Motorcyclists assess broken rail line to Churchill, Manitoba

Photo: Steve Green and Richard Whittaker

Two adventure riders made the trip north to Polar Bear Town, a.k.a. Churchill, Manitoba, on the heavily damaged rail line, and they think it’s fixable.

You might have heard in the news that the rail line to Churchill is damaged, with repairs months away. While the port facilities are still open, the railway is Churchill’s only land link to the rest of Canada. The US-based owner of the rail line says it can’t assess damage until it sends personnel to check out the destruction from flooding, and says the line won’t be fixed for a year. That’s bad news for the town, which needs the rail line open for supplies and for tourism.

However, two Colorado-based motorcyclists didn’t know about the damage, and decided to ride to Churchill this spring. They found out about the flooding while they were en route, but pressed on, finding the rail line had dried out.

The riders (Steve Green and Richard Whittaker) aren’t civil engineers or railway experts, but they did think the rail line was indeed fixable more easily than the initial reports suggested. They took photos of much of the damage of the way, to aid rebuilding attempts.

You can read the CBC’s piece on Green and Whittaker here. It sounds like the men were minor celebrities once they arrived in Churchill; not many riders make it that far north, and land-based travelers arriving in town after the demise of the rail line must surely be a sign of hope for the isolated community.


  1. I suspect many would ponder those questions, thanks for asking.

    People live where there are jobs, even today tens of thousands of people live in Northern Manitoba and that’s without Federal support of local industries (ore is being shipped out of the area raw). Nor does that include those who live only on reserves. Back in the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s Port Nelson itself had over 5,000 people living in and around making it one of the largest towns for a long time and for good reason.

    Port Nelson and Churchill are closer to Europe (and of course Asia) than Montreal, and a lot closer than Thunder Bay or any route that requires multiple loading and unloading of cargo, stops and locks. Which is why most of what is today Western and Northern Canada used Port Nelson for its international shipping.

    It is a much shorter ocean trip from Churchill to many places we trade with and it is a much shorter land trip to that ocean for Western Canadian products. Interesting that an obvious fact like that isn’t known about. I’ll bet most have heard of the ice and polar bears or that the port can only be used a couple months a year, or that Thunder Bay or Duluth have access to the ocean. Why we know what we know is often a good question.

    And then there is Arctic sovereignty. For that reason alone it would be worth having an Arctic port with rail, road, electrical and pipeline connections. But then having the worlds longest coastline and the NWP would suggest it would be worth having a navy with more than a dozen frigates, 4 subs and rented supply vessels.

  2. “The US-based owner of the rail line says…”
    LoL, heheh…
    That’s your problem right there!
    “the town…needs the rail line open for supplies and for tourism”
    Well, duh.
    I guess you shouldn’t have sold it to owners from a foreign country then, huh?

    • Of course such a major piece of infrastructure should never have been sold, which should have any thinking person asking why it was. The answer to that comes from it’s history.

      What is today Manitoba has had ocean ports for hundreds of years with one of the largest, Port Nelson, owned by HBC. It was expanding with the massive influx of immigrants into Western Canada in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, even while using ancient river trade routes. The rail line ridden was being built to Port Nelson to replace those river routes. The rail bed had been completed to the port when Canada announced the mega project the St Lawrence Seaway.

      Shortly after that announcement the Canadian government changed the destination of the rail from York Factory to Churchill. The rail had been laid to within 60 miles of the coast to a place called Amery when it changed course and headed straight north to a port that would be owned and controlled by the government.

      Since then political pressure against the port kept it from being fully developed. Canadian interests along the more expensive Great Lakes and Seaway wanted all Western goods to flow through them even though it would be at a much greater costs. Goods shipped East rather than North would require loading on to lake ships, transported a thousand miles via many lakes and locks before being unloaded and then loaded again on to Ocean ships.

      Churchill was never allowed to compete directly, even after it got a high voltage line connecting it to the North American electrical grid.

      But the obvious advantages and wealth of the resource seemed far too great to let languish so when the Canadian government wanted to shut it down and sell it foreign investors couldn’t believe their luck. Consider owning the only Arctic port, with a rail and high voltage connection closer to the middle of North America than other ocean ports. It would not be unreasonable to expect billions and then trillions of dollars in trade to flow by rail, pipeline and road to the port.

      Canadians, Western Canadians in particular, should be asking why their government has allowed the loss of such infrastructure and why they have been misleading Canadians about it’s condition and why they no longer have direct ocean access as they once had.

      • Hear Hear… my thoughts exactly. Now you are going to have to buy it back from a guy here in my town known as one of the toughest business men around. Personally I never even heard of OmniTrax or Pat Broe before this trip but I have since learned a lot more about him. Lots of controversy even here in Denver. Esteban / Steve Green Golden, CO

        • The “you” that has to buy it is the problem, the problem that got us here and prevents us from moving forward.

          That “you” is not a citizen, or the citizens of Manitoba or even Canada. That you is their governments, the very ones that sold it in the first place. Everyone in Canada knew of the political wishes of Eastern Canada and the Elite that run Manitoba for their own short term gain. That is why no Canadian or group wanted to buy it last time.

          Both the Federal government and the Provincial government have been active in it’s demise. As this story shows OmniTrax has learned something we already knew. Canadian infrastructure, no matter how valuable, will not be allowed to thrive or even exist if our corrupt leadership decides otherwise.

          Not that such major infrastructure is bought and sold as other products. The USA would supply the many examples to be used if government was to buy it or allow it to be sold to a company or individual.

      • Thanks Jeff, an interesting bit of history.
        One question, when essentially no one lives in northern Manitoba why does that make it a better seaport and rail destination ?
        Its a long, long way from Churchill or Port Nelson to anywhere ?
        Inquiring minds need to know….

        • Posted my reply as a response, sorry about that. Basically Hudson Bay ports are closer to Europe and Asia than is Montreal (an end point for the lake route), lots of people live in the north but not so many that rail and roads have to be built around towns. There are some living there that have special status and will want palms greased before, during and after any new development so they would add costs.

        • A calm, harboured salt water seaport to central Canada?

          Down the street from massive DC or even AC power transmission?

          Unlike the Great Lakes, easily kept open all year with ice-breakers? No need to transfer to smaller boats and then rail cars; just straight to rail or truck?

          I don’t understand why either of these ports don’t have rail lines running to anywhere from Montreal to Calgary or Edmonton.

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