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Via to reduce northern Manitoba service

The Canadian Press

Churchill, Man. — Via Rail plans to reduce service between Winnipeg and Churchill in northern Manitoba starting in December.

The Crown corporation says it will operate two instead of three trains a week to the polar bear capital and the land-locked communities along the way.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spencer says Via's decision is a blow to the community of 1,000 on Hudson Bay.

He points out there are no roads to Churchill, a plane trip to Winnipeg is expensive and reduced train service will give residents even fewer options.

Via Rail says it can operate two trains a week more efficiently, safely and on time.

Churchill's town council has sent a letter to federal Transport Minister John Baird complaining about Via's plans.

“That's a darn disappointment,” said Mr. Spence. “We're not going to let that go easy. Not everyone can afford to buy a plane ticket. It's so costly.”

It takes close to 43 hours and costs $165 to travel by train from Churchill to Winnipeg. A plane ride reduces the time to about two hours, but costs three times as much.

Via spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky said providing service three days a week “did not reflect the real operating time you needed to operate from Winnipeg to Churchill and have a layover with proper rest for the crew ... and equipment inspected.”

Trains were often late because of weather, problems with the tracks or equipment, she said. Cancellations meant communities would end up with just two trains a week anyway.

“All things factored, what can we realistically provide in terms of reliable service?” Ms. Kaloutsky said. “It's not realistic for us to have thrice weekly (trains).”

She said the reduced service will be more reliable.

But Mr. Spence suggests problems with weather and equipment won't go away, so if there are cancellations now, Churchill could be down to one train a week.

“It's a step backwards.”

Mr. Spence said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who was in Churchill this week for the Olympic torch relay, and local MLA Eric Robinson have promised to go to bat for the town.

Mr. Spence said $60-million is being invested to improve the rail line and train running times are getting better.

The polar bear community and its residents are not being treated well, he added.

“We all know this is an international destination, and we can't forget about local folks.”

Just last week, Gary Doer, former Manitoba premier and now Canada's ambassador to the United States, invited U.S. President Barak Obama and his family to Churchill to see the polar bears.

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