We reach Sioux Lookout just before seven o’clock in the evening – incredibly we’ve made up almost forty-five minutes and are now just fifteen behind schedule. This is the next major stop for the ‘Canadian’ and there’s fifteen minutes for me to hop off the train and do a walk to the end of the carriages while the train is fuelled up. Some passengers have crossed over to Sioux Lookout’s main street to get food from the local stores or sandwiches from the town’s ‘Subway’ franchise. Our attendant explains that fifteen minutes means fifteen minutes, and they scamper off.
My walk to the end of the train takes significantly more effort and time than it did on the ‘Hudson Bay’ but it’s worth it for the exercise. Along the train at every open door stands a VIA Rail attendant, smartly dressed in a uniform with a small yellow step on the ground. Each says hello or asks how I am… these people do not miss a beat. Amtrak would do well to send some of their on-board crew for a railroad holiday in Canada to pick up some useful tips.
I reach the end of the train and talk to a couple who are going on to Halifax. They’re travelling in the luxurious ‘Silver & Blue’ class, and we chat standing next to the elegant streamlined Park car at the end of the train. We joke about how VIA Rail like to keep some distance between the cheap seats up front and the classy folk at the back. I make my excuses (namely that I’ve got a long walk back to my coach) and head back to the front of the train. Everyone, it seems, has re-boarded, and it’s just left to the coach attendant to stall the anxious locomotive driver as he yells “all aboard!” at an ever louder volume to the stragglers coming back from town. The steps are lifted up, the door is closed and the conductor calls ‘highball’ over the radio to the engineers, the signal that we’re safe to leave.
But as the train starts to roll, something is not right. The seat behind me is empty, and along with a girl across the aisle, we realise someone has been left behind. Just as we call down the carriage to the conductor, our missing passenger appears off to our left. Leaping like a startled hare, the man is flying across the dusty yard beside the track. His feet barely touch the ground, and when they do they send small puffs of dust up into the air. Moving like an Olympic athlete, he leaps over the sidings, leather coat flying out behind him, one arm in the air, the other holding onto a ‘Subway’ sandwich bag. Frantic radio calls are made, and the train is able to come to a halt within the station. A small cheer goes up as our nearly abandoned fellow passenger walks, breathless, down the aisle. It’s a beautiful moment.
We start up once more, and continue on our way. The army may teach you to never leave a man behind. But VIA Rail have timetabled slots along stretches of single track to keep to. So next time you use a smoking stop to go and buy a sandwich, be sure to avoid those pretentious ‘fresh’ sandwich bars where the server asks you more questions than you’d answer in a driving test.