Tracks have been washed out in multiple places between Churchill and Gillam. Mike Spence photo.
Omnitrax, owner and operator of the Hudson Bay Rail line is continuing to seek government and First Nation help to fix the only land access to Churchill. Estimates of $60 million would restore the tracks to operation by the end of October. However, Omnitrax says they can’t and won’t do it alone!
“It [the rail line] is not commercially viable, so we believe it’s a public utility,” said Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for Omnitrax.
“We believe it’s still the least expensive way to supply service to the north, in particularly the community of Churchill, and we believe there is a role for the public to play in that.”
Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for Omnitrax. Jaison Empson BBC photo.
Two March blizzards of epic proportions melted this spring into widespread flooding across the tundra from Gillam to Churchill. Water flows across the land since permafrost lies just beneath the surface and it does not percolate into the soil though. Instead, it flows across the land and when enough accumulates it can move with a powerful force destroying man made features in its path. The ensuing damage to the tracks between Gillam and Churchill have caused a storm of even greater proportions.
With the crucial lifeline to the town inoperable and the main shipping line for goods and supplies cut off, food prices have dramatically increased and businesses have been forced to lay off staff due to soaring costs of securing the goods for their business to operate.
A written statement from Omnitrax was released on Tuesday via a spokesperson for the office of Transport Minister Marc Garneau:
“Omnitrax has an obligation to repair and maintain its line and maintain service to residents, and we expect Omnitrax to meet its obligations,” the statement reads.
“If Omnitrax fails to meet its obligations, our Government will have to examine what are the next steps and alternatives to ensure residents can get the food and supplies they need.”
Omnitrax announced Tuesday morning, that the company has a 60-day plan starting in September to begin repairing the tracks contingent on securing contractors, housing and resources for the project
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence says the timeline for rebuilding portions of the track and replacing bridges and culverts is leaving very little wiggle room with regards to weather in the north.
“The end of October and that’s it, your construction season is done,” Spence said. “So we’re running out of time, here. Let’s get on with it.”
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. Jaison Empson photo.
Provincial Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen stated his dissatisfaction with the Omnitrax repair schedule and plan; “Today’s technical briefing provided by Omnitrax was clearly inadequate, leaving many unanswered and hypothetical questions.”
“Our senior provincial officials have repeatedly asked Omnitrax for details about their independent engineering assessment and future intentions of the rail line including timetables respecting necessary mitigation efforts, details of insurance policies and status of claims, to which we have had no response,” Pedersen said.
“What was made clear today by senior Omnitrax officials is that they are not prepared to repair, maintain or operate the rail line. It appears that they intend to abandon the line. If so then it is their obligation to the people of Churchill and indeed Manitobans to communicate their abandonment decision to the federal government.”
A third – party track assessment Omnitrax commissioned was completed by AECOM Canada and the engineering company identified 31 washout areas, 68 culverts and 13 bridges requiring repair over the 300 kilometer run of the track from Gillam to Churchill.
In June the Canadian government approved an extension for the Nutrition North food subsidy program so Churchill would be able to keep grocery prices at a somewhat affordable price until rail service resumes. With Manitoba Health also contributing to the subsidy effort the rate will be at $1.60/kg.
Polar bear season in officially begins in October though recent Churchill summers have seen increased numbers in polar bear activity…or “inactivity” as polar bears at this time of year are pretty lethargic in nature. This family of three polar bears was spotted by Churchill local photographer and guide Alex De Vries – Magnifico yesterday while fighting off some pesky bulldog flies. These insects last for about two weeks and then are gone. Sometimes they are chased away inexplicably by a thunder storm.
Unofficially these are the first photos of polar bears in the area since last polar bear season in Churchill this past November. These bears are looking very healthy and ready to withstand the summer and early fall prior to the pack ice forming on the Hudson Bay. This is a good sign for the polar bears of the region!
We hope you all enjoy our first guest blog report from Churchill and Natural Habitat Adventures guide Moira Le Patourel. Her group of travelers experienced a classic and exciting week in Churchill and the photos and report below give a feel of the adventure experienced!
“The first trip of the summer is always an exciting one in Churchill. Vast Ice floes are visible out in the bay, seemingly close to shore, but just slightly too far away to use the spotting scope to search for polar bears still out on the ice. Bears had already been spotted close to town and our first group of the summer was lucky enough to spot a resting polar bear on the beach, while out on the tundra on their first evening in Churchill.
Things were in full bloom on the tundra in a spectacular array of colours; snow-white from the White Mountain Avens, with their buttercup-yellow center, a carpet of brilliant green from the Sea Purslane, and a vibrant mat of magenta from the Purple Hedysarum. It was certainly a feast for the eyes!
Sea pursalane inhabits the beach areas in Churchill. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Beluga sightings were excellent throughout the trip, with several young calves spotted swimming with their mothers. During our final morning on the zodiacs, the river was all a-splash with beluga activity – pods of feeding-frenzied belugas, young and old, cavorted around the boats in pursuit of their fast-moving prey – capelin. Arctic terns plummeted into the water from the surface, with the white whales pushing the capelin up from below. Quite the sight to behold!
Beluga whales in the Churchill River with excited Nat Hab travelers. Moira Le Patourel photo.
A visit with local sled dogs and their owner was an interesting way for our visitors to learn about what life is like for a musher and his team in the remote sub-Arctic town of Churchill. With the train to Churchill not running at the moment, the logistics have become more complicated over the past month, and the cost of living has significantly gone up for the residents of Churchill. Our group learned about what those changes meant for mushers and dog teams in the area.
Churchill sled dogs are alaways a popular attraction. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Walks in both tundra and taiga habitat allowed us to spot many different bird species; some of the favourites were nesting/dive-bombing Arctic terns, red-necked phalaropes, lesser yellowlegs, Pacific loons and tundra swans with young. Churchill certainly is the place to be in the summer, especially for those visitors in search of feathered friends. Many guests on this trip were able to add several species to their life lists.
Many laughs, smiles, hugs and songs (you can’t leave without singing Baby Beluga at least once!) were shared by all for our first adventure in Churchill this summer. Looking forward to what the coming days will bring!”
Churchill has been through some tough times lately. Floods resulting from two huge March blizzards have eroded nearly 20 sections of train track from Gillam to Churchill. Eighteen artists from around the world have journeyed to Churchill for the ocean conservation event known as Sea Walls Festival. A couple of the artists have come from as far away as Brazil and New Zealand. With them comes the hope and inspiration this town needs!
Sea Walls mural in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
“I just think it’s really amazing to be mindful of communities like this,” said New Zealand artist Elliot O’Donnell, who makes art under the name Askew One.
“We live in a world that is increasingly refocused around city life, and we forget sometimes about the people who live in these really remote places and just kind of how delicate the situation is.”
The artists involved in this project hope to bring awareness to the importance and urgency of protecting the world’s oceans. Part of that protection process involves global warming and its effects on the rest of our habitat.
A grand mural takes shape in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
“It’s the ocean that connects us so our relationship with the ocean is very important, and it’s also a very precarious sort of relationship,” stated O’Donnell.
Churchill, on the edge of civilization in the north of Manitoba, has had extreme weather conditions this spring leading to the destruction of a major lifeline of the town, the Hudson Bay Line.Without this transport mode Churchill faces rising costs in food, fuel and other vital supplies to the community. With airplanes the only mode of transportation at the moment, costs will rise for shipping.
A mural adorns Miss Piggy outside of Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
The delicate relationship between community and environment is something many of the artists are portraying in their murals. And with the current conditions getting worse we need all the extra motivation and inspiration we can get. Happiness through hope can be conveyed through these unique artworks.
“That’s the underlying tension in this town. It’s the drama under all the stories. It’s really about this kind of symbiotic relationship between man and nature here,” he said.
One of the Hudson Bay Line’s washouts between Gillam and Churchill. Omnitrax photo.
Omnitrax does not have the resources to repair the Hudson Bay Railway and is urging the Canadian Government to get involved to help get the trains running again according to Merv Tweed, President of the company’s Canada management team.
“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.
Omnitrax is claiming there are at least 24 track sections between Gillam and Churchill, Manitoba that were severely damaged during the spring thaw and floods. Given the complexity of accessing the tracks and the permafrost base they lay on, the company is forecasting spring 2018 as the earliest time the repairs will be completed.
Flooding has caused some of the Hudson Bay Rail line to be underwater. Omnitrax photo.
Omnitrax has conducted aerial photo surveillance revealing long stretches of water submerged tracks, culverts displaced and suspended tracks above the ground with water running under them. This type of damage will be difficult to repair with expediency and forethought for future flood damage.
The Canadian government has not committed to any help before knowing what the costs will be.
“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.
Omnitrax-Canada President Merv Tweed says government needs to be involved in repairing the rail line. CBC photo.
The Hudson Bay Railway is a lifeline between Churchill and the south. Trains typically bring up everything from fresh groceries to propane gas for heating homes. as well as building materials and anything else needed by residents and businesses. Without this service the economy and lifestyle in Churchill will be drastically affected.
The assessment, including 300 kilometers of tracks, 28 bridges and 600 culverts is beginning this week will take four weeks to analyze the tracks and two more to provide a comprehensive report detailing the process of repairing the line.
Tweed estimates the cost will be far larger than what Omnitrax can afford for the project.
“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.”
A difficult job ahead for engineers includes walking along the tracks and checking the stability of the line as well as taking soil samples in order to determine ground conditions under the tracks.
“Just getting to that site is going to be a real challenge,” Tweed said.
The tundra north of Gillam is saturated and many areas are covered with water slow to be absorbed by the permafrost – covered ground.
In the meantime, while the track is unusable north of Gillam, a plan to utilize both the Port of Churchill and the town’s airport is being assessed and put in place to cover the shipping deficiency.
Tweed stated that some port, owned by Omnitrax, employees have returned to work in preparation for aiding with additional shipments.
“We were optimistic about a pretty good rail season until the water hit,” Tweed said.