It's the end of the line for a dining tradition on Via Rail that dates back to the Roaring Twenties.
And tour operators and First Nations are outraged the Crown corporation is doing away with chefs on its Winnipeg-to-Churchill rail service.
Via Rail has informed the five chefs who work on the three-times-per-week train run their positions are being eliminated. The Hudson Bay line has had chef service providing freshly cooked meals for 82 years.
After Nov. 15, meals served on the almost 48-hour trip — that means lunch and dinner the first day, breakfast, lunch and dinner the second day and finally, breakfast the day of arrival — will be microwaved. For staff, it means four days of eating microwaved food.
Tour operators and First Nations residents should have been consulted before Via made its decision, Daryl Adair of Rail Travel Tours said. "Being an amateur rail historian, I just shake my head," said Adair. "In my years of experience as a tour operator, the first thing people talk about after coming back from a trip is the meals."
"I am very, very upset," said Betsy Kennedy, chief of War Lake First Nation near Gillam. "That train is very much a lifeline for First Nations people." Kennedy said the train is sometimes so full that there is standing-room only, even when a third coach is added.
The move will save Via Rail $500,000, said Michael Woelcke, Via's senior manager of customer experience in Winnipeg. The saving is for cost of the food and chef positions. Woelcke said Via switched to microwaved meals on its Gaspe service in Quebec last year and customers responded positively. "We have an obligation to operate as cost-effectively as possible," he said.
Last January, Via said the dining car served an average of just eight breakfasts, four lunches and seven dinners per round trip between Winnipeg and Churchill. Last May, it served an average of 25 breakfasts, 10 lunches and 14 dinners. Woelcke said the average passenger ride on the Churchill line is five hours.
But Via will continue to provide chef service during the peak season for polar bear trips from October until mid-November, Woelcke said. In October of 2010, the train run averaged 80 breakfasts, 38 lunches, and 68 dinners per round trip.
Adair said Via told him the October service isn't a certainty yet. Even so, there are other peak seasons the railway is ignoring. For instance, July and August are popular because of beluga whale trips at Churchill, and February to March are peak times for viewing the Northern Lights. "We're trying to bring tourist groups up to Churchill year-round and this isn't helping," Adair said.
The Hudson Bay line was one of the last Via Rail runs that still served freshly cooked meals, said Adair. The only other Via Rail train that still offers cooked meals is the Toronto-to-Vancouver line, called the Canadian. The "short hops," as Adair called most southern routes, don't have cooked meals but their passengers aren't on the train as long and aren't as dependent on train services as people travelling the isolated northern line.
Colin Ferguson, president of Travel Manitoba, called Via's decision "regrettable." Travel Manitoba has named visiting Churchill one of the six 'signature' experiences in Manitoba. "It sounds like it's a step back and I suspect it is," he said.
David Kissack, of the Canadian Auto Workers local 4002, called the move "a detriment not only to the members but to the community as a whole." However, the union can't stop the Crown corporation. "The company has the right to decide what the service standard is. All the union can do is supply the manpower," he said.