Manitoba

'To us, it's a miracle': Churchill residents celebrate repair of railway washouts

People living in the town of Churchill, Man., are getting ready to celebrate the completion of repairs to the lifeline into their community.

But uncertainty remains for when the lifeline into their community could be up and running again

Rhoda de Meulles and other people in Churchill are celebrating after learning all the washouts on the rail line have been fixed. That doesn't mean it's ready to resume service to the community, however. (CBC)

Churchillians are getting ready to celebrate the completion of repairs to their community's lifeline. 

The Town of Churchill in Manitoba said in a statement Sunday morning that after slightly more than a month of work, washouts on the Hudson Bay Railway between Gillam and Churchill have been repaired. 

There's still work to be done before rail service resumes, and it's not clear whether the line will be operational before winter arrives. 

Nonetheless, residents say news the last washout had been fixed is a big cause to celebrate.

"To us, it's a miracle and we're so, so happy that this company took over and they actually got onto the rail line right away and started fixing it right away. It's amazing. It's a great crew," said Rhoda de Meulles, a Churchill resident who owns the town's hardware store with her husband.

When the track can handle service vehicles — expected to happen in the next few days, according to rail line owners Arctic Gateway — crew members will make it to Churchill. 

De Meulles said when they do, the town will hold a day-long festival to celebrate and thank them.

"People are just ecstatic," said Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, who called the news a significant milestone for the community.

'Felt like we were kept hostage'

De Meulles said when the rail line shut down, she felt trapped in her own community.

"We always felt like we were being kept hostage because we couldn't do anything — couldn't go anywhere, couldn't see family, nothing, but at least now we know that something is going to happen."

"We have a lot to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend as the final washout has been repaired allowing the test vehicles and crews to pass to Churchill to continue the surfacing and rail repairs beyond the washouts," said Murad Al-Katib, a spokesperson for the Arctic Gateway Group that owns the rail line.

Al-Katib said the conglomerate remains hopeful weather conditions will remain favourable. A statement on the homepage of the group's website makes it clear it's still possible testing and maintenance of the line may not be completed before winter — meaning service on the line wouldn't be restored until the spring.

That would be another blow to people living in Churchill who've had to cope with higher prices for food and other goods that have had to be flown into the community since the winter melt last year washed out the rail line. A mini food bank for people struggling to make ends meet is still open in de Meulles' store.

"It's been very very hard. It's been hard on trying to bring freight in. It's been hard on your mind. It's been hard on our body. You wake up in the morning, you don't know what's going to happen today. You don't know if you're going to get good news or bad news," she said.

Even if the rail line isn't up and running until next spring, de Meulles and Stover agreed knowing there's a plan to have it functional in the new year is better than what they were facing a year ago.

Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, said it's a significant milestone for the community. (Submitted by Joe Stover)

"I feel a lot better going into this winter than I did last winter. Last winter there was no certainty, everything was up in the air and it was definitely a lot more negative feelings going into last winter," Stover said.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart

About the Author

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca