The Manitoba government isn’t prepared to let the Port of Churchill and the railway that serves it die, says Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Steve Ashton.
And he’s confident the federal government isn’t either. Ashton said he met with his federal counterpart Marc Garneau in Ottawa as well as Winnipeg South Liberal MP Terry Duguid last week.
The port and line owned by Denver-based OmniTrax will be sold if more can’t be earned from their operation OmniTrax Canada, president Merv Tweed said in media reports.
“There is a strong federal interest in the port,” Duguid said in an interview Dec. 6.
“My sense is there are a number of different options that should be thoroughly explored. I believe there is a sustainable solution that will ensure that there is a secure future for the Port of Churchill.
“There will be a very strong provincial role. There will likely be a federal role and there will be a community role for whatever the final solution is.”
Both Ashton and Duguid see Churchill as an important strategic asset, as well as critical for serving communities along the line and through the port itself — Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port.
OmniTrax informed the Manitoba government of its plans, Ashton said last week.
Garneau told reporters Dec. 4 no decision had been taken yet on federal funding to assist the port.
The port and line handled reduced volumes this year. Grain shipments of 186,000 tonnes were down dramatically from the five-year average of 554,548, despite a $9-a-tonne federal shipping subsidy paid to those moving grain through Churchill.
“We’ve given ourselves a time frame that we would like to see something happen one way or the other,” Tweed said. “We would like to see some progress by the end of the year.”
Both Ashton and Duguid see the port and line’s sale as an opportunity to explore a new business plan. One option could see northerners taking ownership, Ashton said, noting a First Nations consortium now owns the Keewatin Railway Company (KRC). It’s a 185-mile line that runs from Sherritt Junction to Lynn Lake, Man. It was purchased from OmniTrax in 2006.
Farmers could be part of the solution too, Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier said Dec. 2. Some farmers, especially in northwestern Manitoba and northeastern Saskatchewan, might want to operate the railway as a short line, he said.
“Any port is better than no port at all,” Mazier said.
“It should stay up there until we figure out a game plan.
“I think there’s lots of opportunity. I know there are challenges. I get that. But in 20 years I see nothing but expansion. Once you tear it out, it’s pretty hard to get back.”
Ashton is equally sanguine.
“Western Canada I think is on the verge of a golden age,” he said. “We’ve got everything the world wants and needs, particularly on the commodity side. The most important commodities over the next few decades will be food and anything related to food. And we’ve got it all.
“If I sound optimistic, I am. I think we are as a province and I was very optimistic coming out of meetings with the federal government. Clearly it is engaged on this.”
Global warming is already lengthening Churchill’s shipping season, Ashton said, but it also makes it more challenging to operate the railway on thawing permafrost.
Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba’s I.H. Asper School of Business, says governments should consider the transportation demand and allow the data to inform decisions.
“What we have right now is a nostalgic rail link,” he said in an interview Dec. 2. “We say it’s there and an opportunity, but in many ways it’s a burden because it’s not paying its own way.
“The real question is, are we throwing good money after bad?
“I think a road in many respects might make more sense.”
Airships are another option — something Prentice has been advocating for years. They can carry much more weight than airplanes.
“This is not like an anti-gravitation machine we have to prove works — we know they work,” Prentice said. “They’ve been working for 100 years. Why aren’t we investing in that technology to find out if it can be a better solution that’s a low infrastructure cost?”