Freight service to Churchill slashed in half

Freight-train service to Churchill has been cut to once a week, adding another blow to a northern Manitoba town still reeling from the closure of its port.

After closing Port of Churchill, Omnitrax cuts freight trains to once a week

The Port of Churchill was shuttered Monday. The next day, Omitrax announced a rail slowdown. (CBC)

Freight-train service to Churchill has been cut to once a week, dealing another blow to a northern Manitoba town still reeling from the closure of its port.

Omnitrax is now sending freight trains to the Hudson Bay community on Wednesdays only, scaling back freight service from two trains that arrived on Sundays and Thursdays.

Gardewine North, which ships freight up Hudson Bay by barge, received the notice on Tuesday, dock worker Michael Whitmore said.

"We're going to be backed up for a while. That's a lot of freight," he said via telephone from Churchill.

Tom Lindsey, the NDP MLA for Flin Flon, said the reduction in rail service will drive up costs for northern Manitoba residents.

"It's also going to limit their ability to have fresh food delivered on a timely basis. If it's only coming once a week, it's not going to be all that fresh when it gets there and we know that less availability will drive the cost up," he said.

The North West Company, however, said it plans to absorb the added cost of flying in fresh meat and produce to the Northern Store in Churchill.

Other groceries will continue to be shipped to Churchill by rail, said Derek Reimer, business-development director for the North West Company.

Via Rail passenger trains, meanwhile, will continue to arrive in Churchill three times a week.

On Monday, Omnitrax laid off staff at the Port of Churchill and announced the port was closed. The company has yet to comment on the closure, which surprised the Town of Churchill, communities along the 1,300-kilometre Hudson Bay Railway and farmers in northern Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba.

The move has been condemned by municipal leaders, opposition politicians and organizations representing agricultural producers. On Tuesday Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development said in a brief statement that Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is monitoring the situation.

On Wednesday, Kildonan-St. Paul MP MaryAnn Mihychuk, the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, said the closure of the port came as a shock and that every effort is being made to find a solution.

She said the Trudeau government is willing to consider all options, including the possibility of reclaiming ownership of the port, which Ottawa sold to Omnitrax in 1997.

"We're working with the town and see how this is going to roll out. Of course as minister of employment insurance we will be there to try and help the workers that have been faced with this devastating news," she said in Winnipeg following a meeting with representatives of the Assembly of First Nations.

"The rail and the port are essential for northern Manitoba and as we looked at other commodities moving on the rail, it didn't work as quickly as obviously Omnitrax wanted. But we've been here before. We found a different partner and we saved the whole system. It's now time to get back to the table and see what we can do going forward."

Omnitrax was in talks to sell the port and the Hudson Bay Railway to a group of northern Manitoba First Nations. Kevin Hart, the Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, surmised that deal has now fallen apart.

He said Omnitrax should be held accountable for failing to improve the railway, especially given the millions worth of funds it has received from two levels of government.

"I think the federal government does have to step up to save the Port of Churchill this time. It's such a critical need in our northern communities," Hart said.

The port and the Hudson Bay Railway, however, constitute an inefficient and risky means of moving grain, said Conservative Battlefords-Lloydminster MP Gerry Ritz, the former federal agriculture minister.

He told CBC's Up To Speed that Omnitrax did not take advantage of federal dollars to upgrade either the port or the railway to a condition where it would have been more profitable for shippers to use the route.

"Shippers aren't willing to take the risk moving the product up there and having it isolated," he said.

Ritz said while the port is a strategic asset, Ottawa must decide whether it wants to spend more money upgrading the port merely to prepare for a potential future when climate change makes Arctic shipping more profitable.

"It's probably never going to be viable, but it's one of those things you don't toss aside," he said. "How much money do you spend on an opportunity that may never happen?"