Winter road will be carved through northern Manitoba to get supplies to Churchill
Hope to start preparing makeshift ice road around Christmas and start hauling in January
A scheme is in the works to build a temporary winter road to Churchill so food, fuel and other supplies can be delivered in the absence of train service.
The plan, which has been in talks since June, is to use specialized machinery to drive the materials 275 kilometres from Gillam to the northern town on the shore of Hudson Bay.
"We have all the approvals in place, so this is a go. This is a made-in-Manitoba solution to assist in getting this resolved in a short-term way while everybody else sorts out what's going to be happening with the rail," said Mark Kohaykewych, president of Polar Industries, a transportation company that is one of three groups behind the plan.
"Right now, this is all based on private funding, so we're kind of on a shoestring budget with this thing [and] we're going to be limited on how many loads we can take in because of that," Kohaykewych said.
"But we're hoping that the province will step up and maybe work with us on this thing and increase efficiency with some funding on it."
The hope is to start preparing the makeshift ice road around Christmas and start hauling things in January. The frost levels need to be deep enough to support the heavy equipment.
The journey is expected to take about 20-30 hours one way, through bush and tundra, said Kohaykewych, whose company specializes in remote regions and has been featured on History Channel's Ice Road Truckers.
On that show, however, the company uses semi-trailer trucks on well-defined ice roads. Time won't allow that type of road construction to be completed on the Gillam-Churchill path.
Instead, it will be traversed by machinery fitted with caterpillar tracks, the type of treads used on tanks and construction equipment, or with massive tires like those on tundra buggies. The machinery will pull enormous sleighs loaded with the supplies.
"This is a primitive form that was used in the '70s by many companies to transport goods to remote communities and we're going to go back to that, pulling cat-trains and sleighs into Churchill," Kohaykewych said.
Materials will be shipped by truck from Winnipeg and other locations to Gillam. From there, the supplies will be shifted to the cat-trains and sleighs.
"It's going to be quite an experience. Some of the locals have done this [route] by snowmobile before and we're kind of utilizing their expertise," Kohaykewych said.
The first few loads will be about 13,000-20,000 pounds, but if it's a "good, cold winter with minimal snow conditions" and the path gets packed nicely, that weight could be increased to possibly 80,000 pounds, he said.
"This isn't your weekend snowmobile [trek]. This is survival skills, you know, prepare for the worst. You're isolated. It's not like you can pick up a cellphone and somebody can be there in a couple of hours," Kohaykewych said.
"This isn't new to us. Our drivers, our staff, we're faced with these conditions when we go on the ice roads all the time."
Kohaykewych said the group did a "preliminary release" of their plan on Thursday and has already been contacted by several people.
"We have seen quite a number of phone calls and quite a number of individuals from Churchill — and actually from across Canada — that are looking to have their products moved into Churchill," he said.
Remi Foubert-Allen, owner of Remote Area Service, hopes the necessity for the road will only be for one winter.
"It could very well be a multi-year solution but as a resident of Churchill I hope it does not come to that. The rail line is our lifeline and I hope to see waves of smiling tourists stepping off of it for summer of 2018," he said.
Repairs to the track, which links the town to Winnipeg 1,000 kilometres to the south, are expected to take place soon.
Severe flooding washed out the line in May. Since then, food prices have soared and businesses have been forced to lay off staff as goods and materials usually shipped by freight are flown into the community at a much higher cost.
A four-litre jug of milk sells for more than $10 in Churchill right now, while a brick of cheese run for about $18, Foubert-Allen said.
"So the goal here is to really try and bring down the costs for the community," he said.
While doing so, it is critical the transportation crews remain as safe as possible, Foubert-Allen said, adding that when it's all over, there should be "no trace [on the environment] that we were ever there."
The federal government has demanded Omnitrax, the rail line's private owner, make the repairs or face an $18.8-million lawsuit — the amount Transport Canada contributed for upgrades to the line.
The contract that came with the money stated Omnitrax had to assume full responsibility for the operation, maintenance and repair of the rail line until October 2018.
Earlier this week, the company released a report offering an emergency repair in the next month.
The 30-day fix would cost $5 million to $10 million but provide only modest service between Thompson and Churchill.