An aerial view of the port of Churchill, Manitoba, in 2007. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Manitoba offers money, but no details, to help town hurt by rail closure

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he is willing to put up provincial money to help the northern port town of Churchill.

But Pallister is offering few details of his plan, and says some of the $500 million over 10 years would be to continue existing programs.

Churchill lost its only land link to the outside world this spring when flooding caused severe damage to the rail line that was used to transport goods and people.

Since then, prices have jumped sharply for food and other items that must now be flown in.

The rail line is owned by Denver-based Omnitrax, which has said it cannot afford the $20 million to $60 million in repair costs.

Pallister says the province won’t fund repairs because rail service is a federal responsibility, but the province is willing to spend money on economic development, social services and other infrastructure work.

“I’m not talking about infringing on areas of federal responsibility,” Pallister said Friday.

“We’re talking about investing in other areas that are our responsibility. Areas such as health services, social services, economic development, protection, infrastructure.”

He refused to provide further details.

Omnitrax had been in negotiations to sell the rail line to a First Nations consortium, but there have been no developments on that front in recent months.

Pallister said he had hoped the federal government would have found a solution by now in terms of getting the rail line fixed and under stable ownership.

“There has not been satisfactory progress to date,” Pallister said.

The federal government said Omnitrax has legal obligations to repair, operate and maintain the rail line and it has formally demanded the company live up to those terms in an agreement signed in 2008 that saw the federal government give the railway $18.8 million.

“The government is willing to look at all options, including exploring the possibility of working with a new owner toward the repair of the rail line,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a statement late Friday.

“To this end, senior government officials are engaging to find a solution on rail track repairs, ensuring a continuation of rail service for Churchill and surrounding communities.”

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