Trains with supplies will finally be coming back to Churchill. Rhonda Reid photo.
The new owners of the Hudson Bay Rail line are set to initiate immediate track repairs according to the Canadian government on Friday. The announcement came following a deal in place for purchase of port and railway by a consortium of buyers. The agreement will open up travel and shipping to the remote northern outpost of Churchill, Manitoba, isolated from the rest of the province since May 2017.
Churchill residents have dwindled in numbers from roughly 1,000 people to 700 – 800 since the washout and subsequent nearly $60 million in damage to the rail line linking Churchill to the south. The trail closure has escalated costs for crucial supplies such as food and fuel, which currently is being shipped in on barges or through air transport.
Arctic Gateway Group Limited Partnership, a private-public partnership that includes Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Limited Partnership have purchased the Port and the Hudson Bay rail line from previous owner Omnitrax Inc from Denver, Colorado.
“We’ll have control in the future, and we’ll work toward prosperity,” said Churchill mayor Mike Spence. “This is historic, I don’t think there’s another model out there in Canada that would fit into this equation.
“This is what we hoped and wished for — we are finally there.”
Jim Carr International Trade Diversification Minister thanked area residents for their patience.
“I want Canadians living in northern Manitoba and Nunavut to know that the Government of Canada understands the importance of the line to their daily lives,” he said in a release on Friday.
The deal was delayed numerous times while Omnitrax claimed it wasn’t able to afford to fix the tracks. After hiring an assessment firm, Omnitrax estimated between $40 million and $60 million in repairs to restore light passenger-rail service and take about two months.
“We are racing against time,” said Fairfax Financial president Paul Rivett in a release. The goal for the new owners is to have the rail line operating prior to winter setting in.
“Phase 1 of the project will be to repair the rail line, undertake safety and rehabilitation upgrades to the port and the railway assets. We will commence the repairs and do all we can to restore service expeditiously and safely.”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister commended the deal and stated that plans are in place just in case the line cannot be fixed prior to the severe winter sets in.
“We are hopeful the repair of the rail line can occur as soon as possible so that service can be resumed before freeze-up,” he said.
“However, we want to reassure the people of Churchill and the surrounding northern communities that we have already made the financial commitments and logistical arrangements necessary to ensure propane resupply for the winter.”
The Port of Churchill still vacant while the sale of the business is in limbo. Katie de Meulles photo.
There are no groundhogs in Churchill! So, there really cannot be a “groundhog” day. However, with the recent announcement of the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Line being sold again there seems to be some confusion.
There apparently is another informal agreement that will reestablish ownership of the Hudson Bay Rail line and the Port of Churchill within the northern Manitoba community and keep the facilities under Canadian control.
One North and Missinippi Rail LP have joined forces with Fairfax Financial Holdings and come to an informal agreement to acquire the dormant assets from current owner Denver, Colorado-based Omnitrax.
Fairfax, a Toronto-based investment company, agreed to partner with One North and Missinippi Rail this past November, to purchase Omnitrax’s northern Manitoba assets.
The arrangement includes the participation of 41 First Nations and non-First Nation communities in northern Manitoba as well as seven Kivalliq communities in western Nunavut, along with Fairfax and AGT, the government said.
Omnitrax owner Pat Broe and Fairfax president Paul Rivett negotiated the acquisition, but there are multiple legal issues to finalize before prior to a finalized deal can be completed.
Churchill mayor and One North co-chair Mike Spence has been waiting a long time for this deal to materialize. Spence has been tirelessly lobbying for a deal since Omnitrax began reducing the frequency of rail service to Churchill nearly two years ago.
However, as we all have seen, this deal will not be official until papers have been signed and money exchanges hands. We have seen far too many deals or rumors of deals taken away with the tide of the Hudson Bay.
“Priority No. 1 will be rail line repairs in the very near future and to finalize the acquisition,” Spence wrote in a statement.
“This is a historic partnership involving Indigenous and northern communities with industry leaders that now positions the Port of Churchill as an Arctic gateway for future prosperity.”
The Hudson Bay rail line to Churchill was washed out by a flood runoff from two late spring blizzards in May 2017. Since then, Omnitrax has refused to repair the tracks and has been in an ongoing battle with the Canadian Government over responsibilities regarding the repairs. Initially, the costs of repairs were between $40 and $60 million. Omnitrax claimed it was unable to cover those high costs.
Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated last year that Omnitrax is responsible for getting the train line up and running again. While this is being settled, at this point most likely through new ownership, the federal government has been providing ongoing subsidies to northern residents to help defray escalating costs of goods shipped north.
With little time to waste a new player has surfaced in the crucial sale of the Port of Churchill to two independent First Nations groups in the north. Investment firm Fairfax Financial Holdings from Toronto hopes to partner with One North and Missinippi Rail LP to wrest ownership from Denver, Colorado-based Omnitrax and set forth in motion the extensive repairs to the Hudson Bay Line damaged by severe flooding last May.
The Port of Churchill may be under new ownership soon. CBC News photo.
The new prospective partner will also bring a financially sound backing and a strong business base to the deal that Churchill officials and residents hope will secure access to the south and free them from isolation.
According to reliable sources, a negotiator for the federal government, former clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, has brokered a deal with the two potential owners.
“This development has the potential to contribute to an arrangement supported by First Nations and communities in northern Manitoba,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a statement released Thursday.
“This would enable a sustainable business approach that results in a safe and reliable rail line.”
Paul Rivett, president of Fairfax Financial Holdings, said “we are optimistic about the prospects of northern gateways.” stated in a press release.
“The Churchill rail corridor and the Port of Churchill are important pieces of infrastructure for northern communities and to the economy of Canada. Partnering with First Nations and communities is the right model for this investment,” Rivett said.
He said Fairfax will rely on a company it has invested in, AGT Foods, to develop a plan that is “viable and profitable in the long term as a business.”
Earlier this week, Ottawa responded with an $18-million lawsuit against Omnitrax after it filed filed a claim for damages against the federal government under the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The head of the Fairfax, V. Prem Watsa, has been characterized as the “Warren Buffet of Canada” often investing in troubled companies and turning them into a positive entity. Watsa invested in BlackBerry and Fairfax has significant holdings in several other companies.
Fairfax Financial CEO and chair V. Prem Watsa.CBC News photo.
Omnitrax signed a memorandum of understanding with First Nations Consortium Missinippi Rail in June and then joined forces with One North to strengthen interests in purchasing Omnitrax’s Manitoba assets.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, in a written statement to CBC News, said transferring the port and rail line to a stable, strong northern regional ownership group is the highest priority. He is behind the efforts to find a partner to purchase the assets one hundred per cent.
“I am pleased that there are outstanding companies that also share this vision. We now need the negotiations expedited and [to] ensure our preparations for repairs to the rail line and port are ready for the 2018 season,” wrote Spence.