Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rail service to northern Manitoba port of Churchill suspended

The northern Manitoba town of Churchill has lost its only rail service into the town as OmniTrax the Denver-based company that owns the rail line into the community from the south announced that the rail bed was washed away in 19 locations.

Five workers in Churchill were let go as a result of the service suspension. Business owners in the town say that there could be more layoffs. The owner of the 31 room Tundra Inn and hostel, Belinda Fitzpatrick said that it was upsetting and heartbreaking to layoff the 5 workers. She had intended to open a seasonal restaurant next week but the suspension of rail service caused her to drop her plans. She describes the rail line as the lifeline to the community. There is no road into the community from the south. The road ends at Gillam near where there is a large hydro development. The rail service ends there now as well. Churchill is a further 300 km from Gillam.
Omnitrax describes the damage as catastrophic and said that the damage would be not fixed until the earliest next winter and perhaps even next spring. Another Churchill business owner Dale de Meulles who with his wife have run Churchill's hardware and lumber store for 14 years has said the situation is nerve-wracking. He may soon have to close his store. He said he did not know if the business would survive. The store depends upon supplies being brought in by rail. He has already warned staff about layoffs. He said about 10 of his staff will lose their jobs. There were already layoffs last year when Omnitrax suddenly just decided to close the port.
Port employees made up about ten percent of the population and was by far the largest employer. The company was not making the profits it expected. Residents hoped that the federal and provincial governments would act to keep the port open but to no avail. Governments provincial or federal of whatever stripe follow basically neo-liberal policies that support private enterprise but on the whole try to avoid having to provide subsidies to corporations who cannot make profits without considerable subsidization. De Meulles still had hope:"As a Churchillian, we will never give up. We've [had] so many hurdles in front of us and we keep jumping over them, but we need help this time."
Rhoda, de Meulles wife, wants the Liberal Federal Government to send in the military to help clean up and reopen the railway. There is a massive amount of damage from spring weather including at least five damaged bridges, and 600 culverts to be inspected at 19 different locations. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is contacting guests who have booked at the Tundra hotel for the summer to see if they can come in by air. This would be more expensive than the train. However, she has already had some cancellations and expects up to 90 percent of guests who had planned to come to cancel.
The main hope for Churchill is the Missinippi Rail Consortium a group of northern Manitoba First Nations who are in the process of purchasing the port of Churchill and the rail line from the Pas Manitoba to Churchil from Omnitrax. The residents of Churchill plus the first nations, many of whom are dependent on the rail line, along with some western wheat farmers who see the port as an alternate northern route for shipping grain may have enough political clout to persuade the federal and provincial Canadian governments to invest sufficient funds to upgrade the railroad and reopen the port.
The rail line to Churchill from The Pas was started in 1927 by the federal government but problems with finance and engineering difficulties because of the terrain led to its being completed in March of 1929 with traffic started on in September of the same year. It became part of the Canadian National Railway System. There was an extension of the line to Flin Flon in 1928 and this was extended to the mining town of Lynnn Lake in November of 1953. CN was government-owned, having been a Canadian Crown corporation until it was privatized in 1995. The Lynn |Lake extension was bought by a group of aboriginal nations some time ago to form the Keewatin Railway. Ownership of the port of Churchill and the railway to Churchill by aboriginal groups with the support of Churchill residents and some prairie wheat farmers makes sense. The railway can then serve those who have a stake in the railway rather than shareholders in a giant foreign corporation such as Omnitrax whose main interest is providing a good return on investment. The problem will be to see whether the federal Canadian and Manitoba provincial government have the slightest interest in serving these stakeholders. The reaction of the Conservative Manitoba Government is not very helpful.
Mike Gagne, director of operations of the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) said:"Right now we have no immediate action to take.Unless you gather information, do a fulsome assessment, it's really difficult to know what immediate action you could take, because these are complex issues and looking at the amount of goods and materials and services that you need to sustain, there isn't something that you can figure out over a weekend." Surely immediate action could be taken to assess the damage. There have been arrangements made with Calm Air to have additional flights from the northern city of Thompson to Churchill.
Barry Prentice, who is a transportation economist at the University of Manitoba. He noted that the section of the track from Gillam to Churchill had always been a problem since it is built over permafrost that makes the ground unstable every spring. He said that there had to be a decision to reroute the railroad or build a road. Prentice said: "Is this fix going to be the fix, or is it just going to be another in a series of endless fixes for a route that was never actually likely to be a sustainable route? I think it's time to step back from this immediate problem and ask the ... serious question: do we really need a rail line to Churchill ... and if so, should we not maybe look at a different route to get there and solve the problem once and for all?" Prentice said that climate change could make things even worse during the coming years. Whatever is planned in the future the two two main levels of government need to support those who are the main stakeholders, those served by the railway now.

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