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Troubled northern Manitoba rail line could get more help for repairs

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government says it wants vital train service restored to the sub-Arctic town of Churchill as quickly as possible and hints it may be open to providing more public money to the troubled rail line.

"Whether it requires further investments in the future, again, we'd be prepared to sit down and talk with Omnitrax, but what we have to do in the short term is get that rail line reopened," Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said Wednesday.

Any discussions would also have to involve the federal government, he added.

Service between Gillam and Churchill — the final 270-kilometre stretch of track on the Omnitrax Canada rail line — has been halted for much of the last three weeks. Passenger trains haven't run since a derailment just south of Churchill on June 3. Freight service resumed briefly, but was suspended last Friday due to shifting permafrost.

The closure has hurt tourism operators, who have had to tell guests their only other option is to fly, as well as stores and restaurants who are waiting for supplies from the south.

The rail line has a long history of delays and service interruptions due to the remote boggy terrain it covers. In 2007, the federal and Manitoba governments put up $20 million each under a five-year deal to help Omnitrax with repairs. Omnitrax agreed to put up $20 million of its own over 10 years, along with another $2 million to $3 million annually on track maintenance.

Omnitrax Canada rejected interview requests this week, but said in a written statement it has spent up to $6 million a year on track maintenance since 2007. The problems this year stem from unusual weather that has caused ground movement.

"The transition this year (from winter to spring), after a particularly harsh winter with deep frost and late snow melt, has been markedly difficult for the maintenance of all of the infrastructure of the North, including roads and rail lines," the statement read.

The company expected it would need several days to complete the track resurfacing needed to reopen the line.

Ashton, whose constituency includes several small communities served by the rail line, credited Omnitrax with making improvements in recent years that have cut down on service interruptions. But he said recent problems underscore his concerns about Omnitrax's plans to start shipping crude oil along the rail line to the Port of Churchill

"I just don't see any way, shape or form that they could be shipping crude oil given the current problems."

Omnitrax has planned to conduct test runs of crude oil shipments along the line, although the plan has met with strong opposition from environmental groups and others who fear a spill would be disastrous for the environment.

The first tests were eyed for this year, but those plans have been put "on hold and aren't happening anytime soon," Ashton said.

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