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Via awaits clearance to resume trips to Churchill

VIA Rail is denying its passenger service to Churchill has been cancelled for the rest of July.

The rail line from Gillam to Churchill has been closed since early June due to changes in permafrost making some of the rail bed unstable.

Repairs have been completed and freight service is scheduled to restart any day. But passenger service requires more stringent safety standards, said Via. Once freight service begins, Via will send out a safety inspector to determine whether the line is ready for passenger service.

The June shutdown forced tour operators such as Daryl Adair of Rail Travel Tours to reschedule about 80 passengers to late July instead. But Adair said he is now being told by some Via officials not to expect passenger service until August. When the Free Press tried to book a reservation to Churchill in July, it was also told there is no service until Aug. 3.

"Right hand, left hand," said Adair, meaning one department doesn't know what the other is doing, when told of Via's denial. Adair said if passenger service for July is written off, he will be forced to cancel his tour groups rather than reschedule them again.

But Jacques Gagnon, Via's senior media manager, said Via has not written off July yet. "A tourism operator being told by sales people is one thing. I'm toeing the official (line)," he said. "Once they resume freight train activities, which I understand is any day, we will despatch our own safety inspector."

Gagnon said Via wants to get up passenger service as quickly as possible, but must ensure the line is safe.

"We're in the business of carrying passengers and it's not to our advantage to have trains not operating," he said.

Losing two months of passenger service along the Hudson Bay Line to Churchill would be a terrible blow to the tourism industry in Manitoba's northern port. It also affects Winnipeg, which is the main stopover to Churchill, Adair said.

Tour operator Paul Ratson of Nature First Tours in Churchill said food, fuel, and even beer is running out because they all come by rail.

"We're hurting, the restaurants are hurting, and people who need to work are hurting. If Via would talk to us... It would be nice to hear from Via once a week on the progress of the repair on the line."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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