'Our hearts are just filled with joy': 1st train in over a year arrives in Churchill

A train rolled into Churchill, Man., for the first time in more than a year after spring flooding damaged the tracks and severed the town’s only land link to the rest of the province.

Community's lifeline had been severed by flood damage in May 2017

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, right, shakes hands with the crew on the first train to arrive in the Manitoba community since May 2017. (Patrick Foucault/CBC)

A train rolled into Churchill, Man., on Wednesday evening for the first time in more than a year after spring flooding damaged the tracks and severed the town's only land link to the rest of the province.

The train pulled in just before 6:45 p.m. CT on Wednesday ahead of a photo-op with government officials and media. Freight and passenger service is expected to resume to the northern community later this fall, with heavier loads beginning in the spring. 

Still, its arrival surprised many of the residents, who hadn't expected it to arrive until the next day.

People, including many kids in Halloween costumes, rushed down to the tracks to watch the arrival. Many smiled and took pictures, while others hugged each other. 

Rhoda de Meulles was handing out candy to trick-or-treaters at her home when she heard the blast of the train's horn. 

"Our hearts are just filled with joy right now," she said.

A map shows how rail service connects much of northern Manitoba. (CBC)

So many people left the small northern community because having no rail service made it too challenging for them, de Meulles said. 

"We just want them to come home," she said. 

"Everybody's very close. This is where I am. I love this town."

To celebrate on Thursday, the community is planning a street party and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to attend. Jim Carr, federal minister of international trade diversification, is also scheduled to announce support for business development in northern Manitoba later in the afternoon.

Kids dressed in Halloween costumes watch as the first train in more than a year arrives in Churchill on Oct. 31, 2018. (Patrick Foucault/CBC)

The train that rolled in Wednesday night was a locomotive and caboose — for light freight and passenger traffic, with heavier loads expected for the spring.

Prices for basic necessities in the town such as groceries and fuel have soared because planes were needed to bring supplies to the town of about 900 people. The lack of train access has also cut down on the number of tourists.

A long-awaited freight train rolls into Churchill on Wednesday evening. (Patrick Foucault/CBC)

Many people in the community are already planning trips south or to host family from out of town.

"I can't put it into words. It's an overwhelming feeling, it's definitely what we've all been waiting for," said Adelia Spence, holding her baby daughter. "She'll be able to have her family from Norway House come in from south so it will be good to bring them to recreate home."

Adelia Spence says the restoration of train service means that her family from the south can come to visit. (Patrick Foucault/CBC)

Georgina Oman lives in Churchill with her husband. 

"It's so exciting, awesome feeling, that I could just cry, you know, joy," she said. "It means we're alive. We'll be able to go on a train, take our grandkids to see their other grandparents, which they haven't seen in 2½ years." 

Earlier this month, rail inspection vehicles arrived after the last of the washed-out portions of the track were repaired. It marked the first rail traffic to arrive in the town since May 2017.

The community has endured soaring costs and economic uncertainty as the federal government and an assortment of interested buyers wrangled a deal to buy the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill from Denver-based company Omnitrax.

A deal was finalized in late August by Arctic Gateway Group Limited Partnership, a private-public partnership that includes Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Limited Partnership.

Residents rejoiced as a train rolled into Churchill, Man., for the first time in more than a year after spring flooding damaged the tracks and severed the town's only land link to the rest of the province. 1:09

With files from Patrick Foucault and Information Radio