November 22, 2017

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Rail to Churchill cut off till winter

Flooding devastates town's link to south

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Operational headquarters of the Hudson Bay Railway in The Pas.</p>

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Operational headquarters of the Hudson Bay Railway in The Pas.

Catastrophic flooding has caused such severe damage to the Hudson Bay Railway line on the last stretch of the track to Churchill that railway owner, Omnitrax, says it likely won’t be fixed before the winter.

And a company official made it clear that Omnitrax may never fix it.

Service from Amery, 46 kilometres northeast of Gillam, to Churchill has been suspended since May 23 because of overland flooding. It means the 900 residents of the town of Churchill will have no land link to the rest of the province and will have to rely entirely on air transport for months to come.

Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer of Denver-based Omnitrax, said he has never seen anything this bad in his 20-plus years in the railroad business.

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Catastrophic flooding has caused such severe damage to the Hudson Bay Railway line on the last stretch of the track to Churchill that railway owner, Omnitrax, says it likely won’t be fixed before the winter.

And a company official made it clear that Omnitrax may never fix it.

Service from Amery, 46 kilometres northeast of Gillam, to Churchill has been suspended since May 23 because of overland flooding. It means the 900 residents of the town of Churchill will have no land link to the rest of the province and will have to rely entirely on air transport for months to come.

Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer of Denver-based Omnitrax, said he has never seen anything this bad in his 20-plus years in the railroad business.

"In an 84 kilometre section we have 19 washouts that we can observe from the sky that vary in size, with five bridge structures severely damaged," he said.

Earlier, there were sections as long as one kilometre in length that were completely under up to six metres of water.

In addition to that he said there is another 80 kilometres of track where the water is lapping up against the railway ties with an additional 30 bridges and 300 culverts that will need to be inspected from the ground before the full extent of the damage is understood.

The calamity occurs just days after Omnitrax Canada officials said they were getting near the final stages of a $20 million deal to sell the railroad and Port of Churchill to Missinippi Rail Consortium, a First Nation-controlled entity led by Mathias Colomb Cree Nation chief Arlen Dumas. 

But many believe that deal is far from ready.

Omnitrax has been been sparring with the provincial and federal government for more than a year about the fate of the railroad. Now Touesnard is saying the damage far exceeds its insurance coverage and Omnitrax does not have the money to fix it.

"We have been concerned for some time about the financial viability of this railroad, so it is difficult for us to wrap our head around how we would fund the reconstruction," he said. "It’s very difficult for a private company like ours to be funding what is in essence a public utility. We have been saying for some time that we believe this railroad is a public utility. It is extremely important to the people of the North and we believe all levels of government in Canada have some responsibility to ensure that this infrastructure stays in place."

It may bring to a head a bitter dispute that has been raging for more than a year that has caused the Port of Churchill to shut down last year’s shipping season and a reduction of freight service to Churchill from two trains per week to one.

On Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government said, "We are aware of the recently announced rail closure and continue to be actively engaged with our affected stakeholders in the North to ensure essential services are in place. The Emergency Measures Organization has assembled a team to coordinate provincial support."

Senior provincial officials have met with Churchill Mayor Mike Spence and are engaged with community groups and businesses in the region.

Spence said, "It’s really disappointing. There is a bit of work to do alright."

He said the town needs freight subsidies to get supplies airlifted and was adamant that repairs to the rail line need to be expedited.

But he also said, "People need to remember, the town is not closed. Yes, there will probably be some cancellations but we can still salvage the tourist season."

Mike Pyle, the CEO of Exchange Income Corp., the company that owns Calm Air, said two additional cargo flights per week between Thompson and Churchill have already been added. As well, Calm Air, through its partnership with First Air, provides twice daily 737 jet service between Winnipeg and Churchill. Pyle said there is already excess cargo capacity on those flights.

"There is no issue with capacity," he said. "And if we need more we can add additional flights, that is not a problem. We are there to help. We will bring in whatever capacity is required to look after the people."

The provincial spokesperson said, "We will take further steps as warranted to ensure the safety and well-being of all Manitobans." 

Judy Klassen, MLA for Kewatinook and interim leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, said, "The Pallister government must come up with a plan now to help area residents and local businesses impacted by the closure.The communities simply can’t wait until the winter for delivery service to resume."

The suspension likely means the entire 2017 shipping season will be cancelled.

The news hit Churchill Chamber of Commerce chairman Dave Daley hard Friday.

"It’s just been one thing after another. (In 2014), we lost the whole summer (tourist) season because of a derailment. That was five weeks the train was out."

In 2016, the Port of Churchill was shuttered, costing the community some 100 jobs. This year, the series of blizzards that buried the town in March cutting off all modes of transport came "at the end of the Northern Lights season, a peak time."

"Omnitrax has had a huge economic impact on us. Especially when they closed the port last year and all the jobs in town. That was a blow. There’s just no money around. We rely on tourists 10-fold now and now this news. For the summer, cancellations are pouring in because air fare is super expensive compared to the train. That’s our lifeblood."

— with files from Scott Emmerson

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

 

Read more by Martin Cash  .

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History

Updated on Friday, June 9, 2017 at 2:55 PM CDT: Adds map

3:50 PM: Changes headline

3:54 PM: Changes to headline

6:20 PM: Updates

June 10, 2017 at 7:36 AM: Updated

June 12, 2017 at 9:57 AM: Corrects reference to First Air

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