Airships to replace Hudson Bay rail line?

By: Martin Cash

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2017

 

Barry Prentice, the supply chain management professor at the University of Manitoba, is hard-headed when it comes to the justification of investment in transportation infrastructure.

“I always tell my students the three most important words in transportation are utilization, utilization and utilization,” he said.

Granted, it’s a cheap take on the old real estate adage about location, but it’s likely something being considered very seriously while engineers figure out how to address the washed out sections of the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill.

What with the sketchy nature of information currently available on the extent of the damage it’s anyone’s guess as to how much it will cost to get it fixed.

But there is little argument that the rail line is not heavily used and that it is losing money both from a freight and a passenger traffic perspective.

The issue of utilization of the so-called Bay Line in the current state of crisis over an extended service suspension has been downplayed. And no one wants to give Omnitrax the benefit of the doubt because, over time, it has engendered so much ill will. That may be contributing to the current perception that governments seem particularly unenthusiastic about the prospects of spending money on the line.

But the fact remains, Via loses 80 cents on every dollar it spends hauling passengers to Churchill and Omnitrax says it has been losing money for years on the freight business.

No matter how large a subsidy the federal government proffers to entice grain handlers to ship through Churchill, it is not likely going to change the fact that international trade has shifted. Canadian grain handlers now export a large majority of the Canadian crop out of the West Coast and the port of Thunder Bay operates at about 50 per cent capacity.

And while the residents of Churchill are justifiably feeling on edge about their future livelihood, its current status as a fly-in community puts them in the company of hundreds of other communities in Canada, including several in Manitoba with much larger populations. (Having said that, most of those communities are probably jealous of Churchill’s opulent air strip — capable of landing jets the size of Boeing 737s — not to mention its sea port.)

Considering the reality of so many other communities that function without an all-weather land transportation linkage, one senior transportation industry official recently said this about Churchill’s plight: “It’s the biggest tempest in a teapot.”

Prentice is likely not the only one now imagining that the rail line will never get fixed.

One of the first things Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer at Omnitrax, said after the official announcement of long-term suspension of service two weeks ago was, “It is difficult for us to wrap our head around how we would fund the reconstruction of this.”

Prentice has no problem imagining replacing the rail line from Gillam to Churchill with an all-weather roadway (acknowledging, as he does, that it would have a hefty price tag — in the order of magnitude of close to $1 billion). Another option, he said, is “If the rail line is to be sustained in perpetuity, then some day that track has to be relocated, because climate change is going to make the current route even worse over time. I do not see any future for that.”

In a presentation this week by members of the Look North provincial task force on economic development in the North, there was lots of talk about the need for all-weather roads.

Chuck Davidson, co-chair of the task force, said strategic transportation infrastructure investment will likely be one of group’s eventual recommendations to government. That sounds like a way of avoiding saying out loud that maybe the railroad is too expensive to maintain.

“The public does not generally understand rail lines deteriorate and wear out and have to be replaced,” Prentice said. “You can’t just build it and it’s there forever. If you do not have traffic you cannot sustain a railway. Where would the money come from just to do simple maintenance let alone catastrophic repairs?”

The same argument would need to be made for the construction of a road to Churchill. Despite the fact that Omnitrax has made everyone doubt its motives, these are the kind of serious questions that are now going to have to addressed. And Prentice wonders, after all other options are considered, why not try airships.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca