Grain cars make return visit to port of Churchill

A small durum shipment amounted to a test as track and port renovations continue in the northern Manitoba community


Grain farmers and shippers along the Hudson Bay rail route are hoping that the resumption of grain-by-rail shipments to the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba is a sign of things to come.

Elden Boon, president of the Hudson Bay Route Association (HBRA), says grain movements recently resumed along the Hudson Bay rail route after a hiatus of nearly four years.

A small number of grain cars carrying western Canadian grain were shipped earlier this summer.

Boon could not confirm how many grain cars were moved but he said the resumption of grain traffic comes as welcome news to the HBRA.

Before this year, grain had not been shipped to the Port of Churchill by rail since late 2015, he added.

“That’s pretty positive news for our organization,” said Boon, a farmer from Virden, Man.

“We had a couple of years there where we were kind of hanging out there in limbo…. We really didn’t have an ownership group that we could promote and we were in pretty dire straits for a while, with the washouts (on the rail line) and no service to Churchill.”

“That put a lot of stress, not only on the community of Churchill, but on other communities as well but we’re finally dealing with some positive things now and I think the future of Churchill hasn’t been brighter.”

The Port of Churchill has never moved huge volumes of Canadian grain but for years it served as an important gateway for some stakeholders in the western Canadian grain industry, including grain growers in northeastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.

When the Canadian Wheat Board was still in existence, up to 500,000 tonnes of grain were moved through the northern port each year, taking pressure off other grain export facilities at Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Thunder Bay.

But when the CWB’s marketing system was dismantled, private sector grain companies showed little interest in shipping grain through the northern port.

In mid-2016, with Churchill’s annual grain export volumes in decline, the previous owner of the port and the Hudson Bay Railway — OmniTrax Canada — announced plans to lay off 70 port employees and close the Churchill grain terminal indefinitely.

The following year, spring flooding caused severe damage to the track, suspending all rail service to Churchill.

OmniTrax no longer owns the railway leading to Churchill or the port facilities.

A new ownership group — Arctic Gateway Group Ltd. Partnership — acquired the assets in 2018 and secured federal funding worth $117 million over 10 years to help repair the railway and restore service.

The Arctic Gateway ownership group includes Saskatchewan-based pulse company AGT, Fairfax Financial Holdings and Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, a consortium of 41 First Nations and community groups in northern Manitoba and Nunavut.

Boon said Arctic Gateway is continuing work on refurbishing the railway and upgrading the grain export terminal at Churchill.

He described the recent shipment of Canadian grain as a small trial run, but a positive development.

“It wasn’t many cars and I believe it was durum but what’s going to be shipped beyond that (in 2019) I’m not sure,” Boon said.

“There’s a lot of maintenance still going on this year and their main focus for 2019, as I understand it, is more rehabilitation on the rail line.

“They’ve also been doing some refurbishment at the port so we knew that those activities would be ongoing and would probably have an impact on shipping larger tonnage through the port, at least for the time being.”

Arctic Gateway spokesperson Murad Al Katib was unavailable for comment late last week.

News of grain shipments along the trade route has fueled optimism among members of the HBRA, who are hoping that shipments of Canadian grain through Churchill, as well as other export commodities, will increase in the coming years.

The HBRA was expected to discuss shipping prospects for the northern port when the association hosted its 2019 annual general meeting Aug. 7 in Flin Flon, Man.

Boon said other countries that have access to Arctic waters are investing significantly in northern port facilities.

Despite weather-related challenges and an abbreviated shipping season, the economics of shipping goods through Arctic ports can be attractive, depending on the destination.

“Arctic shipping is the future,” said Boon.

“Russia and other countries are really focusing on moving more products through Arctic water and we think Canada needs to be part of that (trend).”

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