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Considering Churchill’s future

With melting permafrost, is Churchill's rail line viable over the long term?

A sudden, substantial drop in grain exports from Churchill this summer raises questions about the long-term economic viability of the port. A comprehensive review is needed to identify costs, benefits and risks associated with saving the railway, along with alternative economic opportunities for a port community on Hudson Bay without rail access.

Federal and provincial governments have provided capital to build infrastructure associated with the rail bed, port and community ever since the folly of Port Nelson was acknowledged a century ago, and Manitoba’s port aspirations shifted to Churchill. Rail access to a Hudson Bay port was important to Prairie farmers to compete with “eastern interests” associated with grain shipments for export.

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The weak link today is the rail bed. It sits on discontinuous permafrost that is thawing due to climate change. Ironically, the same climate change opens the bay up for a longer shipping season.

However, if government money is to be allocated to make Churchill viable, a more comprehensive assessment of the overall situation is needed. Considering the rail line and port alone could lead to expensive and risky conclusions.

Churchill is now a modern, secure and comfortable “town,” but what is assumed to be its major industry, export shipping, is probably going under.

The cost of stabilizing the rail bed to prevent damage from melting permafrost may be financially prohibitive.

Today, tourism is a major factor; people come from all over to see the bears, belugas and caribou, and experience the Canadian North. They willingly pay substantial amounts for the experience. Building on this base makes sense.

Sport fishing and hunting could remain a key element of any future plan. Beyond tours in “tundra buggies,” a charter flight from Churchill down the coast to abandoned Port Nelson and York Factory in August/September is guaranteed to enhance the experience of seeing polar bears and caribou. Earlier in the year, beluga can be seen in the mouth of the Churchill, Nelson and Hayes rivers. York Factory (National Historic Site) depot stands as the ultimate marker for the fur trade industry that operated in Canada for some 300 years.

A tourism industry based largely on polar bears is not without risk. The reduced ice cover period has become a concern, as it prevents the bears from having time to bulk up on seals for the summer period. The belugas will survive, as will the caribou and sport fish. But at present, polar bears are the prime attraction for tourists. Consequentially, consideration might have to be given to help them modify their feeding pattern with alternatives. Over the longer term, denning sites in beach ridges south of Churchill may eventually be affected by a rise in water levels.

Absent the railway, supply transport to Churchill needs analysis. Trial of lighter-than-air vehicles deserves consideration. A road from Gillam to Churchill might be practical if it used the most inland beach ridges. However, this would cut through polar bear denning areas and cause additional stress for the animals.

There is an urgent need for an overall economic/risk assessment. It’s time to seriously acknowledge that the rail line may not be viable over the long term, and consider new investments for transport and the tourism industry for future successes.

Jim Collinson is an agricultural economist and consultant based in Kanata, Ont.

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