OmniTRAX increasing grain transport capacity

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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The OmniTRAX operation at the Port of Churchill is seen. Although hundreds of miles away in Manitoba, a proposed port expansion will benefit Saskatchewan farmers, OmniTRAX Canada Inc. president Merv Tweed said this week. 

Pushed to capacity under the weight of the record-breaking bumper crop of 2013, OmniTRAX is looking at increasing its grain-shipping capacity.

Pushed to capacity under the weight of the record-breaking bumper crop of 2013, OmniTRAX is looking at increasing its grain-shipping capacity.

Although OmniTRAX owns Carlton Trail Railway Company, which operates more than 165 km of former Canadian National Railway between Prince Albert and Saskatoon, Merv Tweed’s focus quickly shifts to the Port of Churchill.

The Hudson Bay port draws “from northern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba,” the OmniTRAX Canada Inc. president explained.

“How best to get it to the market? We’re the closest to the market that they can get.”

A majority of Saskatchewan’s record bumper crop of 38.4 million tonnes is exported through other avenues.

The only catch to shipping product out of the Port of Churchill is its limited opening of between four and 4.5 months, beginning in July and ending in November.

Within this time frame, 635,000 metric tonnes of grain were shipped out in 2013 -- a figure Tweed hopes to see grow to 750,000 metric tonnes this year.

Squeezing a year of shipments into the four-month window in which the port is open poses a unique challenge, he said -- something OmniTRAX hopes to overcome by increasing their number of rail cars and the volume of storage at the port.

“We’re moving grain up there now, as we speak, trying to capture that early spring market,” he said.

The port is almost at capacity when it come to grain storage, after which time the frequency and number of rail cars that are able to come in between July and November will dictate how much grain gets shipped out.

“We hope to ship vessels as early as July this year, which hasn’t happened in the past -- or at least consistently,” Tweed said.

By increasing storage capacity at port, they’ll be able to “start … early July and go forward, as opposed to waiting for the product to come.”

Tweed hopes to increase capacity by between 75,000 and 150,000 metric tonnes as soon as possible.

“We’re in the business analysis of it right now, and if we can put pencil to paper and make it work on a return on investment, sooner than later as far as I’m concerned,” he said, adding that as this year’s bumper crop has show, the capacity is there.

Linked directly with other rail companies, but primarily Canadian National Rail, Tweed said that increasing the number of rail cars will another big hurdle, which they’re working on.

“With a huge crop still in the producers’ hands, we still have a huge opportunity to increase our output, and … the more we ship the better it is for our producers,” he said.

It’s the guy sitting with it in his bin on the farm yard who needs the revenue, but at the end of the day if things move better, then everybody would benefit. Merv Tweed

“It’s the guy sitting with it in his bin on the farm yard who needs the revenue, but at the end of the day if things move better, then everybody would benefit.”

On Monday, the Saskatchewan legislature passed a motion by Brad Wall to support the federal government to bring in emergency legislation to deal with the current grain transportation backlog.

The provincial and federal governments have been kicking around the idea of financial penalties to add some teeth to legislation, something Tweed, as a former Conservative MP until 2013, has heard being considered “many times” in the past.

A resolve has always been found before it reached that stage, he said, adding that hopefully the same thing happens this time around. 

Story archive: Click any of the links below for previous stories on the grain transportation issue.

• Jan. 20, with Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback and Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart  

• Feb. 6, with Randy Hoback, citing material from Premier Brad Wall and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour  

• Feb. 24, with Saskatchewan Economy Minister Bill Boyd  

• Feb. 26, with a local farm equipment salesperson, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and CN Rail through an email response  

• Feb. 27, with Farm Credit Canada district director Garnet Volk

• Feb. 28, with Saskatchewan agriculture critic Cathy Sproule 

Organizations: OmniTRAX, Prince Albert, Carlton Trail Railway Company Canadian National Railway Canadian National Rail Conservative MP Premier Brad Wall and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and CN Rail Farm Credit Canada

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Port of Churchill, Saskatoon Hudson Bay Northern Alberta Northern Saskatchewan Northern Manitoba

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