The only ground transportation to Churchill on the coast of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba has been suspended indefinitely and is not expected to resume until winter.
The owners of the Hudson Bay Railway line say flooding that submerged a section of the track and stopped service on May 23 has caused severe damage.
“A preliminary assessment … indicates that the track bed has been washed away in 19 locations. Five bridges are visibly damaged and an additional 30 bridges and 600 culverts … will need to be further assessed for structural integrity,” Omnitrax Inc. said in a news release Friday.
“The damage is unprecedented and catastrophic.”
The service disruption is limited to a stretch between Amery, north of Gillam, and Churchill.
The rail line is used to transport food, supplies and people to the remote community of 900 popular with tourists for its polar bears and other northern wildlife. The disruption means goods and people will have to arrive by air, which is much more expensive.
The news came just before the start of the summer tourist season centred on beluga whales in the Churchill River. Belinda Fitzpatrick, who owns an inn and hotel in the town, said she expects prices for food and supplies will go up and some guests who were planning to come by train will cancel.
“With the Canada 150 celebrations, we were looking forward to a bumper year so … hopefully we can still try and save some of that,” she said.
“There will be no doubt some kind of price increase, and probably a lessening of the hours in the restaurant.”
The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce said air transportation costs can be five times higher than rail shipment and the provincial government should look at offsetting some of the expense of food and other items.
“My hope is that they would be willing to see that the situation is … dire now and that they’ll be prepared to step up and help,” chamber president Chuck Davidson said.
Churchill’s economy is dependent on tourism and there are no guarantees the rail service will be restored by late fall, when people from around the world visit the town for the annual influx of polar bears.
The rail disruption is the latest hardship in the remote community. Omnitrax announced last year it was suspending operations at the Port of Churchill, then scaled back freight service on the rail line.
The Denver-based company has been trying to sell the port and rail line to a First Nations consortium with which it signed a memorandum of understanding last December. The deal has not been finalized.
Tom Lindsey, labour critic for Manitoba’s Opposition New Democrats, called Friday’s announcement devastating. He urged the provincial government to develop a plan to help the community.
“If they have to fly everything in, the costs become so prohibitive that average people won’t be able to afford stuff.”
The province said in a statement that they are aware of the rail closure and have met with the Churchill mayor and “are engaged with community groups and businesses in the region.” Calm Air will be providing freight service twice a week from Thompson to Churchill, according to the statement.
With files from Global News