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Churchill tourism woes mount

When it comes to tourism, the Hudson Bay Rail Line makes Churchill's heart beat.

But these days the line, owned and operated by Omnitrax Canada, is in rehab and the northern town's summer tourism business is ailing.

On Tuesday, a tour operator in the northern port estimated the community's losses this month are "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Tour and hotel operators are losing bookings and restaurant and gift shop traffic is down sharply, while costs have risen as goods and summer staff now need to be flown in.

With beluga whale-watching season just getting started, things are going to get a lot worse.

"It's got the potential to really throw a wrench into things," said John Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures.

The whale-watching season gets going full blast in early July. So far, Gunter hasn't received a wave of cancellations, but he's worried about an extended rail shutdown.

Via Rail has not scheduled trains on the final leg of the Bay Line from Gillam to Churchill since June 2, when a freight train derailed south of Churchill. Omnitrax has run freight trains since then, but said it closed the line on Friday to repair additional damage caused by permafrost.

Neither company is saying when service will resume. Omnitrax said work crews are on site and the company expects the work to be completed within "several days."

Some in the community have heard rumours the track-upgrade work could stretch well into July. Omnitrax denies that.

Tour operators are especially upset the rail disruption is occurring at a time when they were supposed to be reaping returns from increased tourism promotion and a new Travel Manitoba advertising campaign.

"It's frustrating," said Dwight Allen, owner of Sea North Tours and the Polar Inn and Suites. "This can't continue any longer."

Allen estimates he will lose $30,000 in revenue by the end of June due to the rail-line closure.

He's frustrated by a lack of information from both Omnitrax and Via Rail.

A Via Rail spokeswoman said when Omnitrax gives the the all-clear to haul freight, the passenger-train operator will conduct its own inspection before continuing regular service to Churchill.

"The safety of our passengers and employees are our first and foremost priority," Mylène Bélanger said from Montreal.

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