Sixteen months following washouts that disabled the Hudson Bay Railroad tracks between Churchill and Gillam, crews are working seven days a week to repair over 20 hazard locations that were affected by the water. New owners, Arctic Gateway, has high hopes that work can be completed before the polar bear season when winter has the region in its grips. So far the work is progressing at an impressive pace with crews reaching the 410-mile marker. We will keep you posted as the progress continues over the next month! Enjoy these images from Arctic Gateway!
Train service to Churchill has been suspended for over a year. Claude Daudet photo.
If money becomes available, Hudson Bay Railway could begin repairing the damaged tracks between Churchill and Gillam as early as September according to HBR President Sergio Sabatini. He confirmed with the Canadian Transportation Agency on August first that HBR has begun soliciting contracting bids to repair the washed out tracks but the money is not there to cover the costs of the work.
A report to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), ordering HBR to start repairs by July 3 this year stated the process began with track inspection June 11 and June 12 by independent auditor AECOM. HBR prepared request proposals (RFP) and submitted them on June 28 to six pre-screened eligible contractors. Four of the six contractors attended a mandatory site visit on July 12 – 13. AECOM responded to technical questions form the contractors through July and bids were submitted and by August 3rd. AECOM stated it was “confident there will be multiple bids and methodologies to consider.”
Hudson Bay Railroad states that a substantial amount of repairs can be finished this year and then concluded by mid-2019. The goal is to restore limited service during this winter and then have full service soon after that when repairs conclude. Again, the report painstakingly reiterated facts that money was currently not available to initiate a definite repair plan.
“As the agency is aware HBR does not have the financial capability to undertake the full repairs of the damage to the railway caused by the spring 2017 flood,” Sabatini wrote. “HBR and its shareholders have been in discussion with the federal government and a potential buyer with the objective of ensuring that the necessary funds are in place to fully repair the Gillam to Churchill line and resume operations as expeditiously as possible.”
Arnaud Maldague made this epic bicycle journey along the tracks of the Hudson Bay Line from Churchill to Gillam to bring awareness to the plight of Churchill, Nunavut and communities affected by the loss of rail service. For over a year the tracks have been unusable and no train is able to reach the northern terminus of Churchill. With a new deal for a local group and financial investor to buy the port in place, hopes are high that the isolation will end soon. Below is Arnaud’s account of the situation:
“After skiing the Arctic for 100 days, I arrived in Churchill, Canada, only to discover the city had no more functioning railroad. The rails were flooded on 23 may 2017 after a huge winter storm hit the region earlier this winter. The damaged rails suffered some washouts, which cut the city only ground supply and communication mean. Private owner Omnitrax, whom is legally bind to maintain the tracks, refused to repair the line, pretexting exaggerated costs and financial failure. The government refused to funnel money to the company, resulting in a political drama and no repairs. Churchill’s citizen are stuck with high prices, jobs cuts and a bitter feeling of being abandoned. The situation also impacted the whole Kivalliq region, Nunavut, which relied on Churchill rail supply line. One year later, nothing had changed… Since the rails were part of my itinerary and “The Manneken Trip” expedition, I decided to shoot this video while cycling the rails down towards Gillam and later Winnipeg. The idea was to generate some awareness and report on the state of the rails. As expected, the damages aren’t that bad, and could easily be repaired. It was a horrible ride with its lot of nice surprises! Nature was super beautiful however : the taiga, the boreal forest and lots of birds. Three days after finishing the trip, 41 communities joined together with private company Fairfax and AGT in order to buy the Hudson Bay Railroad and port. It’s an historic move from these community which retransfer ownership into local hands! However, no date has been set for the repairs yet… Due to intensive and long winters, repairs can only take place during the few summer months. If repairs don’t start soon, Churchill might have to face another winter without train.”
Port of Churchill grain shipping operation on the Churchill River. Port of Churchill photo.
Just when you thought the Port of Churchill and accompanying Hudson Bay Line were in a negotiated sale…again…another potential suitor has arisen to acquire the assets and begin shipping from the port.
Executives from Herun Group Co. Ltd., a Chinese company with massive agricultural interests as well as a wealth of port-operating experience, visited Churchill a month ago to gather more information and inspect the port facility. The company is one of the largest firms in China and seemingly has the financial clout and long-term experience in the shipping industry to offer a long-term solution to keeping the port and train line open.
Concerns that the Port of Churchill would fall into foreign hands and their primary interests would be alleviated by an agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation and thus have that group own 51 percent of the company. Herun has also agreed to pay the $20 million price to Omnitrax without relying on any additional support from the Canadian government according to Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand.
“Herun made it very clear they’re prepared to come up with a substantial amount of cash,” he said.
Herun owns and operates 11 international ports and recently closed a deal to acquire a port in Brazil, the country China trades the most with. Since Herun also processes various grains and oilseeds, interest in Churchill’s port facility is paramount.
“To me, in order to make this situation work for the railroad and Port of Churchill, you really need to have a company that is in the business,” said Joe Ng, chairman of JNE Group of professional engineers based out of Hamilton, which arranged the tour.
Port of Churchill. Claude Daudet photo.
“Otherwise, new people come in and after two years they can’t utilize the rail and port and they bail out.”
Herun’s interest stems from the fact that it imports raw materials such as soybeans and canola for its China crushing facilities.
Missinippi Rail and One North, a consortium of First Nations and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc. are also in partnership to purchase the facilities. Omnitrax and Ottawa have been in negotiations with each other since late last year.
However, Omnitrax Canada President, Merv Tweed, reported that the latter group has only signed a letter of intent and Omnitrax has received inquiries from several other Canadian companies. “We are continuing discussions with a number of interested parties,” Tweed said.
A most recent inquiry and potential buyer, another First Nations group named iChurchill, appeared this past week with a comprehensive proposal that includes utilizing Churchill’s port and rail line to ship wood and possibly oil in addition to grain.
Ng conceded Herun is not first in line with their new proposal. “We’ve come in late so we have to wait until other people finish talking. It’s no different than a lineup at a counter,” said Ng, the 2016 winner of Entrepreneur of the Year awarded by the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs.
Any new deal with the prospective buyers would include the damaged rail lines, as well as some buildings and land and in other northern towns like Gillam. The estimated $46 million in track repairs would be covered by the company that ends up purchasing the facilities. The governments annual $5 million in maintenance payments currently paid to Omnitrax would continue with the new owner.
Even though Churchill has a pretty short shipping season, Herun is looking ahead to the future according to Ng. “As far as they’re concerned, the world’s turning warmer every year, and there might be longer and longer shipping seasons as years go by,” he said.
Great White Bear Tour’s latest monster build. Krys Walczak photo.
Rear view of the new Great White Bear Tours all-terrain vehicle. Krys Walczak photo.
Great White Bear and Anything Custom has done it again. They created this mini monster ATV, “Sherpa”, with a top speed of 28mph on land and 3.8mph in the water. The Walkoski crew is testing it out as they drive to Churchill. They left Gillam late last night and we will update you on the journey as soon as we hear. The machine will be used throughout the year but mainly during the polar bear season in October and November in Churchill.