Just near to Wekusko, the train slows to a halt and reverses into a siding. While 95% of our route is along single track, occasional rusting sidings appear alongside us. Some times it appears that these are still used from time to time for the loading of lumber trains, and on a couple of occasions I notice large piles of felled trees stacked in adhoc clearings by the tracks for loading onto freight trains. I’m told later that most of the lumber felled up here is used for paper production.
We wait for a short while in the siding, and then a freight train rumbles past us, heading south. There is a mix of grain cars and empty lumber wagons behind two very shabby looking locomotives carrying the marque of the Hudson Bay Railway. The HBR was formed when the American company Omni-Trax bought the line from The Pas to Churchill for a nominal $1 from Canadian National. Omni-Trax also own the Port of Churchill, and have committed themselves to a very expensive programme of maintenance on this line. Starved of anything more than the essential investment for decades, the line is in need of millions of dollars of work just to keep it open. Omni-Trax is banking on being able to increase the amount of freight that passes through Churchill which, I’m told by a fellow passenger, never really operates above fifty percent of it’s capacity.
Once the freight train has passed, we return to the main line. All junctions up here are operated manually: the second engineer climbs down and pulls the lever right by the trackside. There’s no visual signalling either: I’m guessing that radio communication is used to dispatch the trains.
After the excitement of seeing another train, I curl up again and listen to my iPod. Before leaving Edmoton I made the mistake of replacing my selection of music (which I had begun to tire of after two weeks) with a random selection of my friend's collection. Big mistake. I have a strange compilation of Christmas tunes and Spice Girls karoake instrumentals. Luckily I also downloaded a few podcasts from BBC Radio (how I miss thee), so I've been contrasting the wilderness of northern Manitoba with indepth discussions and reports on the continuing trafficking of Eastern European women into the English sex industry; the thousands of unreported deaths in Darfur's civil war; and an assessment of the Labour party's disastrous results in the recent local English elections. I close my eyes, and imagine I am home again.