As mentioned in the previous article, the train to Churchill goes from Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay. The only workaround to the 3-day train ride is to drive up to Thompson or Gillam and hop on the train there. Since we were having both van engine and Canadian weather problems, we elected to buy some tickets in Thompson instead of Gillam and get on the train there.
The Manitoba “highway” #6 is all paved, thank Zeus, but it’s still a long and remote journey. We ended up passing through the Pisew Falls area and pushed on to Thompson right before midnight.
We got a hotel (we needed a nice place because we were smelly, beat up, and thrashed from the long drive and roadside mechanical repairs), and got some much needed rest. The next morning, we ventured off to the train station right when they opened to buy some train tickets. The clerk was exceptionally helpful, and he explained all the nuances about traveling by train in the tundra.
Some things we learned:
First, the train is exceptionally reliable in the winter, but not so reliable in the summer. The frost keeps the tracks parallel and straight in the cold months, but once the soil thaws, it heaves the soil around messing up the tracks. It’s not uncommon for the train to have to say under 20 mph for the 1063-mile trek, which makes it a lot longer than the projected three days on the ticket.
Second, even with the advance of being in Thompson, it is still an 18-hour ride up to Churchill. This part of the train is especially susceptible to frost heaves, so the journey is very slow. Also, once we boarded the train, I was surprised how many railway “turn-arounds” there are by Thompson, Gillam, and Churchill. You think you are close to the destination, but there are several tertiary tracks that force the conductor to meander around to get the overall train into the right directionality and location for the station. It’s not just a hop on the train and straight shot to the destination.
Third, it’s not uncommon for the train to derail, leaving the occupants stranded for days, both on the tracks and in Churchill. There is only one track up to Churchill, so the “rescue” and repair train utilities have to trudge up to the location of the derailment, and meticulously realign and reinstall the train on the tracks. For those stranded in Churchill, there are flights back to civilization, but they are costly.
Fourth, the passenger train is only one small component to the transport system up there. Most of the train activity on the tracks is related to grain and agricultural transport, because the Hudson and James Bays are the main waterway for all Saskatchewan and Manitoba international shipping. Any of these heavily-loaded commercial trains could also derail, further postponing any public transport train activity for days.
The train station clerk took our money for the tickets and told us that the train is expected later that day. So we ventured off to the “metropolis” of Thompson. It’s a rather large town for the area, but relative to the rest of North America, it’s quaint and tiny.
South of town, there is a great museum called the “Heritage North,” which showcases a lot of local artifacts. We spent several hours there in their building and on the grounds.
After we ate a quick meal there on their picnic tables, we headed over to the train station. When we were at the station in the morning, it was pretty dead. But now that the train was on the horizon, the place was bustling with travelers and all sorts of commotion. It was pretty cool.
We parked the van next to the other vehicles in long-term parking, and boarded the train. We watched the veggie van disappear in the distance as we ventured off into the great northern wild tundra.
While Glenn and I have never had issues with any First Nation people ever (except one drunk dude that was perturbed about his picture being taken in Lac La Biche), we were constantly inundated with southern white Canadians that were quite critical of their fellow northern neighbors. They would say things like “Thompson is a shithole,” or “I wouldn’t leave your van parked in Thompson,” or “They [the Indians] will steal all your shit.” It was a constant refrain. So we didn’t know what to think. As far as we could tell, the place looked like a nice town with nice people. So when we left the van at the station, we didn’t know if it would still be there when we returned. (Spoiler alert: not only was the van still there unmolested, no “Indians” stole our scooters or supplies on top. Take that, racists.)