Railway link to Churchill

Churchill matters to Winnipeg in terms of tourism dollars and money spent on supplies for the northern community. The Via Rail depot in Winnipeg is often a starting point for those journeying to Churchill to watch polar bears and beluga whales. Nature lovers arrive at Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport from points across the globe, and many bound for Churchill, depending on their planned connections, stay at the city’s hotels, eat in the city’s restaurants and pay to see the city’s various attractions.

Despite being a favourite stop for hundreds of tourists wanting to view nature in the raw, Churchill is a community that continually battles adversity just to maintain its very existence. Today, the community is struggling with a stoppage of its rail connection with Southern Manitoba due to overland flooding. OmniTRAX Inc., which presently owns the rail line, announced that due to severe flooding and washout conditions, service on the Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) from Amery to Churchill has been suspended indefinitely and is not expected to resume operations until next spring.

“The damage is unprecedented and catastrophic,” said Peter Touesnard, the chief commercial officer at OmniTRAX. “While the Hudson Bay Railway required significant seasonal maintenance, the extent of the damage created by flooding this year is by far the worst we have ever seen.”

Via Rail then announced that northern passenger train service will only continue from Winnipeg to Gillam.

The HBR has been unable to operate to Churchill since May 23, which means that shipments of vital food, fuel, goods and materials have been at a virtual standstill. Extremely expensive airfreighting of food and other essentials to the community is the sole remaining method that can be used to prepare for the summer and fall tourism seasons — the primary source of yearly income for many in the community.

Still, the 900 residents of Churchill have been very resilient. Even the closure by OmniTRAX of Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port at Churchill last year didn’t severely dent their optimism. But a three-day blizzard that dumped 60 centimetres of snow, followed by a quick melt and subsequent flooding that ended  the rail connection has tested the community’s determination when faced with further adversity.

With all that has occurred, a new game plan has be devised if the rail link is ever to be reopened, which includes input from the federal and provincial governments. In the meantime, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between OmniTRAX and the Missinipi Rail consortium of First Nations, who have a vested interest in acquiring the HBR to maintain the rail link to their communities. But the MOU was signed prior to recent events that show just how difficult it is to maintain the money-losing HBR.

The reality is that throughout Churchill’s history, its very existence has been maintained by a series of interventions by successive governments.

It was the grain farmers, businessmen and politicians of the Prairies who were the strongest advocates of the establishment of a railway to and a port at Hudson Bay. From its very beginning, the HBR was envisaged by Western politicians as a tool to break the protectionist policies of the Canadian government that benefitted eastern manufacturers at the expense of prairie farmers.

Sir Donald Mann and Sir William Mackenzie of the Canadian Northern Railway, who had been instrumental in early efforts to bring the railway to Hudson Bay, both expressed the opinion that “incalculable wealth” awaited discovery in the north once the line was completed.

The federal government’s rail minister, Frank Cockrane, had every faith in “the scheme and I will push the Hudson Bay Road for all it’s worth.”

But changes in federal governments and numerous delays resulted in a slow pace of construction. One of the delays was the selection of Port Nelson as the northern terminus of the rail line, which was found to be unsuitable. It took time and more money before Churchill was decided upon.

Once Port Nelson was abandoned, railway construction proceeded uninterrupted until the line reached Churchill. Grading was done in 1928 and track was laid on frozen muskeg by workers digging down to a depth of about 18 inches where permafrost was found.

On March 29, 1929, the Hudson Bay Railway was finally completed. The journey toward laying the last track had been long and difficult. The mile posts along the railway’s route were marked by decades of political wrangling and a triumph over obstacles thrown in its path by Mother Nature. The official ceremony opening the new line occurred a few days later on April 3.

While the rail link was completed in 1929, it wasn’t until 1931 that the port facilities were finished. Newspapers of the day reported crowds gathered to watch two steamships pull into the Port of Churchill. “Sirens on tugs in Churchill harbor screamed, flags flew gaily from the steamers Farnworth and Warkworth, and Churchill itself was decorated with bunting on the arrival today of Dr. R.J. Manion, minister of railways, and the Ottawa party inspecting the port development before the first test shipments out of Hudson Bay,” reported the September 16, 1931, Winnipeg Tribune.

Twenty-four rail cars conveyed Western Canadian wheat to the port. An editorial in the Manitoba Free Press on October 6 stated that the loading of the two ships and their departure for England had ended the outcries of opponents who said the port was not viable.

“The Farnworth experiment shows that wheat from Western Canada can reach the European markets in much less time and with much less handling by the northern route ... wheat can be rapidly handled by the railway and by the elevator equipment to Churchill; and there is no reason why, during the season, there should not be an unbroken succession of streamers coming into Hudson Bay laden with commodities for Western Canada and going out with wheat and other western products.”

The irony is that farmers at first enjoyed lower grain shipping rates with the completion of the railway and port, but insurance companies decided the route was too dangerous and raised their premiums to an amount equal to the freight costs to Montreal or Vancouver.

“A half-century of tireless effort had finally produced a railway to the Bay, but it was all in vain,” wrote Manitoba historian Ed Whitcomb in A Short History of Manitoba. “It should have been a major victory for the West, instead it accomplished almost nothing. Another farmers’ dream had died.”

The recent end of the Canadian Wheat Board export monopoly and the  prospect of no future grain shipments contributed directly to OmniTRAX’s decision to close Churchill’s port facilities. The only way to at least maintain the rail link from Winnipeg to Churchill is through a political will to provide more government subsidies. A strong argument in favour of the HBR is how much it matters to northern communities and  to Winnipeg.