New deal will revive rail service to Canada’s main deepwater Arctic port

Rail service to Churchill and it's deepwater port has been suspended for over a year.

Rail cars sit outside Churchill, Manitoba in a 2012 file photo. In 2017, flooding severed the rail link connecting Churchill—Canada’s only deepwater Arctic Port—to southern Canada. (Pixabay)

Last week, the Canadian government announced a deal that will help revive rail service to the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada’s main Arctic deepwater port.  

The current owner of the railway and port, Denver-based OmniTrax, had suspended service indefinitely after flooding damaged tracks in May 2017.

Now OmniTrax will sell the port and rail line to a buying group of Canadian businesses: Fairfax Financial Holdings, AGT Food and Ingredients, Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership and OneNorth. The latter two organizations, which represent northern communities and First Nations, will operate under one name, Missinippi Rail Partners.

In total, 30 First Nations and 11 non-First Nations communities in Northern Manitoba participated in the deal, as well as seven Kivalliq communities in western Nunavut.

“The people of northern Manitoba have long understood the value of the rail line.  This agreement in principle allows those most affected to have a direct stake in the future and long-term interests of their communities,” Jim Carr, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, said in a statement.

Terms of the deal, as well as a firm timeline for when repairs will start, were not disclosed.

The rail line is the only land connection to Churchill and its port on the Hudson Bay, Canada’s main Arctic deepwater port. (Canada has another deepwater facility at Nanisivik, Nunavut, where the Department of National Defense is constructing a naval refueling station.)

Since flooding closed the tracks, the town and the federal government have been lobbying the company to make repairs. Prices for food and other commodities have increased in Churchill and towns along the line as companies were forced to fly in goods usually shipped by freight.

Last July, OmniTrax said that it could not afford the repairs, estimated to cost between $40 million and $60 million. The company also argued that because the line was not commercially viable, it was a public utility that the government should help pay for.

Ottawa eventually took OmniTrax to court over the repairs, but then removed the company’s name from its statement of claim.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Churchill as Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port. In fact, a second deepwater facility exists at Nanisivik, Nunavut. This article has been updated to reflect this.