The Port of Churchill has a new owner Arctic Gateway. Port of Churchill photo.
Arctic Gateway Group, the new owners of Churchill’s Port and the Hudson Bay Railway (HBR), have been greeted with a rocky start to their new venture. Saturday evening a freight train with three engines and 27 cars carrying petroleum derailed in the remote town of Ponton, Manitoba when a rail bridge gave out killing one and severely injuring another worker.
One rail worker has passed away and another is in hospital with serious, potentially life threatening injuries. RCMP confirmed that a 38 – year -old worker was deceased and another 59 – year -old was in grave condition after being extricated from the locomotive. Both workers hailed from The Pas, Manitoba, the end point of the HBR.
“Sadly, one of our employees working on the locomotive has been confirmed by authorities as deceased. A second employee has sustained serious injuries and has been airlifted to hospital,” says a statement issued by the Arctic Gateway Group, the company that operates the railway. “The RCMP is in the process of notifying the families.
“The Arctic Gateway Group will be also be making direct contact with family members and all of our employees and communities in the coming days as we all attempt to cope with this tragedy,” the statement continued.
RCMP responded to the derailment around 5:45 p.m. Saturday via helicopter after a pilot of another helicopter spotted the wreckage 145 kilometers southwest of Thompson, Manitoba, the hub of the region.
Sunday, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre stated that due to the remote location of the crash site, the derailment might have happened “hours” prior to police arriving on scene. According to Manaigre, both of the trapped men were conscious and responsive to officers when they arrived.
One of the men stated that no bridge was seen as they emerged from a turn in the track.
“I can’t imagine — it’s not like a vehicle, you can’t stop right away — once they saw that I imagine they knew what was coming,” Manaigre said, adding investigators are still looking into whether or not the bridge was standing at the time.
“We’re not sure, was it washed out or was it just partially damaged and when the train went over it took the rest of it out? Obviously there’s a few scenarios that have to be examined.
“The focus is going to be on what happened in front of that locomotive prior to the derailment.”
Speed of the train when the accident occurred has yet to be determined by investigators according to Manaigre.
President of AGT Foods, Murad Al-Katib, a partner in Arctic Gateway Group has been on scene.
“It’s very, very early, but we will do our best to give further updates,” he said.
“Our hearts are heavy today, and we are very sorry for our loss and our prayers are with the families.”
With the danger of petroleum leaking out of the derailed train cars, HAZMAT crews have been on location to mitigate any spills. However, at this point the Arctic Gateway Group said they don’t believe any leakage from rail cars has occurred.
“The Arctic Gateway Group is monitoring this situation very closely, and we have been advised that at this time there does not appear to be any significant environmental danger to nearby areas resulting from the derailment,” says the statement from the company.
An investigation by Transport Canada is ongoing with assistance from RCMP.
Transport Canada said two inspectors are at the derailment site and have confirmed none of the cars are leaking In a statement released late Sunday.
Check out this 10-year-old video of what the train from The Pas to Churchill used to look like. It seems like it’s been that long since the train last ran even though it has been only over a year at this point. The suffering in Churchill has been tremendous and loss of employment and relocation has dampened spirits in the frontier outpost on the Hudson Bay. Hopes are high an agreement can be made soon to rebuild the damaged track along the Hudson Bay Line and get the lifeline restored.
The Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay Railway are still up for sale by Omnitrax. Claude Daudet photo.
With negotiations between Omnitrax Canada and the Missinippi Rail Consortium, now down to just the Mathias First Nation, moving at the speed of a train on the last 100 miles to Churchill, another strong alliance has stepped up and expressed interest in acquiring the port and Hudson Bay Railway. Omnitrax does have a memorandum of understanding to negotiate the sale of its assets with MRC though the negotiations have recently stalled.
The new alliance called One North has apparently gathered widespread representation from various First Nations of northern Manitoba and incorporated municipalities residing up and down the rail line. The Kivaliq region in Nunavut has also reportedly joined forces with the group as well.
“This is an unprecedented coalition of communities — indigenous and non-indigenous. There is a historical significance here. Never in the history of northern Manitoba have all these communities come together like this in a shared vision.” stated Christian Sinclair, chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and one of the key organizers of One North.
So far around 20 communities have joined forces with One North, including The Pas and the City of Thompson, two key, large communities on the rail line as well as all the First Nation communities served by the Hudson Bay Railway including Fox Lake, War Lake and York Factory. Many of these groups have rescinded their support letters from a year ago backing the Missinippi Rail Consortium run by Chief Arlen Dumas of Mathias Colomb First Nation and redirected them to One North Coalition.
The group has come together to not only purchase the assets of Omnitrax Canada and run the rail line and Port of Churchill but also facilitate a long term broader plan for the north and its people.
Churchill mayor Mike Spence has co-led the effort with Sinclair..
“We have a real issue here. We need to rectify it. We are putting together a model that will sustain these communities for a long, long time.” Spence said.
Omnitrax Canada place the port, rail line and assets up for sale in December 2015. Omnitrax president Merv Tweed at that time announced the company wanted to sell its Manitoba assets and was confident the company would have a deal in place before the end of 2015. That didn’t happen.
Dumas and Omnitrax entered into negotiations in January 2016 and although initial meetings seemed to imply a done deal, nothing has seemed to progress further.
When July came around, Omnitrax shocked the community of Churchill by laying off nearly 100 port workers and abruptly closed the doors to the port and cancelled the entire shipping season. No deal with with Dumas and his group was finalized.
Dumas and Omnitrax officials claim that talks are progressing well and that a deal is imminent though no recent news has surfaced on the deal. Omnitrax officials have not been available for comment on negotiations. When reached, Dumas had no awareness of One North’s interests. He did give away a little of his hand by stating; “Well, ask them to give me a call if they want to buy the assets and the interest off us.”
Sinclair admits One North is still trying to get an audience with Omnitrax. They currently have no official standing with the company and have only assembled a team with some technical expertise including Paul Power, an international railway specialist who was a founding director of the Keewatin Railway Company, and Marv Tiller, the original CEO of the North West Company who has had a long career assisting First Nations in successful economic development projects.
“We think Omnitrax does not want to talk to us because they want to get a management contract from the buyer, Missinippi Rail Consortium, so they can make $10 to $15 million advising and managing and have someone else take on the risk as well as cash out on all the government money that has been sunk into the line.” stated Power.
One North has made it clear to the government the direction they are wanting to go in and have met with Cliff Cullen, Manitoba’s minister of growth, enterprise and trade as well as Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and the Manitoba caucus in Ottawa. Modest funding has been received from the $4.6-million Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, established in September by the federal government though the group has been primarily self-funded to date.
“The federal government is fully aware of where we want to go,” Mayor Spence said. “They have indicated to us that they like the model, they like where we are going. It plays into what the government wants to do to develop a new strategic plan.”
Railroad ties owned by Omnitrax in the Pas were destroyed by arson. RCMP photo.
A $5,000 reward is being offered by Omnitrax Canada for information that helps locate an arsonist that destroyed about $1 million worth of railroad ties that were to be used this summer on the Hudson Bay rail – line.
Fire lit up the sky around 5:30 a.m. in The Pas Monday morning from the Hudson Bay Railway yard. With relations strained between local residents and Omnitrax due to their recent abandonment of the Port of Churchill, communities all along the Hudson Bay rail-line are running high on emotions.
Omnitrax will offer the bounty to someone who can supply information leading to both an arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the fire. Fortunately, no people were injured during the blaze.
“We are very troubled by this terrible act,” Omnitrax Canada president Merv Tweed said in a release.
The company has set up a tip line at 204-947-0033. The local RCMP number is 204-627-6204.
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.