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The Little Engine That Could

The Boundary Trails Railway Company (BTRC) has made history. Now it has to make money.

BTRC is Manitoba’s first farmer-owned short line railway and proud new owner of 23 miles of track running from Morden to Binney Corner, three miles west of Manitou formally owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The final piece of financing – a $615,000 forgivable loan from the Manitoba government – came last week. So long as BTRC isn’t sold, in whole or part, it’s not required to repay the money.

BTRC president and Manitouarea farmer Kevin Friesen is confident the firm owned by around 80 shareholders, most of whom are local farmers, can do just that.

“If all the shareholders ship their grain (on the line) we’ll probably be in a breakeven position and maybe even make some money,” Friesen said in a recent interview. “One thing we want to make people aware of is this isn’t just for shareholders. We’re open for business.”

Some of that business could include shipping oats directly to Quaker Mills’ processing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Friesen said.

BTRC has hired a general manager whose job will be mostly drumming up business for the short line.

Central Canadian Railway is under contract to pull cars and maintain the line.

The deal also includes the ballast and land on 55 miles of rail right-of-way from Binney Corner west to near Holmfield. The track and ties were removed last year.

BTRC has 100 cars already booked for loading this month, although their arrival will be

“This isn’t just for shareholders. We’re open for business.”

– KEVIN FRIESEN

delayed due to flooded tracks at Morris, Friesen said.

Farmers who load “producer cars” can save around $1,000 a car by avoiding country elevator fees. Plans are underway to build a $250,000 producer car-loading facility in Darlingford. There’s talk of building car-loading facilities in Manitou and Binney Corner. Presumably, the latter will service farmers from the west and north, who have the longest distance to haul to reach an elevator, Friesen said.

Action to save CPR’s La Riviere and Napinka subdivisions began last May, literally at the eleventh hour. The tracks were already being removed on the western portion.

“I hope other farmers don’t make the biggest mistake we made, which is to wait until the abandonment process is over,” Friesen said. “We probably could’ve saved ourselves a lot of headaches and probably gotten a lower price if we would’ve done it before that process was up.”

There was one upside; the R. M. of Pembina invested the $400,000 it received in compensation under the Canada Transportation Act for the portion of the rail line abandoned within its boundaries towards purchasing the remaining line.

Friesen said the recent drop in trucking incentives paid by elevator companies made farmers value the railway.

“When I sat down and thought about it and talked to other farmers we realized how over the barrel we were with having to ship our grain through large companies,” he said.

In addition to the $400,000 and $615,000 from the municipal and provincial governments, shareholders raised $1.2 million.

One of those shareholders, with about 20 per cent ownership, is Mission Terminal Inc. (MTI), best known in the West for shipping producer grain through its Thunder Bay terminal.

“It fits with our vision,” Adrian Measner, president and CEO of MTI and its parent company, Upper Lakes Grain Group, said in an interview. “This will be the third short line we’ve invested in. It is consistent with the producer car movement that we’ve tried to champion on the Prairies.” (The other lines are Great Sandhills Railway and Great Western Rail. Both are in Saskatchewan.)

The CPR requested the cost of the deal not be released, Friesen said. However, in earlier news releases BTRC said it had offered the CPR $4.3 million.

Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk said the province is investing in the BRTC because it has a solid business plan, which will benefit local farmers and their communities.

“There’s also the impact on the roads,” she said in an interview. “If we’re taking traffic off the roads and reducing the amount of fuel, it is beneficial to our roads and it helps us reach our goal on reducing greenhouse gases.”

As for investing in other short lines, Wowchuk said each will be considered on its own merit. A project has to make economic sense and have the backing of the community, she said.

When asked if purchasing the line was harder than he anticipated, Friesen said: “There were a lot more politics than I would ever thought.”

Friesen said he’s disappointed the federal government hasn’t contributed through its infrastructure program to stimulate economic activity.

“This project has an economic impact of $8 million in our area,” he said.

Portage-Lisgar Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner was unavailable when contacted for a comment last week. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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