Churchill residents see light at the end of the tunnel after rail line sale announced

Some Churchill, Man., residents says they're cautiously optimistic that a deal to sell the town’s flood-ravaged rail line could soon return life to normal for residents.

Lack of rail service has driven up costs of living for northern Manitoba community over the last year

The community of Churchill, with a population of about 1,000, has been without a land route since the railway was damaged by flooding in May 2017, driving up costs for fuel and food. (Submitted by Omnitrax)

Some Churchill residents says they're optimistic that a deal to sell the flood-ravaged rail line to the northern Manitoba town could soon return life to normal.

The federal government announced Friday that repairs on the rail line — the only land link to Churchill, 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg — are set to begin immediately, following a deal to sell the line, which has been out of operation since it was damaged by flooding in May 2017.

The railway and the Port of Churchill have been purchased from Denver-based Omnitrax Inc. by Arctic Gateway Group Limited Partnership, a private-public partnership that includes Mississippi Rail Limited Partnership, Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Limited Partnership.

Jenafor Azure, who owns a bed and breakfast in Churchill, says the loss of the rail line has hit the community hard and caused endless headaches.

Even simple things like getting dog food for her sled dogs have been difficult.

"Costs associated with shipping dog food and straw, you name it, to our community.… I mean, you could write a book about what we've dealt with over the last year," she said.

News met with 'jubilation' 

Evan Roberts has worked in Churchill for about three years as programming co-ordinator for the Churchill Northern Study Centre. 

The lack of rail service has affected virtually every aspect of life in the community, he said, from shipping costs to the out-migration of residents.

"It's certainly hitting us, or has been hitting us, socially, economically, personally. It's been tough."

News that a deal had finally been struck to bring the service back, after months of negotiations, was met with "jubilation" across the town, he said.

"This seems to be the most hope we've had in a long time," he said. 

Churchill resident Joe Stover couldn't agree more.

"It's been such a long time coming," he said Saturday.

"It's not just relief for myself and my family, but for all my friends and everybody that lives in Churchill and everybody who depends on Churchill and the rail line and the port and things like that, it's just overwhelming relief."

Tourism industry hurt 

The vital tourism industry in the town, where many travel to see whales and polar bears, has also been hit hard by the lack of rail service.

With no land route for over a year, only those who can afford airfare or expensive tours have been able to make the trek to the community, Azure said.

"I do think we've lost a lot of tourism dollars in our community that we've worked so hard to build up," she said.

Now, Azure said she hopes the return of service could bring people — and their wallets — back to the northern community.

"And of course the more people we can get in and out of this community, the better, because they spend money," she said.

For Patricia Kandiurin, the town just hasn't felt the same without tourists in the summer months.

She's confident that will change once rail service returns.

"We know that Churchill will flourish again — it will be Canada's destination again," she said. 

"This summer should have been flooded with tourists, we had tourists, just not as many.

"But it will be big again."

Arctic Gateway will be co-ordinating repairs and says crews have been mobilized to start work immediately.

The negotiations for the purchase of Hudson Bay Railway's Manitoba assets, including a rail yard in The Pas and a marine fuel tank farm in Churchill, along with the rail line and port, have been going on for months.

The deal covers the Omnitrax-owned Hudson Bay Rail Company, the Hudson Bay Port Company and the Churchill Marine Tank Farm.

The financial details of the sale were not released.

With files from Laura Glowacki and the Weekend Morning Show 


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