When the Train Stops Coming.
NEWS ITEM: “Trump Budget Zeros Out Amtrak Support.”
Uh-oh . . . if we’re looking for an example of how the loss of passenger train service can impact a community, we just got one. VIA Rail Canada has announced the indefinite suspension of service from Gillam to Churchill in northern Manitoba.
As in the U.S., VIA’s long-distance trains operate on track owned by freight railroads … in this case, by Omnitrax. There was no explanation in the VIA news release nor did a quick scan of the Omnitrax website turn up anything, so “immediate” still means “right now” and “indefinite” still means “until who the hell knows?”.
Churchill has a population of about 900 and is located on the shores of Hudson Bay, something like 1100 miles north of Winnipeg. Loss of rail service, even on a temporary basis, is a huge blow to the town. Tourism is a major factor in the local economy, with visitors coming in the late fall to see polar bears in the wild and, later throughout the winter, displays of the Northern Lights. Visitors reach Churchill by plane or on VIA Rail from Winnipeg. No roads extend that far north.
On my trip to Churchill several years ago, I stayed in a B&B run by a hard-working young woman whose husband is a well-known musher. The couple owns more than 20 sled dogs and guests at the B&B have the rare opportunity to take dog sled rides.
The dogs are magnificent animals who quiver and leap around with excitement and anticipation as they’re being hitched to the sleds. Feeding all those dogs is no small undertaking. I remember being told that every couple of weeks, two 100-pound blocks of frozen chicken parts arrive in Churchill for those hungry dogs . . . on VIA’s train, of course. Now what?
This is a big problem and, while it may be an extreme example, it nonetheless offers a look at how the loss of rail passenger service can have a devastating impact on small communities.