Churchill possibly to return to shipping grain

A new consortium aims to buy the northern rail line and port

Churchill
(CNS Canada file photo by Jade Markus)

CNS Canada — Grain could once again be shipped out of northern Manitoba’s Port of Churchill if all goes according to plan for a new potential ownership group.

“The port has got all of the grain handling equipment and simply said, the first thing we want to do is resume that commercial activity,” said Louis Dufresne, president of iChurchill Inc., in a phone interview Friday.

In a release dated Thursday it was announced a consortium of Manitoba First Nations, led by Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, in partnership with iChurchill Inc., a private Canadian company, had entered into an acquisition agreement with Denver-based Omnitrax, to take over control of the Hudson Bay Railway, the Port of Churchill and associated assets.

Sections of the rail line between Gillam and Churchill were washed out in May 2017, making it inoperable. Omnitrax had previously closed the port to grain shipments in 2016. The rail line had been used less since the Canadian Wheat Board’s single-desk marketing power was dissolved in 2012.

The Port of Churchill is North America’s only Arctic deep-water port and is covered in ice for most of the year, accessible only between late July and early November.

There had been reports other groups were interested in taking control of the rail line but it wasn’t until May this year that anything concrete was announced.

The First Nations and iChurchill have been working on the deal for months. iChurchill is a new company formed for the project and Dufresne said it plans to be based in Winnipeg.

The group includes more than a dozen Manitoba First Nations and a group of entrepreneurs including Dufresne, a former engineer. The other directors include Robyn Lore, a farmer and land rights specialist, and Doug McNeil, a director with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

iChurchill also includes numerous advisors, such as Gary Rennick, who was involved with the original sale of the rail line from Canadian National Railway to Omnitrax.

“We see a lot of value and potential in these assets and we’re committed to making the business viable… (it is) very important for us in advancing our businesses, for the entity to be financially viable it’s a requirement the rail line cannot be only for passenger service and delivery of consumer goods, it’s got to be supported by significant commercial activity,” Dufresne said.

The Hudson Bay Route Association (HBRA), which has advocated for the use of the rail line and port, was pleased to hear the news. According to Wayne Bacon, second vice-president with HBRA and chair of Northern Lights Rail, the rail line and port are critical pieces of infrastructure for shortline railway companies.

“(The Port of Churchill has) basically been shut down for three years and it really has caused a lot of grief for a lot of producers and for the shortlines… over the last three years, (the shortlines) haven’t been able to move any wheat at all. The big companies don’t want us to use their ports,” he said.

The new ownership group said it plans to post requests for proposals for the repairs within the following days. It said wants to have the deal completed by mid-June in order to ensure the repairs are well underway by fall/winter.

iChurchill Inc. plans to release more information about its plans for the rail line and port at a press conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday (May 8).

— Ashley Robinson writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Glacier FarmMedia company specializing in grain and commodity markets reporting. Follow her at @AshleyMR1993 on Twitter.

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