Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Doubly Bad News for Churchill


On Monday, the Port of Churchill handed layoff notices to approximately 50 of its workers and gave notice that it will not be shipping any more grain this year. This effectively shuts the port down, although reports indicate that it will be officially open until August 6th.

Omnitrax, based in Denver, owns both the port and the Hudson Bay Railway that serves the port and other northern communities.


On Tuesday, one of the major shippers to the north, Gardewine North, was informed that the Hudson Bay Railway will be cutting their service in half and only running one freight train per week.
Gardewine North truck trailer on flatcar, Thompson, MB
Churchill and many other communities are not accessible by road and therefore depend on the railway for supplies. The alternative is flying supplies in, but this is very expensive and you can't bring in bulk fuel by airplane very easily!

You may recall that the railway and port were both put up for sale in December. Soon afterward a group of First Nations sent a letter of intent to purchase the line, but apparently this has fallen through.

There's more bad news for the Hudson Bay Railway with the announced closure of the Tolko kraft mill in The Pas, Manitoba..

EDIT: also apparently someone set one of their (dormant) locomotives on fire.

What To Do?

It's difficult to know what to do.

Churchill is not required as a grain port as grain is normally shipped to Vancouver and Thunder Bay and both have recently expanded their facilities. With climate change and the thawing of the Northern Passage there is a possibility of increased shipping in the far north. Churchill is the only rail-accessible deep-water Arctic port in Canada and it has some strategic importance.

However, it is losing money and the railway is expensive and difficult to maintain. Omnitrax wants out and I can't see CN stepping in to buy the line back.

I think the only chance to save the port and/or railway is for the federal government to resume subsidies. The current Churchill Port Utilisation Program is set to end after the 2016 shipping season.

One alternative is for the federal government to acquire the port again. The mayor of Churchill is calling for this.

We shall see what happens in the next week or two. Omnitrax has said nothing so far but no doubt the pressure is increasing on them to make a statement. Manitoba's premier has called this move "leveraging on the fears and hopes and the security of Manitobans".

UPDATE: Omnitrax responded to some of CBC's questions. Lots of finger-pointing on all sides.

Is it time to consider building a road all the way to Churchill?


Unknown said...

Good article Steve. Yeah seriously, could they not build a decent road from Thompson to Churchill. ? I have not studied it in any depth...but if they can build a rail line to Churchill, why not road? Or....tear up the rails and use that as base to widen a road to Churchill.. Obviously I am oversimplifying the conundrum. No double it's been looked at before by taller foreheads.

Anonymous said...

We can't get Provincial Roads 280 and 391 in half decent shape so I can't perceive the thought of building a road to Churchill.

CN absolutely hated the Hudson Bay line so why would they think about buying it back?
As I told somebody on twitter lastnight, CP won't touch the port let alone go through the trouble of getting running rights from CN going from Yorkton to The Pas then to Churchill.

The only thing I can think of is some sort of co-op system which would likely have the Sask. and Manitoba governments, the federal government and farm groups / producers.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Canadian Train Geek said...

Hi anonymous, I added your YouTube link to one of my blog posts on the Czech Republic as it is more appropriate there than here.

Scott said...

I've ridden VIA Rail to Churchill twice, once just before CN sold the line and again in 2015. I can't imagine building and maintaining a road from Thompson to Churchill. One wonders what happened with the plan for the First Nations group to buy the line. I think perhaps the best solution is for the federal government to buy back the port, have CN operate the line as an internal subsidiary, and subsidize the line's losses, if it indeed loses money. I fear the Churchill line is going to wither and disappear like the Soo-Hearst passenger train did last year.