Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Train 2: Sunrise in Alberta

During the night I am dimly aware of our short stop at Kamloops, BC, to take on board a few passengers. I don't sleep too thoroughly for the first half of the night. After a number of overnight runs on Amtrak, it takes me a while to get used to the geometry of my seat and the best arrangement for my limbs to be twisted into. It's no less comfortable on this train, I'm just getting used to all the subtle changes as my body finds each hard and uncomfortable armrest one at a time.

I wake up properly at about 06.00. I know we have a time change to go through at some point this morning, so I decide to just change my watch forward an hour now. Seeing as we're in mountains, it seems to make sense to be on 'Mountain Time'.

We're rolling through scenery much as last night, only the valleys are less agricultural and are more forested. The roll through a cloud of mist that meets us in one valley, and high above us the thickly forested mountain tops are beginning to be warmed by the sun light from the east.

After being wished good morning by the attendant, I ask exactly how long our car is (having failed at every attempt yesterday to count). He tells me that it's 21 cars long, including the two locomotives and the baggage car at the front of the train. He says that it's a 'summer consist' but that it's by no means the longest. He arrived in Vancouver on Sunday on a train of 34. While the 'Canadian' just about makes money in the summer months, it loses it in the quieter off peak season.

Because we are still in the off peak season, as a coach passenger I'm allowed to walk back six cars to the restaurant. During the sumer months, this is reserved for sleeping car passengers, and coach class people like me are only allowed back into their Skyline car to buy snacks from the take out counter. Being a fan of breakfast, however, I jump at the opportunity to eat with the passengers travelling in more luxury.

I walk back at 06.30. Between our Skyline dome and the restaurant car there are three identical sleeping cars, and then another Skyline car. The sleeping cars have a mix of rooms and berths. I've reserved a berth for each leg of the journey I'll be taking next week from Winnipeg to Churchill and back (the 'Hudson Bay'). These are pairs of wide couchette seats that convert at night time into a lower and upper berth, separated from the corridor by a thick curtain. No-one appears to be travelling in these ones on this train: it's either cheap and cheerful coach class or all out sleeper luxury. I reach the dining car a little early, and wait for the servers to open for breakfast.

I'm one of the first in, although the car soon fills up and a list is started for those who can't be seated in the first sitting. I'm joined by a gentleman from Vancouver who is travelling to Edmonton on business. This sounds pretty incredible to me, and he explains that yes, he's only doing it because he has the time and wanted to treat himself. His train ticket cost about C$180 one way, whereas the return flight cost C$120. No prizes for guessing which is faster - a sad truth about train travel today.

The lavish menu is a world away from the Amtrak fayre I've experienced up to now. We both opt for the 'Trans-Continental', a plate of bacon, eggs and potatoes, with juice, coffee and toast on the side. It's preceded with a bowl of fresh fruit. I had actually asked for yoghurt, and when he noticed something was amiss the attentive waiter returned almost immediately with a bowl of fresh yoghurt and fruit conserve. I eat both, being too polite to make any more of a scene, and liking the look of the fresh fruit too much to send it back.

My breakfast companion and I talk about our trips (always the useful icebreaker, because from then onwards it's easy to lead on to other things). We discuss my love of architecture and the practicalities associated with making a go of it as a career. We also talk about our origins, and how his Finnish granparents arrived with nothing in Saskatchewan (where he grew up) and started out by building a modest sod-walled home. Soon ideas and opinions on what it means to be Canadian are flying around, and we are joined by a bemused Japanese couple who seem too intimidated to join our conversation. They eat quickly, and disappear, only to be replaced almost immediately by a well to do Australian couple who are with us as far as Jasper before heading to Prince Rupert on the scenic 'Skeena' train through the mountains. She starts with yoghurt and enjoys it; he starts with oatmeal and doesn't enjoy it.

The train slows and the attendants warn us to look out for a waterfall on the right. We all 'oooo' and 'ahhh' and I curse my ageing digital camera for taking so long to switch on. Despite my desire not to be a photograph obsessed tourist, I rush to take a photo, but we've missed the most spectacular part of the falls and I suspect my photograph is enhanced with a reflection of an art deco wall lamp. Hey ho.

I finish my coffee, and we bid each other farewell for now. I'm left extremely impressed by the restaurant car experience on VIA. The dining car was immaculate and the service excellent. The table was set with a linen tablecloth, bone china plates and spotless silver crockery. The food was good and the whole meal came to C$12 (for a coach passenger - all meals are included for sleeper passengers) which compares very favourably with what I'd eaten on trains south of the border. Sorry Amtrak, but the Canadians are pulling into the lead at this point.

I return to the front of the train, stopping on the way to chat to yet another friendly coach attendant. He explains how the berths are arranged and shows me what to expect on the 'Hudson Bay'. I'm impressed to see as well that there's a full shower amenity kit as well, with towels and accessories for the adjacent shower. He explains that the 'Hudson Bay' is quite a different train to the Canadian. It travels through landscape that is much flatter but no less scenic. It's much slower though, mainly because until it crosses the ice line the tracks suffer extensive distortion because of the freezing and thawing of the ground they're built on.

But that's still a long way off. It's time to return to the dome car.

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