Riding the Rails to Pukatawagan and Churchill

VIA train at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
VIA train at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/BRLS2acQMhfVZg8G9

This is a guest post by Alan Graham. You may remember his previous guest post about riding three trains in northern Quebec. Take it away, Alan!

In June 2019, I had the opportunity to ride passenger trains in northern Manitoba. This guest post will focus on overall impressions and tips for railfans.

Northern Manitoba has VIA passenger service on the Winnipeg – Churchill train, as well as passenger service between The Pas and Pukatawagan. I decided to ride them both.

VIA to The Pas

VIA’s service from Winnipeg to Churchill follows the route of the Winnipeg to Vancouver train (the Canadian) west of Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie, then heads northwest over CN tracks into eastern Saskatchewan before heading east back into Manitoba. The landscape changes from flat prairie around Winnipeg to low hills and valleys and gradually more forest as it proceeds north. You might have a chance to see some local traffic as I did near Roblin MB:

CN train near Roblin, Manitoba. Photo by Alan Graham.
CN train near Roblin, Manitoba. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/oMcdRuqXrGtmdKsj7

I noticed a small sign on the northeast side denoting the Manitoba – Saskatchewan border. The scenery through Saskatchewan is peaceful and pastoral. Real bells (as opposed to electronic bells) appear more frequently on crossing protection equipment. This appears to be an old orthodox church on the east side near Tadmore SK:

Church near Tadmore, SK. Photo by Alan Graham.
Church near Tadmore, SK. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/4XTzygjbXtuNtiQJ8

I chose to make the trip in June, which provided maximum daylight hours. And I chose to break my VIA journey northbound at The Pas in order to connect with the train to Pukatawagan.

The passenger service between The Pas and Pukatawagan is operated by the Keewatin Railway Company (KRC), which was formed by three partner nations and operates two round trips on a mixed freight and passenger service between Pukatawagan and The Pas each week.

As my northbound VIA train was scheduled to arrive at The Pas at 01:45AM and the northbound KRC train was scheduled to depart The Pas at 11:15AM, I stayed overnight at a motel in The Pas.

When planning my trip, I called the phone number on KRC’s web site. I was told the one-way fare between The Pas and Pukatawagan is C$40, payable by cash only at the station. I could not find any accommodation offered at Pukatawagan but decided to proceed anyway. I was told the train is never full.

The station at The Pas was open around 9am, and I had no problem buying a ticket. I asked about accommodation and was told to call the chief or council at +1-204-553-2089. It turned out that a couple of council members were passengers on the train and they offered to help me find accommodation.

Riding the Rails to Pukatawagan

Here is the consist at The Pas.

VIA 3248, an old VIA Rail coach in The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
VIA 3248, an old VIA Rail coach in The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/m72jb7q883Ec86DV9

Baggage car VIA 9631 was originally built for CN by National Steel Car in 1955. The two combination baggage-coach cars VIA 5648 and 5649 were built by Canadian Car & Foundry as coaches in 1954. They were converted to baggage-coach cars in 1998. Finally, cafe-coach car VIA 3248 was originally coach CN 5454. – Steve

Old VIA car 5649 at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
Old VIA car 5649 at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/1r4TWstihJZEyiDN7
VIA Rail 5648 at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
VIA Rail 5648 at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/QT8o3HwBi8CvVQGv8
Pukatawagan train at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
Pukatawagan train at The Pas, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/iUXwNoNWKHKAacvz6

The passenger equipment on KRC is old “blue and yellow” VIA (ex CN) equipment and has not seen much love in for many years. Most of the windows are too dirty for photos. Here is the interior of VIA 3248, a coach with a snack bar.

Interior of VIA 3248. Photo by Alan Graham.
Interior of VIA 3248. Photo by Alan Graham.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/XdVz7K4LXqqVf3te9

There’s not much food for sale on the train (chips, candy bars, bananas and soft drinks) so you might want to bring your own lunch and dinner. The 150 miles take 7h 30m, with a few short stops. The scenery is mostly arboreal forest and muskeg, with lakes and connecting water flows becoming more numerous approaching Pukatawagan:

Beautiful scenery from the train. Photo by Alan Graham.
Beautiful scenery from the train. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/ogPpLyoJsjMNhP9q6

The service operates as a mixed passenger – freight train:

Unloading from the baggage car at Sherridon. Photo by Alan Graham.
Unloading from the baggage car at Sherridon. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/uaXcBuCVzyroHVMz7
Vehicle in the boxcar! Photo by Alan Graham.
Vehicle in the boxcar! Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/PGMkz5sSoC4fv9AL9

At Pukatawagan, the power was run around the train in the morning. Here are some photos of the power on the southbound train:

HBRY 3002 and others at Cranberry Portage. Photo by Alan Graham.
HBRY 3002 and others at Cranberry Portage. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/DHoR6JF2W6kqe5gUA
KRC 2402 in Cranberry Portage, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
KRC 2402 in Cranberry Portage, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/Sb8BRAdFieNTaMoH7

KRC 2402 is an MLW M-420(W), originally built as CN 2501 in May 1973. – Steve

Ex Kelowna Pacific LLPX 2606 in Cranberry Portage, MB. Photo by Alan Graham.
Ex Kelowna Pacific LLPX 2606 in Cranberry Portage, MB. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/SUXkf4JNhQ3b49v87

On To the Winnipeg-Churchill Train

Back at The Pas, I connected with the northbound VIA train heading to Churchill. The next major stop is at Thompson, where the train takes a spur over approximately 30 miles (at speeds of around 20 mph) to the station. This is likely some of the worst trackage VIA operates over.

From the Skyline dome, I could see huge dips in the rail bed. The train is wyed near the station. As Thompson is at the end of the paved road north, many northern residents leave their vehicles and load major purchases on the train:

Loading a freezer? Photo by Alan Graham.
Loading a freezer? Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/NCtFu7smpoDNkSwM6

The scenery changes from muskeg to tundra as the train heads north to Churchill. Many beaver lodges are visible from the train as well as birds, moose, and other wildlife. Here are some views from the Skyline dome:

HBRY 5005 from the Skyline dome.
HBRY 5005 from the Skyline dome. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/FRYpBjG4StvY5oMFA
View from the VIA Rail Skyline dome. Photo by Alan Graham.
View from the VIA Rail Skyline dome. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/8k1mbdreqx1ndtHe6

There’s not much at Churchill. You can walk around the town in a few hours. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any polar bears. The white specs in this photo of Hudson Bay are chunks of ice:

Ice and the Hudson Bay. Photo by Alan Graham.
Ice and the Hudson Bay. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/wkfZBagzvT8iqg3Y6

Back at Winnipeg, I caught the VIA train 1 to Vancouver, which happened to have the diner Emerald with the Expedition Churchill wrap:

The Expedition Churchill wrap on "Emerald". Photo by Alan Graham.
The Expedition Churchill wrap on “Emerald”. Photo by Alan Graham. https://photos.app.goo.gl/WQCJTi7mbBJHxr1U8

Wrapping it Up

If you make the trip, you might want to pick up an official highway map of the province of Manitoba, as it has most rail lines as well as railway place names printed on the map. It is available from provincial tourist offices including the one at The Forks just east of the Winnipeg Via Rail station, as well as online at this link. The provincial tourist office at The Forks has brochures for many of the northern communities.

I made the trip from Vancouver using a Canrailpass. The price for travel on Via Rail from Vancouver to Churchill covered most of the cost of the pass, leaving some additional trips on the pass as a bonus.

I really enjoyed the trip. Like most Canadians, I have not travelled much to the north in our vast country. We tend to think we have seen Canada after we travel across the Trans Canada Highway or ride VIA Rail’s Ocean and Canadian. Canada (excluding territorial water) extends almost as far north as it does east – west, and this is a great introduction to the scenery, cultures and way of life of the people who live there.

I urge you to make the trip while it is still possible. The rail bed is largely on melting permafrost and service was recently suspended for over a year. VIA Rail is currently running a Skyline dome instead of a Diner and Park car, with access to the Skyline dome for economy class passengers. I heard this may change in November.

If you go during summer, you might want to bring a mosquito net and bug spray should you find yourself waiting outside for a late train or exploring during a station stop in the wilderness.

More photos are at this link. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

Thanks, Alan! I was happy to meet him in person, finally, and have a coffee and chat at the Forks in Winnipeg. Alan offers custom tours of Japan via his web site, japanyourway.com

Just One More Thing

4 thoughts on “Riding the Rails to Pukatawagan and Churchill”

  1. I was recently in The Pas. It looked like they fixed their little switcher, 824 and was during yard switching, yard still looked fairly quiet since the last time I was up there for Victoria Day Long Weekend.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the information! Arctic Gateway seems to be working to restore all the old power to service if they can. Did you get any photos? 🙂

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