Washouts shut Hudson Bay Railway for shipping season

Flooding and rail bed washouts on sections of northern Manitoba’s Hudson Bay Railway have led the line’s owner to suspend its operations indefinitely.

The closure of the portion of the line running from Amery, Man., about 50 km northeast of Gillam, north to Hudson Bay at Churchill, all but ensures no Prairie grain, other than what’s already stored at port, will sail out of Hudson Bay this year.

Moreover, with the track out of service — as it has been since flooding shut the line on May 23 — northern communities that rely on the line to deliver food, fuel, other supplies and passengers will have to fall back on other limited transport options.

OmniTrax, the Denver-based rail company that owns the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill, said in a release Friday the rail line is “not expected to resume operations before the winter season.”

“It will be several weeks before we have a final report of the damage to the line, but we do not expect to be operational before the winter, and are concerned that the future of the track is in jeopardy,” Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer at OmniTrax, said in the release.

Ice on Hudson Bay generally allows ships to load at Churchill, Canada’s only deep-water Arctic seaport, from July to October each year. OmniTrax shut down Churchill port operations last summer and laid off port staff ahead of the 2016 grain shipping season.

OmniTrax Canada president Merv Tweed had been quoted Monday in the Winnipeg Free Press as saying shippers were expressing interest, there was enough product at the grain terminal to load and one ship was already booked to load there this summer.

But a preliminary engineering assessment now shows the track bed has been washed away in 19 spots between Amery and Churchill and five bridges are “visibly damaged,” OmniTrax said Friday. Another 30 bridges and 600 culverts running under the line “will need to be further assessed for structural integrity.”

“The damage is unprecedented and catastrophic,” Touesnard said Friday, adding that while operating the railway typically involves “significant seasonal maintenance,” the flooding damage this year “is by far the worst we have ever seen.”

Churchill’s ice-limited shipping season has benefited from global warming in recent years, but even without flooding, warmer weather also makes the rail line — built largely on permafrost — less stable.

Water in the area receded to near normal levels only on Thursday, Touesnard said, and “we hope to have engineers on the ground as soon as possible to conduct a thorough assessment.”

With the indefinite suspension announced, communities served by the railway can “develop long-term plans for the movement of the supplies and resources they need,” he said.

The provincial government said in a separate release Friday it’s “actively engaged with affected stakeholders in northern Manitoba to ensure essential services are in place.”

OmniTrax said it has notified “impacted customers and communities” and is in “constant contact” with Transport Canada and Manitoba’s Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), as well as in “regular contact” with the Missinippi Rail consortium.

The consortium, a group of Manitoba First Nations, signed a memorandum of understanding with OmniTrax in December regarding the “potential acquisition” of the railway and related assets.

Manitoba’s EMO has assembled a team to co-ordinate provincial support, the province said, and “will continue to take any warranted steps to ensure the safety and well-being of all Manitobans.”

The province also said Friday it has been advised Calm Air will provide air freight service twice a week from Thompson to Churchill.

Via Rail Canada, which operates passenger rail service on the Hudson Bay line, said in a separate release Friday it would continue to provide service as far as Gillam.

Via plans to resume services between Gillam and Churchill “once inspections of the railway have been completed and the track is back in operation,” but said Friday it would not offer or provide alternate transport to Churchill in the meantime.

OmniTrax bought the government-owned port and Canadian National Railway’s (CN) 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.

Starting at The Pas and Flin Flon in western Manitoba, OmniTrax’s track runs over 1,000 km northeast via Thompson, Wabowden and Gillam to Churchill.

The company has said vessels can shave up to three days off voyages to some ports in Western Europe, if sailing from Churchill rather than Thunder Bay. — AGCanada.com Network

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