Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Seen from a train: Edmonton, out of focus

Train 2: the afternoon slump

We do indeed leave Jasper on time. There is now only one scheduled stop for us before we reach Edmonton this evening, and that's to offload three coach passengers in Hinton, Alberta. They're picking up a truck and helping a friend move back to Vancouver over the next couple of days. They've been playing cards with a brother and sister from Ontario in the Skyline car this morning, and it's been fun to have the spirit of the car lifted by a group of wise cracking and chatty younger passengers. Otherwise it would just be silent Japanese tourists, retired couples and solo travellers like me.

By two thirty in the afternoon, however, everything goes quiet. For many people this has been the first night on board a train in a while, and everyone who didn't get a full quota of sleep last night is now hitting the afternoon wall. With only caffeine from the take out counter, mountainous scenery and enthralled conversation about how we all slept to get us through the morning, pretty much everyone in the coach has started dozing. After my vast soup and sandwich lunch, I too am beginning to feel drowsy. I'm not a good nap person. If I'm sleeping, I'm going all out and sleeping properly. Afternoon napping just leaves me groggy and confused as hell.

The scenery has also quitened down. Whereas this morning was spent enjoying a 360 degree symphony of Canada's finest landscapes, the mountains are gently receding into hills, and the forests are begining to thin out. Soon we will be in the flat agricultural prairies of Alberta, and the long slog to Toronto will begin. On the one hand, it's true to say that only the Vancouver to Edmonton portion of the journey has any scenery worth seeing. But if you're going to do this trip properly, you need to appreciate the sheer scale of this country and the sparseness of the population. The 'Canadian' takes more than two days to travel from Edmonton to Toronto... so just remember to bring some books.

I read, fill in my Sudoku puzzles and drink tea front the take out counter. I chat with the attendant, who used to live in Montréal, about the city and what it means to live there. While we both love the city, we agree that it can get boring quickly. Having now seen a massive sweep of North America, my mind is more prepared to start thinking about the changes in my situation that are likely to follow this trip. Like many tourists, I find that I no longer travel to see things, but to find the things I miss the most from back home.

The Skyline dome is now virtually empty. The card games were abruptly terminated when we reached Hinton and two of the players realised that this was their stop. The attendant stalled the locomotive driver by saying that the disembarking passengers had lots of lugagge to get together, not mentioning that they had nearly missed their stop.

I'm very content, curled up in my seat in the subdued carraige. Although I'm leaving the train soon, I'm returning to a landscape that I remember well. When I first came to Canada four years ago, it was to this region that I headed first. I came not as a tourist, but as a wedding guest, and found here in the backwoods of rural Alberta some of the warmest hospitality and friendliest people I'd ever met. Rural Alberta is not a top notch tourist destination, but it is a place that has a very special place in my heart. Although I've now spent much longer living in the French speaking part of Montréal, far away in Québec, I feel a much stronger affinity with the prairies. My first visit here was an important moment of cleansing for me. A naïve 18 year old Englishman (i.e. from a very small island), I was initially knocked sideways by the vastness of this province. But in the empty roads that stretch out for miles without a curve, and the fields divided into neat quarter sections for hundreds of square kilometres in every direction, I found a deep emotional connection. This landscape is so alien to me, and to what I gew up with in England, I can't help be enchanted.

Industrial sprawl begins to creep up alongside the tracks. We are approaching my first Canadian layover: Edmonton.

Jasper, AB

We arrive in Jasper a little behind schedule. VIA Rail cushion their long distance train schedules with service stops like the one here, so with fifty minutes to service the train and for passengers to stretch their legs, there's every chance we'll be leaving on schedule again. Our coach attendants make absolutely sure we know how long we have to get off the train, and make sure that all our watches are now on the same time zone. Horror stories are recounted of passengers left behind, and who have sometimes been seen running back to the station by helpless train staff as the train pulls away. Once the train starts moving again, it's very hard to stop it in time, and you're likely to be left here for up to three days until the next train passes through. So you don't want to get left behind.

A sign on the side of the station advises anyone who has trouble with VIA's metric timetable that Jasper is 534.9 miles from Vancouver and 2408.8 miles from Montréal. I have a long way still to go.

Once on the platform I decide to take some exercise, and begin the quarter mile walk from one end of the train to the other. Now, as I have already mentioned, I'm not too hot on train identification, and I certainly haven't been spending much time noting train names and numbers. But to help me find my way around, I usually doodle a diagram of our train as a string of little boxes in my sketchbook to work out where the different coaches are. The sleeper cars on this train are all named, so I jot down the names as I walk past. From front to back, our train looks like this:

Locomotive, locomotive, baggage car, seated coach, seated coach, Skyline dome car, Laird Manor (sleeper), Hunter Manor (sleeper), Dunsmuir Manor (sleeper), Skyline dome car, Palliser (restaurant), Cornwall Manor (sleeper), Hearne Manor (sleeper), Monck Manor (sleeper), Chateau Lasalle (sleeper), Skyline dome car, Louise (restaurant), Abbot Manor (sleeper), Brandt Manor (sleeper), Burton Manor (sleeper), and the Kokanee Park car.

Once I've reached the other end of the train, it feels like I've reached the end of the town's short main street. I cross into town and search out a post office to buy some stamps. I have some food with me (again, thanks to my kind hosts in Seattle) but I stop by a diner to take out a freshly made toasted turkey sandwich with a big cup of cream of brocolli soup. I return to the platform, but the train is closed off while it's cleaned and serviced. I chat with the sleeper attendant who explained the berths to me earlier in the day. I'm impressed that even during their precious off train breaks, the VIA staff are more than happy to answer my dumb questions and pass the time of day with me. These folk love their job, and just love talking to us, even though we must make the same jokes and ask the same questions as every other group of passengers.

Just after 12.10, the train re-opens for boarding, and I take my lunch with me on board. It's a gorgeous sunny day in Jasper, warm enough for just a t-shirt. I'd love to stay, of course, but my journey continues.

Train 2: Skyline car in Jasper

Seen from a train: Moose Lake

Train 2: towards Jasper, AB

We're on time heading towards Jasper. I pass the next hour or two in the dome of our Skyline car, joining other passengers in the usual digital camera frenzy that is spurred on every time something vaguely photogenic comes into view. We manage to maintain order and share the view from the forward facing windows comfortably. The mountains are spectacular. We're too late for the heavy winter snow that makes this route so special in the winter, but the scale and beauty of the deep valleys we're running through is hard not to appreciate.

Mount Robson comes into view. It's the highest peak that we'll be seeing on this journey, and the train approaches it more or less head on. Lots more digital photo opportunities for us in the dome car. Whenever wildlife (goats, elk, bald eagles) is spotted from the locomotive at the front of the train, the engineers radio back to the on board crew and give us plenty of advance notice. The crew recall seeing brown bears on the way into Jasper a few days ago, but today we have no luck with the bears.

Thirty minutes later, the train runs alongside the glorious expanse of Moose Lake. This vast body of water is perfectly still in the morning sun, and the mountains beyond are casting a perfect reflection on the water. It's just another jaw droppingly beautiful view that we're treated to.

Seen from a train: the Rockies

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.

Train 2: approaching the Rockies

Train 2: Sunset in British Columbia

It pains me to disappoint any proud Americans who are reading, but frankly, VIA Rail kicks Amtrak when it comes to traveling in coach class. As I settle into my comfy reclining seat, my friendly coach attendant comes through the car handing out the night time kit. If I had known they were so generous, I would have started my trip in Canada and saved money on all those sleeping accessories I bought in Montréal. I receive a pillow (about three times the size and density of the Amtrak one), a thick blanket, an eye mask, a flannel and ear plugs. Since I'll be traveling overnight on VIA several more times I'm going to be able to start a small collection of eye masks.

We're rolling through the flat countryside north-east of Vancouver. Our train's schedule lists several request stops before Kamloops, but since no-one is getting on or off, we're heading straight to Kamloops, where we'll pick up a handful of passengers in the early hours.

I buy a hot chocolate from the small take out counter that is undernearth the Skyline dome, and chat with the attendant there. Maybe it's just because we're still in the first twenty-four hours of the trip, but the crew on board this train are exceptionally chatty and friendly. On this train they're mostly from Winnipeg, and will be getting off there when the crew changes for the last leg of the trip. The cafe attendant lets me know he'll be showing a film at 21.00, and thank the lord I finally have a chance to see a decent film on a train: tonight's showing will be The Corpse Bride. I pass two friendly English women from Yorkshire (near to my university, which I'll be returning to do my masters degree at in October). We chat about our journeys, and I'm reminded of my fondness for the accents and voices of Sheffield.

I return to the dome and, along with about a dozen other passengers, watch the mountains approach. We pass small farms and villages, one by one being cast into shadow by the hills and mountains around them. I imagine the outside temperature is beginning to drop, and soon dew will be forming on the green fields. I don't yet perceive that we have gained any height... we are still bowling along level track in the wide flat valley floor. Soon the thinly-snow-capped mountains turn in colour from ice white to pink, reflecting the unseen sunset in the west. The sun is setting on another new landscape for me - a halfway point between rural farmland and majestic mountains.

From time to time we pass a farm that has a flag pole. Seeing the Canadian flag flying is an odd experience for me. Living in Québec I don't see the red maple leaf that often. After almost two weeks seeing the stars and stripes flying proud, it's strange to be back in a country where the flag has nothing more than a leaf on it. Maybe we build associations with these symbols over time, and attach personal meaning based on the experiences we have been through. Forgive me for being an naïve Canada-phile when I say this, but being an born and bred British man, this flag somehow means a lot more to me than any other.

Read that as you will... I head downstairs at 21.00 to watch the film. Despite the amazing animation used in the film, my eyelids are drooping. I can't tell if I dozed off during the film, but when it finished I was ready to sleep. I returned to my coach, wishing good night to the attendants and the group of passengers who had started up a heated conversation in the lounge.