I collect my bags and return to the waiting lounges in the VIA Rail ticket hall. It’s a great shame that most of the large railway stations I’ve been in on this tour offer you very little preview of the tracks that you board your train on. Travelling by train is a special event, and it’s rather disappointing to always be herded through waiting rooms and ticket halls that are separated from the tracks by escalators or stairs. When train 2 does pull in, about one hour late, everyone is informed of it’s arrival by the immense sound of heavy cars clanking over tracks above our heads.
The lounge areas here are divided for sleeper car passengers and coach passengers. Both sides are pretty full, and they get busier as the passengers who’ve stepped off the train for a short break re-join us for boarding. The platforms are closed off at Winnipeg in between disembarkation and boarding so that the platform crew can service the train. Winnipeg is also a VIA Rail crew base, so the entire on board team is changing here. Winnipeg based crew operate on three roundtrip routes: to Toronto and back, to Vancouver and back, and to Churchill and back. Less experienced staff generally work without an ‘assignment’ – meaning that they do not know until a day or two before their next departure where they’ve been scheduled to work. Tara, my chef and sleeper attendant on my last two trains, told me how this was her first season with an assignment, and therefore with the benefit of knowing where and when she would be working next.
Just after 12.05, a boarding call is made for the sleeper car passengers. This causes much commotion in our coach lounge, and of course the human instinct prevailed: we all form a neat line ready by the gate for when it’s our turn. I recognise a few faces who had been one or more of my preceding trips on train 2: our overlapping and interweaving itineraries make for enjoyable brief friendships that come and go.
A few minutes later, the gate opens, and the neat orderly line gradually transforms into an eager rush to get on the train, and to find ‘good’ seats. Most people seem to have differing opinions of what a ‘good’ seat is, so to be honest there probably isn’t much need for rushing. I emerge onto the platform to find train 2 occupying significantly more of the length of the tracks than train 692 had this morning. Like a long silvery snake (hey, no criticism, it’s hard finding synonyms for a big long silver train) the front and back ends of train 2 dwarf the length of the station shed, stretching almost to the ends of the platforms.
I later saved myself a long walk, and got the attractive sounding roster of our train from my coach attendant. The train consists of:
Two locomotives, baggage car, coach, coach (me), Skyline (dome), Jarvis Manor (sleeper), Draper Manor (sleeper), Lorne Manor (sleeper), Skyline (dome), Fairholme (restaurant), Blair Manor (sleeper), Douglas Manor (sleeper), Macdonald Manor (sleeper), Chateau Vercheres (sleeper), Skyline (dome), Kent (restaurant), Amherst Manor (sleeper), Drummond Manor (sleeper), Dawson Manor (sleeper) and the Banff Park car.
Two of the first sleepers were ‘dead-heading’. It took some further polite questioning to work out that this meant they’re empty, running without staff or paying passengers. This does mean, however, that every crew member should have a bed to sleep in, which always makes for happier crew.
I find a seat that meets my amateur’s definition of a ‘good’ one (un-obscured window, middle of the car, away from the doors and axles) and settle in. I’m mostly surrounded by continuing passengers from Vancouver and Edmonton, but a number of people get on Winnipeg. This car has an interesting mix of younger travellers and older passengers. A friendly coach attendant checks my ticket, and we’re soon on our way, running about one hour behind our schedule.
I’ve chosen a very warm day to be leaving ‘Canada’s Chicago’. As we turn to cross the Red River through a beautiful old steel bridge, our welcome announcements begin and I head to the dome car behind my coach. We running along a track that is now heading straight east out of Winnipeg, on an embankment that affords me an even better view from the raised viewing section of the Skyline car. We skim along the treetops of St. Boniface, and the green suburbs eventually give way to the suburban commercial and industrial strips. Even out here, everything is somehow green: roadside tracts of grass and the tree lined streets are in full colour, and under a blue sky it feels good to be back on a fast train again. Winnipeg’s eastern freight yards pass us by to out left, and continuing along a dead straight stretch of track, we begin to pick up speed.
I’ve substituted the inhospitable true north of Canada for the prairies that I know and love. In doing so, it’s amusing to notice that I’ve also substituted an entirely Canadian group of fellow passengers for a mix of tourists from all over the world. It seems that it’s only usually Australian, Kiwi, Polish, French and English folk who’d consider taking a train from Winnipeg to Toronto. Snippets of a conversation in the lower level lounge is filtering up into the dome. I can hear two British men discussing Home and Away and Eastenders with a family from Australia.
We have 1,943km ahead of us, and we’ll be in Toronto by tomorrow night.