As the canadian government contemplates the future of the canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and thus the future of the port of Churchill, another icon of the Northern frontier is at risk as well. In earlier reports I reported the attempts of the conservative goverment to dissolve the regulated CWB and allow grain farmers from across the praries of Canada to openly choose their preferred deep – water port to ship their products to the rest of the world. Currently, Churchill processes a huge amount of that product with more than 90% of their business deriving from CWB partners. If this agency is dissolved, many grain and wheat farmers will most likely choose other venues of distribution such as Vancouver, BC and Thunder Bay, Ontario. An open market in this case will prove crippling for Churchill’s port operation and 200 jobs could be lost. Another 600 or so jobs most likely will vanish as well across the tundra south all the way to Winnipeg where the CWB is based.
Aside from the jobs lost in railroad towns such as Gillam,Thompson and the Pas, the very lifeline of rails itself may suffer to the point of shut-down. The rail line operated by VIA Rail of Canada, runs from Winnipeg to Churchill…its’ most Northerly point in the province. The 100 miles of track South of Churchill is maintained by the parent owners of the port of Churchill; Omnitrax out of Denver,CO. The company has spent some millions of dollars in recent years upgrading and maintaining the rails known as the Hudson Bay line in hopes to improve the grain transportation process from the South. The aging tracks have been plagued by the fluctuating tundra reacting to changes of seasons and more aptly temperatures. When the tundra thaws from the top down in warmer seasons, the rails tend to warp and bend slightly. When weathered box cars filled with tons of grain then put pressure on the rails, disaster is imminent. Reports of grain train derailments over the past decade are sketchy though I can personally attest to knowing first hand of at least five or more. While guiding Summer trips for Natural Habitat Adventures, our train excursion North from Winnipeg to Churchill was disrupted a few times. I heard of other occurences through my relationships with engineers and train employees as we passed time on the 36 hour plus trip. Engineers of both the grain and passenger trains were and still are givin strict “slow orders” in order to not place un-do pressure on the steel rails. These slow orders quite often turn the journey into a 40 hour or more adventure. Hey, what’s four more hours ..right?
The past few years have seen these happenings become more rare as the more Northerly tracks have been repaired and maintained. That realization brings me back to the point I alluded to in the headline for this story. If the grain goes away, will the Hudson Bay Line as well? Without the big business backing of Omnitrax maintaining those crucial and fragile last 100 miles or so of rail-line, running the train North may be impossible. Tourism traffic alone will not support the line all the way to Churchill. Finding answers from Via rail and Omnitrax may be a topic for an upcoming post. Keep your ear to the rail!