Churchill – Part 1 – Connection to the South

The first of three guest posts on David McCormack’s recent trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

The VIA Rail service to Churchill runs twice weekly between Winnipeg to The Pas to Churchill and once a week only between The Pas and Churchill.  The total journey time for the entire line is approximately 45 hours (assuming no delays).  The days I was up there, the consist was made up of 2 engines, 1 luggage car, 3 passenger coaches, 1 skyline dome, and 1 sleeper car.

This journey has three distinct sections, as described below.

Section 1 – The South Prairies

This section is the classic prairies we think of when one mentions Manitoba.  Passing many farms and towns.  There were also two rail museums along this route which I saw, one at Canora and the other in Dauphin.

One surprising thing along this section of track was that it followed some nice valleys, which I was not expecting.

West of Kamsack (Instagram Link)

Section 2 – The Life Line

The portion between The Pas and Gillam, well, more specifically Thompson and Pikwitonei (and Ilford), is the stable all weather lifeline for these communities.  The train has a long scheduled stop at Thompson, with much of that time spent loading and unloading freight for the communities (as well as catching up for any lost time along the way).  I took a peek at the freight looks to be mostly food and other staples that were picked up in town.

Loading in Thompson – Instagram Link

During the entire trip, this was the only section where the train felt busy as the stops along here had a lot of activity as the freight was loaded off the train by hand.  It is common to see a few friendly dogs at these stops as well come out to greet the train.

Station stop in Pikwitonei (Instagram Link)

Section 3 – Barren Tundra

The last section was the most desolate of all, the section going North from Gillam (the last major community with year round road access) to Churchill.   The bulk of the freight is loaded in Thompson, rather than Gillam, likely because Thompson has more services and the poor road conditions to Gillam.

View from Sleeper on the way to Churchill (Instagram Link)

During the trip, I was also lucky enough to see the Northern Lights for the first time.  I first noticed them when we were in Ilford.  I spent the next few hours watching them from the cabin as we continued to travel north.  When we arrived in Gillam at 1am, I hopped out with the camera to snap a few pics of them.

Northern Lights (Instagram Link)

Once the line turns north, there aren’t a lot of signs of settlements.  Pretty much all that I saw was snow, tundra, and some power lines until Churchill.

Churchill Station (Instagram Link)


The closer to the tourist season you go, the more amenities that will be open.  Whale season is June – August, and polar bear season is October – November.  When I was there in late April, many things were closed.  There was only one restaurant open (which was only doing take out), the Northern Store (general store, grocery store, everything store), and the community center.

Usually late April / early May isn’t the best time for traveling in Canada because most of the time you have leafless trees, gray skies, and unpredictable weather.  This unpredictably turned out to be advantageous.  In Winnipeg it was full spring weather of 20c, meanwhile Churchill was -8c (-19c with the wind), enabling me to get both snow photos and sunny spring reflecting photos in the same trip (even on the same train).

Dome in Tundra (Instagram Link)

Closing Tips

If you are considering making this trip by train, I’ll offer a few learnings that may help make your trip more pleasant.

Food – When on the train, the food options provided are limited to a small set of microwave meals for purchase.  It would be wise to bring your own food on the trip.  That said, we did have about 10 minutes in Canora, which is enough time to hit up the Timmies or a small store to pick up some provisions.  The stop in Thompson is usually several hours, so you can walk into town (about 15 minutes) or take a taxi for ~10$ to pick up food, or stock up your provisions at the grocery store.

Hiking Churchill – Ensure that if you are hiking in Churchill during Polar Bear season that you follow the recommended safety practices.

Personal Safety – The communities of The Pas and Thompson appear to be suffering with significant addiction problems.  Within these two towns, the problems are in full sight.  Many different people had told me about the safety issues in these towns (as well as some apolytic comments on the internet).  Based upon my limited observations, I didn’t find them to be any more dangerous than any other town center suffering addiction problems.  I would say that being aware of your environment and not doing anything stupid, and you should have no issues.

Wye – During this trip north, the train was wyed (turn around) twice.  Once in the arrival into Thompson, which means it backs the last mile or two into the station.  On the arrival into Churchill it also is wyed and backed in the station for the last 3 miles.

Train Delays – Train delays are quite common, especially the south bound arrival into Winnipeg.  It would be wise not to plan any connecting transportation that day.

Train Accommodations – If you have the means, booking a sleeper makes the trip much more comfortable.

The next post will detail my rail fanning experience along this line.  If you would like to see all of the photos from the trip they are located on Flickr.

7 thoughts on “Churchill – Part 1 – Connection to the South”

  1. Steve and David – thank you so much for these posts! I’m looking forward to riding that line some day and your details and photos are much appreciated.

  2. Hi, Dave & Steve; I’m commenting in this first section but read through the whole piece; very interesting and informative. I must say Dave is adventurous to say the least; a trip up here seems more like camping than rail travel. I’m planning this trip myself for September if it works out; your tips were helpful. Seems like Thompson will be the place to shop for food outside of what I bring. Great series Dave; thanks for posting Steve.

  3. Hi Dave and Steve. This is a fabulous writeup on the Winnipeg/Churchill route. I have ridden the line a total of 5 times. Back before the turn of the century, I rode on a railroad sponsored trip and it gave me the opportunity to see the Polar Bears in season and ride on the Tundra Buggy. That trip included a series of exclusive meals prepared each and every day for the entire route. They featured Ukrainian food specialties as well as bison meals and regional fish meals. It was a fabulous trip. On another trip I remember the train stopping at the Dauphin, MB stop and it was really in heavy usage compared to today. What intrigued me the most about this stop was that the train carried human remains in caskets then and the undertakers came to the station to detrain the casket. I do not know if they still carry remains or not; but most likely because of the lack of any form of transportation along the route. If I ever take a long trip again in my life, it will definitely be another trip to Churchill. It was never a dull moment.

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