Feds to help transfer ownership, restore Churchill rail service

The federal government says it’s prepared to restore rail service to Churchill, Man.

The rail line closed this spring after flooding damaged several sections of the route to the northern Manitoba community and port.

The owner of the line, OmniTrax, said repairs would cost as much as US$60 million and it wasn’t prepared to pay without government assistance.

Residents of Churchill say the line is a public utility and has to be repaired before winter arrives. Some residents even travelled to Winnipeg to hold protests over the issue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had previously said the Denver-based company had legal obligations to restore service to the community.

However, the government now says it is prepared to “facilitate discussion for the transfer of the rail line to a new owner and will work with that new owner to restore rail service.”

At least two groups comprising northern Manitoba First Nations have expressed interest in taking over the line.

The Manitoba government recently said it would be willing to pay as much as C$500 million over 10 years to fix and maintain service. However, it wasn’t initially clear how much of that money would be new spending.

In the release, Ottawa said it’s prepared to act quickly to provide such support, provided that:   

  • The assets are transferred at a reasonable price taking into account OmniTrax Inc.’s obligations. 
  • The new owner has support from First Nations and other communities along the route. 
  • The new owner has a viable business plan to operate the rail line safely, reliably and cost-effectively.

OmniTrax bought the government-owned port and Canadian National Railway’s rail line in 1997.

The port and rail line, built in the 1930s, were meant to serve northern communities and provide an alternate shipping route into and out of Western and Central Canada.

Canada’s only Arctic port moved 184,600 tonnes of grain during its 2015 shipping season, well off its average of 500,000 tonnes.

Omnitrax closed the port in 2016. 

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