A grain port on Canada's Hudson Bay may be in irreversible decline.

George Simms, director of information with Canada Ports Corp., the federal agency responsible for administering the Port of Churchill, Manitoba, said the community of 1,200 is not in great health but is still far from being dead.Speaking in Vancouver, Mr. Simms said: Rumors to the contrary, we will be opening for business this year.

Churchill's government-owned elevator ships some 500,00 metric tons of export grains a year during a shipping season lasting from August through September.

Mr. Simms said the population of Churchill has declined from some 6,000 people in the early 1970s. There is no road access, and the community is dependent on a 509.8-mile CN Rail branchline from the Pas, Manitoba.

For part of the route the line crosses discontinuous permafrost. Mr. Simms said a decision is going to have to be made on whether money will be found for major reconstruction of the railway line in order to keep it operating. There is also need for a fleet of expensive articulated lightweight covered hopper cars to replace the aging boxcars currently used in seasonal service to Churchill.

Standard hopper cars are too heavy to be used on the line, which has to be extensively repaired each spring to fill in sinkholes and smooth frost heaves. Railway track maintenance costs are put at $17,454 a mile, hugely above the upkeep costs of similarly trafficked lines away from areas of permafrost.

CN Rail Senior Vice President Ross Walker said he is not enthusiastic about having to move barley from northern Alberta to Churchill at the direction of the Canadian Wheat Board, which assigns export cargo to Churchill.

Gary Holden, CN Rail research services officer, said: It is a mistake to talk of doubling throughput, extending the shipping season or creating a first class railway line. The potential is limited. We have one one recurrent sinkhole on that line we will never fill no matter how much material we dump into it. The temperature has warmed half a degree, on average, and this has created huge problems with transitional zones of permafrost.