Manitoba

Province not ready to send workers north to help with Churchill train woes

The Manitoba government isn't ready to send any provincial employees north to help restore the flood-damaged rail line to Churchill.

Rail line to remote, northern Manitoba community seriously damaged during spring flood

Churchill has been without rail service for weeks after a spring flood damaged the only rail line into the northern Manitoba town. (Omnitrax)

The Manitoba government isn't ready to send any provincial employees north to help restore the flood-damaged rail line to Churchill. 

"Right now we have no immediate action to take," Mike Gagne, director of operations for Manitoba's Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), told reporters Monday in Winnipeg.

"Unless you gather information, do a fulsome assessment, it's really difficult to know what immediate action you could take, because these are complex issues and looking at the amount of goods and materials and services that you need to sustain, there isn't something that you can figure out over a weekend."

The northern town, located about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has been without rail service for weeks after a pair of blizzards and a massive spring melt washed out a section of the line in May.

Churchill, Man., is located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (Google Maps)

Denver-based Omnitrax, which owns and operates the rail line, told the province at a meeting on Friday that damage to the rail line is so severe it could take until the winter or spring to fix completely.

"They think the rail service will be disrupted indefinitely," Gagne said.

EMO has assembled a group of officials who continue to meet with town representatives, Gagne said.

Businesses hurting

So far, the town has been dealing directly through private businesses to transport goods and passengers out of Churchill. Thompson-based northern airline Calm Air has been helping to fly supplies into Churchill lately, but local businesses are hurting from the rail service stoppage.

"The additional flights from Calm Air, direct from Thompson to Churchill, that were arranged between them and the town ... will help out, I'm sure," Gagne said.

"But we do not know the extent to which this is actually going to help the larger issues at play."

'Keep the cupboards stocked'

Concerns over rising food costs are mounting as tourism season gets underway in Churchill this month.

Omnitrax officials notified the Manitoba government on Friday that damage to the lines might not be completely repaired until this winter or next spring. (Omnitrax)

"We can surmise and guess, and there's been a lot of anecdote about how much it's going to cost, how much more for freight, but we don't know until we look at the hard numbers and the alternative arrangements," Gagne said.

"But that's definitely one of our concerns, the provisions of food to Churchill, so they can keep the cupboards stocked."

Going forward, fuel and construction materials will likely have to be shipped in by tanker, Gagne said.

Churchill officials were expected to hold an emergency meeting open to the public on Monday night. Gagne said no one from EMO would be present for the meeting.

"They're a resilient group up there as we can imagine, and we're just going to have to find out from the mayor and his folks where things sit with them."

Road or rail?

Barry Prentice, a transportation economist at the University of Manitoba, said in the short term perishable foods will have to continue to be flown in.

"It really comes down to the longer term," Prentice said.

"We know the section of track that is the problem — it's the section of track that runs from Gillam up to Churchill — and that was never the optimal route in the first place," Prentice said, adding the route was built over areas where there is permafrost that makes for unstable ground during spring thawing. "It's been a problem ever since."

He says Manitoba and Churchill have to decide whether to reroute the current rail line or build a road to avoid weather-related rail disruptions in the future.

"Is this fix going to be the fix, or is it just going to be another in a series of endless fixes for a route that was never actually likely to be a sustainable route?" Prentice said, adding climate change is only going to make things worse in the coming years. 

"I think it's time to step back from this immediate problem and ask the ... serious question: do we really need a rail line to Churchill ... and if so, should we not maybe look at a different route to get there and solve the problem once and for all?"

When Angela Heck first called to ask about the problems with the rail line up to Churchill she was initially told the line would be open at the end of June, to which she replied, "What year?" (Omnitrax)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Chris Read and Susan Magas

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