An aerial view of the port of Churchill, Manitoba in 2007. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is suggesting the federal government could take over the Port of Churchill as one way to help revive the subarctic town’s broken rail line and economy. File by THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal takeover of Churchill port could help rail line: Manitoba premier

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is suggesting the federal government could take over the Port of Churchill as one way to help revive the subarctic town’s broken rail line and economy.

“The federal government has the responsibility for ports,” Pallister said Thursday.

“They run dozens of them and maybe they could run one more.”

Pallister has said he is hopeful the federal government will find a solution to the crisis facing Churchill, which lost its only ground connection to the outside world in the spring when flooding damaged the rail line.

People and goods have had to be flown in at much higher cost, and the town of 900 residents on the coast of Hudson Bay fears a long-term economic hit.

The railway and port used to be federally owned, but were sold to Denver-based Omnitrax in 1997.

Omnitrax closed the port’s grain terminal last year. Its biggest customer used to be the Canadian Wheat Board before the agency lost its monopoly on western wheat and barley sales.

Omnitrax has been trying to sell the rail line and has said it cannot afford the repairs needed to get a 250-kilometre section of line back up — at an estimated cost of $43.5 million.

Pallister said a revived port would help the viability of the rail line and the economy as a whole.

“That is of great importance to the long-term sustainability of the community as it exists today and for northern development,” he said. “It’s a tremendous asset for the country of Canada, quite frankly.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in July that Omnitrax has a legal obligation to fix and operate the line. He did not directly answer when asked whether the government might sue Omnitrax.

The company has been in talks with a First Nations consortium to sell the line. That could pave the way for government subsidies for repairs, but there is no sign of a deal.

Pallister is not the only politician touting the idea of a federal takeover. New Democrat member of Parliament Niki Ashton, who represents the Churchill area, has called on Ottawa to nationalize both the port and the rail line.

“We know the privatization experiment failed,” she said in a written statement last year.

“It’s time to develop a model that benefits our North and Canada as a whole.”

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