Clock ticking toward another winter without rail service for Churchill

With summer fading so does the opportunity to repair the flooded rail line to Churchill. By Omnitrax's estimates it will take a minimum of 60 days to fix the line and its engineering consultants say that by November it may be too difficult to complete the work.

NDP Opposition appeals to federal Transportation Minister to intervene

Propane supplies for the winter has been ordered delivered by sea as a precaution. (Mike Spence/Town of Churchill)

The window to repair the flooded rail line to Churchill is slowly shutting as no deal is in place to buy the rail line, but the push for action continues on some fronts.

A request has been made by NDP Leader Wab Kinew to the federal transportation minister to intervene and speed up repairs to the flooded rail line to Churchill.

So far, according to Kinew, the plea has been ignored, despite the Canada Transportation Act giving Transport Minister Marc Garneau the authority to force the company to act.

It was the Opposition NDP's initial complaint to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) that resulted in an order to Omnitrax's subsidiary, the Hudson Bay Railway, to start repairing the damaged line by July 3.

The order to do the work has been appealed by the Denver-based company in federal court, but no hearing day has been set to hear the arguments.

Kinew wrote to Garneau at the end of July.

"What I wrote to the federal minister was, 'You have the powers to vary, meaning you can change these CTA orders to give it teeth, so I am appealing to you to give this order more teeth to basically give a kick in the pants to Omnitrax to fix the rail line this year before snowfall,'" Kinew told CBC News. 

Kinew says he's hearing the opportunity to fix the line is growing slimmer with each passing day. 

NDP Leader Wab Kinew asked the federal transport minister to "give a kick in the pants to Omnitrax to fix the rail line this year before snowfall." (CBC News )

"If we don't see shovels in the ground and spikes being laid within the next few weeks, my concern is the people of Churchill, through no fault of their own, will be forced to endure another winter of high energy prices and job losses," Kinew said.

CBC News has asked for a response from Garneau's office regarding Kinew's request. 

Omnitrax says it's ready to trigger repairs if someone else pays for it

Omnitrax maintains it can't afford to do the repairs, but wrote to the CTA on Aug. 1 outlining plans it has initiated to get the line fixed as soon as possible.

The company's letter, obtained by CBC News, says Hudson Bay Railway's engineering consultant, AECOM, has pre-screened six potential contractors for the repair work, four have been on the rail line to look at the work and the company expects multiple bids for the job.

"As soon as the bids are received they will be reviewed in detail and a contract will be awarded to the successful bidder (assuming the funding from the new purchaser with the support of the federal government is obtained)," wrote Hudson Bay Railway president Sergio Sabatini to the CTA's chief compliance officer.

Meanwhile, efforts by a consortium of northern First Nations and communities and a Toronto company, Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., to buy the rail line and port facilities appears to be stalled.

Winter propane for Churchill will come by sea

Meanwhile, work is underway to supply the northern community no matter what happens with the rail line.

Superior Propane, in consultation with Manitoba's Emergency Measures Organization, has ordered a winter supply of propane to be delivered by sea.

"Given the logistics support timelines and complexity, decision to commit to shipping adequate propane supply to Churchill to last until follow-on shipments can be made in 2019 was required without confirmation or certainty on rail service resumption," wrote a spokesperson for the Manitoba government.

Politically, the province has remained on the sidelines of the Churchill rail issue with Premier Brian Pallister and his ministers maintaining a solution is the responsibility of the federal government.

Calm Air president Gary Bell told CBC News his company is waiting to see if the repair work will be completed before ordering a new supply of jet fuel for his aircraft as shipping products by sea is much more costly than by rail.

A request to the various federal departments for information on gasoline supplies and food subsidies for residents of Churchill has been made by CBC News. A spokesperson for the federal department Western Economic Diversification Canada says they are working to gather the information. 

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence declined comment as he remains in the midst of negotiations as part of the group attempting to purchase the rail line and port from Omnitrax.


Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.


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