Manitoba

Return of rail service means freedom for Churchill residents to head south for shopping, family visits

Earlier this week, Churchill celebrated the arrival of the first visitors travelling by train in over a year — but the newly repaired train tracks also mean freedom to go south for many who live in the northern Manitoba town.

'I'm really excited to be on the train,' says Liza Spence, who hasn't left the northern town in over a year

On Tuesday night, Liza Spence took the first passenger train out of Churchill, Man., in 18 months. She was headed to Thompson to visit family, and do some grocery and Christmas shopping. (Rachel Bergen)

Earlier this week, Churchill celebrated the arrival of the first visitors travelling by train in over a year — but the newly repaired train tracks also mean freedom to go south for many who live in the northern Manitoba town.

On Tuesday night, just a few hours after the train into town arrived, Liza Spence took the first passenger train to leave Churchill in 18 months.  It was her first time leaving the town in just as long.

"I'm really excited to be on the train," she said as it started pulling out of the station. She was heading to the city of Thompson, about 400 kilometres away, to visit her sister and nephew, and to do some grocery and Christmas shopping.

That's something she hasn't been able to do in more than a year and a half, following flood damage in May 2017 to the rail line to Churchill — the only land link for the town of about 900, which is 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

That meant trips to Thompson were only possible by plane — an option Spence says is too expensive and inconvenient.

"If I were to fly there, I'd have to leave on a Tuesday and I'd have to stay there until the next Tuesday. That wasn't going to work out for me. That's too long to be away from my family. A few nights is good enough, that's all I can handle," she said.

A passenger waiting for the train to Churchill from Thompson earlier in the week. Churchill residents often go south to shop, but people also often bring supplies to the town from Thompson, where costs are usually lower. (Rachel Bergen)

She's glad to see the train running again, after the line was finally repaired earlier this fall. That was made possible when the railway and the Port of Churchill were purchased from Denver-based Omnitrax Inc. by Arctic Gateway Group, a private-public partnership.

"It's been rough not being able to jump on the train, because we usually get the train Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and sometimes you could just go down, do a day trip, do a fast trip, shop and come back," Spence says.

Although it's a long trip to Thompson, she says it's worth it.

"The costs are higher here than it is in Thompson. You can get better deals for bulk stuff in Thompson than you can here in Churchill," she said.

She also says the produce and meat are fresher.

A family tradition

Alan Whitmore agrees. He took two plastic containers with him on his trip from Churchill to Thompson, which he planned to fill with meat and non-perishables.

"The train is the cheapest way to Thompson," he said. "Once Gardewine [transportation company] starts shipping in food again, I'm hoping the prices will go down."

Until then, he's stocking up and keeping an eye out for a gift for his wife. The couple is celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary soon.

Both Whitmore and Spence say they're looking forward to being able to take the train whenever they want.

For Spence, going south to shop is also a family tradition.

"I've always come to Thompson for a grocery shop. We've always done it since I was a young girl. My parents brought us down to do big grocery shops," she said.

"It's my reason to jump on the train. It's a long ride, but I don't mind it."

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