• Hudson Bay Train

  • Tell us where you were and what you saw!
Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by Scoring Guy
The ViaRail Hudson Bay train operates between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba (which is on the shore of Hudson Bay). The train takes a “C” shaped route (northbound) through such places as Dauphin, Swan River, Hudson Bay (Saskatchewan), The Pas, MB, and Thompson. Thompson is the last town on the route accessible by road, i.e., you can’t drive to Churchill. This train operates three times per week, and in either direction departs at about 8 pm, and after two nights, arrives at about 9 am - the return trip from Churchill is always that same day, thus allowing a tourist like me to spend the better part of a day exploring Churchill, although there are motels there, if you choose to layover, for the next train – note that during the polar bear season, motel room prices go way up.
I departed Winnipeg on August 29, 2004, which turned out to be a railfan’s delight, as both the eastbound and westbound ViaRail “Canadian’s” passed through the station that day, along with the American Orient Express – burned up a lot of film that day! The Best Western, where I stayed near the Winnipeg station, let me leave my car in their lot during my train trip.
I had a roomette in the (only) Budd stainless steel corrugated converted 6-10 sleeper, now an 6-8 sleeper with a large, “accessible” room with a sink, toilet, and shower. This was the last car on the small train. Forward of the sleeper was a 48-seat (Budd) dining car (kitchen rearward), which had the forward half of the tables designated as a lounge, w/smoking, and the tables closest to the kitchen designated as off-the-menu dining. The car also offered carry-out “Bag Lunches”. These two cars were “like new” inside, and the service was great and friendly and polite. Ahead of the diner were two coach cars, and a baggage car, all of which were Budd cars too. The train was pulled by an EMD F40PH, although between Thompson and Churchill a second F40PH was added for security as it would be very difficult for a maintenance vehicle/crew to get to the train if the loco broke down in the middle of the tundra, and it would have blocked the mostly single track line.
There were only two other “tourists” on the train, besides me (although there were some business travelers in the sleeper as far as Thompson), and the three of us got to know each other quickly, as we spent most of our waking hours in the dining car, because it had the best viewing. The menu food was very good, but wasn’t included with the price of the accommodations (yes they do take “plastic” on board). The train had a three person on board services crew, a conductor, a dining car steward, and a cook - the latter two also did the porter duties in the sleeper. Other than the towns we passed through, the scenery was either flat farmland or flat tundra.
The rail line was rather second grade and behind the times, making for a slow moving train, but adding interest to the trip. All switching was done by hand, and periodically the operating crew, checked the bearings with hand held “temperature guns”. The backing maneuver required to get to the Thompson station was very interesting as well. Our passenger train, also had to deal with the many freight trains hauling mostly pulp wood, grains, and machinery and vehicles to and from Churchill.
Churchill is a shipping port for grain, but only in July and August, when Hudson Bay is thawed and passable. Tourism is the other main “industry” of Churchill, and in October and early November, the town becomes the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” - up to four additional sleeping cars are added to the train at that time. The Churchill airport is a former SAC base, with a very long runway that’s actually a space shuttle emergency landing spot.
When we arrived in Churchill, a fellow with a little old bus was hawking a 6 hour tour, so the three of us signed on, and it was well worth the cost - this was a good idea, because it would have been tough exploring this spread out, rocky town, town on foot. After lunch, two more tourists joined us, and after exploring every little road, radiating out from Churchill, we came upon a lone polar bear napping south of town that we woke up – seeing the bear stand up and growl made the trip all that much better. We also saw beluga whales swimming in the bay.
The return trip was quite a lesson as well. A huge number of “locals” showed up at the Churchill station, to make the overnight trip to Thompson. Anything one wanted to put on the baggage car you had to load yourself - luggage, boxes of stuff, bags of stuff, tools, bikes, hunting rifles, you-name-it, they had it! The other two “tourists” had booked their return trip in coach, to save money, but when the train loaded, the “locals” filled the coach section, and it became a rolling “block party”, complete with screaming kids, dogs and cats, and lots of imbibing. Within minutes my two new friends were begging the conductor for rooms in the sleeping car, and fortunately for them there were a couple roomettes left. That evening, in the dining car, the three of us did our share of imbibing as well, at a slightly more subdued level.
This was a great train trip that I highly recommend, although at many times of the year rooms in the sleeping car(s) are going to be hard to get because tour companies gobble them up - thus, if you want a room, it will probably require some long range planning and booking, even if you book it through a tour company. Those with a vehicle, might be able to save some time, and maybe some money too, by driving to Thompson, and boarding the train there for just a one night trip each way to Churchill.

  by David Benton
Great report !
I did the same trip around 15 years ago . except i went to lake lousie , then bicycled across to thomspon , to pick the train up to Churchill .
( actually i biked about 1/2 the way , blew a tire , and hitched the rest with a friendly truckee ) .
I remember the conductor cooking up hamburgrs to sell to the passengers in the caboose of the lake lousie train , and got to see polar bears from a distance too .
This would have been around August .

  by Rhinecliff
Great report indeed!

I did a similar trip about 20 years ago with my then girlfriend (now wife). Mr. Scoring Guy's report rekindled great memories. The locals on that train really are something else. Our consist was similar to that described by Mr. Scoring Guy, but at the time I made the trip, I got the impression that the train's equipment was pretty tired out. It seemed like VIA's reject stuff. But we still certainly enjoyed the trip. Our sleeping car had sections.

I wish we had bumped into someone offering tours. We did not encounter anyone doing that during our day in Churchilll.

I made the trip in the Spring, so it was still pretty cold up there. We got off the train and walked towards the lake. There was a community center at or near the lake front, which had an indoor swimming pool. So, ironically, part of our day in Churchill was spent swimming in that pool. There was really not much else to do. I recall having lunch in a small restaurant somewhere between the station and the lake.

My most lasting memory is just standing in the back of the train watching as miles, and miles, and miles of tundra passed by. Then going to sleep and waking up to wonder just how much more distance had gone by. Churchill is probably the most remote place to which I have been.

  by Scoring Guy
Your subsequent comments forced me to add to my original posting, I hope you all don’t get bored with this:

Additional Notes about the train (at least the consist I was on it): They pulled the (ex-6-10 Budd) sleeping car “backwards”, such that all the seats in the roomettes faced to the rear. This was done so that the vestibule (which would normally be forward) could act as both a sound buffer and safety zone for the car, which ran last in the consist. The diaphragm opening was covered over with a board up to chest high, with some clear (but dirty) plastic film over the top part. They asked that we keep the door to the vestibule closed and stay out of there when the train was moving. It was my understanding that this sleeping car was a former Amtrak “Heritage” car on lease to VIA, and it must have be refurbished by VIA, because it was like new inside. The speed of the train, over the less than top grade track, was limited, so time wise the trip took much longer than one would expect for the miles traveled. On the other hand, the slow speed made for a fairly smooth ride,.

Parked at the The Pas station, was the “feeder” train to the “Hudson Bay”. This was probably the remnants of the train that Mr. Rhinecliff described above: Painted in the all blue with yellow striping “old” VIA design, it had three smoothside passenger cars (baggage plus 2 coaches) that were definitely showing their age. This train operates between The Pas, MB and Pukatawagan,MB (although until recent trackage issues, this train used to go beyond Pukatawagan to Lynn Lake)
Note that if you do get to the Thunder Bay area, there’s a similar, “museum piece” trainset, with a “F” locomotive on display at a park, very near the CP Station (FYI: The CP station is at the south side of the City of Thunder Bay, somewhat off of the main arteries, and not to be confused with the (more elegant) CN Station, which is sandwiched in between the downtown, the “freeway”, and the harbor park. Meanwhile, at the Winnipeg station, there is a railroad museum inside the massive train shed, which includes an interesting photo history about the building of the rail line to Churchill.

With regard to Churchill itself, the most obvious structure is the massive grain elevator by the harbor. The second most noticeable building is the Community Center, as noted by Mr.Rhinecliff. When the SAC base was in operation (by the US Air Force) the Churchill area (including the base) had a population of 6,000 – 7,000 persons, and the “locals” relied on the air base for essential services. When the SAC base closed, about 30 years ago, they took everything; the only remnants of the base left today are the 12,000 foot runway and a dilapidated radar dome. That left a population of about 1,000. In response, Canada coughed up the coin to build the town a giant, modern steel and masonry Community Center – this very spread out structure, no more than two stories high, includes, City Hall w/police and fire departments, the hospital, the school, a community center, a library, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and more. By contrast, and no doubt owing to the transportation limitations and costs to this remote area, virtually all other buildings in town, whether homes, or businesses, or restaurants, or motels, are of pretty basic wooden design and structure, “fancy” is not an option. Also the town has a desert area town look to it, as it’s too far north (actually above the “tree line”) to support lawns and shrubbery or trees.

  by downbeat
Scoring Guy wrote:Parked at the The Pas station, was the “feeder” train to the “Hudson Bay”. This was probably the remnants of the train that Mr. Rhinecliff described above: Painted in the all blue with yellow striping “old” VIA design, it had three smoothside passenger cars (baggage plus 2 coaches) that were definitely showing their age. This train operates between The Pas, MB and Pukatawagan,MB (although until recent trackage issues, this train used to go beyond Pukatawagan to Lynn Lake)
Those are the last of the smooth-sided ex-CN cars tha Via owns. They were never refurbished with head-end power and are still steam-heated.