Monday, May 08, 2006

Train 693: the first night

We're slipping along the tracks to the west of Winnipeg, heading for our first stop in Portage La Prairie. So I'm actually back-tracking now, but we'll soon be heading off the mainline. Although a line as the bird flies from Winnipeg to Churchill would be a neat idea, the trains can barely manage running on the old grain routes as it is. We will actually descibe a gentle arc as we head north, even crossing the border back into Saskatchewan for a few hours tonight before skirting back into Manitoba. Nothing about this train makes sense at first, but then that's what's so appealing.

Our miniscule train reveals that this is the low season. The 'Hudson Bay' does moderately well through the winter with tourists who travel from Winnipeg all the way to Churchill to see the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) and the Polar Bears that can be found in great numbers around the line's northern terminus. In the summer too, there are many who travel north to see whales in the Hudson Bay, or to see the amazing variety of bird life.

But right now, we're in between seasons, in terms of both climate and tourists. Without a major tourist draw, this is a slow time of year. But with the return of warmer weather to the north, this is also a slow time of year on the train. I'm warned that once we pass north of a certain point tomorrow night, our progress will be slowed dramatically as the train crawls along unstable track. This railway line experiences as much as 90 degrees of temperature variation throughout the year, and as a result the trackbed moves a lot with the freezing and thawing of the ground.

I explore the train a bit. It's easy to spot the regulars and the once-in-a-lifetime rail trippers like me. We're the ones with cameras who are constantly checking timetables and peering out of the windows. There are a handful like me in the coach car that has been opened up (the other will remained locked until more room is needed) and I've already heard at least one other English accent (honestly, what is it about British men and trains?)

There's no meal service tonight, but a take out counter in the restaurant car serves drinks and snacks until 23hr (alcohol until 22hr). I have a hot chocolate (C$1.75) and do some notes in my book. I'm alone this evening; the crew of three are on hand at the other end of the car and are already scoring highly in my books for attentiveness. I suspect that being the only sleeper passenger for both the whole ride up and down again leads to personal service.

I head back to the sleeper car, and decide to enjoy the luxury of a shower (denied to all but the most enterprising of coach class passengers). The shower itself is responsive and powerful. The drain beneath my feet appears to drop straight down onto the tracks, although since it's the only source of outside noise into the cubicle, the clickety-clack sounds removed from my shower. I bounce back and forth under the hot water, but enjoy being able to be properly clean after so many nights on and off the train.

After stepping out of the shower, I sense the train slowing to pass through a village. Looking out through the window I make out the small community of Gladstone, Manitoba. We cross deserted streets, passing clanging and flashing barriers that bar empty streets from interupting our progress. The town is sleeping, and I am ready to sleep as well.

The key to making the sleeping-in-a-berth process easy is preparation. Keeping a soap bag, nightwear and tomorrow's change of clothes handy saves delving around in your luggage. I hurl everything up top, and then climb into my upper berth. There's no window, but the sounds and motions of the train are extremely conducive to slumber. I stow all my bedside accoutrements in the bedside net or the leather pockets by my pillow. There are two reading lights that can be set to two levels of brightness, so once I've buttoned my curtain shut, I'm able to read for a while. As I curl up with an appallingly bad fifties action novel (starring Johnny Fedora, a James Bond lookalike who seems to make up for his alcoholism by being in the right place at the right time) and contemplate that this is a fine way to travel. It's how I imagine Tintin crossed Europe. All I need is a little white dog curled up at my feet, and the image would be complete.

I fall asleep quickly...

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