Port upbeat about Churchill

The Arctic Gateway Group hopes to double shipments through its port of Churchill in 2020 after a successful first shipping season.

Chief executive officer Murad Al-Katib told the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan annual meeting the port could handle 500,000 tonnes per year as the shipping season stretches from mid-May to the end of November.

He even foresees 700,000 tonnes, noting the former Canadian Wheat Board once shipped 750,000 tonnes.

“Our congested period of shipping is usually September, October,” he said Dec. 4. “So why wouldn’t we as a region want to ship out of Churchill while we can.”

Four grain ships representing 150,000 tonnes left the port this fall, including three loaded with durum and one with lentils.

“I can tell you it went without a hitch,” he said. “The track was in great condition. The port was able to receive.”

The ships went to Turkey in a 22-day trip to the Mediterranean. The last left port at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 7, just hours ahead of its 3 p.m. deadline to make it through the Hudson Strait.

“I can be honest I was sweating a little bit,” Al-Katib said.

The company spent about $45 million on track rehabilitation after purchasing the rail line to Churchill in September 2018. In 2017, the track washed out in 29 places, affecting 60 kilometres of track.

Train passenger and freight service were restored and the port services opened earlier this fall.

Al-Katib said he knows a lot of people said the port is not a viable option and not an asset for western Canadian farmers but he disagrees. Markets are growing, Canadian production is growing and the world wants what Canada has.

He said Canada requires a 50-year infrastructure plan that focuses on connectivity of gateways and corridors.

“We’ve got to get the stuff off rail that doesn’t belong on rail,” he said. “We’ve got to get stuff into pipelines. We’ve got to get grain on to rail. We’ve got to get dry bulk goods on to rail.”

Other countries have long-term plans, and Russia is planning to put $178 billion into its six Arctic ports.

Churchill is the only Arctic port in North America and its strategic advantage hasn’t yet been realized, said Al-Katib.

The port is part of a larger strategy for AGT Food and Ingredients, which owns and operates about 3,000 km of short-line railway in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and is building a rail consolidation centre at Delisle, Sask. The centre will have eight four km tracks and a system capable of cleaning 1,200 tonnes of grain an hour.

AGT is one of the Arctic Gateway partners.

Al-Katib said the company will be able to clean 100 cars in eight to 10 hours and store 100,000 tonnes within its own system.

“Our view and vision is that rural areas serviced by short line, brought into central points for consolidation, is the most efficient model,” he said.

AGT bought the provincially owned grain cars from the Saskatchewan government and is building new port capacity at Vancouver.

“We’ll have an ability to do truly identity-preserved cereals, canola and pulses right from identity-preserved bins in our west-central railway to cars to vessels,” he said. “That’s where premiums will be captured over time.”

During questions from APAS delegates, Al-Katib was asked about shipments by third parties through Churchill.

He said the port is public and open to all grain companies. The company limited shipments in this first year of operation.

“We didn’t want to take a bunch of other people’s grain and then get stuck,” he said.

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