Minister optimistic, but offers no sign of when Churchill rail repairs will begin

Winter is coming, but there appears to be no plan in place yet to repair the rail line to the northern Manitoba town of Churchill before the snow flies.

Sustainable development minister won't set 'point of no return' date to complete repairs before winter

Winter is coming, but there appears to be no plan in place yet to repair the rail line to the northern Manitoba town of Churchill before the snow flies. 1:55

Winter is coming, but there appears to be no plan in place yet to repair the rail line to the northern Manitoba town of Churchill before the snow flies.

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires was in the Hudson Bay community last Wednesday, but said the trip wasn't focused on a plan to restore rail service to the town. The rail line to Churchill — approximately 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg — has been unusabe since it was damaged by severe flooding this year.

Squires said her trip was focused on wildlife management and protected areas. 

"I was up there on a variety of purposes. There were certain conversations about the line — it is pervasive up there in all conversations," Squires said.

The Progressive Conservative government did not publicize Squires' trip. 

Although Squires flew over the damaged line, she says she didn't do any personal assessment of its condition and won't offer a drop-dead date after which the line cannot be repaired before winter.

Newly appointed Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires was in Churchill recently, but said she did not go to specifically to discuss the disabled rail line. (Sean Kavanagh CBC News )
"I don't think there is a date in which we would say we've passed the point of no return. I think there is optimism and there is reason to be optimistic," Squires says.

In July, rail line owner Omnitrax released a technical briefing on damage and needed repairs, estimating it could complete the work by the end of October, with the costs running as high as $60 million. But company officials say the line is a public utility and they're looking to provincial and federal governments and First Nations to cover the cost.

The recently appointed minister of sustainable development says the state of the rail line was mentioned when she spoke to Churchill Mayor Mike Spence.

"The mayor did indicate he just came back from Ottawa and is quite optimistic there will be some announcements and development on that file," Squires told reporters at an announcement for new French-immersion classrooms in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

'Important discussions are ongoing,' with Ottawa on the rail repairs, says Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. (CBC News )
Spence declined to speak about deadlines or react to Squires' comments, but did offer a one-line statement about the current situation.

"The federal government made a strong and important commitment to helping our community that is facing this current challenge. Important discussions are ongoing. We remain confident and optimistic rail repair can be undertaken before freeze up," Spence wrote to CBC News in an email.

'Ottawa really does need to accelerate this'

Squires, as have several members of the PC government, lobbed the Churchill file back at the federal Liberals.

"Ottawa really does need to accelerate this."

During a visit to Winnipeg in July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back at Omnitrax's assertion it can't pay for the repairs.

"[There] are no new developments to report as we speak," a Transport Canada spokesperson said to CBC in an emailed statement.

"The government continues to support the community of Churchill to address immediate needs and resulting economic impacts through [the] Economic Development Fund, in addition to the temporary implementation of the Nutrition North Canada program and active support to fuel resupply efforts," the statement said.

Squires declined to speculate if a September start was necessary to complete repairs before winter, as was suggested by rail line owner Omnitrax.

"There certainly is a lot work that needs to be done. I don't want to give even a rough estimate of when this work absolutely needs to be completed by. We also have contingency plans to make sure the community is well served, even through the winter months."

Squires said she is confident the province has supplied the town with enough propane, diesel and aviation fuel to last the winter months.

Squires also wouldn't say what the province has learned about the condition of the line. Stakeholders and community members have been critical of government's reliance on Omnitrax for any assessments of the condition of the line.

"We are not sharing publicly any results of what our findings have been, thus far. We are not going to … get into a public conversation or dialogue about the the status of the rail [line] and what parts are damaged," Squires said.

"We are really relying on experts for that, and when we have the experts come back with a conclusive report saying, 'These are the portions of the line that need to be repaired and this is the cost estimate and this is the timeline,' then we can all work together."

CBC News asked Omnitrax for an update on plans for repairs.

"We have been working diligently on a long-term solution, and hope to arrive at a decision soon. At this time we are not able to provide any additional information, " wrote Peter Touesnard, the chief commercial officer of Omnitrax.