Owner and operator Omnitrax has shut down the Hudson Bay Rail line for the forseeable future due to flooding causing destruction of the tracks. Estimates for reopening are now being projected as far out as next spring.
The “unprecedented and catastrophic” damage will take months to repair, said Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer at OmniTrax, the Denver-based owner of the rail line that brings supplies into Churchill. “Until we are able to get people physically on the ground and do a proper inspection, it’s difficult for us to truly know [how long repairs will take],” Touesnard.stated.
The closure is also straining the local economy and workforce preparing for the summer beluga whale season. Businesses are being forced to consolidate their work staff as the number of tourists traveling to Churchill this summer will be drastically reduced. News of at least five layoffs so far has spread and more are expected soon with the official announcement of the rail line suspension.
Tundra Inn owner Belinda Fitzpatrick in front of her restaurant. Hannah Manczuk photo.
Belinda Fitzpatrick, owner of the Tundra Inn had to deliver the bad news to five workers last Saturday. “Quite heartbreaking,” said Fitzpatrick. “It was really upsetting.”
Plans for a seasonal restaurant at the Tundra Inn slated to open next week had to be put on the back burner. Other businesses are facing the same challenges as the the closure becomes a reality.
Fitzpatrick has been calling guests and seeing if they are able to fly to Churchill instead. However, cancellations have been coming in and she estimates she will lose a majority of travelers planning to stay at the inn and hostel.
OmniTrax is reporting unprecedented and catastrophic damage to the rail line caused by heavy flooding resulting from heavy snow pack left over from two massive March blizzards. The company says the track gravel bed has been washed out in 19 locations along the line. At least five bridges have visible damage and assessments of 600 culverts and around 30 more bridges will need to be examined for structural integrity.
Flooding in the Churchill area and south along the rail line have forced its closure. Ricci O’connor photo.
“While the Hudson Bay Railway requires significant seasonal maintenance, the extent of the damage created by flooding this year is by far the worst we have ever seen,” Touesnard said.
Fuel for the town is an especially critical commodity, and while the port could be used, at least during the ice-free season, winter will pose another extreme hurdle and potential emergency for all of Churchill.
Home Hardware in Churchill under stress from the rail line closure. Facebook photo.
Dale de Meulles and his wife Rhoda have run Churchill’s hardware and lumber store for the past 14 years and with the train out they will be unable to stock lumber and other building and home supplies sufficiently. Although competition in town is not there, they will have a tough time meeting expenses and payroll for 10 staff people without money coming in.
“We don’t know how we’re going to survive, to be honest,” said Rhoda de Meulles.
Dale de Meulles gives two months as a deadline for the layoffs. Last year’s Port of Churchill layoffs have already put pressure on the workforce in the town and the rail closure will continue that strife. Seasonal workers will also be hit hard without the tourism dollars coming in.
“We’re trying our best to keep them,” he said. “They gotta feed their families just like everybody else.”
“We’re just trying to survive.”
“As a Churchillian, we will never give up,” de Meulles said. “We’ve had so many hurdles in front of us and we keep jumping over them, but we need help this time.”
This short documentary about Churchill gives some perspective of the town through the eyes of local residents and the Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. It’s a rare candid view on what life is like in the polar bear capital of the world. This footage is from 2009 though in my experience things stay pretty consistent in the town. Not a lot changes over the years. It is quite a fascinating town. Enjoy the Churchillian perspective!
These photos from Churchillian Katie de Meulles are from the annual Canada Day polar bear plunge into the Hudson Bay. With a water temperature around 40 F, the plunge will numb you pretty fast. I’ve experienced the event firsthand and my legs went numb halfway out to the flags….still a great day of Churchill fun!
With the Churchill Arctic Summer season coming quickly, we thought we would present a video preview of the possibility of seeing polar bears in Churchill during the summer. This footage by local Churchillian Joe Stover was filmed last August. A mother polar bear with her two cubs walking along a road about 20 kilometers outside town is a somewhat rare sight though not uncommon if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Summer is a paradox regarding polar bears. The “right place at the right time” can easily turn into the “wrong place at the wrong time” if one is unprepared or complacent in wandering the area without a guide or bear protection. This is true especially along the beaches where bears can easily conceal themselves in the undulating Precambrian shield. Summer in many aspects can be more dangerous than fall polar bear season as it’s common and easy to let one’s guard down. Being aware and not wandering too afar without protection or a vehicle will ensure staying safe.