WINNIPEG - Omnitrax Canada had one of its strongest shipping seasons in 2013, but not strong enough to shelve plans to haul millions of litres of oil across its remote rail line built on permafrost to the port of Churchill on Hudson Bay.
President Merv Tweed said the company, which operates the northern Manitoba port, shipped more than 600,000 metric tonnes of grain. The season was its longest ever with the last ship sailing well into November, he said.
A combination of warmer weather and better ice-breaking technology is allowing vessels to navigate the icy waters longer into the season, Tweed said. The company has been told it could even look at shipping year-round with the right ice-breakers.
"We know that with changing technology and changes in the weather, we believe we can push that shipping season further out into November," he said. "We're hoping to pursue those options as well."
But Tweed said the company still needs to diversify by looking at how to ship crude oil over its northern railway and through the port. The controversial plan doesn't have the support of the Manitoba government which has said it is too risky for the environment and the safety of those who live in the North.
Omnitrax has been holding consultations to ease concerns about the plan. A trial shipment of oil scheduled for October was postponed while the company continued meetings with residents.
Tweed has said hauling oil is safe and would help create much-needed jobs in the North.
"I've often said that grain is like an anchor tenant in a mall for us," said Tweed, a former Conservative MP for Brandon-Souris. "It provides us with stability, but we do need another anchor. We see sweet crude as being one of those options."
An opponents of the plan to ship oil across the tundra said Omnitrax can't boast about its booming shipping season and then argue it needs to haul oil to survive.
"The company is saying they need diversity except they just shipped a record season," said Eric Reder of the Manitoba Wilderness Committee. "A pillar of that community has to be activity through that port but it can't be expanding dangerous goods. It can't be crude oil," he said.
"Why do we need to add into this mix dangerous goods that cannot be cleaned up if they spill? It's one of the only rail lines in the world running over permafrost."
Reder, who was in Churchill earlier this month, said the shipping season was not as smooth as the company says. There were three derailments in the four days he was there, said Reder, who took a picture of one railway car lying on its side with grain pouring down an embankment.
Figures from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada show there have been 63 accidents on the Hudson Bay rail line between 2003 and 2012. All but 10 were derailments.
Reder also said that crew members on one of the last vessels out of the port had to be replaced because they were too nervous to leave in the ice, which he said could have easily formed around the ship.