Sask. farmers hope to see Churchill port, rail line revived

Many Saskatchewan farmers used the railway to Churchill, and the port in the northern Manitoba town, to export everything from fava beans to wheat barley before the port was closed down more than a year ago.

Producers say the port offers them a cheaper alternative to more distant terminals in Canada

Norm Hall takes his crop off his land in Wynyard, Sask. Hall says many farmers in northeast Saskatchewan are hoping to see the Port of Churchill and the railway leading to it revived. (APAS)

Residents of the remote northern Manitoba town of Churchill aren't the only people who want to see the railway leading to the community repaired and back in operation.

As many as 500 northern Saskatchewan farmers used the railway and the Port of Churchill "on a somewhat regular basis" to export everything from fava beans to wheat and barley before the port was closed down more than a year ago, said Norm Hall, the vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

But even if the port was still open, getting crops there would be impossible for producers right now — the rail line leading to the town was severely damaged by heavy spring flooding and there's no highway leading into Churchill.

"Most of the guys in the northern part of the province have shipped grain through there," said Hall. "They just want to see it reopened just so it can be used again."

In the meantime, he said, "they're having to find other ports."

The Port of Churchill was shut down by Omnitrax, the company which owns it, last summer. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Hall estimated that two per cent of the grain produced in Saskatchewan was shipped through the Port of Churchill. 

For some farmers, the prospect of sending their product to distant ports like Thunder Bay or Vancouver does not hold as much attraction.

"Churchill was just [965 kilometres] away. Now they're more like [2,500 kilometres] away from a port," said Hall.

'A 2nd place to deliver grain' 

Wayne Bacon, a grain farmer in Kinistino, Sask., said he'd like to see the Canadian government take over the rail line, and partner with a First Nations group to relaunch it and find someone to run the port.

This past weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Denver-based Omnitrax — the company that owns both the rail line to Churchill and the now-closed port — has a legal obligation to clean up and repair the tracks damaged by flooding.

Omnitrax says it can't afford the repairs, which it estimates could cost as much as $60 million.

Churchill has been without rail service this summer after major spring flooding damaged the only rail line into the northern Manitoba town. (Omnitrax)

"I think the two of them are important to agriculture," Bacon said of the railway and port. "It really helps producers have a second place to deliver grain if you think the tariffs are getting too high."

Tariffs and port-handling fees are charged by large distributors with ports in Vancouver and Thunder Bay to producers like Bacon. They make for a more expensive means of shipping product compared to using smaller brokerage firms to send the grain to Churchill, said Bacon.

"It doesn't eliminate the port cost, [but] it definitely in some cases saves us even on freight rates as well as some of the tariffs that elevators charge for delivering grain to their systems," he said. 

Bacon estimates that 10 per cent of his grain was shipped through Churchill before the port closed.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips and ideas welcomed at