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Permafrost threat to port: expert

Says rail line should be moved or Churchill facility will be inaccessible

Barry Prentice

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Barry Prentice

If Canada wants to keep its northern Port of Churchill, it should move the rail line to a route that's not "plagued" by permafrost, a transportation expert says.

"If climate change is here and it does progress, I can't see that roadbed will ever get better," said Barry Prentice, a professor of supply-chain management at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business.

"I can see it getting worse. At what point do we stop throwing good money after bad?"

Rail service has been suspended since a derailment on the Hudson Bay line June 2 just south of the Hudson Bay port, but officials initially said the service would resume within a week.

Churchill was not the original destination for Canada's northern port, and it shows in the "strange dogleg" the rail line takes east of Gillam, Prentice said. In the early 1900s, the federal government planned to build a major harbour on Hudson Bay for shipping grain at the mouth of the Nelson River, at Port Nelson and York Factory.

"They had right-of-way cleared all way to York Factory," said Prentice. "In today's dollars, they spent hundreds of millions trying to develop the port there," said Prentice.

That location wasn't viable for a port, mainly because it kept silting up from the outflow of the Nelson River. By then, the Hudson Bay Railway had already been built as far as Gillam, he said.

"At that point, it was just a salvage situation," said Prentice. In 1927, they ended up moving the port to Churchill and building the rail line over "the worst possible" terrain that's "plagued by permafrost along the shore of Hudson Bay," he said.

A better location would be over a rocky ridge that runs from Thompson toward Churchill, said Prentice.

"If the country is serious about maintaining a link to the North then it's time to have that discussion -- a real, serious examination of relocating the rail line," he said. Especially if there's a possibility oil will be shipped to Churchill, he added.

The rail line is expected to see increased shipment of grain and other goods due to growth at the port and a longer ice-free season.

"For a lot of the year it works fine -- as long as it's frozen," said Prentice. "It's just like our ice roads. Now they're less reliable. Are we going to put up with a lack of reliability and trying to patch it up frequently or finally do the right thing?"

In Winnipeg Wednesday, federal Transport Minister Linda Raitt said she understands the damage to the rail line has been caused by permafrost issues, something that has to be dealt with every year.

"My officials are currently working with the executives at Hudson Bay Railway making sure repairs are being made," she said. "Transport Canada officials will be inspecting it. We have heard various concerns. The appropriate thing has happened -- the rail is not passable, therefore, it is closed. The rail line has to be safe first and foremost."

On the issue of whether the railroad is safe to ship oil, Raitt said the announced review of the Canadian Transportation Act will address issues regarding the shipment of various commodities.

"I think that will be an appropriate place for the discussion on policy around that issue," she said.

Gord Peters is the CEO of Cando Rail Services, a Brandon-based company that, among other things, runs short-line railroads.

His company took a look at buying the Hudson Bay line in the mid-1990s when Omnitrax acquired it. He said it is a huge engineering problem and the current issues are not uncommon.

"They have to get to a comprehensive program of repair and maintenance," Peters said. "If they don't do that, it won't survive. Unfortunately, the business on that line is probably not enough to pay for what they need. They have a real dilemma. Maybe it's more government money (that they need). That's what it comes down to."

Omnitrax said in a letter to the Town of Churchill Tuesday it has three crews working on the problem and is trying to get more equipment and operators to help. It will be several more days before the line is secure, the company said.

"I'm glad to hear they're saying they're doing everything they can -- they need to keep doing that," said MP Niki Ashton (NDP -- Churchill).

"The priority is getting service back on track."

Prentice thinks they need to move.

"If we look into the future and not just our lifetimes and a rail link to Churchill is something we'll always want, then instead of just shoring it up, maybe it's time to relocate the line over an area that doesn't have permafrost problems."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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