Temporary repairs to Churchill rail line could get it running in 30 days: Consultant report

A temporary repair proposal outlines how Omnitrax could get rail service returned to Churchill, Man. in 30 days, according a report on the Denver-based company's website.

Repairs would cost up to $10M and enable supplies to get to northern Manitoba community over the winter

This section of the Hudson Bay Railway line is just one of 24 areas between Gillam and Churchill, Man., that were made impassable in July because of flooding. (Submitted by Omnitrax)

A temporary repair proposal outlines how Omnitrax could get rail service returned to Churchill, Man. in 30 days, according a report on the Denver-based company's website.

The report, prepared for the company by engineering consultants AECOM and dated Oct. 6, explains a 30-day plan to restore restricted service to the line by performing temporary repairs at a cost of between $5 million and $10 million.

"Once these temporary repairs are completed, the line could be re-opened for very restricted service until the full plan to perform permanent repairs is completed in 2018," the report said.

Standing in the freshly falling snow, Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said he doesn't think Omnitrax is serious about the plan and the company is just "playing games with our community."

"If we can do it great, but come on, it's getting late. This should have been done earlier this summer," he said. 

After a winter of blizzards and a spring of severe flooding, sections of the rail line to Churchill, a community of 900 located about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, washed out, leaving it without a ground transport connection.

The engineering consultants did a different report for Omnitrax, prepared in August, which included a 60-day plan to restore rail service at a cost of about $43.5 million. That report said there were more than 20 washouts from the late-May flood that swamped portions of a 249-kilometre stretch of the line, and identified damage in 130 locations.

After that report, Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, said the company would not be in a financial position to repair or continue operating the line.

Last week, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr threatened Omnitrax with legal action if the company did not resume rail service in 30 days. Transport Canada sent the company a "notice of default of its agreement" that said the rail service to the northern Manitoba community needed to be restored or Omnitrax would face an $18.8-million lawsuit — the amount Transport Canada contributed to the Hudson Bay Railway line in 2008.

The latest report outlines temporary repairs that could re-open the rail line for restricted service until the full plan to perform permanent repairs was completed in 2018. It would only open the railway for work train-type service, the report said, in order to take emergency supplies and provisions to Churchill during the winter.

Neither regular train service or VIA rail service could run on the tracks until permanent repairs are carried out, the report said.

The report added, even if the temporary repairs are done, the full cost to get the railway up and running would still be another $43.5 million.

A spokesperson with Omnitrax confirmed the report was provided to Transport Canada on Oct. 7.

Transport: won't give Omnitrax more money

The federal government's negotiating team received a "last-minute suggestion" that mentioned repairs could be undertaken at a reduced cost, said Delphine Denis, press secretary for Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

"However, it is disappointing that Omnitrax continues to deflect responsibility for fixing the line to everyone else but themselves," Denis said in the emailed statement. 

"Omnitrax has a clear responsibility to fix the line and we expect them to do so."

The federal government will not give further funding to Omnitrax when it is already in breach of its agreement and has shown no interest in being a responsible owner of the line, Denis added.

In 2008, the federal and provincial governments each gave nearly $20 million to the company, which was also expected to put in $20 million, to upgrade the railway. The project was originally supposed to be completed by March 31, 2018, but in 2010, the company was provided a one-year extension.

Under the agreement, the company is contractually committed to operate, maintain and repair the entire Hudson Bay Railway Line for 10 years after the completion of the rehabilitation project, Transport Canada said, meaning until 2029, or pay back what the federal government contributed. 

Omnitrax previously told CBC News that the situation amounted to a force majeure — a legal term referring to unforeseeable circumstances that excuse a party from fulfilling a contract — and said the company can't fulfil its contract with the federal government.

Spence said the community is disappointed and frustrated with what they feel are games between Omnitrax and the federal government. He said Canada needs to "deal with this swiftly."

"It's the final hour. Our backs are up against the wall and they say, 'Guess what. We have a plan.' Where the heck were they going back when we really needed it," he said. 

"The country of Canada is fully aware what we have been going through. No Canadian, no community should be going through this." 


Kelly Malone


Kelly Geraldine Malone is a journalist based in Winnipeg. She worked for CBC Manitoba and was a University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs Fellow in Global Journalism 2016-17.

With files from Sean Kavanagh