Churchill port, rail line to see $68M in improvements

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged Friday to spend millions to improve the Port of Churchill and the rail line leading to it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged Friday to spend millions to improve the Port of Churchill and the rail line leading to it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, centre, and Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, left, watch a polar bear from a tundra buggy about 20 kilometres outside of Churchill, Man., on Friday. ((John Woods /Canadian Press))

Speaking in Churchill Friday morning, Harper said the federal government and the province of Manitoba would share $40 million in improvements to the Hudson Bay rail line between Churchill and The Pas, and $8 million for improvements to the Port of Churchill.

TheHudson Bay Rail Company also committed to spend $20 million for rail-line maintenance as part of a renewed 10-year agreement by its parent company, OmniTRAX Canada, which operates both the rail line and the port.

The rail line, 1,300-kilometres of former Canadian National track, is considered a critical transportation link to northern Manitoba, bringing both tourists and cargo to and from remote northern communities.

The line has been plagued with derailments and maintenance disruptions in recent months. Officials with Via Rail, which runs passenger trains along the line, have said improvements must be made if passenger service is to continue.

The Port of Churchill,meanwhile,has been trying to expand its business for decades. Its largest customer is the Canadian Wheat Board, which ships grain through Churchill to international ports and — starting this year — domestic ports. The port is also a key supply link for Arctic development projects, such as new mines in Nunavut.

"Manitoba’s port of Churchill is growing in significance each year as Canada’s only deep-water Arctic seaport, and the rail line is an essential link that connects the port and several remote, northern communities and economies to key markets," Premier Gary Doer said in a release.

Both the port and the rail line have also attracted more attention in recentyears as scientists predict climate change could open the Northwest Passage in less than three decades.

Currently, however, the port's business is limited by the cold climate: it is only open four months a year, when its waters are ice free.

Research on Arctic animals, toxins

Harper also unveiled the final 26 research projects the federal government will fund as part of the $150 million in International Polar Year spending announced in March.

The new research includes study on the effects of climate change on polar bears, seals and whales, and investigations of the origins of toxic chemicals in the Arctic.

"Scientific inquiry and development are absolutely essential to Canada's defence of its North, as they enhance our knowledge of, and presence in, the region," Harper said in a release.

"Like I’ve said so many times before, 'use it or lose it' is the first principle of sovereignty."

International Polar Year is a two-year global effort involving 50,000 researchers from more than 60 countries conducting scientific examinations of the Arctic and Antarctica.

In Canada, about 1,200 researchers are taking part in studies in 67 communities across the North.