal,” said HBRA president Elden Boon. “They were expecting to have a final agreement in place (by now), but there was a little hiccup … so we’ll look forward to hearing something here in the near future.”

OmniTrax Canada has been looking for a buyer for the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway for almost a year and a half.

It acquired the port and the railway line in 1997 from the federal government and Canadian National Railway.

OmniTrax announced in December 2015 that it had signed a letter of intent to sell the assets to a group of Manitoba First Nations, led by the Mathias Columb Cree Nation.

An agreement has yet to be reached, but Boon said OmniTrax official Merv Tweed told the Hudson Bay Route Association last week at its annual meeting in Swan River, Man., that a deal is imminent.

OmniTrax announced last July that grain shipments through the Port of Churchill had been suspended.

It also scaled back freight service for other commodities, limiting HBR traffic to one northbound train and one southbound train per week.

For grain shippers, the suspension of the port’s 2016 shipping season came as a surprise. Loaded grain cars that were destined for the port were redirected, but nearly 30,000 tonnes of grain that reached Churchill remain in the terminal.

Boon said HBRA members have been hoping for a deal, but he acknowledged that the 2017 shipping season could be a write-off.

“They (OmniTrax) did mention that they would like to get some grain moving through there (in 2017) … but I think it would be a fairly tall order… because of the time frame,” he said. “I would like to see something happen this year, but we’ll wait and see. The time frame is not on our side.”

Before 2015, the Port of Churchill typically handled around 500,000 tonnes of grain per year. The short shipping season normally begins in late July or early August and ends in late October or early November.

However, in 2015 the port saw total grain handlings of fewer than 190,000 tonnes.

Historically, the port’s biggest shipper was the Canadian Wheat Board. Ottawa’s decision to end the CWB’s marketing monopoly has proven that private-sector grain companies prefer to ship grain through Thunder Bay, Prince Rupert and Vancouver.

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