Saturday, May 06, 2006

Leaving Edmonton

My most generous hosts are rounding up a wonderful three days in Edmonton by giving me a lift to the station. I'd like to tell you that VIA Rail's station is Edmonton is centrally located and convenient for tourists who want to visit the city for a few days between trains.

But it's not. It's in the stupidest and most inconvenient location for a railway station imaginable, squeezed into a slice of land between the city's municipal airport, the Yellowhead Trail expressway and acres of CN railroad yards. When I arrived here the other day, a man approached me and asked me where the bus stop was. I said that it was probably about five kilometres away, in the downtown area. I pointed towards the clump of skyscrapers visible on the horizon. Trying to be as helpful as possible, I directed him towards the free taxi phone in the station lobby.

And now that I've returned to the station, it seems he wasn't the only one to be disappointed by Edmonton. I chat to a couple from New Zealand who I had briefly met a few days earlier on the train from Vancouver (I noticed many people from that train who had taken a few days in Edmonton and were rejoining the train today). The couple, who I suspect were doing a reirement coast to coast tour, had had a mixed time. The bed and breakfast was nice, but not exactly convenient, and she had found the city's art gallery to be an appalling waste of time.

I did my best to defend the city. It is, after all, where Canada's fringe festival season finishes off, and in August and September it's a great place to come to see live music, dance and comedy. But at any other time of the year, it is not a tourist friendly place, sprawling for mile upon mile in every direction, with a windswept and characterless downtown. The river valley is scenic and great to explore on foot, but to really see everything it's virtually impossible to get around without a car.

Right now, Edmonton's economy is booming, and house prices are sky rocketing. But without friends to show you around, I wouldn't recommend it as a good value place to break your trip on the Canadian. It hurts to say that, because I love the place, but I have to admit it's true. If anyone from VIA Rail is listening, may you go to your graves repenting that the downtown railway station was ever sacrificed.

But it's not all grim news. Our train is late, but this allows for a timely comparison between VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak. Once I've checked in, the ticket agent directs me to one end of the waiting room, where they've set up a table with complimentary tea and coffee. That's always there for departing passengers. But when the train is late, they like to make sure we appreciate their sincere apologies. So they've ordered in five large boxes of Tim Horton donughts.

I share a joke with the ticket agent. No prizes for guessing why Amtrak doesn't give it's passengers donughts when their trains are late...

Update: to Churchill, Manitoba

It's Saturday afternoon in Edmonton, and it's raining. But I've got a train to catch, so hopefully it'll be sunny by the time I reach Winnipeg, Manitoba, tomorrow lunchtime. Tonight marks the beginning of what is, to me, the most exciting part of the trip. What follows over the next couple of days is the part of the journey for which I've said "why not?"

I'm going to Churchill, in the far north of Manitoba on the shore of the Hudson Bay. I don't have any real reason to go to Churchill - I'm going because I can and because I'll never have a reason to go there again.

Come to think of it, I don't have much reason to go there now... but the journey will be a once in a lifetime experience. Over thirty-six hours each way, the 'Hudson Bay' train will carry me north across some of the most beautiful and most remote parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, over almost 3,400km of track. I've been warned to expect a very slow and bouncy ride: the seasonal freeze and thaw of the land in the north of Manitoba leaves the track in pretty rough shape. And after Thompson, Manitoba, we'll be travelling to communities that have no other land connections with the rest of the province: Churchill itself can only be reached by train or by plane. But this mystical sounding town with the most English of names isn't just the end of dead end railway line: it could well be one of Canada's most important ports in years to come: I'll tell you why when I come back.

I'm stocking up on food and reading material for the trip, and will be writing my journal by hand over the next week for updating here when I return to Montréal next weekend. So no updates are expected for a while, but I'll be back online by Sunday 14 May with news and photographs of Canada's north.

So, that's all for now folks. I've got a train to catch...