Rail Service returns to Churchill, Manitoba – Can Passenger Train Service resume between SSM & Hearst?

Arctic Gateway Train

In May of 2017, spring flooding damaged the rail line leading into Churchill, Manitoba. Omnitrax said that it would be too expensive to repair, and as a result, the community suffered from soaring costs for food and fuel; and isolation, relying on very expensive flights for transportation.

In late August 2018, Arctic Gateway Group Limited Partnership, a private-public partnership that includes Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, Fairfax Financial Holdings, and AGT Limited Partnership purchased the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill from Denver-based company Omnitrax. In support, the federal government provided $74 million to help fix the railroad and purchase the assets. Another $43 million is to be doled out over 10 years to subsidize operations.

Last night in a Halloween surprise, the first trai, the first train in 17 months arrived, and reports are that there will be a street party with Prime Minister Trudeau to attend.

News in Ontario is not as bright. It has been 3 years, 3 months and 19 days since there was a passenger train service on the Algoma Central Railway (CN) between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. Missanabie Cree First Nation has applied for and obtained all the necessary requirements to re-introduce service but lacks the funding assistance from the Federal Government to institute this service.  

Businesses in the region that relied on the train have suffered and continue to endure losses.BDO Canada’s ‘Economic Impact Analysis’ of April 2014 reported the total, annual, economic impact associated with the Algoma Central passenger rail service to be in the realm of $38 to 48 million. A media release from CAPT explains, “Several lodges along the rail line have witnessed as much as a 40% drop recently in clientele because there is no rail access and float plane access is not a preferred option. One lodge had such a poor year in 2018 that it is considering closing for good.”

The problem is that the Federal Government has assumed the premise that the ACR service does not meet Transport Canada’s criteria of a ‘remote’ service. The BDO study in 2014 explained that of the more than 600 owned properties along the line, those with rail-only access total 448. The loss of the passenger train has forced many of these property owners to forgoe visiting their property or use un-maintained roads, illegal water crossings and chance industrial roads to gain access.

CAPT notes, “Many of the owners are seniors and/or retirees who worked all their lives to build these cabins and cottages knowing full well at the time they would have train access to these properties. But now many don’t and Transport Canada hasn’t moved from their position even though they subsidize a similar service from Sudbury to White River through VIA Rail.”

CAPT continues to lobby the Federal Government for the development of a new transportation policy that supports and promotes rail, passenger services across Canada; saying “Transport Canada’s only focus today is on rail safety which is important but not the only issue. Passenger trains are an essential service and need to be encouraged.”

The inaugural train into Churchill is a bold step forward in returning rail service for those residents. Maybe there is hope yet for passenger rail service to return to the ACR line and the users along the line.

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