Construction of temporary road to Churchill begins
Cold conditions with little snow have allowed the project to start weeks ahead of schedule
There is still no timeline for when the rail line to Churchill may be fixed, but the construction of a winter road to the northern Manitoba community has begun weeks ahead of schedule.
Specialized machinery has started creating a 275-kilometre temporary road from Gillam to Churchill.
"We are way ahead of schedule now because of conditions. It's just been cold with … very little snow, so it's been ideal for packing," said Mark Kohaykewych, president of Polar Industries, a transportation company that is one of three groups behind the plan.
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Churchill-based freight company Remote Area Services and Fox Lake Cree Nation are the other two.
The initial plan was to start preparing the makeshift ice road around Christmas and hauling supplies by January. But Kohaykewych said they've had crews preparing the area for nearly three weeks already and the new goal is to get light loads moving on the road by the end of December.
Spring flooding washed out sections of the railway to Churchill earlier this year, leaving the community of about 750 on the shore of Hudson Bay, 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, without any ground transportation access. In the flooding's wake, food and gas prices rose and business in the tourism sector dropped.
Last week, Omnitrax, the Denver-based company that owns the rail line, and the federal government fired legal shots at each other.
On Nov. 14, Omnitrax filed a notice of intent to submit a claim under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows a business to sue a government without first going through the country's court systems. The federal government filed a lawsuit against the company for breach of contract, demanding $18 million plus interest, later the same day.
Another major player also entered the conversations around the rail line's future when Toronto-based investment company Fairfax Financial Holdings announced on Thursday it was joining two groups, representing northern communities and First Nations, that have been trying to purchase the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill from Omnitrax.
Still, there's almost no chance the rail line will be fixed over the winter.
That means the temporary road is getting a lot of interest, Kohaykewych said.
"Our phones have been ringing quite steadily, so we have quite a few people that are interested in using our services for sure," he said.
Hopefully it will help prices in the community drop by as much as 30 per cent from where they are currently, he said.
The road is still based on private funding, but Kohaykewych said he is "cautiously optimistic" there will be some help from the federal and provincial government in covering the costs.
"We were hoping with the urgency of everything that they would have stepped up a lot quicker," he said.
But his focus now is getting the road going while Mother Nature is on their side.
Kohaykewych's company specializes in remote regions and has been featured on History Channel's Ice Road Truckers.
He is heading out Friday morning to see the progress of his crews, driving as far as Owl River, which flows into the Hudson Bay. The first step is thickening the ice, particularly in three areas, by flooding it, Kohaykewych said.
Eventually the road will allow them to ship supplies by machinery fitted with caterpillar tracks, the type of treads used on tanks and construction equipment, or with massive tires like those on tundra buggies, pulling enormous sleighs.
"We are making tremendous progress," Kohaykewych said.
"The temperatures have been cold. We have minimal amount of snow up in the north. It's ideal conditions to be making a new trail this year."
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With files from Robin Summerfield