Omnitrax can't afford to fix Churchill railway, says president

The president of Omnitrax Canada says the company does not have the resources to fix the Hudson Bay Railway on its own.

Federal and provincial governments must get involved, says Mervin Tweed

Omnitrax officials says there are 24 known breaks along the Hudson Bay Railway between Gillam and Churchill. (Omnitrax)

The president of Omnitrax Canada says the company does not have the resources to fix the Hudson Bay Railway on its own.

"We've said publicly that we believe the province and the federal government have to be involved in this. It is a natural disaster," Omnitrax Canada president Mervin Tweed said Friday.

Between Gillam, Man. and Churchill, Man., at least 24 areas of track were damaged during the spring thaw and floods.

From the air, photographs taken by Omnitrax showed long stretches of the railway covered in water, culverts blown out by spring runoff and tracks suspended mid-air — the ground beneath them completed swept away.

Omnitrax Canada president Mervin Tweed said the company needs help from government to repair the Hudson Bay Railway. (CBC)

The Hudson Bay Railway has been described as a lifeline between Churchill and the south. Trains typically bring up everything from fresh groceries and pet food to baby diapers and propane gas for heating homes.

Omnitrax has asked both the provincial and federal governments for help fixing the line but both levels have stopped short of making promises until they learn how much repairs will cost, Tweed said.

"I mean, they're being cautious. It's hard to do something until you know — like us — what it's going to cost," said Tweed.

On Monday, a private engineering firm will begin a damage assessment that should help Omnitrax estimate that dollar amount.

The assessment will take four weeks plus an additional two weeks to complete a final report on the state of the line.

Even though the assessment has yet to begin, Tweed is convinced the cost will be too great for the Denver-based company to swallow.

"We don't believe we have the resources to rebuild what needs to be done," said Tweed. "Every time we go out we find something else."

Engineers will be inspecting 300 kilometres of tracks, along with 600 culverts and 28 bridges, beginning Monday.

Tweed said their job will be difficult and involve both walking along the tracks and investigations by air. Engineers will also be collecting soil samples to determine ground stability.

"Just getting to that site is going to be a real challenge," Tweed said.

The tundra north of Gillam is still soggy in parts while other sections are completely covered with water.

While the track is unusable north of Gillam, the federal government said it is working on a plan to ensure both the Port of Churchill and the town's airport are able to pick up the slack.

Tweed said workers have already returned to the port, also owned by Omnitrax, to help with additional shipments.

"We were optimistic about a pretty good season until the water hit," Tweed said.

Both the port and the Hudson Bay Railway remain up for sale.

Tweed remains optimistic a deal with a First Nations group, the Missinippi Rail consortium, will go forward despite the disaster.

The group led by Mathias Colomb Chief Arlen Dumas offered $20 million to Omnitrax for both businesses before the flooding.

In an email to CBC Dumas said he plans to proceed with the deal as well but first the situation requires "collaboration by all to address the natural disaster."

with files from Jillian Taylor, Sean Kavanagh and Cameron MacIntosh