May 31, 2020

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Finally, it's all aboard for Churchill

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/12/2018 (544 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The town of Churchill, which has been living on hope for a year and a half since spring floods cut the rail line, today has much more solid prospects. The rail line and the port have new owners who are bringing those assets back to life.

The Churchill-bound passenger train that left Winnipeg Sunday afternoon was the surest sign yet that those owners know what they are about. Residents and businesses in Churchill who were wondering whether they should abandon hope and look for a new home can now see that the town’s lifeline to the outside world is in good hands.

A woman buys a ticket for the first train to Churchill in 18 months Sunday, December 2, 2018.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A woman buys a ticket for the first train to Churchill in 18 months Sunday, December 2, 2018.

It’s still a long and vulnerable lifeline, difficult to keep open at the best of times. It crosses boggy ground. The roadbed needs constant shoring up. The winters are harsh and the thaws can leave the line uneven.

The line’s economic foundations, too, have proven precarious in the past. While the Canadian Wheat Board was sending grain shipments out through the port, there was that much commercial revenue to finance the costs of the rail line. On account of the short Hudson Bay ocean shipping season, users for the port cannot be lined up without constant, focused attention — beyond what the former owners, Denver-based Omnitrax, could apply.

The owners now are Arctic Gateway Group, a consortium of users and venture capitalists organized at the instigation of the federal government for the purpose of buying the port and the rail line. The consortium includes Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings and Regina-based pulse processor AGT Foods, together with towns and Indigenous communities served by the rail line.

All Canadians can rejoice that the country once again has a deep–water port facing north.

Since none of these owners has ever run a railway, there was room to wonder what success they would have running one of Canada’s longest and most challenging lines. But they did carry out the necessary construction work so that a test run of locomotives rolled into Churchill at the end of October, just two months after the work started.

Scheduled service by Via Rail resumed Sunday when a train left Winnipeg for the 2½-day trip to Churchill. This came as a huge relief to Churchill residents. All Manitobans can rejoice with them because a solution has been found.

All Canadians can rejoice that the country once again has a deep-water port facing north. For the two centuries when the Hudson’s Bay Company colonized Western and Northern Canada, York Factory and Churchill were the link between Europe and the Canadian heartland. The transcontinental railway, built when federal Canada was formed, put the Hudson Bay route in the shade. Manitoba governments, however, saw the value in keeping that route open in competition with the route through the St. Lawrence River. Manitoba built that rail line while the rest of Canada saw no point and paid no heed.

Churchill’s belugas, its polar bears, its northern lights and its historic sites are great tourist attractions. The train ride itself is part of the Churchill experience for those who like trains. The service is also vital for businesses that cannot afford air freight costs for all their merchandise. It is vital, also, for residents who cannot afford to fly south every time they leave town.

The reopening of the rail service to Churchill makes all the difference between a functioning town and a fly-in outpost.

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