Churchill businesses worry flooded rail line could hurt busy tourism season
Service to northern Manitoba community remains suspended as stretch of rail line submerged
Churchill businesses are worried about their bottom line as rail service to the northern Manitoba community remains closed.
"I try to stay as optimistic as I can but it's very hard," said Penny Rawlings, who runs the store Arctic Trading in Churchill.
On Friday, Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said about 2½ kilometres of rail line remained submerged. Two blizzards in March made for a massive melt in May that flooded out some roads recently, damaging some cottages and a dike in the process.
While peak levels have already been reached on the Church River — the river crested on May 31 and levels have been dropping ever since — there are still fears that a lack of adequate rail access will leave local businesses in a precarious state weeks ahead of tourism season.
Thompson-based airline Calm Air has helped ship goods north in recent weeks that would normally arrive via rail, but Rawlings says the rail disruption is still hurting business.
"I have to limit the hours that [staff] can come into work because I don't have the materials, so it's holding up my production," Rawlings said, adding most of her products are shipped by train.
Belinda Fitzpatrick owns the Tundra Inn and Hostel in Churchill and shares Rawlings' concerns.
"I got up this morning and I my head is just spinning, because there's a domino effect to all of this," she said.
Fitzpatrick said she was told damage to the rail line was catastrophic and worries it will affect her ability to cater to tourists.
She says most of her clients come in by rail and may not be able to afford to change their plans and fly instead. It means she is facing her own challenges as an employer heading into what was supposed to be a busy tourist season.
"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.
"As for the bar, I don't know if the [Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation] is going to fly alcohol in or not … [or] if they do, whether it's going to be sold at the same price it always has been," Fitzpatrick said.
Via Rail said in a statement Monday that service continues between Winnipeg and Gillam, about 740 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, but operations directly to Churchill are still being disrupted by flooding.
Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the Churchill River is on the decline; flows were moving at 175,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) as of Tuesday, down from 200,000 CFS on May 31.
Back on track
The closure also cut off the transportation of food and goods to a number of surrounding First Nations, but service was restored for one such community late last week.
"We depend on the rail so much," said Betsy Kennedy, chief of War Lake First Nation, which has had rail service up and running since Friday. "It was very hard. We don't have scheduled plane service in our community."
Kennedy said the lack of rail service affected patients with medical issues in the community, located 320 kilometres southwest of Churchill.
"They had to wait," Kennedy said, adding Red Cross helped fly in emergency supplies like milk, eggs and baby formula during the service disruption. "The community was very thankful about that ... we were very concerned."
Other area First Nations faced similar struggles, Kennedy added.
"One of the things we need to do is to get together as communities and really bring out our concerns," Kennedy said. "I'm sure we do have the knowledge in living along this rail in what we can do to help."
'Churchill needs help'
Manitoba NDP MLA for Flin Flon Tom Lindsey called on the government to do more to ensure goods are shipped north in a timely manner before tourism season takes off.
"Churchill needs help in the short run, but the Pallister government must enact a long-term strategic plan to end the economic uncertainty and supply shortages," Lindsey said in a statement. "We urge the province to work with the federal government to nationalize this rail line.
"The time for half measures is over. Not only are there strong strategic reasons for the government to own and run that rail line, ensuring its future is the right thing to do for the people who live and work in the north."
A spokesperson with the Manitoba government said the province helped co-ordinate the delivery of supplies to several affected First Nations and northern communities last week.
"Provincial officials are in constant communication with officials from the town of Churchill as well as Omnitrax and other stakeholders in the north," the spokesperson said in a statement.
"We continue to applaud the efforts of our response partners. We will take further steps as warranted to ensure to safety of all Manitobans."
With files from Meagan Ketcheson, Leif Larsen and Marjorie Dowhos