November 22, 2017

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With rail down, NDP pushes Tories to support north

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The rail service between Thompson and Churchill has been shut down, temporarily, due to flood damage and Omnitrax has yet to provide a date for when the service will be running again.</p>

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The rail service between Thompson and Churchill has been shut down, temporarily, due to flood damage and Omnitrax has yet to provide a date for when the service will be running again.

It’s been nearly one week since rail service between Thompson and Churchill was last running, and the NDP is urging the provincial government to do more to provide immediate support.

The rails were shut down temporarily due to flood damage, and the railroad operator, Omnitrax, has yet to provide a fixed date for when rail service will be running again.

In the meantime, shipments of food and essential goods are slowing and residents are dealing with impending shortages and a potential decrease in tourism revenue.

Tom Lindsey, the NDP’s MLA in Flin Flon, said that the situation is time-sensitive, calling the railway a “vital link” between Churchill, Thompson and surrounding communities.

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It’s been nearly one week since rail service between Thompson and Churchill was last running, and the NDP is urging the provincial government to do more to provide immediate support.

The rails were shut down temporarily due to flood damage, and the railroad operator, Omnitrax, has yet to provide a fixed date for when rail service will be running again.

In the meantime, shipments of food and essential goods are slowing and residents are dealing with impending shortages and a potential decrease in tourism revenue.

Tom Lindsey, the NDP’s MLA in Flin Flon, said that the situation is time-sensitive, calling the railway a "vital link" between Churchill, Thompson and surrounding communities.

"The longer it takes, the worse it’s going to get," he said.

Merv Tweed, the president of Omnitrax Canada, said the company has made three trips to tour the track, although until the water recedes it’ll be difficult to pinpoint the exact repairs needed and just how long they’ll take to complete.

"It’s bad," he said. "We are not moving any trains north of Gillam because of the high-water conditions. For safety reasons we just can’t until we get a full scope of what needs to be done."

There are areas where 1.5 miles of track are under 12-15 feet of water, Tweed added.

Some communities have had supplies flown in by the Red Cross, Lindsey said, but "we shouldn’t be relying on charity."

"It’s up to the government," he added.

In an email to the Free Press, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government wrote that it is still evaluating the situation along the rail line, and the Emergency Measures Organization has assembled a team to coordinate provincial support.

"Provincial officials are in constant communication with officials from the town of Churchill as well as Omnitrax and other stakeholders in the north," the spokesperson wrote.

When asked what his party would do differently if in power, Lindsey had few suggestions, adding that the Progressive Conservatives "haven’t been forthcoming" to the public with their response so far.

"Well, we would have reached out to all the communities, first," Lindsey said. "The short-term concern is getting healthy food and medical care. The long-term issues are about tourism."

Lindsey was also concerned that the rail line hasn’t been properly maintained, although he couldn’t point to specific examples.

Given Churchill’s relatively high snowfall of 60 centimetres in March, Lindsey said there should have been a government plan in place in conjunction with Omnitrax to deal with the flooding sooner.

"We haven’t seen that anybody had a plan up front, or if they had a handle on what happens next," he said.

Lindsey has contacted Churchill’s mayor, Mike Spence, but hasn’t heard back yet.

Earlier this week, Spence said town officials have been in contact with the provincial government about acquiring government assistance for air transport.

Calm Air agreed to increase its flights to Churchill to mitigate the rail closure, and, as of Monday, the town was negotiating with Gardewine on trucking freight costs between Winnipeg and Thompson.

Even with those movements, Lindsey said the people affected by the rail closure are still in need of additional support from the government.

"If people can get to Churchill, what will the supplies look like? What will they have there?" Lindsey wondered.

"We don’t have the answers to those questions."

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

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