Closed for business

by Derek Clouthier

WINNIPEG, Man. – The announcement by OmniTrax that it would be closing the Port of Churchill has had an impact on Manitoba’s trucking industry.

Traditionally utilized as a pathway for the movement of grain, the closure of the Port of Churchill means there will be a significant reduction in rail service to the area, which in effect will result in less truck movement, as both made up the transportation network that serviced northern Manitoba.

“With reduced rail service and no road access at all, this has meant the people servicing that area and those living and working in it have been impacted,” said Terry Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association (MTA).

Shaw pointed out that both the agricultural and trucking industries are large contributors to the province’s economy, and that trucking plays a role in the supply chain of agricultural products.

“Limiting the options available to get that product moved will create administrative and other burdens on all parties,” he said. “It might also impact the cost competitiveness of certain products should they not be able to get to their traditional consumer bases in the timeframes needed or at the costs expected.”

The Toronto Star reported that the Manitoba government said it had received assurances that freight service along the rail line to Churchill would continue, and that it would also work with the federal government to see what more could be done.

The MTA is not taking any direct action to advocate the government with regards to the port’s closure, as its focus is more on regulatory matters and other issues that directly impact the trucking industry.

“The Port of Churchill is currently a privately owned business,” Shaw said, “and while the decisions made regarding that may not be ideal for some that serve or live in that area, activity on an item like this wouldn’t fall under our mandate.”

The federal government ran the Port of Churchill prior to it being sold to OmniTrax in 1997, which has been attempting to sell the port and the rail line connecting Churchill to southern Manitoba. Those working at the port, as well as farmers in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, have also been adversely affected by the closure.

Shaw did recognize that in addition to the Port of Churchill there are several issues in the northern part of the province that are having a negative impact on the economy, which he described as currently an ‘economic wasteland.’

“The Port of Churchill was just the tip of the iceberg,” he said, adding that Tolko Industries, the largest employer in the approximate 5,500-population town The Pas, was also closing its doors, laying off 332 people.

“A lot of that is transportation infrastructure costs,” Shaw said of the high price of doing business in northern Manitoba being blamed for the closures. “But it’s also the transportation costs themselves of getting into and out of northern Manitoba.”

Shaw said looking beyond the case in Manitoba, there is a connection between transportation costs and transportation efficiencies.

“Our economy is founded on moving products,” he said, “be it raw materials or finished goods from one location to another. We need to be able to do that reliably, safety and efficiently, while also taking into consideration environmental considerations.

“If people don’t address some of these transportation issues, it will ultimately have a trickle-down effect to other areas and it will impact other items, so we can’t keep putting off rest areas, or infrastructure upgrades or quality infrastructure investments.”

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