Friday, May 14, 2010

Update: May 2010

It's hard to believe it's now four years since I set off on my 18,972km adventure around the United States of America and Canada by train. A lot has changed since then: I've returned to the UK, moved house a couple of times, got a masters degree, developed a beard, started growing vegetables in an allotment garden, and begun a PhD. I now divide my time between Glasgow in Scotland and Belfast in Northern Ireland. That's me in the photo above, a few years older, but still enjoying a train journey (on the most scenic railway in the world less than 50km from my new home).

This adventure, and more importantly this blog, continue to receive a modest volume of interest. You can find me answering questions about peoples' travel plans in various travel forums, and whenever people ask about train travel in the States or Canada I will always point them to this blog.

Endless difficulties with the software behind this and my other blogs eventually led me to quit Blogger altogether and move to Wordpress. This blog remains because of the disruption a new address would cause. However, having picked up on a few comments from readers, I've come back to take a peak under the apparently improved bonnet of the Blogger engine. Although, as a blog, this travelogue reads backwards, I've been able to improve the archiving function so that you'll now find a day-by-day archive in the right hand column. This means you can now read the travelogue almost as intended: the journey started on 21 April 2006, so begin by clicking on 21 April in the sidebar. You will then be presented with all the posts from 21 April, although they continue to be in anti-chronological order because of the blog's structure. You'll have to manually scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the posts upwards, however as the days are now individually archived, this should be less of a pain...

Enjoy the trip!

Glasgow, Great Britain
14 May 2010

Monday, May 22, 2006

Snapshots: fellow passengers (updated)

Many thanks to everyone who gave me permission to interupt our conversations with my Olympus. I've decided not to include names, just destinations. All photos copyright James Brown 2006, except where credited otherwise. Please ask before reproducing.

Returning to New York City, on board the Adirondack 21 April, 2006

En route to see a friend in upstate New York, on board the Adirondack 21 April, 2006

En route to Chicago to meet his brother, on board the Lake Shore Limited 22 April, 2006

En route from New York to Vancouver, BC, on board the California Zephyr 25 April, 2006

En route to San Francisco, on board the California Zephyr 26 April, 2006

En route to Sacramento, on board the California Zephyr 26 April, 2006

En route from Vancouver to Québec City, on board the Canadian 3 May, 2006

Self portrait, on board the Hudson Bay 10 May, 2006

Heading home to Halifax, NS on board the Canadian 12 May, 2006

Touring Canada by train and bicycle, on board the Canadian 12 May, 2006

Returning to Montréal after a month 'ontherails', on board the Ocean 19 May, 2006 (photo: BMM)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The end...

It's Sunday afternoon in Montréal, and the trip is over. This trip has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and sharing it with the thousands of visitors this blog has received has been an unexpected pleasure. I'll be writing a round up summary of the trip soon, and please feel free to drop me a question on the Q & A blog below - I'd be happy to answer any question about the trip, and maybe even help you planning your trip. And if you have enjoyed reading my travelogue-o-blog, then why not drop by my regular personal blog:

So, that's it. 18,972km. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did :-)

James Brown
Sunday 21 May, 2006
Montréal, QC

...ontherails Q & A: James answers your questions

So, you want do your own rail trip? Or you want to know why I chose to spend more time in Edmonton than Vancouver? Leave your questions here in this thread (click on 'Comments' below) and I'll be answering all your questions in the coming days.



Saturday, May 20, 2006

Train 15: end of the line

When I awake, we are racing along the smooth fast railway line between Québec City and Montréal. We are on the home straight. Outside, the flat fields of southern Québec are stretching out either side of us into a grey haze of fog and rain. Small towns flash past, and the slight changes in domestic architecture tell me that we are back in Québec. The houses appear to be more traditional; the porches are larger and the facades have more decoration on them. BMM and I take the remains of our food bag back to the service car, and along with coffee and hot chocolate, have a scratch breakfast. The café attendant has found some large sheets from which a cardboard train can be pressed out and assembled. They are busy making a long train of cardboard carriages and locomotives on the red couches. Eating yesterday's donuts and a bruised apple, it's strange to think that this is really the end of my trip.

We stop at Drummondville, Saint-Hyacinthe and finally Saint-Lambert. The pause here is slightly longer but within sixty seconds of leaving the station we are crossing the wide and fast flowing Saint Laurence river. Was it really a month ago that I began my journey crossing this bridge?. The grey weather has travelled to Montréal with us. It's a dark day, raindrops hitting the windows beside us under a solidly grey sky.

Montréal appears first on our right, through the fast moving steel griders of the bridge. When we land on the island of Montréal, the train makes a gentle turn to the right, and I catch sight of the rail yards where VIA keeps its Montréal fleet. An overnighting four carriage Amtrak train waits for it's journey to New York later this morning. Maybe it's the same set of carriages I took all those weeks ago?

We are now closer to the downtown skyline of skyscrapers, bounded to the north by the heavily wooded outline of the Mont Royal montagne, and these are now appearing on our left. The crew of the train offer their billingual welcome to Montréal, now speaking in French before English, rather than vice versa as when we left Halifax. The train slows to enter the dark underside of the Gare Centrale. In the last one hundred metres, the two diesel locomotives at the front of the train stop their engines, and the lights in our car dims. We coast quietly into the station, and come to a halt...

My journey has ended.

Train 15: the last night on the train

Not only was bringing my laptop a good idea for catching up on the blog, but with a couple of choice DVDs brought from England, BMM and I are able to spend the evening on board train 15 watching some British television comedy. We ate our own packed meals this evening, but share a cup of tea from the service car during the evening. Other coach class passengers go back to take dinner in the dining car - when they return I overhear positive comments as they talk to other passengers.

By Bathurst, we're running about twenty minutes behind schedule, but that's nowhere near enough to bother me. As the daylight dims outside, and the last night that I will be spending on the train sets in, blankets and pillows are distributed. I know this time to seek out an extra one from the sacks at the end of the carriage. Sorry if that makes me a bad passenger, but it's not half as cheeky as the coach passengers on board the 'Canadian' who sneaked back to the sleeper cars to enjoy the showers there :-)

And, as expected, with two people, it's a bit easier to get some sleep. We try a couple of different positions, and each time the attendant passes we get a smile and a joke about being young lovers. I suppose being young means we're more flexible to adopt strange positions to sleep in, and being lovers means we don't mind leaning on each other during the night. I have also made sure to bring more clothing, so I'm not as cold as I was on the way up. We've also chosen a pair of seats away from the noisy ventilation grilles, although it's still pretty noticeable as I go to sleep. We drift off to sleep as we enter Québec... for the first time in a long time, I sleep deeply and dream vividly for more than four hours in one go.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Train 15: travelling together again

Part of being an annoying boyfriend requires an ability to know the answer to everything that your partner would ask you in an arrogant tone of voice that gives the impression you're not making it up. As we pull into our first station stop at Truro, BMM asks me exactly where Truro is. I'm on the verge of bluffing an answer to hide my apalling lack of knowledge in eastern Canadian geography when the train comes a convenient halt alongside a map of Nova Scotia, painted as part of Truro's colourful station mural. A useful 'You are here' arrow comes to my rescue.

For the last three weeks I've been travelling on my own. I've always been an independent traveller, and this has been a wonderful voyage to make as a solo traveller, because there are always other friendly passengers around to pass the time of day with. However, today, I'm seeing the train in a different light, travelling with my long term and long distance girlfriend. We've lived in different countries for almost two years now, not entirely out of choice but out of a commitment to lead our own lives until such time as our paths cross more conveniently - that being this autumn, when I return to the UK.

On all the trains of this trip up to now, I've passed the time reading, listening to music, talking to other passengers and just looking out of the window. Surprisingly, it's the last of those activities that occupies the two of us for much of the afternoon, as we enter New Brunswick and race towards Québec. The 'Ocean' takes a very elongated route between Montréal and Halifax, describing a huge arc that remains inside Canada rather than following the more direct route (as plied by the now extinct 'Atlantic' train) through the state of Maine, which juts up into Canada. So we have plenty of time to curl up together and just stare out of the window. We have some newspapers (including a precious copy of the Independent on Sunday brought all the way from London) and books to read, but time after time I find we are both staring out of the window. This is the joy of the train. There are, realistically, very few people who are in such a rush, or who value their time so highly to take a plane on such a journey. Twenty hours might seem like a long time compared to travelling by aeroplane, but then that's how long it takes, and how long it should take. This month long trip has proved to me that I really do enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

There have been individual days or hours when I have been very tired with the train. Approaching Toronto, for instance, or crossing northern California, on the last afternoons of long distance train journeys, I have experienced the frustration of a train journey that took longer than I was mentally prepared for. But overall, as I head towards my thirtieth day 'on the rails', I am still a passionate fan of the train, and would take one tomorrow to another far flung city. It is, as VIA Rail describe with their company motto, the human way to travel.

From this point on, I will be doing everything I can to avoid having to travel by commercial aeroplane ever again. As a student, I can afford the time, and as someone sensitive to the environment, I can happily avoid pumping thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by not taking the train instead of the plane. I have more room, less stress, and more time to think.

Besides... this is more fun.

Train 15: the VIA Rail cup

Every time I go to the take-out counter on board VIA Rail, or whenever I buy a hot drink from the at seat service, I'm amused to see the design on VIA Rail's polystyrene cups. Notice how, in just a few centimetres, they manage to summarise the scenery that stretches across Canada...

Pacific Ocean and Rocky Mountains...

Rocky Mountains leading into Praries, leading into the forests of the Canadian Shield...

The skyscrapers of Toronto...

...and the Maritime Provinces.

Train 15: the final trip...

After four brilliant days in Nova Scotia, it's time to get back on a train. Drawing a blank searching for accommodation through my regular host network The Hospitality Club, I eventually found two extremely kind and hospitable hosts through Couch Surfing. So we enjoyed a wonderful week staying with Bruce and Lindsey in the north end of Halifax - thank you both for all your advice and hospitality. We had a great trip and it was your hospitality that saved our time in Halifax from being completely rained out :-)

Although we had managed to get two sunny days to explore the southern half of Nova Scotia by car, when we head to the railway station on Friday afternoon, it's raining hard. Halifax has a grand railway station, close to downtown and in the same complex as the intercity bus station. We arrive at 12.00, having already checked in our luggage earlier that morning. The station hall is busy with passengers for the today's only departure. A line has formed for coach class passengers, which we join for the long walk down to the other end of the train. Since it's arrival yesterday, the Montréal train has been turned, so that the elegant stainless steel Park car is closest to the station building.

Boarding begins at about 12.10, and we walk along the length of the train to the three coach cars that are at the head of the train. Boarding from a low level platform (level with the tracks) it's interesting to see the ingenious folding steps that were fitted to these trains when they were adapted for use in Canada. Mounted underneath the passenger doors, these fixed step units fold out in one piece to allow passengers to climb into the carriage. It's cheaper than re-building every platform in the country, I guess, although I can't quite work out how wheelchair passengers board...

This time I'm with BMM, I'm more optimistic about being able to get some sleep in one of the paired seats, rather than the uncomfortable single seats across the aisle. The only downside is that because the whole train has been turned, I'm now sitting on the same side that I did coming from Montréal. Visibility across the car is hampered by the high position of the seats. Still, it's good to see that the arm rest lifts between our seats, and I expect that we will be able to curl up together a little more comfortably than I did on my own on Sunday night.

By the time our train starts moving just after half past twelve the rain has, of course, stopped. I shall have to come back soon...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

BMM and the Atlantic Ocean

From one ocean to another - I have now travelled 17,626km by train. I have travelled all the way from Montréal to the west coast of the USA. And then two weeks ago, I said farewell to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver, BC, and returned across the breadth of Canada on board the trains of VIA Rail. So as I stand on the windswept rocks of Peggy's Cove on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, I can take a deep breath of salty (and very windy) sea air and celebrate a landmark point in my trip. I certainly can't claim to have seen all of it, but I have now crossed Canada from coast to coast.

Being an Englishman, I have a much closer connection to the Atlantic than the Pacific, which I saw for the first time on this trip. And while I couldn't help liking the beautiful scenery of southern and northern California, Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia, it's good to be back beside the Atlantic, looking out in the vague direction of Europe, and that low lying little island that I call my real home. The Atlantic strikes me as much wilder than the Pacific, and certainly the coastline along here suggests much less placid winters. But it appeals to me somehow, deep down inside. If I were to ever return to Canada to settle for more than one year, I would be very tempted by one of the small towns we have visited here in coastal Nova Scotia.

I arrived in Halifax on the afternoon of Monday 14 May, and I will be taking the last train of my month long adventure on Friday 19 May, when BMM and I head back to Montréal. She's been kind enough to fly here from England, so excuse me if I gloss over the intervening days - after two nights in Halifax we have rented a big fat American car, and are exploring the southern half of Nova Scotia. The trip continues on the rails on Friday.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Train 14: afternoon

After a walk up and down the platform at Moncton, and a friendly chat with a few of the coach attendants who are working the train, I get back on board and soon after we're on our way again. The train slips in between the buildings of the low rise centre of Moncton, reflecting in office windows and passing lines of traffic at level crossings. It's another Monday morning, and I'm still on holiday.

The afternoon begins to slip by rapidly - we're bowling along at a respectable pace for much of the rest of the day, and I am furiously typing away on my laptop to take advantage of the time to myself. At some point that slips by unnoticed, we leave New Brunswick and enter Nova Scotia. We stop at Sacville, Amherst and Sackville Junction, picking up 'local' passengers for Halifax. It's a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxed way to bring my second last journey to a close. Truro comes and goes (with some attractive murals painted on the wall of the warehouses that back onto the station's platforms) and we're on the home straight, racing through low fields and alongside rivers and lakes. The landscape of this part of Nova Scotia is much like the British scenery I miss so much - gently rolling, and under a blue sky it's looking even prettier.

It's nearing 16.15 as we pass through Bedford. We're running late, and we're on the outskirts of Halifax. Since it's been three months since I last saw BMM, I'm packed and ready to get off the train already, but we slow to a crawl as the line brings us alongside Bedford Basin. Ahead of us are the bridges crossing between Halifax and Dartmouth, and just to the right of them is the gently rising hill upon which the city of Halifax sits. The rail tracks beneath us split and multiply as we approach the container port on the northern side of Halifax, and we pass dozens of multicoloured steel containers stacked high above the water's edge. A container ship is docked, and cranes are loading the ship for another trans-Atlantic voyage. Throughout my trip I've seen and been passed by hundreds of these containers, travelling across the USA and Canada by train. Now the trains have reached the end of the track, and the containers are being plucked from their wagons and lifted effortlessly onto the boat.

The VIA Rail station in Halifax is in the south-eastern part of the downtown peninsular. To get there, the railway line passes through a long and deep cutting down the western side of the city, and round the southern edge of town into the main sea port and railway station. So while I can see that we are have arrived in Halifax, we are still some time away from arriving in the station. The train crawls through the cutting, sliding beneath bridges that carry roads above us. We're too low down here to see the city around us.

After a few pauses, the sea port of Halifax comes into view on our right. We edge forward, and approach Halifax station.

Train 14: old versus new

Surprisingly enough, they've managed to get them to fit together. Since the 'Ocean' is now entirely operated by newer but less swanky European built trains, VIA Rail have managed to do some bodge-work with a welder and duct tape, and have adapted a new car to be able to attach to one of the elegant older stainless steel 'Park' cars. These vehicles are where 'Easterly' class passengers can meet with their Learning Co-ordinator, a specially employed member of the crew who explain the history of the route and places that the train passes through.

It does make a rather odd looking train though...

Train 14: morning

In retrospect, I let my normally attentive standards slip on this train ride. It is the penultimate ride of the trip, and I'm also on my way to see BMM in Halifax. So you'll have to forgive me for dozing through New Brunswick and only not noting anything of interest to share with you now. One definite advantage of this train, however, are the at seat power plugs, which are gradually being fittted to every coach car next to every seat. Although I travelled for most of my trip without my laptop, stopping off in Montréal this weekend has given me the chance to pick up my diminutive PowerBook, and I spend most of the morning writing entries to bring the blog up to date. When I left Montréal, it was barely up to date as far as Churchill, and I am able to bash out about nine thousand words en route to Halifax. There's no wireless internet to make the updating live, but saving the drafts to my computer still saves a lot of time later.

It's a warm sunny day outside: we approach Moncton, and I pack up my laptop to go for a walk during our extended service stop here.

Train 14: feet

Train 14: breakfast

After my first brief experience of New Brunswick (a new day, and the first of two new provinces...) on the platform of Campbelltown station, we are on our way again. I walk back two carriages to the restaurant car, where I have been told there's plenty of room for breakfast. The restaurant attendants are extremely welcoming, and are already joking and chatting with passengers. I'm seated straight away at a table for four opposite another passenger, a physician from New Brunswick. He uses the train to travel to Montréal frequently, often flying in one direction and then taking the train in the other. He explains that there is no better way to travel, especially with the schedule of the 'Ocean', which departs Montréal at the end of a working day and arrives back in his home town of Miramichi just after 10.00 the next morning.

My breakfast companion is just back from a holiday in Cuba. Using his hand-held computer, he proudly shows me a photograph of the beach he has just spent a week on in Varadero. I counter by opening my laptop and showing him the beach in Churchill, Manitoba, complete with frozen ocean. We evidently enjoy very different types of holiday.

For non-sleeper passengers on board the 'Ocean', breakfast costs C$10. It includes coffee, juice and a plate of toast, which comes a bit before my main dish of folded crepes with cheese, fresh fruit and syrup. Once again, these trains have had to be adapted for their new job in Canada. There were no restaurant cars in the original fleet, so sleeper cars were converted for the purpose. The only noticable thing about this conversion is that because the sleeper cars were built with fewer and smaller windows, tables have to be spaced out through the car to make sure each has a window. Food is prepared off the train and re-heated on board, although the quality of my meal was impressive. The crepes did not have the unnaturally hot tell-tale taste of microwaved food, and the fruit was fresh.

As always with my on board acquaintances, we talked of our trips and how we liked to travel. My dining companion was a French speaker, and it was good to be talking in French again. I fluff a few words and a few tenses, but I don't think I drop any clangers. Hopefully four weeks away from Montréal hasn't killed off the young French side of my brain. My dining companion finishes his meal and returns to his sleeper, and I linger over my empty plates to gaze out of the window. The bay is beautiful this morning - a gentle deep blue that stretches to the horizon, merging with the hazy sky once we have lost sight of the Gaspésie shore. The waiter refills my coffee and (on request) my juice, and I enjoy this sunny start to my day.