The Canadian National Railway has no intention of buying OmniTrax’s defunct route or working to reopen the Port of Churchill, despite calls from some Manitoba producers.
“We didn’t close the Port of Churchill, somebody else did,” said Sean Finn, CN’s executive vice-president of corporate services and chief legal officer. “We don’t think it’s a viable network and obviously if it was, OmniTrax would not be trying to sell it.”
Finn made the remarks at the annual Harvest Gala last week, a fundraising event hosted by the Red River Exhibition Association and the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame. His keynote address began by highlighting the company’s volunteerism and emphasizing a commitment to better communication with the communities it serves, but audience questions soon took the discussion in a different direction.
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“My concern is that the maintenance of your track in western Manitoba is not too good,” said one producer, whose farm is transected by the CN main line. “Compared to 15 years ago it just doesn’t seem to get the maintenance that is required — your crossings are really, really bad.”
Lack of consultation before new track installation was also raised, but it was Wilf Harder who pushed the issue of OmniTrax and the Port of Churchill.
“I know very well that you used to own that line and if you were as concerned about the public as you say you are then maybe you should buy it back, save 900 jobs and Churchill, plus give the farmers a freight advantage,” said Harder. “I think your shareholders seem to forget that the rail lines that you and CP own were given to you by the Government of Canada and now you run around pretending to be free enterprise and do-gooders… don’t give us all this stuff about how moral you are — just show us by doing it.”
Finn countered that when CN was privatized in 1995 it was losing money every year and that while the company does have shareholders, many are Canadian pension plans.
“Since 1995 we have not received one single penny of government advance,” he said. “So it was, with all due respect, a basket-case Crown corporation that was not commercially viable.”
The CN executive also panned the suggestion that giving third-party running rights would improve service.
“We think there is a very good competition,” Finn said. “There is CN, there is CP and there is a truck and that truck can pick between going to the CN elevator or a CP elevator or somewhere else, so we think there is competition.”
However, he also acknowledged that there is room for improvement and said CN is genuine in its commitment to better communication and consultation with farmers, grain companies and the communities its lines traverse.
“I understand the frustration and I’m not trying to be disingenuous with you,” he said. “All I am saying is that we are not perfect, but we think that CN — by working closely with all the customers in Canada — can make Canada more competitive, we can create jobs in Canada.”
That process of improving relationships will take time, he added.
“We at CN must do a better job of listening to the needs and the demands of the community,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight and you all know the story of the farmer in Saskatchewan who walks out of the house in the morning and it’s raining and he says, ‘God damn CN.’ That will not change overnight. We are talking generations of relationships that were not the strongest.”
He also reiterated a commitment to getting this year’s massive harvest to market in a timely manner.
“My message today is that we are committed to move the grain to market,” he said. “We will make sure we have the crews, the equipment, the locomotives,” said Finn. “The only thing we can’t control is Mother Nature.”