‘It’s very exciting’: First rail tourists in 560 days depart for Churchill, Man.

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For the first time in 18 months, tourists are riding the rails to Churchill, Man. 

When Douglas Belcher heard the train was returning, he decided to buy a ticket and take the two-day ride. 

« I’m sure happy that the people of Churchill have got a land link, because it’s very important, and I’m really annoyed that it didn’t happen sooner, » he said. 

He will be on the first passenger train to pull into town since May 2017, when service on the 400-kilometre Hudson Bay Railway was suspended after severe flooding washed it out in 20 different places. The suspension severed Churchill’s only land link out of town, causing the cost of living to rise steeply.

It was also hard on the town’s tourism industry, and local businesses had a hard time staying open with higher costs and fewer customers. Some had to lay off staff

Churchill, Man., is located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (Google Maps)

« I’m glad things worked out, and hopefully they’ll stay on their feet and keep the land link open, » Belcher said.

Belcher says he’s brought books and a camera for the two-day trip, followed by two nights in the community before the train heads back south. 

Walking up and down is a nice thing about train travel

He’s excited to check out the train, eat in the dining car and stare out the window. He has a senior rail pass, so he thinks he might travel back again after this trip.

Douglas Belcher decided to buy a ticket to visit the northern community as soon as he heard the train was back in service. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC )

« Probably walk up and down a little bit, just for curiosity — that’s the nice thing about a train, you can do that. It’s not a Greyhound bus, » said the former railway worker. 

The train was scheduled to depart Winnipeg at 12:05 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2. It actually left around 1 p.m., before travelling roughly 1,000 kilometres north with scheduled arrival in Churchill at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 4, according to Via’s website.

It will be 560 days between the May 23, 2017 washout and the train’s arrival. 

The train was scheduled to depart Winnipeg at 12:05 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, though it left late. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC )

About a dozen people bought tickets to take the train to Churchill from Winnipeg Sunday, though more will likely board the train at different stops along the way, said Michael Woelcke, general  manager of regional services for Via Rail.

Churchill is a huge part of Via Rail’s tourism business in Manitoba, so the company is very excited to be able to provide rail service to the northern community again, he said. 

« People really like to go up there, and not being able to deliver that service was frustrating, » he said. 

Ron Grapentine, a retired rail worker, has been regular visitor to Churchill since he retired in 1992. He said he was very excited to be able to take the train there again. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC )

Ron Grapentine says he’s been a regular visitor to Churchill since he retired as a rail worker in 1992. 

Catching up with friends along the way

« I’ve been going there every year for so many years — and I have friends … [it’s] very exciting, for me, » he said. « The old friends you meet as you go — we’ll stop at The Pas, Man., and Thompson … on to Gillam, and then into Churchill. So it’s quite a train ride, that’s for sure. »

He says he’ll be staying with one of those old friends there for two days before heading home. « He says he’s got Arctic char he’s going to cook for me, » he said. 

Grapentine says he’s knows it’s been a difficult year and a half for Churchill, especially when beloved bakery Gypsy’s burned down. A friend of his ran a jewelry store that’s also closed while the train has been out, he said. 

Now that the train is returning, he’s optimistic that Churchill’s fortunes will take a turn for the better. 

With files from Erin Brohman

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Freight services back between Churchill and Thompson, Man.

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After a year and a half of waiting, Churchill, Man., is expecting a freight shipment to arrive by the end of the week. 

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence confirmed freight service is operational from Thompson, Man., to Churchill, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The service has been suspended since severe flooding washed out portions of the Hudson Bay Railway in May 2017, severing the town’s only land-link and sending cost of living in the area soaring.

« Bottom line, this is great news, » Spence said Monday.

« We’ve got community members and businesses that have … vehicles and other goods that have been stuck, whether it be in Thompson or other southern communities, that have been sitting there since May of last year. »

The announcement comes less than a month after trains rolled into Churchill for the first time since the flooding, which washed out portions of the roughly 400-kilometre track in 20 different places.

Without rail services, the town of roughly 900 people on the Manitoba shore of Hudson Bay was a fly-in only community for approximately a year and a half, driving up living expenses, food costs and the price of gasoline.

« It’s been a tough go, » Spence said. « We continue to pay high prices for fuel and certain goods. But we’re working towards, you know, getting the line back up and running, and services like the Via train passenger service. »

A map shows how rail service connects much of northern Manitoba. (CBC )

The town posted the announcement on Twitter and Facebook on behalf of Arctic Gateway Group, the public-private partnership that took over the the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill from former owner Omnitrax following a deal in late August.

« It’s an important milestone, » Spence said.

Arctic Gateway Group is a coalition of local rail-line communities, area First Nations, Saskatchewan grain and pulse trader AGT Food and Ingredients and Toronto holding company Fairfax Financial. 

After a $117-million federal commitment to help resurrect the rail line and port, Arctic Gateway began repairs. On Nov. 1, CEO Murad Al-Katib told media the work was « substantially complete. »

The first train on the repaired track arrived in town on Oct. 31, with expectations to work toward freight and passenger service later in the year and heavier loads beginning in the spring.

« Once [passenger service] gets into play, it’s going to even be greater, » Spence said. « Our community will be able to get out and see family members in other communities. It means other community members visiting our community. »

He said passenger service is expected to be operational by the end of November or early December.

« It shouldn’t be long. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed and, like I said, it’ll be soon, » he said.

« It’s coming along. But naturally it’s not coming quick enough. »

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Churchill Falls | Le Devoir

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Je viens de lire le résumé de la décision de la Cour suprême concernant la nième poursuite de Terre-Neuve contre Hydro-Québec. Je comprends très bien la frustration des gens de Terre-Neuve qui doit se comparer à la nôtre lors de la décision du conseil privé de Londres concernant la frontière du Labrador, décision rendue en 1927.

Ne serait-il pas temps de régler honorablement ces deux contentieux par une ronde de négociation? La conjoncture pourrait jouer en notre faveur. Terre-Neuve est en mauvaise posture financière avec son projet de barrage de Muskrat Falls, dont les coûts sont ruineux pour cette province. Il ne s’agit pas de profiter de la situation, mais de proposer une entente sinon cordiale, à tout le moins honnête et tenant compte des réclamations de chacune des parties.

Comme dirait un certain général de Gaulle, vaste programme, mais sait-on jamais.

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Churchill Falls: un contrat est un contrat

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Malgré ce qu’on aime croire dans bien des recoins du Canada, Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador n’a pas été floué par Hydro-Québec au moment de signer le contrat qui a permis la construction de la centrale hydroélectrique de Churchill Falls. En fait, n’eussent été les garanties offertes par la société d’État québécoise à l’époque, ce barrage n’aurait pas vu le jour.

Selon la majorité des juges de la Cour suprême, Hydro-Québec a respecté sa part du contrat. Par conséquent, rien ne justifie de le rouvrir, comme le demandait l’entreprise Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation (CFLCo). Dans un arrêt rendu vendredi, la Cour ne conteste pas le fait que CFLCo reçoit une portion congrue des revenus générés par la vente de cette électricité, et ce, depuis des années. Elle ne nie pas non plus qu’Hydro-Québec, qui achète cette électricité au rabais, engrange des milliards.

La genèse de ce contrat signé en 1969 est instructive. Armé d’un bail à long terme pour exploiter le potentiel énergétique du bassin du fleuve Churchill, CFLCo doit emprunter pour financer la construction du barrage. Pour assurer la viabilité du projet, il lui faut trouver des clients capables de garantir l’achat à long terme de grandes quantités d’électricité et de les acheminer vers les marchés.

Hydro-Québec est le partenaire tout désigné. Mais il faut la convaincre, car elle peut développer ses propres projets. Après des années de négociations serrées, la société québécoise accepte de garantir les dépassements de coûts des travaux et s’engage à acheter, indépendamment de ses besoins, une quantité établie d’électricité.

En échange de cette importante prise de risque, Hydro-Québec veut un contrat à long terme et des prix fixes établis en fonction des coûts de construction. CFLCo acquiesce et est du coup capable d’obtenir les prêts dont elle a besoin pour aller de l’avant. Quand le contrat prendra fin en 2041, CFLCo, maintenant société d’État, sera seule propriétaire et bénéficiaire de l’infrastructure évaluée à environ 20 milliards.

Le litige tranché vendredi ne portait pas sur le fond du contrat. Après tout, CFLCo a obtenu tout ce qu’elle cherchait à obtenir au moment de la signature. Comme cela fut le cas dans d’autres recours, l’enjeu n’était rien d’autre que le partage des profits tirés par Hydro-Québec grâce au faramineux écart entre le prix d’achat et le prix de revente des MW/h de Churchill Falls.

Personne n’avait anticipé pareil scénario quand la société québécoise avait accepté d’assumer l’impact de la fluctuation des prix, mais les crises du pétrole, la perte de confiance dans le nucléaire, l’amélioration des technologies de transport et l’ouverture du marché américain ont provoqué une flambée des prix.

CFLCo estime que ces bouleversements imprévus du marché ont brisé l’équilibre du contrat original, que la collaboration implicite attendue au sein de ce qu’elle appelle une coentreprise imposait à Hydro-Québec d’en revoir les termes, tout comme son obligation en droit civil de faire preuve de bonne foi et d’équité en matière de contrat.

Aucun des arguments de l’entreprise n’a trouvé grâce aux yeux de la majorité des juges. Selon eux, il ne s’agit pas d’une coentreprise et l’équilibre du contrat n’a pas été brisé puisqu’il ne reposait pas sur la valeur marchande. En invoquant le caractère imprévisible du marché pour justifier sa requête, CFLCo a cherché à faire jouer un principe qu’on ne trouve pas dans le Code civil du Québec, soit celui de l’imprévisibilité. Le Code parle de bonne foi et d’équité, mais en profitant du marché, Hydro-Québec n’a pas lésé CFLCo.

Les juges ne pouvaient souscrire à la thèse de l’entreprise terre-neuvienne sans introduire indirectement dans le Code civil une notion que le législateur québécois a rejetée. Quant à la bonne foi, disent-ils, qui « n’est synonyme ni de charité, ni de justice distributive, les tribunaux ne peuvent l’invoquer pour ordonner un partage de profits par ailleurs honnêtement gagnés ».

Le fait que seul le juge terre-neuvien, Malcolm Rowe, soit dissident n’aidera pas à calmer ceux qui sont convaincus que le Québec a piégé Terre-Neuve dans cette affaire. L’exposé des faits a par contre le mérite de remettre les pendules à l’heure et d’ébranler cette légende qui a trop souvent empoisonné les relations entre TNL et le Québec.

Il est temps de passer à autre chose. Comme l’a dit le premier ministre de TNL, Dwight Ball, « le passé est le passé » et 2041 n’est plus très loin.

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‘To us, it’s a miracle’: Churchill residents celebrate repair of railway washouts

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Churchillians are getting ready to celebrate the completion of repairs to their community’s lifeline. 

The Town of Churchill in Manitoba said in a statement Sunday morning that after slightly more than a month of work, washouts on the Hudson Bay Railway between Gillam and Churchill have been repaired. 

There’s still work to be done before rail service resumes, and it’s not clear whether the line will be operational before winter arrives. 

Nonetheless, residents say news the last washout had been fixed is a big cause to celebrate.

« To us, it’s a miracle and we’re so, so happy that this company took over and they actually got onto the rail line right away and started fixing it right away. It’s amazing. It’s a great crew, » said Rhoda de Meulles, a Churchill resident who owns the town’s hardware store with her husband.

When the track can handle service vehicles — expected to happen in the next few days, according to rail line owners Arctic Gateway — crew members will make it to Churchill. 

de Meulles said when they do, the town will hold a day-long festival to celebrate and thank them.

« People are just ecstatic, » said Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, who called the news a significant milestone for the community.

‘Felt like we were kept hostage’

de Meulles said when the rail line shut down, she felt trapped in her own community.

« We always felt like we were being kept hostage because we couldn’t do anything — couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t see family, nothing, but at least now we know that something is going to happen. »

« We have a lot to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend as the final washout has been repaired allowing the test vehicles and crews to pass to Churchill to continue the surfacing and rail repairs beyond the washouts, » said Murad Al-Katib, a spokesperson for the Arctic Gateway Group that owns the rail line.

Al-Katib said the conglomerate remains hopeful weather conditions will remain favourable. A statement on the homepage of the group’s website makes it clear it’s still possible testing and maintenance of the line may not be completed before winter — meaning service on the line wouldn’t be restored until the spring.

That would be another blow to people living in Churchill who’ve had to cope with higher prices for food and other goods that have had to be flown into the community since the winter melt last year washed out the rail line. A mini food bank for people struggling to make ends meet is still open in de Meulles’ store.

« It’s been very very hard. It’s been hard on trying to bring freight in. It’s been hard on your mind. It’s been hard on our body. You wake up in the morning, you don’t know what’s going to happen today. You don’t know if you’re going to get good news or bad news, » she said.

Even if the rail line isn’t up and running until next spring, de Meulles and Stover agreed knowing there’s a plan to have it functional in the new year is better than what they were facing a year ago.

Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, said it’s a significant milestone for the community. (Submitted by Joe Stover)

« I feel a lot better going into this winter than I did last winter. Last winter there was no certainty, everything was up in the air and it was definitely a lot more negative feelings going into last winter, » Stover said.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart

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