Work is underway on permanent fixes to the Hudson Bay Railway that connects Manitoba’s Port of Churchill with the rest of Canada. The solution is geocells, or cellular confinement technology, that enclose sand and rock in honeycombed plastic containers to support the rail tracks over unstable ground like muskeg.

“You lay a layer of geotextile, which is kind of like a plastic cloth first, and then you put the geocell on,” explained Sheldon Affleck, President and CEO of the railway’s new parent company, Arctic Gateway Group. “You put your sand in there and you pack it absolutely as hard as you can pack it. It just becomes like a solid a beam of concrete. Yet it won’t crack or break like concrete would. And it’s much cheaper.”

Feds pledge another $40 million

This August, the federal government announced a $40 million investment through Indigenous Services Canada’s Strategic Partnerships Initiative to enable Arctic Gateway to improve the railway. The focus is on permanently repairing a section of the railway between Gillam, Man., and Churchill that massive flooding in 2017 made impassable. “We wouldn’t geocell the entire 627 miles of the railway, though,” Mr. Affleck said. “We’ve identified about 150 miles that if we had it nice and solid, the port of Churchill could do an incredible amount of business. We could run heavy trains, long trains.”

Before that section of the line can be geocelled, however, the railway needs to establish strategic camps near where workers will install the geocells under the mainline. That work involves geocelling the sites of those camps “because they’re just on peat moss on the tundra.” Work has already begun as evidenced by recent aerial photos Arctic Gateway shared with Canadian Sailings. One of those camps is near a former Canadian National Railway gravel pit at Sundance, Man., about 60 kilometres northeast of Gilliam. That pit is supplying material for the geocelling. Contractors are also geocelling about 10 miles of sidings before doing the mainline.

“So it’s a very good demonstration of the geocell technology, because you’re starting with something that’s actually almost impassable right now, that hasn’t been maintained at all,” Mr. Affleck said. “I’m confident that we’ll demonstrate that it will look like a freeway when we’re done. It will be stable and solid.”

An Alberta company, Paradox Access Solutions Inc., supplies the Tough Cell product. “It works from minus 60 to plus 60 degrees Celsius. And it won’t start to degrade for 75 years,” Mr. Affleck said, adding that it’s used all over world but mostly in places like northern Alberta with lots of muskeg.

Ownership change

Mr. Affleck became CEO of Arctic Gateway Group this March shortly after the company announced an ownership change. Arctic Gateway — whose subsidiaries also include Port of Churchill, Churchill Marine Tank Farm, and Arctic Gateway Freight Services — is now owned by OneNorth Community, a consortium of Indigenous and northern communities, such as Flin Flon, Thompson, Gillam, The Pas, and Churchill.

“Our communities are ready to step up,” Christian Sinclair, OneNorth Co-Chair and Onekanew (Chief) of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, said in a news release announcing the ownership change. “We have a multi-generational socioeconomic development vision that will take this work forward as a truly northern Canadian success story.”

OneNorth is about 70 per cent indigenous-owned. About 70 per cent of its employees and 80 per cent of new hires are also indigenous. “It really brings the ownership completely back to the players involved,” Mr. Affleck said. “Any success that happens will happen to the groups that are involved. There’s huge potential in northern Manitoba, in mining and a lot of different things.”

Arctic Gateway — then owned by AGT Food and Ingredients, Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited, and Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, a consortium of First Nations and communities — had acquired the railway and those other assets from Denver-based OmniTrax Inc. in August 2018. At that time, the railway had been out of service since May 2017 following massive floods that washed it out in 20 places with extensive damage at 130 locations including bridges, according to a 2017 report from engineering firm AECOM. That report estimated total repairs would cost $43.5 million although a later report estimated $5 million to $10 for a temporary fix.

Troubled history

The railway was sold about a year later after the Canadian Transportation Agency had ordered OmniTrax to repair the line and the Canadian government had a threatened an $18.8 million lawsuit if those repairs didn’t happen. The sale eventually transpired despite the railway issuing a news release in early July 2017 saying negotiations had broken off.

Troubles on the railway didn’t end with the sale, though. Shortly after, on Sept. 16, 2018, a train derailment just south of Thompson claimed the life of conductor Kevin Anderson, the Winnipeg Free Press reported at the time. An inquest into his death, which won’t examine the causes of the crash itself, is set for later this year or early 2022.

Via Rail resumed passenger service between Gillam and Churchill in December 2018. Passenger trains run lighter than freight trains, Mr. Affleck pointed out. Consequently, they don’t affect the track as much. Still, damage to the track means passenger trains have to slow down. “The passenger service to Churchill and some of the communities, that’s their only way of commuting,” Mr. Affleck said.

A railway to Churchill was first completed in 1929, according to Canadian National operated the line until 1997 when it sold the trackage to OmniTrax.

In recent years, a lot of public money has gone toward keeping the railway running. According to a Dec. 12, 2020 Free Press article, the federal government had already coughed up $117 million to repair the railway, including over $40 million for maintenance work. In 2018, the federal government announced it would spend $74 million over the next three years to cover the cost of purchasing and repairing the railway, and buying the Port of Churchill and the marine fuel tank farm. Much of that cash went to OmniTrax for the railway and other assets, Mr. Affleck said. “They couldn’t expropriate the assets. It had to be a negotiated deal. And I’m not privy to all that,” Mr. Affleck said.

Mike Murphy, a communications consultant for Arctic Gateway, said that the federal money also covered operational costs and some rehabilitation work. “But not with the same strategic approach that Sheldon has brought to the table.” Mr. Affleck brings to his new a role a history with shortline railways. In 2004, along with his brother, Lavern, he founded MobilGrain, which AGT Foods acquired in 2015 along with affiliated companies Last Mountain Railway, Big Sky Railway, and MobilEx Terminal in Thunder Bay.

Churchill connection

It was during his time at MobilGrain that Mr. Affleck first visited Churchill. “Actually, our first vessel that we ever loaded was out of Churchill,” he said.

The company shipped durum wheat to locales such as Morocco and Algeria, a trip that would take less than 10 days. MobilGrain chartered Russian vessels from the Murmask Shipping Company, which is familiar with Arctic ports.

Mr. Affleck even recalls spending a few days with a Russian captain aboard his ship anchored off Churchill. “To him, Churchill was kind of like coming to Palm Springs or Fort Lauderdale,” Mr. Affleck said. “He didn’t consider it Arctic at all.”

Mr. Affleck sees great potential for Churchill as a port for products such as canola pellets and potash. While its ice-free shipping season is currently only about four months and ends in early October, Churchill could be made accessible by icebreakers because most of the ice forms near the shore.

“Still, the problem is that we’ve got an unreliable railroad track,” Mr. Affleck said. “You wouldn’t want to get into icebreaking and extending the season and doing all that when you’ve got a deficient railroad track.”

Geocell debut

Geocells promise to fix that. Mr. Affleck’s first involvement with the technology came in 2017 while building a 32-acre intermodal container terminal for CN in Regina. “We even installed it in the winter time, which would be considered ludicrous,” he said. “And it is the best 32 acres, most solid 32 acres in Regina to this day.”

Before geocelling the Hudson Bay mainline itself, the railway has to do more conventional repairs on sinkholes. To assist with that, the railway has leased four dump cars from a U.S. company. “They are absolutely essential for correcting the sinkholes, which we have to fill up with rock,” Mr. Affleck said. In early September, he estimated that crews had fixed about 60 per cent of the sinkholes, which reduced to 13 from 50 the sections of track where trains had to slow down to 10 miles an hour. The crews then had about another six weeks to work on the project before winter strikes. “If the weather holds a bit longer like we’ve got, we’ll just keep going until Mother Nature says we can’t,” Mr. Affleck said. Then, to repair the entire track with geocells will require about 800 trainloads of sand from the gravel pit, he estimated. “Fix that first, the sky is the limit.”