‘We’ll make sure it doesn’t leave’

Churchill cham­ber pres­i­dent vows block­ade if Via tries to ship stranded rail cars by barge

Winnipeg Free Press - - TOP NEWS - DY­LAN ROBERT­SON dy­lan.robert­son@freep­ress.mb.ca

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.

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