Exactly how badly damaged is the Hudson Bay Railway?
Rail service to Churchill from Thompson was suspended May 31 after spring flood waters overwhelmed the line. For nearly three weeks, Omnitrax Canada, the owner of the railway, has argued lingering water was preventing the company from accessing and assessing the most damaged sections.
As late as June 16, Omnitrax claimed some parts of the line were still covered with water and it may not be able to do any significant repair work until the fall, when the ground begins to freeze.
When these statements were made, Omnitrax probably assumed no one was capable of getting a first-hand account of the state of the rail line. It is remote and difficult to access in the best of conditions.
However, the company clearly did not take anticipate someone like Steve Green -- a motorcyclist and adventure-seeker from Colorado who recently rode a dirt bike along the rail line to Churchill from Thompson.
Contacted Tuesday near Split Lake on the return trip to Thompson, Green said when he began his expedition, he was aware rail service has been suspended because of flood damage. So, as he made his way up the line, he took photos.
The photographs he produced -- time-stamped June 14 and obtained by the Free Press -- reveal a situation much different than the one described by Omnitrax.
Green said he was able to confirm damage to the line in 16 locations, including sections where the rail bed has been completely dissolved and others where there is damage to bridges and culverts. However, while the photos show a trickle of water in some of the sections where the rail beds were washed out, the water on either side had receded significantly.
"Incorrect," Green said in an interview when asked about Omnitrax's continuing claims the water still covers sections of the line. "The water is not covering the tracks anywhere... and has receded well away from the rail bed."
The images stand in stark contrast to those released last week by Omnitrax. On June 13, the day before Green took his pictures, Omnitrax released "new" photos to Global News that showed two washed-out sections of the line surrounded by spring flood waters coursing under the track. Other images that surfaced the same week showed sections completely submerged.
How does Omnitrax explain the conflicting images?
Reached by phone Tuesday, Omnitrax Canada president Mervin Tweed refused to confirm or deny statements made the previous week. Nor would he confirm the date at which the water had receded from the rail bed.
A spokesman for the public relations firm retained by Omnitrax said the photos released by the company did not come with accompanying information about when they were taken. However, this was an error of omission and not an attempt to deceive anyone about the conditions on the ground.
To understand the company's bizarre behaviour, it's important to remember Omnitrax no longer wants to own the railway or the Port of Churchill. For more than a year, it has tried to sell both assets to a consortium of northern First Nations. A deal in principle has been reached, but the First Nations have stated publicly they need support from the federal and provincial governments to complete the purchase.
As a reluctant private owner, Omnitrax has zero interest in spending another dime on maintenance or repairs, particularly in a year where there is above-average damage done to the line.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said in an interview he now firmly believes Omnitrax has been caught trying to make a bad situation seem even worse to force the provincial and federal governments to pay for repairs.
"It certainly looks like they have exaggerated things," Spence said.
Spence noted both Tweed and unnamed Omnitrax executives from Denver have publicly stated the company does not have the resources or the money to undertake repairs of this magnitude without government assistance. The implication in that statement is Omnitrax can do the repairs, but won't without government money.
To date, neither Ottawa or the province has shown any interest in providing financial support. That is probably why the company is moving at a glacial pace.
The company claims it will take up to six weeks to properly assess the rail line damage and come up with an estimate of repair costs -- a preposterous timeline that has less to do with the vagaries of engineering and more to do with an cynical effort to ratchet up the pressure on the federal and provincial governments.
The company also would not say whether it would start doing minor repairs while awaiting the engineering report. Although there are certainly areas where the damage is worse than normal for this time of year, Omnitrax always faces some spring repairs and should be able to do some work right away.
To be fair, the receding flood waters do not mean major repairs can be done right now. It's quite likely the ground is too soggy to allow a train carrying workers and repair materials to work its way north. However, it's pretty clear Omnitrax has no motivation to move quickly to reopen the line.
The longer it waits, the more pressure there will be on government to get involved and fund a quicker solution.
It is quite likely a long-term solution will involve government. So far, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and the federal Liberal government have shown little interest in turning the rail line into a Crown corporation. However, as Omnitrax is demonstrating, having the line operated by a private business that no longer has its heart in its work is hardly a bargain.
At the very least, the federal and provincial governments need to be seen to be providing some leadership on this file. Either by cracking the whip and getting Omnitrax to move more quickly on repairs or by creating an alternative resupply option that, over the short term, will reduce the reliance on rail to provide residents of Churchill and other remote communities with basic necessities.
In this muddy mess, the only clear conclusion is this: waiting until August to start repairing this critically important transportation asset is not a solution in any sense of the word.