Via to ship stranded rail cars out of Churchill, reduce service to northern Manitoba

After months stranded in Churchill, Man., due to a rail line damaged by spring flooding, several rail cars will be put on a barge heading to Quebec later this month — assuming protesters don't get in the way.

Negotiations continue in Ottawa with Omnitrax over repairs to flood-damaged rail line

This section of the Hudson Bay Railway is just one of 24 areas between Gillam and Churchill Manitoba that are impassable since flooding in the spring. (Omnitrax)

After months stranded in Churchill due to a rail line damaged by spring flooding, several rail cars will be loaded on a barge heading to Quebec later this month — assuming protesters don't get in the way.

"I think that when the train does go it is symbolic to the town that we aren't going to have our rail service this winter," said Dave Daley, chamber of commerce president in the northern Manitoba town.

In an email to CBC News Wednesday, Via Rail spokesperson Mylène Bélanger said the plan is to transport the five rail cars and two locomotives to Montreal in two weeks.

"Rust has already begun to form on exposed metal," Bélanger said. "We think that if the train remains out of service until next spring, it may require a comprehensive overhaul for its safe return to operation."

The rail cars have been stuck in Churchill, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, since a pair of blizzards and massive spring snow melt submerged kilometres of the Hudson Bay rail line in May.

Denver-based Omnitrax owns the rail line that runs from The Pas to Churchill, and has said it can't afford the estimated $60-million in repairs that are needed without help from governments and local First Nations.

A barge scheduled to arrive in Churchill on Sunday will be used for the move, Bélanger said.

'A lot of displeased people'

The Via announcement comes about a month after Daley and others in the community threatened to block the removal of the stranded cars in protest against the federal government's failure to fix the line.

"We're not happy," Daley said. "It's taken so long ... there's a lot of displeased people that the information hasn't been flowing properly."

Churchill, Man., is located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (Google Maps)

The news will sting for those in the community who have been crossing their fingers for a fix before snowfall, Davey said.

"We've had no communication or no information given to the townspeople here," Davey said.

"A lot of people were kept hopeful and a lot of people have been stalling getting prepared because everyone keeps saying ... the rumours that we hear, 'It's close.'"

Reduction in service

On Wednesday in Ottawa, federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr declined to provide an update on negotiations with Omnitrax or when repairs on the line could start. 

"We continue to talk seriously and with purpose," Carr said in the House of Commons before question period.

Churchill has been without rail service since a spring flood damaged the only rail line into the northern Manitoba town. (Omnitrax)

Via also plans to temporarily cut down its service to northern Manitoba as of Nov. 1.

Return trips from Winnipeg to The Pas will now run once as opposed to twice weekly; there will be two return trips weekly between The Pas and Thompson; and three return trips between Thompson and Gillam, Man.

"This situation has affected the reliability of our service and as winter is approaching, the reliability of our equipment could deteriorate further," Bélanger said.

"This temporary [reduction] will improve our on-time performance and allow us to continue to fulfil our committments to remote communities, until the service to Churchill resumes."

Community to plan rally, blockade

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence panned the decision to remove the rail cars, taking aim at Omnitrax.

"While the federal government has made important commitments to support the repair of the rail line, work has still not started," Spence wrote in a statement.

"The current owner has not granted access to the rail line so that repairs can begin. The continued delay in access to the tracks is not acceptable and benefits no one."

Daley plans to meet with community members in the coming days. He said there will "definitely" be a rally and an attempt to block the tracks.

He said the community values Via Rail's investment in Churchill and isn't "going to war" with the Crown corporation. Instead, he says any coming protests or blockades will be directed at the federal government and its lack of action on the rail line repairs.

"Via are our friends, and Via gives us a supreme service up here and spends a lot of money on promoting Churchill for tourism," Daley said. "This a symbol for us to the federal government to let them know that we're not happy."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email

With files from Cameron MacIntosh and Chris Rands