‘That can’t come soon enough:’ Churchill hopes propane crisis sparks railway repair

People in Churchill wrapped up in scarves and mittens as they walked down the streets of the northern Manitoba community over the weekend, but despite the weather many homes maintained the chill inside.

Churchill is critically low on propane — a fuel that is used to heat many buildings.

Churchill, Manitoba
An aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba, where supplies are low following rail track flooding. Photo by Shawn via Flickr Commons.

The town has been without its rail line linking it to the south for more than a year after flooding washed out portions of the tracks.

“It goes back to no rail line, and that’s what the problem is,” said Mayor Mike Spence. “Last year the province had to bring propane in by marine vessel which is the first it’s ever happened in this community.”

On Monday, as temperatures sat around -2 C, the Amundsen icebreaker, a research ship that has spent the last six weeks exploring Hudson Bay, pulled up to the community’s now closed port.

It’s arrival brought experts, scientists and politicians, including Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, north for a two-day workshop exploring climate change and globalization of the Arctic.

Carr said he is aware the province and community are working to rectify the propane situation, and he hopes a similar outcome will follow for the rail line.

“That can’t come soon enough,” he said.

“These people are tough, they are patient and I understand the kind of hardship they have experienced because I’ve seen it ? and I hear it.”

Omnitrax, the company that owns the rail line, is appealing a federal regulatory ruling that requires it to repair the track.

Hudson Bay Railway Co., which is owned by Omnitrax, has said it cannot afford to repair the line.

On Friday, the community issued a notice urging people to turn off their heat or reduce temperatures in homes and businesses and to keep windows and doors closed.

The temperature was so cold over the Canada Day weekend that many of the community’s celebratory activities were cancelled or moved inside.

“The biggest concern, of course, is heat in the housing units. They’ve asked everyone to try and preserve as much propane as they can,” said Dave Dealy with the Churchill Chamber of Commerce.

Propane isn’t the only issue, Spence said. The cost of food and other materials has significantly increased since Churchill became a fly-in-only community.

The surge of people on the Amundsen was a good sign for those in the community, despite the pressures it put on the low propane supply. Local officials said they are working with the province to bring in propane and are hopeful it will arrive within a few weeks.

Officials added the top priority remains solidifying a tentative deal to sell the rail line and port to a consortium of northern communities, along with help from the federal government.

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