Northern rail company estimates Churchill line can be fixed for $2M

Keewatin Rail Company says it has the staff and equipment to repair the Hudson Bay line to Churchill in 45 days for approximately $2 million.

Keewatin Rail says work would take 45 days, not including bridge work

Estimates of damage to the rail line to Churchill vary, but one regional rail operator says most of the repairs can be done relatively quickly. (Mayor Mike Spence/submitted)

The Keewatin Rail Company says it can repair the Hudson Bay rail line to the northern Manitoba town of Churchill within 45 days for approximately $2 million.

The line has been shut since late May following a rapid spring melt and flooding that damaged the tracks from Gillam to Churchill.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said he asked the Indigenous-owned northern Manitoba railway to provide an assessment of how much it would cost to fix the line, and a timeline.

The Keewatin Rail Company based its repair assessment in part on photos submitted by two American motorcyclists who drove along the line in June. (Steve Green and Richard Whittaker/ submitted)
The Keewatin Rail Company evaluated dozens of photographs taken by two American motorcyclists who drove the line in June.

The two riders documented each breach along the route and provided way-finding markers and GPS locations.

Spence said he flew in a helicopter along the line and took video of the damaged sections of the track. The company also used these images to make the repair assessment.

"They've got the experience, and some of these guys are ex-Hudson Bay Rail people and ex-CN Rail people. So we take their word for it," Spence said.

In late June, Spence and the heads of the Keewatin Tribal Council first raised the offer of KRC services to repair the line. The initial assessment did not include a dollar figure and estimated a repair time of two months.

Aerial footage of damaged Hudson Bay Rail Line

6 years ago
Duration 0:54
Video courtesy: Mike Spence, Mayor of Churchill

Spence says people in the North have grown weary of getting little communication from Omnitrax, which owns the Hudson Bay rail line and shut down the Port of Churchill last year.

"I think this is a huge part of it … There is a lack of trust [in Omnitrax]," Spence told CBC News.

Spence said he's been contacted by people from across Canada expressing disgust at the situation and calling for a solution for both the rail line shutdown and the shuttered port facilities.

​Omnitrax has maintained since shortly after the flood that the damage along the rail line was substantial and it would take many months to repair multiple line breaches and bridges. The company also claims it can't afford to do the work and wants the provincial and federal governments to assist.

Omnitrax promises assessment soon

Through a spokesperson, Omnitrax says its own assessment of the line will be completed by July 19 and it will share the results with Transport Canada.

"Each year, HBR undertakes millions of dollars of seasonal repairs to the line north of Gillam. This year the damage to the line caused by spring flooding was unprecedented," a spokesperson for OmniTrax wrote in an email.

"Our engineering firm, AECOM, began their work to thoroughly inspect the damages to the line as quickly as possible. That work is progressing as anticipated and that inspection has identified damage that was not visible from earlier aerial inspections."

Mayor wants state of emergency declared

Spence said he met with Economic Development Minister Cliff Cullen and Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen last Friday in Churchill.

He said he continues to lobby the province to declare a state of emergency over the rail line closure. Those powers would allow the province the legal right to inspect the rail line and order repairs.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence says KRC's offer to fix rail line would bring relief to his community. (CBC News )

"We feel that is the vehicle to start the process to getting the line fixed," Spence said.

But Spence said he hasn't gotten the province on board with declaring a state of emergency.

Minister calls Omnitrax 'missing partner' 

Pedersen told CBC Thursday a state of emergency doesn't make sense and instead the province has a better plan for the subarctic community, which will come after the government sees an assessment of the railline's damage from an engineering firm the company has hired.

The minister called Omnitrax a "missing partner," from the current situation and said the province is still waiting for a meeting with the company.

"We need to know what their long term plan is."

Spence says he also spoke Wednesday to federal Natural Resources minister and Manitoba MP Jim Carr about the rail line.

He said Carr continues to offer hope the rail line will get repaired and there will be federal support to reopen the port.

Spence says all parties are arranging for a meeting with Omnitrax this week but, he says, "time is ticking."

Northern rail company says it can fix Churchill line for $2M

6 years ago
Duration 2:13
Keewatin Rail Company says it has the staff and equipment to repair the Hudson Bay line to Churchill in 45 days for approximately $2 million.


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.