Saskatoon, SK—The Hudson Bay rail line to Churchill has been shut since late May due to flooding that damaged the tracks. The Denver-based OmniTRAX Inc., which owns both the rail line and the port of Churchill, has suspended the train until winter and perhaps until next spring. However, Keewatin Rail Company, the Indigenous-owned northern Manitoba railway, says it can repair the line within 45 days, not including bridge work, for approximately $2 million. This is further supported by photos taken by a couple of American motorcyclists who recently rode the rail line to Churchill. The photos show 14 wash outs, but the line is now dry and “looks fixable”. VIA Rail staff apparently were eager to speak to the Americans as the photos did not support the information they had been receiving from OmniTRAX, whom they rent track from.
It has been over two weeks since the photos were released and caused Churchill mayor Mike Spence to call for “immediate action to repair the railway”. What is OmniTRAX doing?
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has always opposed the sale of the rail line to a private company, particularly a foreign-owned one. OmniTRAX purchased the port and rail line at cents on the dollar. It is now clearly evident that they are unwilling to maintain the tracks and have both the rail line and the port up for sale. They stand to make a capital gain from doing so as well as having received public dollars for 5 years in order to continue shipping Prairie grain.
The port and rail line should be taken back by the federal government, operated, and maintained for the public good as originally intended. A significant portion of the northern economy depends upon this rail system. “The Federal government has created a silly situation by selling an asset which has led to the present conundrum of a private company not willing to fix the damaged rail line and yet wishing to create a capital gain from selling this asset to potential indigenous buyers who will have the same problem the private company had” says Ian Robson, NFU Region 5 (Manitoba) Coordinator. Robson further states “this asset needs to be kept and operated by our government. Like any highway, it creates value from being operated by the government. More private carriers could be attracted to run trains upon the line and more potential could be gained”.
The loss of the Canadian Wheat Board, which shipped an averaged 364,000 tonnes of wheat and durum per year from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, has prevented the growth of grain shipping through Churchill despite the five year subsidy given to OmniTRAX.
Farmers in the Churchill line catch basin, in Eastern and Central Saskatchewan and the Swan River area in Manitoba, have significantly lower transportation costs if their grain is shipped through Churchill. A viable Churchill line also alleviates the otherwise congested shipping routes to the west coast. These points are clear indications of the public interest at stake and proof of the need for government control of vital infrastructure.
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For more information, contact:
Ian Robson, NFU Region 5 (Manitoba) Coordinator: 204-741-1017