November 16, 2018

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Repairs underway on Churchill rail link

OTTAWA — At a Transcona warehouse, Winnipeggers have been working into the night, crafting culverts to help Churchill’s last-minute railway repairs.

"It’s not just another sale for us,” said James Battison, branch manager for Armtec-Canada Culvert.

Last Sunday, the company sent 70,000 pounds (32,000 kilograms) of steel, enough for about 20 crossings, on two large trucks up to Sundance, a settlement 765 kilometres north of Winnipeg, near where the rail line washouts start.

Battison said his colleagues had been following news about Churchill since the Hudson Bay Railway washed out in May 2017, and even wrote to the premier about their concerns. They’ve been proud to supply part of the needed materials, even if that means working overtime.

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OTTAWA — At a Transcona warehouse, Winnipeggers have been working into the night, crafting culverts to help Churchill’s last-minute railway repairs.

"It’s not just another sale for us," said James Battison, branch manager for Armtec-Canada Culvert.

Last Sunday, the company sent 70,000 pounds (32,000 kilograms) of steel, enough for about 20 crossings, on two large trucks up to Sundance, a settlement 765 kilometres north of Winnipeg, near where the rail line washouts start.

Battison said his colleagues had been following news about Churchill since the Hudson Bay Railway washed out in May 2017, and even wrote to the premier about their concerns. They’ve been proud to supply part of the needed materials, even if that means working overtime.

"Usually for culverts, it’s pretty boring and not much is going on — here’s a piece of steel," he said with a chuckle. "But in this case, it actually means something."

The company’s now working to make sure they have enough steel on-hand for the next large order.

Up north, roughly 40 workers are fixing washouts along the line, with some repairing the railroad and others assessing damage further ahead.

Culverts to be used for repairing the Hudson Bay Rail line are loaded on a flat deck trailer at Armtec-Canada Culvert plant in Winnipeg.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Culverts to be used for repairing the Hudson Bay Rail line are loaded on a flat deck trailer at Armtec-Canada Culvert plant in Winnipeg.

Shovels hit the ground last Tuesday, according to Murad Al-Katib, chief executive officer of AGT Foods. The Saskatchewan grain giant is a major stakeholder in Arctic Gateway, the company that took over the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill on Aug. 31.

"This is a logistics play," Al-Katib said.

New owners obligated to fix Churchill rail link; cost unknown

OTTAWA — Arctic Gateway has inherited the Canadian Transportation Agency’s probe against Omnitrax, and must file updates on repairs to the Hudson Bay Railway to the federal tribunal. A Sept. 7 filing obtained by the Free Press shows Ottawa’s financial help to Arctic Gateway hinged on “certain obligations and requirements with respect to the repair and operation of the line,” which the consortium says it’s been meeting.

OTTAWA — Arctic Gateway has inherited the Canadian Transportation Agency’s probe against Omnitrax, and must file updates on repairs to the Hudson Bay Railway to the federal tribunal. A Sept. 7 filing obtained by the Free Press shows Ottawa’s financial help to Arctic Gateway hinged on “certain obligations and requirements with respect to the repair and operation of the line,” which the consortium says it’s been meeting.

Workers are staying in Gillam at the HBR bunkhouse, while a dorm for about 50 workers is being set up in Sundance, adjacent to a Manitoba Hydro lodge. “This camp will share kitchen facilities with an already existing 49-person camp that we are leasing for the decommissioning of Keetwatinohk Lodge,” wrote Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen, noting this lodge is being decommissioned after being used for the Bipole III transmission line project.

Last week, Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr said details around Ottawa’s agreement with Omnitrax would be made public this week. Western Economic Diversification, which provided some of the funding, wrote Friday “details of the agreement… will be released in the coming weeks.”

It’s not publicly known how much federal funding has gone to the repairs, and whether any of the groups paid Omnitrax to leave northern Manitoba.

Last week, the Western Grain Elevator Association told Commodity News Service Canada it wants clarity about the arrangement, saying financial support beyond repairing the line would unfairly subsidize competitors. Smaller railway operators said they supported short-term subsidies to get the line going.

— Dylan Robertson

He said workers are laying dirt and geocells, which are a honeycomb-shaped synthetic grid that holds ballast rock in place and stabilizes the ground. Militaries place the same material over mud roads to allow tanks access. Rails will be placed atop the ballast rock.

Al-Katib said engineers are conducting "a washout-by-washout assessment," often taking ATVs to the next washout to assess what’s needed. He stressed despite the tight timeline, the engineers won’t cut any corners.

"Our focus at this point is completing the works safely and reliably," he said. "We have to do it once; we don’t have the ability to go back and re-do work."

Workers are rotating "on two-week deployments, sunrise to sunset, in for 15 days and out for 15," Al-Katib said.

Last summer, former rail line owner Omnitrax had commissioned engineering firm AECOM to plot out a repair plan. It stated it would take 60 days to restore rail service for passengers and light freight, followed by more repairs next spring to strengthen.

File photo of the Hudson Bay Railway showing flooding that submerged a section of the track forcing the rail link to be closed.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-OMNITRAX

File photo of the Hudson Bay Railway showing flooding that submerged a section of the track forcing the rail link to be closed.

Al-Katib said engineers are assessing the railway’s possible use, and they’ll allow whatever type of service Transport Canada says is safe. He said the ground freezing may be a factor.

Theoretically, that could mean repairs stopping around November but service resuming closer to January.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said locals realize weather will dictate whether they get rail service this fall, but they’ve been feeling optimistic since the deal was announced.

'It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of restless night, restless days. It’s been a long haul' - Churchill Mayor Mike Spence on the efforts to restore rail service to the town

"It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of restless night, restless days. It’s been a long haul," he said. Now, locals are preparing a party for when the first Via Rail train arrives via the northern Manitoba town's lone all-weather land link, and are hoping dozens who moved south since the washout will return.

Spence was heartened to hear about the Winnipeg culvert team, comparing it with donations the town has received from people across Canada. "It’s good to see that there’s people cheering us on."

Al-Katib said the repairs and his company’s 99-year deal with Arctic Gateway means people see a future for Churchill, beyond its previous role as a grain-exporting port.

"Many people may doubt that it is viable or possible (but Toronto financier) Fairfax and AGT have taken on lots of projects that people in the past have thought were not viable, or profitable, and we've done very, very well."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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