Closed rail line another blow to Churchill port

Severe spring flooding that washed out a section of the Hudson Bay Railway line between Gillam and Churchill, Man., last month has dealt another crippling blow to efforts to resume grain shipments through the Port of Churchill.

“It’s a major blow to the whole situation,” said Elden Boon, a farmer from Virden, Man., and president of the Hudson Bay Route Association.

“It’s just another nail in the coffin so to speak … but hopefully, when the (engineering) assessment comes back, it will show that (the damage) is maybe not as critical as one would think.”

Omnitrax, which owns the Hudson Bay Railway, suspended rail service on a section of HBR track last month.

Sources say rail service on a section of the track covering several hundreds of kilometres has been suspended indefinitely and is not likely to resume until freeze-up at the earliest.

The track bed has been washed away in numerous locations and as many as five bridges are damaged.

Dozens of other bridges and culverts will also need to be assessed before service is resumed.

Omnitrax has been trying to sell the HBR line for the past two years.

The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with a northern Manitoba First Nations group interested in acquiring the track, but a formal deal has not been reached.

It remains to be seen how damage caused by flooding will affect a potential sale.

Boon said it seems unlikely that Omnitrax would spend a significant amount of money to repair an asset that it is trying to unload.

The Manitoba government is involved in discussions with Ottawa, community leaders and First Nations groups to determine what steps can be taken, but it remains to be seen whether government will contribute financially to track repair efforts.

The railway is the only overland route linking southern Manitoba to Churchill and other remote communities in the north.

The line supplies food, fuel and other products to northern communities and also carries passengers to and from Churchill on a weekly basis.

Boon said he has been told that Omnitrax will continue to offer service between The Pas and Gillam, but service on the remaining portion of the route is in limbo.

“At this point, the future is pretty uncertain,” Boon said about the likelihood of resuming grain shipments next year.

“This is going to have a huge impact on Churchill, for sure.”

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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