January 17, 2018

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Churchill residents fear skyrocketing costs as flooded rail line closed indefinitely

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/6/2017 (219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

First, the grain shipments shut down, shuttering the Port of Churchill.

Then the blizzards hit, dumping 60 centimetres of snow in just three days last winter and forcing town authorities to call a state of emergency.

Now, Churchill's rail connection is gone, with overland flooding in sections north of Gillam so severe the Denver-based company that owns the line --- and is determined to sell it -- says it may never be fixed.

As reports filtered through the northern town of 900 on the shores of Hudson Bay that its only land link to the south is under water and it will have to depend entirely on air transport for months to come, Churchill was doing its best Monday to stare down a dismal reality.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/6/2017 (219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FACEBOOK</p><p>Photo of the flooded Hudson Bay rail line posted to the Pictures of Fort Churchill, Manitoba facebook page.</p>

FACEBOOK

Photo of the flooded Hudson Bay rail line posted to the Pictures of Fort Churchill, Manitoba facebook page.

First, the grain shipments shut down, shuttering the Port of Churchill.

Then the blizzards hit, dumping 60 centimetres of snow in just three days last winter and forcing town authorities to call a state of emergency.

Now, Churchill's rail connection is gone, with overland flooding in sections north of Gillam so severe the Denver-based company that owns the line —- and is determined to sell it — says it may never be fixed.

As reports filtered through the northern town of 900 on the shores of Hudson Bay that its only land link to the south is under water and it will have to depend entirely on air transport for months to come, Churchill was doing its best Monday to stare down a dismal reality.

You could hear the exhaustion in the voice of the mayor and tourist operators, but you could also hear determination in calls that burned up phone lines from the coast of Hudson Bay to Winnipeg and Ottawa.

"We've gone through so much in this community, right from last year with the lack of a grain season. Then we went through the blizzard," Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said in a call from his office. "And then the melt and the high water levels. Now, no rail access.

"The cost of living is going through the roof."

Over the last few days, Churchill's swung some deals to weather the latest catastrophe.

Calm Air, which keeps regular flights to the northern outpost, added a couple of extra runs and cut its freight rates to ease the pressure on the former port town.

Over the last couple of years, as rail service suffered from one shutdown after another and line owner Omnitrax Inc. sparred with the provincial and federal governments over the fate of the railroad, Churchill has seen a greater share of its tourism traffic come in by air.

However, a thousand or more head north by rail every summer — and the focus now is on how to get those tourists to their arrival point.

Manitoba Tourism is working with the town council on options to get those who would typically travel by rail in July and August to Churchill by other means. (Likely by train to Thompson and flights into Churchill from there.)

"The message is the Churchill tourist season is still up and eager to accommodate our many tourists," Spence said.

At the same time, Churchill is working with both levels of government on leveraging subsidies to ease its domestic crisis. A federal food program that provides subsidies to the North looks promising, Spence said.

"That, subsidies, takes time, so we're continually making the calls. I got a call right now into the feds and I'm hoping to have an answer soon. I think it will help... We'll see where that takes us," the mayor said.

Meanwhile, tour operators face cancellations.

At least one was reported to have taken 100 calls since Friday, with folks hoping to gaze at beluga whales glide along the frigid coastline deciding to pull the plug on lucrative tours this summer as a direct result of the latest rail calamity.

At the Churchill Hotel, John Hrominchuk (who also runs a second inn and caters to the growing aurora borealis tourism trade) said the rail suspension means he won't hire his typical summer crew.

"We're looking at a 40 per cent loss this summer. Basically, the loss is my profits for the year," he said candidly. "I stopped hiring and I probably have just half my workforce. I won't be making any money, so I won't be spending any money."

Among his various operations, Hrominchuk would ordinarily hire on five full-time seasonal staff, plus extras for odd jobs to build up his operations.

At Lazy Bear Expeditions, Wally Daudrich wasn't admitting to any cancellations for the popular beluga season this summer, or for the town's mainstay polar bear tours this fall.

"There are other operators who depend on the rail lines, but we're not dependent on the railroad. We realized we couldn't back five or six years ago and we built our business on the airline," Daudrich said.

His operation now depends as much as possible on his private greenhouses for fresh produce, and stockpiling meat and supplies before the spring melt. "We built the largest freezer and cooler in Churchill and we stockpile our supplies, bring them in the winter," Daudrich said.

This winter, that meant praying for the blizzard to let up.

"We spent two days digging a snow tunnel to get all our meat into the freezer," Daudrich said.

The only employer hiring more not fewer workers this summer is Parks Canada, as part of the federal government's 150th anniversary tourism bash from coast to coast to coast.

The Churchill Visitor's Centre in the old rail station and the historic landmark Prince of Wales Fort will see 12 fresh faces when summer students arrive in the next few weeks, said Karen Blackbourn, Parks Canada manager in Churchill.

Blackbourn said she's new to Churchill and she's amazed by the town's determination to keep going despite one setback after another. "I've only been here a year but from what I've seen, it's a very resilient community and it's times like this that we all come together."

Despite the recent blow from the rail service suspension, Blackbourn noted, there was a crew of local tour operators and boaters out training Monday to form an volunteer axillary. The Canadian Coast Guard doesn't operate in Churchill, so the auxiliary will gear up instead for emergencies and water rescues.

By early Monday evening, the town centre — a long bulky building that hugs the coastline and marks the pulse of life in Churchill — was expected to be at capacity after town authorities called an emergency meeting to air fears and brainstorm solutions.

The consensus heading into the meeting was it will take federal and provincial aid, along with a commitment from whoever eventually runs the railway, to get Churchill back on solid footing.

"Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Of course there is. What is it? Let's get the rail back on track, so to speak. Let's get that going," the mayor said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by  Alexandra Paul.

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