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.
Dennis Fast from Churchill captured these magnificent colorful polar bear shots in glowing fireweed. The unique photos were published by CBC News to highlight the way polar bears playfully interact with their surrounding environment. We view them most of the year in snowy settings, however with sea ice melting earlier in the Spring, polar bears are arriving on the coastal lowlands earlier and more often throughout the Arctic summer months.
The following article from CBC news describes the derailment situation near Churchill, MB.
Via Rail cancels trains to Churchill after derailment
Freight cars carrying grain derailed near northern Manitoba community, says OmniTrax Canada
CBC News Posted: Jun 03, 2014 10:04 AM CT Last Updated: Jun 03, 2014 2:12 PM CT
A derailed freight train has forced Via Rail to cancel its passenger trains between Winnipeg and Churchill until further notice.
OmniTrax Canada says 13 grain cars from a 50-car load derailed on the Hudson Bay Railway line, about 32 kilometres south of Churchill, at around 5 p.m. Monday.
At the time of the derailment, the train was heading to a grain storage facility at the Port of Churchill. No injuries were reported, according to OmniTrax.
“We take incidents like this very seriously. Our staff was onsite immediately to assess the incident and begin response procedures,” Sergio Sabatini, OmniTrax’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. (Read the full statement below)
“Our staff have started re-railing efforts and clean-up of minor spilled product to ensure the track is passable for freight and passenger traffic as soon as possible.”
Dozens of passengers affected
Via Rail spokesperson Mylène Bélanger said the derailment is making the track unusable.
About 22 Via Rail passengers heading to Churchill from Winnipeg were delayed in Thompson. They have since been flown to Churchill to complete their trip.
Bélanger said 40 other passengers were scheduled to travel with Via Rail between Winnipeg and Churchill in the next week, and they’ve been given an opportunity to cancel their trips or change their dates.
“We’re really sorry for the inconvenience that this situation may cause, but it’s unfortunately impossible for us to operate our trains over this line until further notice,” she told CBC News on Tuesday.
Tony Dasilva, who owns Gypsy Bakery in Churchill, said he’s waiting for the train to deliver fresh produce he has ordered.
“When you live in a small town like Churchill … when you don’t hear the noise of the train coming in, we’re all looking and see what’s happening,” he said.
Dasilva said employees with rail transport company Omnitrax told him about the derailment when they stopped by his shop for coffee.
He said he may have to look at flying goods in if the rail line remains closed for more than three days.
OmniTrax says it may take a few days until service to Churchill and the port is fully restored.
Statement from OmniTrax
The following is a statement sent Tuesday by Sergio Sabatini, chief operating officer of OmniTrax:
At 17:00 on Monday, June 2, OmniTrax Canada staff were called to assess and respond to an incident on the HBR line, approximately 20 miles south of Churchill, Manitoba. Thirteen grain cars of a 50-car load derailed en route to the grain storage facility at the Port of Churchill. There were no injuries.
We take incidents like this very seriously. Our staff was on site immediately to assess the incident and begin response procedures. Our staff have started re-railing efforts and clean-up of minor spilled product to ensure the track is passable for freight and passenger traffic as soon as possible.
The safety of our crews and the protection of the products we transport is of the highest priority in these efforts. At this time we expect it may take a few days to restore full service to Churchill and the Port.
Statement from Via Rail
VIA Rail Canada (viarail.ca) wishes to inform its passengers that, for operational reasons, until further notice, trains #693 and #692 will not operate between Winnipeg and Churchill, except for train #692 that will operate between Thompson and The Pas on June 4th.
VIA Rail is communicating with customers who have reservations on the affected trains. We regret the inconvenience that this situation may cause. Customers wishing to cancel or change their date of travel may do so at no additional charge by calling 1 888 VIA-RAIL () or (hearing impaired).