Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Train 2: Skyline car

The real treat of the 'Canadian' can be found in the carriage behind me. On the long distance Amtrak trains I've ridden on this trip, you'll always find a 'Sightseer Lounge' car. These have extra large windows in the side, and smaller windows that curl up and over you into the roof along the length of either side of the car. While VIA Rail don't have any Sightseer Lounges, they do have a large fleet of 'Skyline' cars.

The Skyline cars are also original nineteen-fifties coaches that have been re-built and re-fitted to satisfy demanding tourists. While most cars are single level, the centre section of the Skyline is split level, with a lounge or cafe at each end, and a small staircase leading up to a viewing deck in the middle of the car. Although it's much smaller and sometimes more crowded than an Amtrak lounge, because the viewing deck is raised up above the roof of the car, you get to look forwards and backwards. We're not quite in the busy summer season yet, so it's not looking to get too busy, but I still head upstairs to sneak a peak at the suburbs of Vancouver as they slip away behind us. Right now it's not to busy up here, but that will no doubt change as we reach the mountains. There are a few people up here enjoying the evening sun (through the tinted windows and under the ever enthusiastic air conditioning) or taking photographs. During my trip I see a handful of train spotters using video cameras to record the rare forward facing view. Just a few cars in front of us, we can see our two diesel locomotives, puffing black smoke into the sky every time we accelerate. It certainly brings out the child in me... not quite like being an engine driver, but close enough. I collapse in a comfy seat and watch the head of our train forge our path out of Vancouver, passing green signals that somehow know to turn red once the front of the train has passed.

This Skyline car is one of three in the train, not including the streamlined Park car at the very end of the train, which has it's own domed viewing deck. They're scattered through the train, with one usually every four or five coaches. Ours is just for coach passengers; the others are for the sleeper passengers in the adjacent carraiges.

From time to time the train turns into a sharp curve, and our gleaming silver tail stretches out behind us. Craning my neck, I fail each time to count how many coaches there are.

Train 2: leaving Vancouver

Train 2: The Journey Begins

I should try not to be so casual about this. For many people, 'The Canadian' is a once in a lifetime experience. Whereas on Amtrak many of the passengers I met were travelling across the USA to see family, to go back to college or on business, VIA Rail Canada's long distance trains attract quite a different crowd. Having realised long ago that they were unable to compete in speed with the airlines or price with the Greyhound, VIA Rail decided to push their trains up-market. Following a period of chopping and changing of routes, 'The Canadian' recently celebrated it's fiftieth anniversary, and is the only remaining train in Canada that can truly claim to be trans-continental. Although the train 'only' operates the 4466km from Vancouver to Toronto (several thousand kilometers short of the Atlantic) many of the tourists who are on board this train have bought onward tickets or are using railpasses to connect with other services to Montréal, Québec and even Halifax. If you want to see Canada from coast to coast, there's arguably no better way than doing it on the train.

So while this is just another train on my itinerary, the atmosphere of excitement in the line up at Pacific Central Station is soon rubbing off on me. And when the platform gates open half an hour before our 17.30 depature, it's easy to see why. With the rear of the train closest to the station building, the first carraige that we see of 'The Canadian' is the beautifully streamlined 'Park' car. This elegant stainless steel dome car finishes the train with a rounded lounge that is exclusively for passengers in 'Silver and Blue' class. Us economy class passengers have a bit further to trudge, however: of the nineteen coaches forming this train today, just two are 'Comfort' class seated coaches - and they're right at the front of the train. By the time we reach them, several excited passengers have already made the inevitable joke about having already walked to Kamloops (the train's first stop).

The carraiges of the train are quite different from Amtrak's fleet. In order to justify the end of VIA's other trans-continental route (the 'Super-Continental') several million dollars was spent refurbishing and upgrading these nineteen-fifties coaches. On the outside, they're classic north American railroad style: shiny hipped stainless steel with a modest band of blue above the windows. Inside, air conditioning has been retro fitted, and the sleeper cars also have showers. In our coach the seats are finished in green, with hard wearing fabric and leather headrests. They're big, squishy and comfy.

Our car fills up with passengers - already I've heard Australian, Kiwi, English and Japanese voices. Surprisingly few Canadians, but there are a few - including a couple behind me travelling on CN passes. Listening to the husband talking, I get the impression he is a railroad man, and knows both the route and how the trains work.

The most audible voice in the car is, without a doubt, that of Meredith, on of the two coach attendants who are looking after the coach passengers. With a faulty PA system, it's over to her to belt out information about the car and safety information ("don't let us catch you walking between the cars without shoes"). A cluster of Japanese tour group members looks bemused, but they soon get the drift. Their tour guide appears flustered, and worries about seating arrangements. She seems to have even less clue about what is going on than her protégés.

Just after 17.30, the train shunts, and we begin to move. I offer a friendly farewell wave out of the window to a group of VIA engineers who have taken a break from their work in the adjacent train shed to watch us depart. They wave back, and enjoy the warmth of the sun as another of their trains pulls away on it's long journey.

Train 2: The Canadian


Today gives me just a few hours in Vancouver. All those months ago, my schedule demanded that I choose between spending more time in Seattle or more time in Vancouver. I couldn't have both, as the next train on my itinerary only departs three times a week, and the legendary tardiness of the Coast Starlight into Seattle could not guarantee a connection. So I chose to spend more time in Seattle, thinking quite reasonably that I would have more reason to go back to Vancouver soon. With the sun shining, the air fresh and the city streets humming with people, I quell the desire to have more time to kill here. After all, this trip is about the journey, and it's fun not getting bogged down in the day to day tourist activities.

Pacific Central Station is just a few blocks from Chinatown, so that's where I make a bee-line for. As in Seattle, I'm on the look out for some cheap food. I just have to get by damned Québec ATM card to work in a bank machine. This takes three attempts and a phone call in broken French to my bank. Turns out they don't like me taking out too much money when I'm away from home (probably a good thing) so I go back and have another go and all works fine. By this time I'm starving, and without much thinking I dive into the first restaurant I find. It also seems to double up as a Chinese bakery, with fresh steamed buns on the menu. I play it safe (and inexpensive) with a plate of vermicelli, snow cabbage and pork. It comes with a coffee, and the bill is just C$5.62. I'm a happy boy.

I cut back onto Hastings Street, and walk towards downtown. Like all Canadian cities, Vancouver has it's compliment of tall, shiny and instantly forgetable skyscrapers. Canadian cities are popular locations for television commercials, because they can be easily filmed without including any recognisable landmarks.

I stride along the streets, stopping to buy postcards and to peer in shop windows. I take some photographs across the Burrard Inlet towards the mountains. It is the surrounding landscape that makes Vancouver. The city has the ocean on one side and mountains on the other. Seattle is similar, but some distance away from the open sea. Vancouver's location is pretty impressive, and also drop dead gorgeous. If you ever hear the one about the Vancouverite who goes skiing in the morning and swimming in the sea in the afternoon, bear in mind it's probably not a joke.

I turn back towards the station with plenty of time on my hands, thinking to drop by the Vancouver Art Gallery. I'm glad I spared the time, because upstairs there's an excellent travelling exhibit on pre-fabricated domestic architecture. The exhibition offered an excellent combination of photographs, videos, drawings and models, and discussed some of the more exciting ways in which prefabrication is developing the most important (and often most underdeveloped) type of architecture - that of the humble house.

I skip down to the ground floor and float through the excellent selection of paintings by the Group of Seven, a school unknown to me before I arrived in Canada. Some of the work may not be that great, but it's cultural importance to the development of modern art in Canada makes it an important chapter in this country's young artistic history.

I seek directions to the Skytrain (using my bumbling English accent to great advantage... are Canadians more susceptible to it than Americans?) and ride one stop from the Stadium station to Main Street station. I have just enough time to e-mail and blog from a near-by hostel, before I return to the Pacific Central Station. The next stage of my journey is about to begin.

Vancouver: Pacific Central Station

Train 510: Welcome to Canada

We reach Vancouver just over an hour late. Unlike my previous encounters on cross-border Amtrak services, our journey has not been interupted by border guards. At Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, our train pulls into a special platform which is surrounded by three metre high fence. Behind us the tracks are closed off by a tall gate. One by on the cars are opened, and we disembark and head to the station, where Canadian Customs officials are ready and waiting for us. There is a short queue, and as usual the precise nature of my work permit is questioned. But the process is quick and infinitely more sensible that stopping the train en route.

I leave my bags at the station ticket desk (C$2.50 a piece, but I'm able to give a handful of US change to make up for what I don't have in Canadian currency). Newspapers are on sale announcing the near record high of the Canadian dollar against the US dollar, now nearing C$0.90 to US$1.00. Great for Canadian tourists, bad for Canadian business. I really should have postponed my trip a little later...

I step out into the bright sunshine, and breathe some fresh Canadian air.

Train 510: Now there's a surprise

Being a niggling passenger, I manage to eventually find some fault with this train. The doors in our extra short carraiges are very annoying - they open and close noisily, and I begin to wonder whether being in a shorter carraige means that I am statistically more likely to be bothered by noisy doors. Once we have left Everett, the television screens in our car show a safety video. Then the conductor puts on today's feature film, Memoirs of a Geisha. This compares well to some of the awful crud that has been played for amusement on the long distance trains I've ridden so far (Yours Mine and Ours falls into the category) but I can't help being confused at seeing actors and actresses who I am sure are Chinese playing roles in a film about Japan... or is that just me?

After we pull away from Bellingham, the last stop before the border, it becomes apparent that this blissful Amtrak experience is also going to go the way of my others. We get held up by one freight train, and then by another. Our path along the single track is soon blocked, and we have to undergo a painful shunt forwards and backwards into a dead end siding to let a south bound train come past. By the time we have crossed the border, passing the pretty sea front town of White Rock, BC (where everyone seems to be waving at us as we pass) we are already at least one hour behind. That's not much compared to my other rides, but this one is only scheduled to take four hours. As a compensation of sorts, the conductor offers us a second film - Cheaper By The Dozen 2. He might have been refering to our timekeeping, but I certainly agreed with the conductor when he said 'I hope we don't get to see all of this...'

In the distance, the skyline of Vancouver comes into view, and I sink comfortably into my seat. Although my next connection is pretty important, I have plenty of time.

Train 510: The Puget Sound

Train 510: Amtrak Cascades

Another day, and another train. In fact, today will bring two trains, and two major journeys. The first starts right here, in downtown Seattle. My hosts in Seattle, who have not taken a moment to rest from spoiling me rotten, have dropped me off for the first departure of the day to Vancouver, BC. Or as Amtrak like to say it, Vancouver Canada. They make sure you get the Canada bit, because not only is there a Vancouver in the USA, it's in Washington state and it's served by train from this station.

Seattle King Street station is a grand old building on the outside, but the ticket hall is a depressing mish mash of strip lighting and plastic chairs. Once I've check in for the train, I move over to the side of the room, and am mortified to look up through a gap between the suspended ceiling and the wall. Above the cheap and dilapidated suspended ceiling is the beautiful original stucco ceiling that once graced the ticket hall. It's still there, waiting to be rediscovered and shared with the people travelling through this station. Parts of it have been hacked away though to provide fixing points for the suspended ceiling. I realise I sound more and more conservative when I comment about architecture on this blog, but I can't help feeling the person who authorised that should be shot.

Oh, and for any of you archetypal gun slinging Americans (the ones we Europeans see on TV all the time), you'll find a very prominent notice next to the check-in desks here. It reads:

No weapons permitted into Canada, including hand guns, automatic weapons, mace, pepper spray, stun guns or flammable materials.

You have been warned. D'em Canucks take d'is peace t'ing seriously.

At around 07.30 boarding begins. The train we're riding on is different from any other that I've been on so far. It's one of a small fleet of 'Talgo' trains, built in Spain and the USA to a European design. They're lower, sleeker and each coach is about half the size of a regular Amtrak carraige. They can also tilt into corners, and are theoretically capable of more than 100mph. They're also quite nifty inside, with comfy seats (only three across in our car), on board films, and both a 'bistro cafe' and 'diner' for snacking and full meals.

If you want to take the journey as well, then be sure to read the timetable carefully. Amtrak list five daily departures from Seattle to Vancouver, BC. However this is the only one that is actually a train - the others are all buses. There simply isn't enough money, government support or equipment to run any more, even though this is one of Amtrak's most popular 'corridors' for service, with more than three million riders annually between Eugene-Springfield, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. We leave on time, and cross the bridge into Ballard, passing within sight of the restaurant where just twelve hours earlier I had eaten very well indeed. Almost immediately afterwards, the track runs alongside the Puget Sound, and across the calm blue expanse of water, we can just make out the Olympic Mountains.

This way to Canada

Seattle to Vancouver


My arrival in Seattle came with some trepidation. I have fallen into the welcoming and most hospitable arms of family friends who I had never actually met until (very) early this morning. Despite a very inconvenient arrival time, I was welcomed, taken in, fed and given a bed for the night by two very kind friends of my family. I am now greatly indebted to them, and look forward to welcoming them to England some time soon.

I have a day to explore Seattle. Contrasting these short stops in big cities with my slogs on long distance trains means that I am all the more eager to explore on foot and cover lots of ground. So, after being dropped off in downtown, I make a start on criss crossing the city's clean streets on foot. A sudden rainshower sends me scuttling indoors to the nearest shopping mall, where by chance I find a small exhibition presented by the Seattle Architecture Foundation. It offers an excellent summary of some of Seattle's most important buildings, with a generous selection of models and architectural plans for me to get lost in. It's a great way to start my day.

I wander through the down town grid of streets, following my nose and peering round corners and down side alleys whenever something takes my interest. I dawdle through Pikes Market, and then walk down to the waterfront. By now the rain clouds have cleared, and the day is looking to be a beautiful one. The sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and non-threatening in their appearance, and the temperature is picking up. I pause near the Odyssey Museum to sketch an ingenious piece of street furniture, and am entertained by (bizarrely) a trumpeter who is playing on the roof of the building. There is no explanation, not even a hat that I can leave some change in. A shame, because he was very good.

Once again I curse my itinerary - I have arrived on a Monday, when most museums are likely to be closed. However this does release me from the tourist's obligation to see everything in one go, and I feel free to just explore on foot. If one thing did come across from Seattle, however, it's that the public transport system is in a near total state of rejuvination. The Waterfront Streetcar is suspended while a new maintainance facility for the trams is built, and the city's subterranean transit tunnel is closed to allow the infrastructure for light rail to be built. So maybe this means good things are on the horizon, but I found it amusing to constantly find advisories that buses and trams weren't working or being rerouted (even more so later in the day, when the 'Day Without Immigrants' march got going).

So instead of a vintage tram, I ride a bus from pier 69 (from where you can sail by fast vessel to Victoria in British Columbia) to Chinatown - always the number one destination of the budget traveller. The streets here are broad and it's probably one of the quieter Chinatowns I've been to. But I find an attractive Vietnamese noodle bar and eat a big bowl of noodles with meatballs for $7. Full marks to the attentive waitress, who bids farewell to every customer with the same confident message:

"Thank you, see you tomorrow!"

I walk back through town, and make a detour to visit the (relatively) new Central Library, built in partnership by the Dutch architects OMA. You may already have ready my comments during my visit to Denver about the Denver Art Museum. So you may understand my problems with landmark pieces of architecture. This is just such an example, although in exploring the building I begin to appreciate more the way in which it was designed. The floorplan has been divided into two sides, and each side is on a slight opposing slope, turning the building into a giant spiral. You can ascend by escalator to the top floor, which is a vast reading room, and then gradually descend by following a path back and forth through the gently sloping stack rooms. Or, if you are in a hurry, the elevators are fairly easy to find, and well signposted with directions to the different departments. My only concern is a rather fatal flaw. Getting caught up in creating an exciting sloping floorplan, the architects must, at some point, have realised that neither bookshelves nor filing cabinets (of which there are a lot in a library) work very well on sloping floors. So each row of shelves or drawers is held level by a small concrete plinth that breaks out of the sloping concrete floor. Great. Problem solved. Except what happens if, twenty years from now, the library needs to re-arrange the shelving units? The whole floor will have to be skimmed and re-laid to re-position the plinths for the shelves.

And if that doesn't set off alarm bells about the cost of running this exceptionally unusual building, you'll probably not be surprised to hear that the whole of the third level is closed off, as contractors lay a new floor that will (according to big signs) 'wear better'. A polite way for explaining that the architect specified a fancy, expensive and completely unsuitable material for the floors to begin with.

Nonetheless, the library impresses me. It's a nice attempt, and it seems to be very well used. Plus, for any out of town visitors, you can go to the desk by the main computer facilities, and get a voucher for an hour of free internet time.

I continue my walk through Seattle, stopping for tea again at Pikes Market, which I seem to be drawn to for its life and entertainment, and then head north towards the Space Needle. It's here that I sit in the sun (next to another unmentionable self righteous pile of bollocks architecture, a museum about music that costs $19.95 to get into and about which I really can't be bothered to waste time think about) until my lift arrives.

That night I am treated again, and we eat at a fine seafood restaurant overlooking the Puget Sound. This luxury will end again soon, but it's nice to recharge the batteries once in a while. The sun sets over the Olympic Mountains, and my brief sojourn in Seattle comes to an end.