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canada-rail

Hudson Bay RailwayReporting mark: HBRY

The original Hudson Bay Railway began with a government project that was first conceived around 1910. The government planned to establish a shipping harbour on the Hudson Bay. The ports of Churchill and Port Nelson were chosen as possible sites, with Port Nelson finally receiving the nod in 1912.

The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was ready to move in once the harbour was completed. They began with the construction of a bridge over the Saskatchewan River. However the rail line was put on hold after the harbour project began disintegrating into a complete disaster.

Photo of construction
Construction crew, ca. 1920s
Pub: B.C. Printing & Litho Ltd, Vancouver

Engineering problems, storms, fires, labour unrest, followed by material and labour shortages during World War I, were among the many difficulties that plagued construction of the Port Nelson harbour. The project was finally abandoned in 1918. By then the CNoR had fallen into bankruptcy and the partially built rail line lay dormant for a number of years.

The Canadian National Railway revived the railway in the 1920s. Once again the project was not without its challenges. Muskeg and outcrops led to engineering difficulties. Financing problems for the newly formed and cash-strapped railway were another concern. A branch line opened to Flin Flon in 1928, with the line finally being completed to Churchill in 1929. It was extended from Cranberry Portage to the mining community of Lynn Lake in 1953. CN continued to operate the railway until 1997, when the trackage was sold to the newly formed Hudson Bay Railway (HBRY).

The HBRY was created in 1997 by OmniTRAX, a US-based holding company that specializes in transportation-based services. Around the same time, OmniTRAX took over operation of the Port of Churchill, making a strong commitment to sustaining and expanding industry in northern Manitoba.

Like many other small regional railways, the HBRY focused on resource-based sectors, located in remote regions. The HBRY operated 627 miles of rail from The Pas to Churchill, with branch lines extending to Flin Flon and Lynn Lake. Operations were handled from offices in The Pas. Passenger rail service between Churchill and Winnipeg was operated by VIA Rail on the Hudson Bay passenger train.

Initially the HBRY improved service on the railway by introducing longer trains, which translated into growth for local industries. It hauled mainly ores, copper, zinc, lumber, grain and petroleum products.

Regional operations, such as HBRY, have the flexibility to concentrate all their resources on small areas, which is generally not cost effective for a much larger railway. As such they now play a major role to play in the overall transportation grid.

All that came crashing to a halt in May 2017, following severe damage from flooding that washed out large portions of the rail line. Service was immediately shut down forcing residents in these remote northern communities to rely on costly air transport for food and other basic provisions. Omnitrax estimated repairs would cost between $40 and $60 million which the company claimed it could not afford. Despite having contractual obligations to maintain and operate the line, Omnitrax tried to argue that the flood was a force majeure event that could not be foreseen and it should be not bound by those obligations.

Despite demands from the federal government to expedite repairs as quickly as possible, the company continued to waffle and search for potential buyers. In June 2018, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruled that repairs should have been undertaken at least six months earlier and ordered the company to begin repairs by July 3 and further demanded the company provide monthly progress reports. The work was not started and the CTA then hauled Omnitrax into court. Omnitrax promptly filed an appeal.

After almost two years, it appears a solution is finally at hand. On August 31, 2018, a consortium consisting of Fairfax Financial Holdings & AGT Limited Partnership and Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, representing First Nations members and local residents, reached an agreement with Omnitrax to purchase the railway, port lands and other facilities. Funding of $117 million was provided by the federal government. Repairs were completed by October 2018.

As of January 2019, the railway is still not operational. Full safety checks and inspections must be completed before the railway can be certified as safe to use. On a brighter note, it finally appears the long ordeal for the residents of Churchill and other northern Manitoba communities will be coming to an end in the near future.