October 18, 2017

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Feds working 'very hard' to restore Churchill rail line before freeze-up

Sean Kilpatrick</p><p>/ The Canadian Press</p><p>Minister of Transport Marc Garneau appears as a witness at a committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.</p>

Sean Kilpatrick

/ The Canadian Press

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau appears as a witness at a committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.

OTTAWA — Transport Minister Marc Garneau is pushing back on suggestions his bureaucrats have thwarted progress in restoring service along the rail line to Churchill, as the 16-week disruption passes the deadline for pre-winter repairs.

“Transport Canada and other ministries are working very hard on this file,” Garneau told reporters Thursday. He said his staff are “absolutely not” holding back progress along the line, and he appeared irritated at the suggestion.

“We're working this file very actively,” Garneau said. “We understand the need to have a railway system to Churchill.”

An independent engineering report, which rail-line owner Omnitrax commissioned and presented to Transport Canada on Aug. 21, said $43.5-million repairs along the line must start “by early September” to restore service before the early-November freeze-up.

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OTTAWA — Transport Minister Marc Garneau is pushing back on suggestions his bureaucrats have thwarted progress in restoring service along the rail line to Churchill, as the 16-week disruption passes the deadline for pre-winter repairs.

"Transport Canada and other ministries are working very hard on this file," Garneau told reporters Thursday. He said his staff are "absolutely not" holding back progress along the line, and he appeared irritated at the suggestion.

"We're working this file very actively," Garneau said. "We understand the need to have a railway system to Churchill."

An independent engineering report, which rail-line owner Omnitrax commissioned and presented to Transport Canada on Aug. 21, said $43.5-million repairs along the line must start "by early September" to restore service before the early-November freeze-up.

It wasn’t until Sept. 8 that the government announced it was prepared to pay for part of the repairs. It also announced appointing Wayne Wouters, the former head of the public service, to negotiate a price with Omnitrax to transfer the rail line to two northern Manitoba groups.

This week, former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy said Transport Canada staff have shrugged off support for Churchill’s port and rail line for years.

Axworthy’s comments came amid allegations from Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, and unnamed sources familiar with the talks, that bureaucrats have pushed back against the Prime Minister’s Office enthusiasm for transferring the line. Dumas is co-leading the takeover bid.

Transport Canada wouldn’t confirm reports its staff had presented Wouters with a minus $15 million valuation for the rail line, with Omnitrax estimating its scrap value at up to $30 million.

Spokeswoman Julie Leroux said Thursday the department was "not in a position to provide further information as negotiations are underway." She repeated previous comments that the Industry Department’s regional grant agency was part of the talks "to deliver on the government's commitment to support the restoration of rail service."

Garneau didn’t know when his government is being briefed on the talks. "Mr. Wouters is currently out fact-finding at the moment," he said Thursday morning.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who represents the riding of Winnipeg South Centre, recently became the government’s lead minister on the issue. On Monday, Carr said the Liberals will do "everything that we can reasonably do" to restore service before freeze-up.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

 

Read more by Dylan Robertson.

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