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Passenger rail service finally returns to Churchill, heralds new tourism and research opportunities

Churchill residents had a lot to celebrate on the afternoon of Dec. 4, since a passenger train pulled into its station for the first time in over 18 months.

Churchill residents had a lot to celebrate on the afternoon of Dec. 4, since a passenger train pulled into its station for the first time in over 18 months.

At least 100 people endured the -20 C degree weather in order to watch the arrival of Via Rail Train 693, which had departed from Winnipeg two days earlier.

Along the way, this train had picked up a variety of passengers from across the province, who finally had the opportunity to visit friends and family in Churchill since the Hudson Bay Railway was washed out by severe flooding back in May 2017.

This group incuded people like 13-year-old Dakota Hart, who jumped onto the train at the Thompson station in order to visit his grandparents in Churchill.

"Going by plane is about $700 return per person, so to go up there by rail is way, way cheaper. To have that choice is just a wonderful thing," said his mother Sandra in an interview with CBC News. "We're just so excited he can go back up to Churchill by train."

In a Tuesday afternoon press release, Mayor Mike Spence remarked how the return of passenger service to this northern town has much bigger implications beyond simply allowing friends and family to reconnect.

Now that the sole land link has been restored, Spence said that Churchill can reclaim its reputation as a tourism hot spot, especially since they are expecting a strong northern lights season in January.

“We are confident the return of Via trains is going to bring even more tourists to experience all we have to offer,” noted Spence. “This week a tourist operator informed me they have guests that still held on to their deposit for two years waiting for the train’s return. We look forward to welcoming them here.”

The Via Rail train that pulled into Churchill on Tuesday was also carrying a special dining car outfitted with new technology that will help showcase arctic scientific research that is happening right now in the polar bear capital of the world.

This new interactive research project, dubbed “Expedition Churchill,” was developped by the University of Manitoba and aims to communicate and promote topics like climate research through multimedia platforms.

“Churchill is an arctic scientific research hub with world class facilities,” said Spence in a Nov. 30 press release. “The relationship the town has with the scientific community is key to future economic development opportunities.”

Combined with returning frieght services, Spence believes that Churchill can move beyond the recent economic challenges its been facing, inlcuding the skyrocketing cost of goods and services.

Spence finished off his Dec. 4 address by thanking the federal government and the Arctic Gateway Group for helping repair the Hudson Bay Railway in quick fashion after buying it from the American company OmniTrax in late August 2018.

“It took many partners to get back to where we are today,” said Spence. “I’d like to thank Prime Minister Trudeau, the federal government and Via Rail for their commitment to our northern region and working with us. It’s great to see the train back.”