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Short construction season: Omnitrax says rail to Churchill out until spring

The Canadian Press
Short construction season: Omnitrax says rail to Churchill out until spring

CHURCHILL, MAN. — The company that owns the broken Hudson Bay Railway line to Churchill in northern Manitoba says the track is badly damaged and will be closed until next spring.

It had been hoped it could be running by the winter, but Omnitrax spokesman Peter Touesnard says a short construction season means all the repairs can’t be completed.

He says Omnitrax has hired an engineering company that is to start work today (June 19).

The firm will take four weeks to inspect the line and then make a list of repairs that need to be done.

A preliminary assessment has shown that flooding last month washed away the track bed in 19 places and damaged at least five bridges.

Touesnard told CTV Winnipeg that reopening the line will be a challenge and all levels of government need to help.

"We have been losing money on this line for some time. We have lost money in its operation over its 20-year life," he said. "We estimate we’ve lost $30 million on this rail since we bought it in 1997."

Touesnard said Omnitrax "cannot justify spending the money that is necessary to bring this line back into shape. We’ll advocate for that. We’ll work with all interested parties to see that the repairs happen.

"But funding for those repairs are going to have to come from elsewhere."

Touesnard said the company realizes the seriousness of the situation and is working with Manitoba’s emergency measures organization.

The rail line is the only land link to the rest of the country. It brings food, supplies and people to the remote community popular with tourists for its polar bears and other northern wildlife.

U.S.-based Omnitrax also operates the port of Churchill on Hudson Bay and is looking at bringing in fuel by barge or vessel.

Touesnard said the company is not exaggerating the severity of the damage. It has done four helicopter rides over the line and the inspection alone is expected to cost more than $500,000, he said.

The company that runs the major store in Churchill has said the cost of some food could end up doubling because of the rail suspension.

The Northwest Company is currently flying in groceries twice a week, but says that’s three times as expensive as shipping by rail.

The company is absorbing the extra cost at the moment, but has said it can’t do that indefinitely.

The rail disruption is the latest hardship in the remote town of 900. Omnitrax announced last year it was suspending operations at the port’s grain terminal, then scaled back freight service on the rail line.

The Denver-based company has been trying to sell the port and rail line to a First Nations consortium. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the consortium last December, but the deal has not been finalized.

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