UPDATED: June 19, 2018 – 0955 CST – adds CN emailed comment – If Ottawa is serious about re-establishing the Port of Churchill as a viable export route for prairie grain, it should focus its regulatory efforts on re-opening the Tisdale subdivision in northeastern Saskatchewan.
That’s according to Ian Boxall, a Tisdale-area farmer who also serves of vice-president of Saskatchewan’s general farm lobby group, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.
“The closure of the Tisdale Subdivision requires grain from northeastern Saskatchewan to travel hundreds of kilometres further than necessary to reach the (Hudson Bay Railway’s) rail head at The Pas, Man.,” Boxall said.
“Once the port re-opens, we are concerned that these additional freight costs will continue to undermine Churchill’s commercial potential.”
The Tisdale branch line is owned by Canadian National Railway.
It covers about 100 kilometres between Crooked River, Sask., just east of Tisdale, and Hudson Bay, Sask.
CN also owns the track between Hudson Bay, Sask., and The Pas, Man.
A few years ago, CN had placed the track on a list of prairie rail lines slated for discontinuance or sale.
But the company has since removed the section of track from the discontinuance list.
CN still owns the line but it hasn’t been used to move freight for years.
Parts of the line are in poor condition due to flooding. CN uses other parts of the track to store unused rail cars.
CN has given no indication that it plans to return the line to service.
That’s an irritant for Boxall and other producers in northeastern Saskatchewan, who argue that CN should be forced to either repair the track and return it to service, or sell it to someone who’s interested in using it.
APAS recently sent letters to federal transport minister Marc Garneau and other MPs, urging them to speak with CN officials about the future of the line.
A few years ago, the Hudson Bay Route Association had also expressed interest in the track.
HBRA spent $12,000 on a study to assess the line’s condition and determine the cost of necessary repairs. But not long after the study was completed, CN announced it was removing the line from the discontinuance list.
“They should be forced to use it or lose it,” said Boxall.
“That’s a very important feeder system to the Hudson Bay Railway and the port of Churchill.”
The fate of the Tisdale-area rail line has generated renewed interest in recent weeks, especially since Ottawa announced that a new group has been identified to assume ownership of the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill.
The new ownership group, comprising Fairfax Financial, AGT Food & Ingredients and a partnership of First Nations and northern Manitoba Communities, has indicated that it intends to resume grain shipments to the Port of Churchill as soon as possible.
Boxall said grain growers in northeastern Saskatchewan would be happy to use the northern Manitoba rail route to ship grain, primarily pulse crops.
But volumes will be limited unless CN’s Tisdale subdivision is returned to service, he said.
Wayne Bacon, who farms near Kinistino, Sask., agreed that the section of track between Crooked River and Hudson Bay, Sask., should be offered for sale if CN isn’t planning to use it.
Bacon is a vice-president with the Hudson Bay Route Association.
He is also a founding member of the Northern Lights Railway, a locally owned short line that acquired 59 kilometres of unused track from CN in 2015.
“I’ve said from Day 1 that any railway lines that aren’t being used should be given up… because there is potential for farmers to use some of these tracks.
“I think the Tisdale sub (from Crooked River to Hudson Bay) could be used again but the biggest problem over there might be the cost,” he said.
“It hasn’t been used for a long time and some of it has been under water, so I think the price tag of getting it back into shape — even to run trains at 10 miles per hour — could be costly.”
Bacon said he’s heard it would take about $11 million to repair the line but he’s not sure if that investment would allow trains to run at 10 miles per hour, 25 mph or 40 mph.
“When you’re repairing track, there’s a big difference in costs when you go from 10 mph up to 25 or 40,” he said.
Bacon said efforts aimed at expanding the rail system in Western Canada should be supported by government.
In an emailed statement, CN officials said the company’s record $3.4 billion capital program is focused on investments in its main line corridors and railway locomotives and equipment in 2018.
“There are no planned investments in the Tisdale corridor,” CN stated in the email.