‘We’ll make sure it doesn’t leave’
Churchill chamber president vows blockade if Via tries to ship stranded rail cars by barge
HE president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce says if Via Rail tries to get its stranded rail cars out of the isolated northern town, desperate residents will do what they can to prevent that from happening.
The Hudson Bay town is now in its 14th week without rail service, its lone overland link to the south.
“This train isn’t leaving here unless it’s leaving by the tracks. Because we’ll blockade it and we’ll make sure it doesn’t leave,” Dave Daley said Tuesday. “What kind of message does that send to Manitoba if that train leaves here by boat? That they’re never going to fix the tracks?”
Increasingly, Daley says, people in Churchill have little to lose. He hears of another family planning to move south about once a week.
“Churchill’s dying,” he said.
On May 23, overland flooding from
Tan unusual spring melt washed out multiple bridges and damaged track along the 300-kilometre line that connects Gillam to Churchill. On July 18, Denver-based Omnitrax said it was “not economically feasible” to repair its railway. Ottawa maintains the company is contractually obligated to cover the repair cost, estimated at between $20 million and $60 million.
Via Rail has five passenger cars and two locomotives — decorated with a celebratory Canada 150 banner — stuck in Churchill. Rumours of the federal Crown corporation’s plan to get its assets out on a barge have been circulating in the town since June; Via refuses to confirm whether that course of action is under consideration.
“Via Rail is currently evaluating options as it relates to this train, based on the evolution of the situation,” spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said via email, echoing a statement the company made two months ago.
The rumour of a pullout sparked loud reactions at a June 30 meeting, when Manitoba Trade Minister Cliff Cullen and cabinet colleague Blaine Pedersen, the infrastructure minister, visited the town with a senior emergency-management official. It’s not clear who brought up the idea.
Some who attended the meeting told the Free Press the ministers said Via Rail asked to put its trains on whatever barge the province will use to bring propane to the town.
But the government denied that, saying it hadn’t yet discussed the details of sending fuel north, something it had pledged to do on July 21, at a cost of $6 million.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said his communications with Ottawa have been focused on repairing the rail line as quickly as possible.
“The town does not support the removal of the trains, should it be under consideration, when repairing the line is the priority and can be initiated right away,” Spence said in an email. “We remain confident and optimistic that will occur.”
Spence also pushed back against media reports suggesting the Port of Churchill is closed. Though Omnitrax laid off most of its workers, the port is still taking in fuel and is set to export grain later this fall.
On Tuesday, Omnitrax’s chief commercial officer claimed he was “not able” to say whether the company will make public an engineering report that contains an updated repair-cost estimate — despite receiving it Aug. 4 and presenting it to Transport Canada last week.
“We have been working diligently on a long-term solution and hope to arrive at a decision soon,” Peter Touesnard wrote.
But business owners such as Daley say almost everybody in town is cutting back. His dog-sledding business is grappling with concerns about how to feed its 39 dogs. The cost of shipping a pallet of dog food has risen from $800 by rail to $4,500 in the air.
Two of Churchill’s four restaurant operators say they’ve decided to close for the month of September, while a fifth has altered its opening plans.
“We’re getting about pretty much fed up with all the political jargoning around and all the bureaucracy. It’s just getting ridiculous,” said Daley, 54, a lifelong resident.
He was seething when the Canadian Transportation Agency told the Free Press it wouldn’t investigate Omnitrax until people filed complaints. “What the hell does that mean? The complaints have been all over the news.”
Local resident Echo Finlay was among a dozen Free Press readers who filed complaints. She says Via’s pullout has been rumoured for months, especially after a Via employee moved south. Some people already are planning protests, she said.