Churchill residents brace for technical briefing on flood damaged rail line

Denver-based Omnitrax will provide a technical briefing on the condition of the flood damaged rail line to Churchill. Residents and the town's mayor are tired of waiting for repairs to begin.

Residents want action as food costs soar in northern community

Early estimates by OmniTrax suggested it would take until 2018 to repair the rail line to Churchill, Man. (Mike Spence/Submitted)

Churchill resident Dawnee Palmer summed up sentiments in the northern town by saying locals feel like children in a divorce.

"A messy divorce. While the parents are bickering, we are the ones that are suffering," Palmer said, referring to a lack of action to fix the line.

Denver-based Omnitrax Rail will give a technical briefing Tuesday about the condition of the line to Churchill and what engineering consultants have observed so far.

The northern line to the Hudson Bay was damaged by a flood in May. 

​Palmer said prices for perishable goods have sky-rocketed since the line was shut down. An orange and a banana cost $7 and the price for a carton of milk is above $10. She has strict orders now to her two teenage children.

"If you are taking it, you better eat it all," Palmer said. 
Churchill resident Dawne Palmer says the price of groceries continues to rise and has everyone in town 'scrambling.' (CBC News)

Two subsidy programs by the federal and provincial governments will help with some of the costs, but grocery bills remain high as all food now must be flown in as opposed to being shipped up by rail.

But the laid-off port worker's attempt at humour wanes when she's asked about Omnitrax technical briefing on Tuesday, calling the mood in the community " sombre," and the company's efforts to repair the line too slow.

"That seems to be all we talk about because it's affected everything. From the price of our groceries to the hardware store to students' part-time jobs getting cut ... people are laying people off."

Like Palmer, Churchill mayor Mike Spence is less than complimentary about the speed at which Omnitrax has addressed the flooded line.

"I don't know what to expect anymore. Always forward-thinking, but after a while you start to lose hope. But we are not going there. Fact is, Omnitrax will give their update and I expect governments to step in and finally get repairs underway immediately," Spence told CBC News. 
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence says the rail line has been 'managed poorly' and 'we need to change that.' (CBC News )

Moreover, Spence said the rail company didn't invite a town representative to the technical briefing. Omnitrax told CBC News an invitation was sent last Tuesday, but Spence called that "baloney," saying Churchill should have been high on the list of those invited to the briefing.

"We're the community that's most affected by the rail situation ... we are the ones that are feeling the most pain; we are the ones that have been left out. But let's deal with getting the line up and running. We are expecting that," Spence said.

Spence said the technical briefing is likely another move in the company's attempts to secure government funding to repair the damaged rail line.

That is likely where Spence and Omnitrax see eye-to-eye. The Churchill mayor said his town has been "held hostage" for too long and he's looking directly at the federal and provincial governments to force the company's hand.

Though Spence said he won't attend the Omnitrax technical briefing, he will send someone to monitor it and will react after it's been held.