The only train to Churchill has been suspended until winter — maybe even next spring — and its future is in jeopardy after severe flooding damaged the tracks on the way to the northern Manitoba community.

The "unprecedented and catastrophic" damage will take months to repair, said Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer at OmniTrax, the Denver-based owner of the rail line that brings supplies into Churchill. 

"Until we are able to get people physically on the ground and do a proper inspection, it's difficult for us to truly know [how long repairs will take]," said Touesnard. 

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said it is a "disastrous" situation. The community of about 900 relies on tourism and the summer season — centred on beluga whales in the Churchill River — was just set to begin.

"We want to make sure that people know there is a tourist season," Spence said, adding that Calm Air has scheduled additional flights and reduced some of the transportation costs for goods to the community.

Earlier this week, Belinda Fitzpatrick, who owns the Tundra Inn and Hostel, said most of her clients come in by rail and may not be able to afford air travel.

"Now I've got to make decisions on staff that we're supposed to be flying up and whether I have jobs for them or not, as well as local staff here that I may not have work for," Fitzpatrick said.

"There will be, no doubt, some kind of price increase and probably a lessening of the hours in the restaurant."

Longer-term solution needed

In a statement earlier on Friday, Spence and town council said they didn't learn of the closure until it was reported by the media.

Churchill was already working with provincial and federal governments, along with Omnitrax, to make alternative arrangements during the temporary outage. 

"Today's announcement makes it clear that a longer-term solution is required," the statement said. 

Spence said the main focus now is to work with governments to get some financial relief, particularly to get essential supplies — like fuel and food — to the community. He said both levels of government should help pay for the difference in freight.

They are also looking at how they can expedite the repairs of the rail line. 

"It's not a good situation here. We have daily living, there is a cost to that," Spence said. 

'People can't get out. The only way out for a lot of folks is taking the train … it's a low point right now,' - Mike Spence, Churchill mayor

"People can't get out. The only way out for a lot of folks is taking the train out to Thompson and other places. So, naturally it's a low point right now, very low, but we have a bit of work to do." 

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce said air transportation costs can be five times higher than rail shipment costs, and the provincial government should look at offsetting some of the expense of food and other items.

"My hope is that they would be willing to see that the situation is ... dire now, and that they'll be prepared to step up and help," Chamber president Chuck Davidson said.

Washed out in 19 places

The damaging floods and historic record water flows came after two powerful March blizzards walloped the town, located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The track bed was washed away in 19 locations, a preliminary assessment showed. Five bridges are visibly damaged and 30 more bridges and 600 culverts — structures that allow water to pass under the track — will need to be checked for structural integrity, Omnitrax said. 

"While the Hudson Bay Railway requires significant seasonal maintenance, the extent of the damage created by flooding this year is by far the worst we have ever seen," Touesnard said.

The flooding, which halted rail service on May 23, only receded to normal levels on Thursday.

Omnitrax said it is in contact with Transport Canada and the province, as well as the Missinippi Rail Consortium, which recently signed a memorandum of understanding about the potential acquisition of the rail line and the Port of Churchill.

Fuel is an especially critical commodity, and the port could be used, at least during the ice-free season. "There's the capability of using the port to potentially deliver fuel into the port to serve the community," Touesnard said.

with files from The Canadian Press and CBC Radio's Up To Speed