Polar Bear Blog – Muskeg Not-So-Special

Well, I guess I can’t avoid doing a Churchill train service update any longer, things have definitely reached the stage of ‘ridiculous’.  Passenger service, and in effect tourism season, has been indefinitely suspended since thirteen grain cars derailed on June 2nd.  Images surfaced of the derailment and, well, the tracks looked pretty mangled to me.

Train Derailment Churchill 2014

Train Derailment Churchill 2014

Omnitrax ‘re-opened’ the tracks about ten days later and the way freight trains did start moving supplies and produce into Churchill.  VIA Rail, however, did not follow suit stating that they were performing their own review of the track – which, to me, seemed reasonable given that crashing a train load of people is slightly different than spilling a bunch of grain.

Then, as things are wont to do in the north, the story kind of took on a life of its own.  Neither Omnitrax nor VIA Rail were forthcoming with information;  Omnitrax insinuating that the tracks were ‘cleared’ by Transport Canada and that it was up to their ‘clients’ to decide on service while VIA Rail pretty much did not have any communication at all, other than ‘we’re not sure what’s going on’.

Naturally, Churchill (and Facebook) filled in much of the empty space with our own stories and ultimately the Town of Churchill came out with guns blazing against VIA Rail’s lack of communication and, well, lack of passengers.  Unfortunately, the Town’s strongly worded position came out just as Omnitrax closed the tracks once again, stating that ‘severe permafrost issues’ had resulted in unforeseen repairs.

So, that’s where Churchill stands.  Neither company is providing information – although the Town is using kid gloves with Omnitrax and a sledge hammer with VIA Rail… which seems a bit strange given that Omnitrax owns the rail line and contracts service to VIA.  Word on the street is that VIA’s conditions to re-open were ‘unreasonable’ – of course, yesterday’s closure of the HBR may justify some of these demands…  Another rumour floating out there is that HBR had been ‘fudging’ their track inspections and that VIA finally called them on it. I find that hard to believe but Omnitrax is famous for cheaping out on, well, everything except the University of Winnipeg’s pet projects…

The only thing that I know is that I had a beer with some of the HBR guys just before the derailment happened and they predicted it.  Omnitrax was trying to ship too much grain at once and shipping in the spring when the ground was saturated and soft.  A week later, the track was shut down.

After the derailment, Omnitrax quietly announced that they would not ship oil this summer – of course, I don’t believe they will ever ship oil without the Canadian government kicking in a fair bit of cash first.  I also don’t believe that the oil issue will ever truly ‘die’ in Churchill because there is just too much money to be made with oil… much more than grain.  And you need less employees to ship oil than grain too… its a win-win right?

In the meantime, Churchill is pretty quiet.  Several large school groups have cancelled, independent travellers have been stranded in Thompson (with no real explanation or compensation from VIA Rail…).  The seasonal workers who were travelling by train when the derailment first occurred were flown up by VIA Rail – without their luggage (which three weeks later is still in Thompson…!).

Omnitrax essentially closed the rail line again on Friday morning with no press release or not much of anything really… I think most of the town found out through Gardewine, now that I think of it.  Now, some restaurants are talking about shutting their doors until the rail line is opened again.

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So, no one really knows what is going on – the Town will keep going after VIA, the province will lumber into the mix very late in the game and, as usual, do not much of anything to help Churchill and the Feds will stay out of this completely.  Omnitrax will keep offering weak excuses; ‘severe permafrost’ – what does that even mean?  Just a couple years ago, climate change was destroying the tracks… now its ‘severe permafrost’.  Um, once the ground is frozen, its just frozen…

From what I can see, there is something ‘not good’ going on behind the scenes between VIA Rail and Omnitrax.  VIA is mandated to run this line – a money losing route absolutely… – but for them not to trust Omnitrax’s (and possibly Transport Canada’s…) assessment, really says something.  Maybe everyone is skittish after Lac Megantic or maybe VIA has finally had enough of Omnitrax.

Either way, I would bookmark this link…  Calm Air Seat Sale – Thompson to Churchill

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