Small Saskatchewan town of Spy Hill opens doors to stranded Via Rail passengers

Google Maps screen grab showing the location of Spy Hill, Sask.
Google Maps screen grab showing the location of Spy Hill, Sask. Google Maps

SPY HILL, Sask. – A small Saskatchewan town opened its doors on Christmas morning to a Via Rail train with almost 100 passengers that suffered mechanical problems due to extremely cold weather.

Company spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said in an email that the train travelling between Vancouver and Toronto had to stop at Spy Hill, and the passengers were sheltered in the local community centre where they received food, drinks and warmth.

Calvin Petracek, Spy Hill’s deputy fire chief, said he was doing chores on his farm when texts went out to local firefighters asking volunteers to help.

Petracek said there’s no railway station in Spy Hill, which has a population of about 300 people, so the train was stopped at a siding in the community.

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He said it’s only about 100 metres from the train to the hall and most passengers walked, but the temperature was -43 C with wind chill.

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Petracek said the stranded passengers were served pancakes cooked by people in the town, with help from the cooks on the train.

“The population of Spy Hill increased 25 per cent through Christmas due to this,” Petracek said.

Diaby said the passengers – 98 in total – were to be taken to Winnipeg by bus later in the day. She said Via was looking at alternative transportation for the passengers from Winnipeg onward.

“The safety and well-being of our passengers is our priority and we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Diaby said in the email.

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Ryan Siemens – who boarded the train in Saskatoon on Christmas Eve with his wife and three children, aged six, three and one – said the train began to lose power after they had passed Melville, Sask., at about 4 a.m. The emergency lights came on, toilets stopped working and some of the cars got cold, he said.

“It just didn’t have the oomph it needed, so it was losing power,” said Siemens, who was reached by phone late Monday afternoon on a bus that was taking his family to Winnipeg.

“The car that was behind us still had warmth and so the crew organized us and everyone moved over.”

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Fire Chief Jim Larocque said RCMP phoned him on Christmas morning asking for help. He said the community hall was already decorated for Christmas for a local family’s holiday celebration later that day. A musical duo that had been performing on the train led everyone in Christmas carols, after local townspeople helped to hook up the sound system.

Extra supplies were rustled up from some local businesses, he said.

“It was a really joyous Christmas,” Larocque said.

Siemens noted the train crew and local volunteers later made hamburgers, salads, and someone in the town brought toys for the kids to play with.

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“It was, in the end, a very festive, good way to spend Christmas,” Siemens said.

Diaby said she couldn’t confirm details about what happened to the train, other than that the malfunction had occurred due to the cold.

Diaby noted Via has an “Artists On Board” program, which offers complimentary or reduced-fare travel for approved professional musicians in return for performing on Board Montreal-Halifax and Toronto-Vancouver trains. However, she didn’t know if there were any such artists on the train that stopped in Spy Hill.

Spy Hill is located in eastern Saskatchewan, not far from the Manitoba boundary.

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Travis Moore, a local firefighter whose family was the one originally planning to use the hall on Christmas, said they were happy to turn over the space for the train passengers and quickly moved their party to the curling rink.

“It’s just 50 of us this year, that’s all,” Moore said about his family’s celebration.

“It’s Christmas in Saskatchewan. Anything can happen.”

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