Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill and the damaged Hudson Bay Rail – Line, has apparently obtained an assessment of the severely damaged railroad tracks between Gillam and Churchill. After meeting with Transport Canada officials this past Monday, Omnitrax seems to have a clearer notion of what it will take to repair the tracks.
The company has not yet released the findings and any strategic, updated plan to commence work in the near future. After 13 weeks of inoperability, the Hudson Bay line still sits damaged by spring floods resulting from two historic March blizzards. An August 4th updated engineering report detailing estimated costs for repairs was obtained by Omnitrax though they vowed to divulge the findings only after meeting with Transport Canada.
In early July, repair estimates by Omnitrax ranged between $20 and $60 million which they emphatically stated were “not economically viable”. However, the Canadian government continually insists that the company is responsible via federal transportation laws to keep the lifeline to the north running. Transport Canada, the enforcing agency for the law will not initiate an investigation until it received specific complaints from citizens and other agencies.
Correspondence so far from complainants has not been addressed directly to movement of goods and rail line abandonment prompting responses from some Churchill residents that Ottawa and Omnitrax are dragging their feet in the process. Telling Churchillians they have basically not “complained properly” is not sitting right with many of the distraught residents.
Damaged Hudson Bay rail line. CBC photo.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, mayor of Churchill, instead of encouraging residents to file complaints with the regulator has instilled trust in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau pledged he would find a solution on July 28. Trudeau, however, hasn’t said how he plans to proceed.
Home Hardware owner Rhoda deMeulles exemplifies the business owners woes in town by expressing her frustration on lack of supplies due to no cargo arriving via rail. “It’s hard to realize what you need all at once,” said deMeulles, whose store is close to running out of construction supplies and cash.
“We feel like we’re in jail,” said deMeulles, who still loves the town she adopted 38 years ago. “We need help; we need our rail line back.”
Something has to give as the government continues to subsidize groceries for the town. Everyone is expecting a decision by Omnitrax soon, possibly as early as next week.
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 is still almost four months away but these shots should get everyone excited for another magical fall in Churchill. We are sending all our best wishes and prayers for the people of Churchill as they deal with their lifeline, the Hudson Bay Rail line being washed out and needing repair so vital supplies can reach the town. Let’s hope polar bear season will provide some relief to all in the form of jobs and alternative forms of transporting goods to Churchill!
Hanging loose in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
Mother and cub polar bear relaxing on the Precambrian shield in Churchill. Katie de Meulles photo.
Polar bear in the fireweed in Churchill. Dennis Fast photo.
Reality of nature. Polar bear hunting a seal on the pack ice. Roie Galitz photo.
Polar bears squaring off on the tundra. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
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.”
Flooding at Churchill’s Goose Creek subdivision. Riccki O’Connor photo.
Nobody really thought ahead when the massive blizzards were pounding Churchill this past March. When the spring thaw came, permafrost has prevented meltwater from permeating the soil and has lead to major flooding in parts of the tundra from Thompson to Churchill along the Hudson Bay rail line.
Once again, as was during the time of the blizzards, supplies and groceries have been delayed due to lack of train service to the northern community. During the March storms groceries were stranded in the south for three weeks leading to a state of emergency.
“With the spring melt underway, water is everywhere”, said Mayor Mike Spence. “We’ve got historic record water flows coming into our community here. It’s a lot of water coming down,”.
Not expected to peak until early June, the Churchill River, as of last weekend, was flowing at about 160,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). With ice still on the Churchill River the flow of overrun onto land can be unpredictable due to tidal flow and ice jamming along shore.
The Goose Creek subdivision has been flooded up river and volunteers have been furiously filling and placing sandbags to try to contain the water. The tracks over parts of the 100 mile stretch of the Hudson Bay rail line have been completely flooded over and no trains have been through since May 23rd.
“We have a rail problem here where we are not able to use the train system because of damage to the rail line, so that needs to be attended to, and that actually can’t be attended to until the water conditions are dealt with.” stated Spence.
Churchill is working with Thompson’s Calm Air, to work out plans to fly groceries into town as soon as possible!