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Limited train service to Churchill to resume

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Churchill will soon see the resumption of trains carrying freight, although the resumption of trains carrying people is not yet planned.

Omnitrax North announced Friday that repair work on the track to Churchill -- which has been out of service from Gillam to Churchill since early June -- is continuing and "we are expecting to reopen the rail line within the first week of July."

Omnitrax shut down the service because of concerns about damage caused to the track by permafrost.

"We do not expect that this will impact the start of the shipping season and related freight service," the company said in a press release, adding, "The challenges of maintaining northern infrastructure are well known, but they have been particularly pronounced this year in the transition to spring from a markedly harsh winter.

"We will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that full service on the Hudson Bay Railway is restored as soon as possible.

"However, the safety of our employees and customers is our number one priority, and we will not resume service on the line until the required track resurfacing has been completed to our satisfaction."

Even if freight service does resume next week, businesses that rely on summer tourism -- specifically for beluga whale sightseeing -- are still anxious about Via Rail, which hasn't sent a passenger train to the northern community since May 30. Via operates regular passenger service on the Hudson Bay Railway, which is owned and operated by Omnitrax.

Via cancelled service after a derailment on the line in early June and the company has yet to indicate when the service will resume.

The news about the freight trains was greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism by some Churchill businesses.

"That's great," offered Belinda Fitzpatrick, co-owner of the Tundra Inn.

"I hope it happens. Let's put it this way: The work (on the rail line) needs to be done. If it takes a little longer to be done properly then hopefully everything can resume without another disruption. There's still hope things can get back on track."

Fitzpatrick said so far there have been few cancellations at her 31-room hotel. If Via, which transports about 60 to 70 per cent of her customers, isn't up and running by July....

"Do we keep our businesses open?" she ventured. "Do we lay off people? When are we going to start earning money?"

Meanwhile, businesses are beginning to fly in stock at two or three times the cost of rail. Tony DeSilva, the owner of Gypsy Bakery and Restaurant, said he has begun flying in produce and ingredients -- 680 to 907 kilograms a week -- but has yet to raise his menu prices.

"I'm working in the red right now," he said.

DeSilva agreed news that Omnitrax is expecting to open the line in early July is promising. But no promises.

"Let's hope," he said. "We believe when we hear the noise of the train arriving at the station. That's a good noise."

For now, DeSilva is only happy the disruption didn't occur in the prime of whale season (July-August) or polar bear season (Oct-Nov). He also pointed out, as of Friday, there was no bottled beer left in Churchill. Only cans. "It's enough to make people nervous," he said.

"It's quiet for everybody, not just me," DeSilva added.

"It looks like the town after bear season. Where is everybody?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 A5

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