Manitoba

'Start of a new normal': First grain train since 2015 rolls into Churchill, Man.

Residents in Churchill, Man., rejoiced upon seeing the first grain shipment since 2015 arrive by rail on Sunday morning.

Northern residents welcomed the arrival of grains by rail for first time in years

The first grain cars arriving by rail to Churchill, Man., on July 21, 2019 marked the start of a new beginning for residents since the tracks to town were repaired and reopened. (Submitted by Benjamin Oman)

Residents in a northern Manitoba town rejoiced upon seeing the first grain shipment since 2015 arrive by rail over the weekend.

Benjamin Oman spotted the freight train filled with wheat cereal from west-central Saskatchewan rolling along the tracks into Churchill while he was riding his bike down the highway to work at the airport.

"It was nice to see a familiar train coming back for the first time in a few years," Oman said in a text.

As a former worker at the Port of Churchill, Oman said he was thrilled for what he hopes will be positive changes to come.

"It means a lot to the community as things are starting to look up for the port and railroad."

Former port worker Benjamin Oman took a little detour on his bike ride to work so he could watch the cars roll by. Oman said he has been pleased with the repairs done by the company that took over rail ownership and is thankful the community has been informed about the progress. (Submitted by Benjamin Oman)

The port laid off workers in early 2016. And the rail line completely washed out in 2017.

For the first time in years, grains will be unloaded from the freight cars and loaded onto a ship before being shipped overseas.

Arctic Gateway Group purchased the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill after signing a deal with Omnitrax on Sept. 1, 2018. The consortium includes Manitoba communities, First Nations, Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited and Saskatchewan-based grains company AGT Food and Ingredients.

"Churchill residents remember the glory days of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Canadian grain moving from Churchill to the world," the consortium's chief executive officer Murad Al-Katib said in an email.

"As with any port city, residents understand that jobs are counting on freight to move in and out to provide the business to keep everyone employed or provide the opportunity to call back employees," he said.

Al-Katib said the port is a public use terminal, which means grain companies may request to sign a terminal agreement with the company and ship through the port.

Each ocean vessel is anticipated to carry 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes, the CEO said, with multiple vessels expected to leave the docks in 2019. The volume of grains transported will depend on availability from the Prairie provinces.

It means a lot to the community as things are starting to look up for the port and railroad.- Benjamin Oman, former port worker

Al-Katib said a supply ship departed Churchill last week with general merchandise for northern communities. In addition to wheat cereals, he said the group is also examining opportunities for dry bulk shipping of other grains, fertilizers, potash, frac sand, minerals and forestry products, as well as the import and export of machinery.

The targeted crops will be durum wheat and lentils for Europe and the Mediterranean region, and milling wheat and canola to North Africa and the Middle East, Al-Katib said.

"Churchill is on the way to establishing itself as the only rail served arctic port in all of North America," Al-Katib said by email.

Given that this is their first season, Al-Katib said there is bound to be some challenges. "The rail remediation and the port repairs and cleanup are ongoing. We have amazing staff and partners and anticipate that it will ultimately be a successful first season of many to come."

Joe Stover was one of the workers laid off. He said the open transport lines revitalizes hope in the community.

"The word 'potential' has been used for Churchill for ages and ages, and it actually seems like that potential is going to be realized," Stover said.

Stover has been waiting for his phone to ring in hopes of a job offer when the time comes to load the ships. He said it remains to be seen how busy the town will get, but the fact that the train cars have made it is a huge step.

"What's normal to us around this time of year is having full tracks of grain cars and having some ships at the harbour. And that's something that we haven't had in about four years," Stover said.

"I'm hoping that this will be the start of a new normal."

The first ocean vessel is slated to take off in August.

Watch the train arrive in Churchill:

Residents in a northern Manitoba town rejoiced upon seeing the first grain shipment since 2015 arrive by rail over the weekend. 0:54

With files from Aviva Jacob