The news Churchill received on the last day of August that OmniTrax had finally agreed to terms of a sale of the Hudson Bay Railway, the Port of Churchill and the Churchill marine tank farm to a northern consortium of owners was undoubtedly welcome and long overdue, given that it has now been about 16 months since the last train rolled into Churchill, following the suspension of service north of Gillam due to damaged caused by flooding in the spring of 2017. But this doesn’t just mark the end of one chapter in the town and the railway’s history. It is also the beginning of another.
The chapter that has ended, the OmniTrax chapter, began in 1997 and had its ups and downs, the downs including many delays for train travel between The Pas and Churchill, as well as the shutting down of the port for grain shipments in the summer of 2016. The highs included years with near record shipments of grain just a few years before the closure and investments by the company and the government in making the tracks better able to withstand the extremes of Northern Manitoba’s climate and the unstable foundation on which they were laid.
That is the past now, and debating whether the federal government should have ever sold the port and rail line to a private company, and an American one at that, more than 20 years ago, is nothing more than perhaps an interesting political science debate, depending upon how interested in those sorts of things you are. A more recent decision – the one Stephen Harper’s Conservative government made to essentially shut down the Canadian Wheat Board – played a much larger role in the woes that have since beset the railway and port. It was much easier to negotiate with one bulk shipper to whom farmers were pretty much obligated to sell their wheat, than it is now, when they have greater freedom of choice. And if that wasn’t problem enough, you can now add on to it the doubts people may have about the reliability of the rail line and the port, which already bears the burden of having a very short shipping season that doesn’t begin until at least July, depending on what sort of winter it was. It’s hard enough to convince people to use a port that has only railway access and may be farther than them from others, even if it is closer to destinations in Europe. Once they’ve gotten used to not using it, it’s even harder to lure them back.
That said, the business side of the Hudson Bay Railway is only one part of the equation. For Churchill, and for other communities like Thicket Portage and Pikwitonei and Fox Lake Cree Nation, it is literally a lifeline, the only way in or out by land for most or all of the year, and the only semi-affordable way to bring in supplies that residents need to go about their daily lives. As much as tourists may be glad that they could one day have the option of trekking north to see beluga whales or polar bears via the nowadays quaint mode of train travel, the freight services are more important.
It will be a great day for Churchill and Fox Lake Cree Nation when a train actually rolls into town again on the Hudson Bay Railway after what will, by the time it happens, probably have been a year-and-a-half suspension. But it will also mark the beginning of a new chapter that will consist of mainly trying to recapture what was lost during the previous one. And, right now, there’s no telling how this chapter will turn out.