Churchill rail line could be fixed in 2 months, northern leaders say

The mayor of Churchill and northern First Nation leaders say they stand together and believe they can fix the broken rail line to the town in two months if owner Omnitrax and the government are willing to pay for the work.

Omnitrax says repairs likely to take until next spring

Chief Ted Bland, of York Factory First Nation, said employees with the Keewatin Railway Company could repair the Hudson Bay Railway within two months. (CBC)

The mayor of Churchill and northern First Nation leaders say they stand together and believe they can fix the broken rail line to the town in two months if owner Omnitrax and the government are willing to pay for the work.

"There's no need for Churchill to suffer anymore," said York Factory First Nation Chief Ted Bland, chairman of the Keewatin Tribal Council, on Friday.

"Our northern First Nations have the capacity to fix the railway line and it will not require 10 or more months."

A spokesperson for Omnitrax said Friday the company still requires about six weeks to assess damage to the tracks recent flooding and washouts — four weeks to evaluate the line itself and two to write a report.

"Until the full inspection by engineering professionals on the ground is complete, it is impossible to estimate the time and money required to repair the line," said Peter Tousenard, Chief Commercial Officer, Omnitrax in an email.

Omnitrax has said repairs on a broken rail line to Churchill will likely take until next spring but leaders from northern Manitoba say it could be fixed in about two months. (Omnitrax)

Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation said the Keewatin Railway Company — a First Nations-run company in northwestern Manitoba — has the people and expertise to get the repairs done quickly.

"They know the sections that need to be repaired," she said.

Nine sections of a rail line to Pukatawagan, a northern First Nation near Manitoba's border with Saskatchewan, were washed out along with a bridge two years ago, and Keewatin Railway Company repaired the line in a week or so, Bland said.

"They didn't wait for an assessment," he said. "They just went and did it."

Bland said he is concerned about Churchill's economy suffering with rising costs of food and low fuel supplies.

There are reports that many tourists have cancelled plans to visit the town this summer, and some businesses have cut back staff and operating hours.

'Get the damn rail line fixed'

The railway to Churchill was knocked out by flooding in May and Denver-based owner Omnitrax has said repairs will likely take until next spring.

The company said about 24 sections of the rail are washed out and the company has to inspect the stability of hundreds of culverts and multiple bridges.

Churchill Mayor Michael Spence said his town cannot wait weeks for an assessment and report to be completed. He is losing his patience.

"Let's get the damn rail line fixed," he said.

The Hudson Bay Railway is the only land link to Churchill, and goods and people must now be flown in at a higher cost or shipped in by barge during the short ice-free season.

Government must lead, says mayor

"We are calling on all levels of government to work with the rail owner to repair and reopen the line as soon as possible," Spence said.

Based on recent photographs, the mayor said water on the tracks is long gone.

"It is incumbent on governments to lead this," Spence said.

Blaine Pedersen, Manitoba's Minister of Infrastructure, said in an email the province continues to wait until Omnitrax finishes its damage assessment.

Pedersen is calling on the federal government to cover Churchill in its Nutrition North food subsidy program until the rail line can be repaired.

The federal government said it is still exploring the possibility of extending the subsidy to the northern Manitoba town but said its immediate focus is getting supplies through the town's port and airport.

Two working groups have been established: one focused on food, and one focused on fuel re-supply, said a government of Canada spokesperson.

With files from the Canadian Press and Sean Kavanagh