Taking the Train to Churchill


For the time being, at least, Churchill is accessible by Via Rail Canada, a very pleasant way to get to Churchill. Taking the train is a lovely alternative to flying. It is fun to watch how the scenery changes, from the lovely well-tended farms of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan up into muskeg and spruce, larch and birch forest, then tundra.

The Winnipeg-Churchill route has a dining car. The food is ok, but not memorable. It is lovely, however, to sit at a cloth-covered table, eating food served on ceramic plates, using actual metal knives and forks, drinking out of glass glasses, having been served by an attentive waiter, while watching wilderness Manitoba and/or rural Saskatchewan roll by outside your window.

Be warned that at certain times of day the dining car has a definite sunny side and shady side. Depending upon your preferences, you will want to avoid one or the other. Meals cost about coffee-shop prices. Tip as you would for comparable service in a restaurant.

Trains arrive and depart every other day (i.e., leave Winnipeg on April 1, April 3, April 5, etc.) Unless you wish to spend advance time exploring Winnipeg, be sure to synchronize your arrival date and book a plane that lands in Winnipeg no later than 8:00 p.m. You should be at the train station by 9:30 p.m. at the latest for the 10:00 p.m. departure from Winnipeg.

What to Expect.

Take a taxi from the airport to the train station.

The train station attendant who checks in your luggage will know what time The Forks closes and give you directions (it's really easy--a left hand turn out the front door, walk half a block then duck under an old overhead railroad track to a beautiful stone building that has been refurbished into shops, food stands, restaurants). It is absolutely your best bet for laying hands on some bring-along food for your apx. 36-hour ride.

I advise going immediately to the train station and checking in all your non-carry-on luggage. If you ask, the train station window attendant will sometimes also hold your carry-on luggage until you come back, closer to departure time. If not, a Canadian dollar (aka, a "looney") rents a generously-sized storage locker.

I mentioned that The Forks, a truly charming refurbished old train station, is within very easy walking distance. It features stalls, stands and small shops where you can buy deli, farm produce, breads, meals, latte, trinkets, clothes, etc. The shops themselves close around 6:00 p.m., but the food places tend to stay open an hour or so later. There are tables and chairs where people can sit down, including outdoor tables in summertime. A well-landscaped outdoor area, with terraces, overlooks the Assiniboine River. At least one fancy restaurant is also to be found at The Forks, on the second floor.

If you have time, buy food, fruit juice or bottled water to bring on the train. It'll save money, give you variety and a choice besides the dining car. At very least, pick up some fresh fruit.

The dining car keeps limited hours and won't be open until 7:00 a.m. the following morning. Taking all your meals there can get expensive, too. I strongly recommend buying some bottled water or juice, because water on the train is pretty miserable. Little spigots at either end of the seating car provide the only drinking water, aside from the dining car (and I recall having to ask for it). It dribbles out rather slowly, doesn't taste good, and sometimes runs out. The paper cups available at these water spigots are nasty little things with pointy bottoms. Water that comes from the restroom compartments is not potable.

If you can find room in your luggage for a plastic cup of glass, take one along. I can't emphasize how nasty those pointy-bottomed little water cups are. You want to fill one with water to have while brushing your teeth (since the water in the restrooms isn't potable). It's a huge hassle to hold a pointy bottom cup with one hand while trying to squeeze out toothpaste with only your other hand. If you had brought a flat-bottomed cup, you wouldn't have this problem.

If you have more than an hour or two to kill, consider going downtown. You are within easy walking distance. Winnipeg also has pretty good public transportation and a low crime rate. Someone at the train station could direct you. A cab ride from the station to downtown won't be terribly expensive, because it's really close.

I traveled coach. I strongly advise that, if you can possibly afford to pay for at least an upper berth, you do so. Stretching out as best you can between two seats, unable to lie flat for two nights in a row, is not comfortable or restful. Trust me. I've done it. Also, they don't turn out the lights in coach.

The train stops for an extended period of time (about an hour) in The Pas and also in Thompson. Here they take on fresh water and do various types of routine maintenance. The train also stops at any other small community on the way that has someone who wants to board. This, too, disrupts your sleep.

In the summer time, coach also seems to have a plethora of bratty litte rug-rats running up and down the aisle, climbing on things, shrieking and pounding, opening and closing shades, etc., etc., while mommy and daddy sit in the smoking section of the dining car, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. How bearable that is depends upon how well you like noisy, bratty kids. (Personally, I prefer cats as companions, and children well-cooked.)

According to schedule, the train arrives in Churchill around 7:30 am. The actual arrival time can be as late as 10:00 a.m. Get ready to leave when you see tundra replacing muskeg and forest.

(NOTE: There is talk of discontinuing this train route. This would be a tragedy for Churchill, causing the town and surrounding area will become an outpost accessible only by air. It will also kill Churchill's harbor, used to ship Prairie grain to Europe. The grain gets there by train. The harbor is the region's only industry aside from tourism and its demise will cause a painful local unemployment problem. Since the train also serves a great many isolated and remote communities, both general population and Indian, the extinction of this route will cause a huge hardship for the people living there. I am hoping cancellation of the route will be too politically hot and nasty to carry out). Revised 8/30/97

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