Trains with supplies will finally be coming back to Churchill. Rhonda Reid photo.
The new owners of the Hudson Bay Rail line are set to initiate immediate track repairs according to the Canadian government on Friday. The announcement came following a deal in place for purchase of port and railway by a consortium of buyers. The agreement will open up travel and shipping to the remote northern outpost of Churchill, Manitoba, isolated from the rest of the province since May 2017.
Churchill residents have dwindled in numbers from roughly 1,000 people to 700 – 800 since the washout and subsequent nearly $60 million in damage to the rail line linking Churchill to the south. The trail closure has escalated costs for crucial supplies such as food and fuel, which currently is being shipped in on barges or through air transport.
Arctic Gateway Group Limited Partnership, a private-public partnership that includes Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Limited Partnership have purchased the Port and the Hudson Bay rail line from previous owner Omnitrax Inc from Denver, Colorado.
“We’ll have control in the future, and we’ll work toward prosperity,” said Churchill mayor Mike Spence. “This is historic, I don’t think there’s another model out there in Canada that would fit into this equation.
“This is what we hoped and wished for — we are finally there.”
Jim Carr International Trade Diversification Minister thanked area residents for their patience.
“I want Canadians living in northern Manitoba and Nunavut to know that the Government of Canada understands the importance of the line to their daily lives,” he said in a release on Friday.
The deal was delayed numerous times while Omnitrax claimed it wasn’t able to afford to fix the tracks. After hiring an assessment firm, Omnitrax estimated between $40 million and $60 million in repairs to restore light passenger-rail service and take about two months.
“We are racing against time,” said Fairfax Financial president Paul Rivett in a release. The goal for the new owners is to have the rail line operating prior to winter setting in.
“Phase 1 of the project will be to repair the rail line, undertake safety and rehabilitation upgrades to the port and the railway assets. We will commence the repairs and do all we can to restore service expeditiously and safely.”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister commended the deal and stated that plans are in place just in case the line cannot be fixed prior to the severe winter sets in.
“We are hopeful the repair of the rail line can occur as soon as possible so that service can be resumed before freeze-up,” he said.
The Port of Churchill has been a symbol of uncertainty in Churchill. Katie de Meulles photo.
A Manitoba First Nations group has formed a partnership with an independent company to establish the reopening of the rail line to Churchill and potential operation of the grain port in Churchill.
Heard that before? Well, this time we might be in for the real thing.
A recent press release confirms that a consortium of Manitoba First Nations, led by Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, will partner with iChurchill Inc., a private Canadian company, entering into an acquisition agreement with Denver-based Omnitrax, to take over control of the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway.
“The port has got all of the grain handling equipment and simply said, the first thing we want to do is resume that commercial activity,” said Louis Dufresne, president of iChurchill Inc., in a phone interview Friday.
Northern residents of the town of Churchill along with Indigenous leaders say the railway and port are crucial to the existence of towns and all First Nations in northern Manitoba.
Last May, a year ago, the Hudson Bay rail line owned by Denver-based Omnitrax sustained flood damage from the spring melt of two late-season blizzards. The damage was estimated at nearly $60 million and Omnitrax balked at its contract to repair the damage and therefore reopen the train line to Churchill. Soon after, a native group under the name Missinippi Rail LP, a consortium of about 15 Manitoba First Nations, signed an informal agreement to purchase the port and rail line for $20 million. Further strengthening their offer and position, the group enhanced their buying power by joining with One North, a group representing First Nations and communities served by the Hudson Bay line.
Photo by Major MacLachlan (www.zambonista.com/hbr/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With that deal seemingly dormant and not gaining any momentum, this new one is being praised by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
“Hopeful always when I hear these announcements, but of course like the people of Churchill, I just really would like to see the rail line rebuilt and the port reopened with solid commitments with whoever is going to take charge of the ownership that they are committed for the longer term.”
Now, iChurchill Inc. is hoping to formalize and seal the agreement by mid-June in order to commence repairs and reopen the line in time for the fall polar bear season. These details have not been confirmed by Omnitrax as of yet,
Communities have been suffering for a year now with increased costs of transporting goods to the outlying towns in the north. The isolation has touched everyone’s lives in every community. With another end of this dilemma in sight, people have been given hope once again.
iChurchill Inc. is expected to release more information today regarding plans for repairing the rail line and potential reopening of the port at a Winnipeg press conference.
Any new agreement would need approval from the federal government. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is expected to release a statement Friday.
Tank farm and Port of Churchill in Churchill, Manitoba.
With all the talk surrounding the news of Omnitrax closing the Port of Churchill prior to the heart of the 2016 grain season, thus displacing nearly 200 jobs from Churchill to The Pas, nothing has come from the mouths of the company’s spokespeople.
Two weeks have passed since Omnitrax shut the port down and issued dozens of workers in Churchill alone their pink slips. However the premier of Manitoba, Brian Pallister, has not been contacted by the company or heard anything regarding the negotiations to sell the port to a first nations group. He has portrayed the lack of communication as a “mystery” and a “challenge” in the relationship between the government and Omnitrax.
Omnitrax has not made any statements or held any press conferences regarding the move and this has many officials in Canada baffled since the closure has drastically affected lives that rely on the employment as well as those in communities that live along the Bayline, also under the companies ownership. The rail line is key in supplying northern communities with goods and food products. Many settlements are not accessible by roads and rely heavily on the train as their main supplier. Omnitrax has plans to reduce the amount of freight to be shipped along its Bayline route. Although the train line remains operable, many are anxious as to its future viability in this situation
Oil transportation and shipping through the port has been a recent, hot issue initiated by Omnitrax. However, the initiative fell apart last year as overwhelming public resistance and outcry over the idea forced the company to back down. Some, including this writer, believe Omnitrax had its profit seeking sights set on this plan since day one. Now that the oil issue seems “dead in the water”, pardon the pun, the company has hit the road and headed back to Denver, Colorado.
Omnitrax had received a three dollar per tonne subsidy last year from Manitoba’s former NDP government but with the new Progressive Conservative party lead by Pallister, now in office no such bailouts were sanctioned for this year..
“The approaches that have been taken too often in the past have been alarmist and crisis in orientation, and that is not the nature of how we are going to build a stronger northern economy and stronger communities.” stated Pallister.
The situation is intriguing and continues to develop as this story is published. Stay tuned for updates from Churchill.