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Via Rail offers additional trip to, from Gillam

Derailment strands passengers

Via Rail will take passengers from Winnipeg to Gillam and back during the next few days after northern First Nations communities complained about rail services last week in the wake of a derailment.

Via Rail announced Saturday its train would leave Winnipeg bound for Gillam Sunday at 12:05 p.m. and make the return run from Gillam Wednesday at 5:30 a.m.

But the company said in a statement it would not offer alternate transportation for passengers from Gillam to Churchill. While the track south of Gillam remains open, the derailment is north of Gillam, closer to Churchill, and has kept the track closed for a week.

Via Rail said it will release more information whether there will be any other round trips to Gillam in the coming days.

On Friday, Chief Betsy Kennedy of the War Lake First Nation said in a statement some members of her community, including herself, were stranded in Thompson when 13 rail cars full of grain went off the track last Monday.

"This is more than an inconvenience," Kennedy said.

"I have band members stuck in Thompson who need to get home to take care of loved ones and to earn their living. It's expensive any way you look at it, whether they wait it out or pay for a charter flight home, as there is also no regular scheduled air service to the community."

The train, with 50 cars of grain, was heading to Churchill when the derailment occurred and 13 cars went off the track. Kennedy said Omnitrax, which owns the rail line, has not paid her community any compensation for the costs incurred to fly her community members home.

Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, said the company's first priority is to fix the track before thinking of anything else.

"When we get things up and running, we'll look at all the outside issues around it... we want to deal with people about it." Tweed wouldn't say whether people or communities will be compensated for any air fares they paid out.

Tweed said the company hopes the track will reopen sometime this week if the weather co-operates.

"We had snow and high winds (Thursday)," he said.

"We've been dealing with some serious weather. We had thought by the end of next week (the track would reopen), but we've had a busy and productive day (on Friday). Probably some time in the week if weather conditions hold up."

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said the latest derailment is one more reason all-season access to northern communities needs to be improved.

"These challenges are foreign to folks living comfortably in the cities," Nepinak said in a statement.

"While the province continues to generate millions of dollars from resource extraction and power development in the north, First Nations people from the same region continue to struggle to access medical attention, post-secondary education and food security."

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