Sunday, June 11, 2017

Rail Line to Churchill Severed

On May 30, rail service to Churchill, Manitoba was suspended - perhaps for months, if not indefinitely.

Hudson Bay Railway map
Affected area shown in red
The last freight train arrived on May 23 but nothing has come since, due to unprecedented flooding in the area. The Churchill River was flowing at just over 1,400 cubic metres/second at the end of June, versus about 600 cubic metres/second in April. Major blizzards in March didn't help the situation.

The owner of the railway between The Pas and Churchill, OmniTRAX, issued a statement on May 30 that the Hudson Bay Railway would not be operating between Gillam and Churchill due to "track and bridge damage.. caused by the spring thaw." This is the Herchmer subdivision.

On June 9 (Friday) OmniTRAX issued an update that said that "unprecedented and catastrophic" damage has occurred and the rail line is "not expected to resume operations before the winter season." The track bed is damaged in 19 locations and 5 bridges are known to be damaged, with an additional 30 bridges and 600 culverts to be inspected in the coming weeks to determine how much more damage has been caused. (CBC News) No doubt it will cost millions of dollars to repair.

What Now?

Hudson Bay Railway locomotive
in Winnipeg, Dec 2011
OmniTRAX has declared force majeure, which is a legal term that basically means they are unable to fulfill their common carrier duties due to circumstances beyond their control.

This is terrible news for Churchill and for communities north of Gillam. The rail line is the sole connection for many of them, since the only transportation into Churchill is by rail or by air.

Calm Air (a northern airline) and Gardewine (a regional ground transport company) have teamed up to provide some air-based freight service from Thompson, but this is very expensive in comparison to rail freight and will result in severe hardship for businesses and individuals in Churchill.

This also basically kills the tourist season for Churchill, as the majority of tourists come by rail using VIA 693 from Winnipeg. Businesses are already issuing layoff notices and no doubt more will be coming.

VIA Rail

Speaking of VIA Rail, there is a VIA Rail train stranded in Churchill, with VIA 6434 and "Canada 150" wrapped VIA 6402 parked at the station.
VIA 6434 and 6402 stranded in Churchill. Photos by Patricia Sinclair, used with permission.
VIA issued a travel advisory on June 6 that they will only be operating between Winnipeg and Gillam. Looking at their reservation system you can book a trip to Gillam as usual, but it fails when you try to book to Churchill.

I see there is a wye in Gillam so they should be able to turn VIA 693 on the wye and become VIA 692, rather than backing up.

For Sale?

This will obviously have an effect on OmniTRAX's attempts to sell the line. You may recall they were talking with a First Nations consortium, since named the Missinippi Rail Consortium, and in December OmniTRAX signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them.

On May 31 OmniTRAX and Missinippi signed a deal for $20 million. I imagine (hope) there are some contingencies because I doubt Missinippi wants to inherit this mess.

There is a rival group, One North, that was also vying to purchase the line.

Hope for the Best

Hopefully the engineering assessment underway now will find that the damage is not as bad as first imagined. It will be terrible if the line will not open until the winter, and I can't imagine that OmniTRAX is willing or able to shoulder the entire cost of the repairs, given the marginal economic value of the line as it is.

The people of Churchill and communities along the line between Gillam and Churchill will be enduring significant hardship while this line is out of service. I really feel for them.

More to come.

4 comments:

Jenn said...

Wow, terrible news! It's amazing how devastating flooding can be. We actually have friends in Gillam. Not too often I hear Gillam in the news.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much longer Via will go to Gilliam. As bad as provincial road 280 from Thompson to Gilliam is, I can't see it very profitable for VIA

As for Churchill, in the interim basis, they could get supplies through a barge from Northern Ontario. This would be similar to happens to the eastern towns in Nunavut.

There's no real cheap or quick solutions. It didn't help that Omnitrax didn't help their own cause since taking over the line from CN.


jonovision_man said...

I'm fascinated by this Churchill line... seems like such an important link to the North that we should really preserve.
As I was geeking out I found this weird rail spur off to Kischiayamweekemow, MB.
Any idea what this was? It looks like at the end there used to be several sidings, maybe a staging yard of some sort? A mine maybe? It's killing me.

Steve Boyko said...

Hi Jonovision_man, the spur at mile 467.5 was a Department of National Defence spur, according to a 1961 timetable. I will see what else I can find.