No grain vessels will be loaded at the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba for two years, Sheldon Affleck, chief executive officer of the Arctic Gateway Group (AGC), said November 5.
AGG consists of 29 Indigenous and a dozen non-Indigenous communities that own and operate the Hudson Bay Railway, which is the only ground transportation link to Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port.
AGG morphed from the consortium led by Regina-based AGT Food and Ingredients Inc., which acquired the line and port from U.S.-based Omnitrax when unrepaired washouts cut rail service to Churchill for three years.
Affleck said AGG decided in April to proceed with an extensive rehabilitation of the rail line that includes laying a honeycomb-type form to help stabilize the track bed that sits on top of muskeg. Construction began in August after the federal government announced it was providing $40 million for the project, with work focussing on the stretch between Gillam and Churchill. Passenger and freight service have continued, albeit with delays due to the construction.
“It would have been very difficult to run grain trains at the same time,” Affleck said, stressing the need for the work.
“If you don’t bite the bullet and do your permanent solutions to the track, it’s like a pot-holey road that’s always under construction and you never get anything productive done. You are damaging what you are doing while you are doing it inefficiently,” he added.
Besides the rail line, Affleck said work continued on the roof of the grain terminal to prevent water leaks. Otherwise the 92-year-old structure is sound.
With grain shipments drastically curtailed, he said it would have been too costly to get the terminal up and running for a season until work is completed. To do so entails getting personnel in place from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Canadian Grain Commission, plus stevedores and acquiring the needed certifications.
“You need a fair bit of shipping to make it worthwhile to open,” Affleck said.
On top of that is the drought that deeply cut prairie crop production. The huge decrease has already meant the port won’t have a grain shipping season in 2022.
Affleck said there won’t be any leftover grain from 2021 to transport.
Timing is one of drawbacks for grain shipments through Churchill, despite it being closer to a number of markets including those in Europe.
“The growing season on the Prairies doesn’t coincide with the shipping season in Churchill very well,” Affleck said. There is at best a two-week period to get a current year’s grain to the port, if everything is lined up between seller and buyer, and there are no major glitches, he explained.
Arctic Gateway is also looking at using the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill to ship CanaPux, a heavy oil combined with a small amount of recycled plastic to create a granular product that is not oily and floats on water. Affleck said the port is already capable of handling CanaPux and the rehabilitation of the railway will make it possible for it to be shipped out of Churchill.
Former owner Omnitrax looked int the idea of shipping crude oil up the Hudson Bay Railway and out of Churchill as a way to bring in more revenue a few years before it sold the assets but shelved the idea, in part because of environmental concerns.