Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Train 692: dinner

I take a break from my book and my cheap dollar store su-doku puzzle book, and take a seat at the far end of the restaurant car to make myself a salami and cheese bagel for supper. At the other end of the car, the restaurant only serves three meals tonight. The economies of this train would give a private company a collective heart attack. But the joy of this journey is the reminder that passenger trains are not meant to turn an operating profit. Their benefit to communities and individuals cannot be measured, because they make otherwise impossible connections impossible, as well as providing employment to the people who operate the trains and the businesses that survive because of them.

As we get further south, the landscape gets greener once again. I kid myself that I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. North of Cormorant, we pass close by a lake, and the bright sun reflects along a sparkling line from the horizon to the edge of the lake next to the train. The sky is blue, and the water is bluer. At perfect moments like this, it’s only the strangest of sights that interrupt the view. We pass alongside a gravel road between us and the lake, and we catch sight of a hearse parked beside the road. The driver has stopped, and is getting out as we pass to take a photograph of our train.

Train 692: like trains in the daytime

The afternoon passes me by. I’m deep in my book, so forgive me for not repeating myself in describing the scenery as we re-trace the route that carried us north two days ago. I’m transported back to the first half of the twentieth century in The Blind Assassin, reading the life story of a Canadian woman who would never have imagined herself visiting northern Manitoba.

South of Sipiwesh (marked by the strange white poles that stand either side of the track as part of an experiment to monitor the permafrost level beneath the track) we pull forward into a siding to allow the northbound ‘Hudson Bay’ train 693 pass. An identical train to ours slips past, but the shaded windows don’t reveal any faces in the bright sunshine. I imagine another blogging traveller on board that train, trying to think of something poetic or apposite to describe our two trains passing, like ships in the night. That synonym wouldn’t work of course, because it’s broad daylight.

We reach Wabowden about fifty minutes behind schedule. The speed restrictions of the track have held us up, but I am assured by both Tara and Carmel that I’ll have no problems making my connection tomorrow in Winnipeg. When we first came through Wabowden it was raining – not it’s a bright sunny afternoon. Several of the passengers and our conductor cross to the ‘Lucky Dollar’ general store to buy lotto tickets. Tonight’s draw is worth five million Canadian dollars, which could probably persuade even the happiest VIA Rail employee to consider early retirement.

We’re directed into another siding a little further south. A northbound freight train trundles past: about forty empty lumber cars and tankers are pulled by two very shabby looking locomotives with the name of the Hudson Bay Railway stencilled onto their flanks. I can’t imagine painting them would make them go any faster, and besides not many people see them up here, so appearance is hardly important.

Train 692: Thicket Portage

Train 692: Thompson

Train 692: a trip to Thompson

We’re about half an hour late into Thompson, having turned off the main line once more, and performed the slow manual turning manoeuvre just outside town. This time, though, there’s a longer stop, and I have plenty of time to walk into town to get some more food supplies for the rest of the trip. Tara opens up the door at the back of the train for me, and she points me in the direction of town. I walk along the rusty tracks in the opposite direction to that from which we arrived, and at a level crossing with the road to the station make a right. In fifteen minutes, I’m back in the Canada that I know: grey suburban sprawl. Featureless suburbs, carpet shops, hardware stores, car dealerships, kids out from school for lunch, their hands stuffed in brown paper bags from Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s strange to be back in a miniature metropolis.

I turn right again at a garage where dozens of shiny Ford trucks and minivans are lined up (‘Built with pride in Ontario’) and find the side entrance to a large Wal-Mart mall. I steer clear of the Wal-Mart, but instead go into the Safeway store to buy hot soup, bagels, salami and cheese. I retrace my steps up a low hill and over the crest between electricity pylons and next to a yellow traffic sign that warns drivers to beware of crossing skidoos. Now that the snow has all gone, I doubt there’s much to look for now, but I make a precautionary glance to my left and right just in case.

I’m back at the station with plenty of time to spare, so I walk past the train on the side of the freight sidings. There aren’t many wagons here, but to my left is a low pile of left-over ballast, and between some of the sleepers are small piles of wood chips, memories of departed loads. I walk the length of the train, take a few photographs, and then walk round to the platform side. I surprise the two Winnipeg tourists, who see me emerge from the wrong end of the station with a Safeway shopping bag. The station is a small pale yellow building. The platform has an old hand pulled cart for loading freight and baggage onto the train. I crunch across the unpaved car park, but there isn’t much to see in this muddy end of town. I re-board, and eat my scratch lunch in the part of the dining car where the tables aren’t set for lunch. All sense of obligation to Tara’s cooking has gone by now – it’s very good, but I’m still getting by on C$30 a day.

We leave on time at 12.35. The train has now emptied of it’s Churchill passengers. Vera and I are alone in the sleeper car, and there are maybe a half dozen passengers in the one unlocked coach.

Train 692: smoke stop

Train 692: the first morning

I sleep well once more, and enjoy being a little closer to the train’s centre of gravity. The upper berth is definitely more fun for a first time sleeper passenger: climbing up into it makes it even more special. The lower berth, however, is much more practical and suitable for most adults. I say good morning to Vera, who’s already awake, who says that it’s by the far the best sleeping accommodation on the train. The return of mainline VIA Rail coaches to the ‘Hudson Bay’ is to be welcomed – apparently the unreliable ‘Northern Spirit’ trains didn’t offer this budget sleeper accommodation.

I take a shower. While I’m washing my hair I sense the train slowing down. The distant rattling of wheels over bolted tracks begins to recede through the drain beneath me, and we come to a halt. Crouching down, I can see gravel and a sleeper directly beneath me. I towel myself dry, and when I emerge from the bathroom I see that we have been pulled into a siding to allow the engineer to do a wheel check. The train’s smoking population has been allowed off to inhale the ‘fresh’ air, and they’re beside the track enjoying their morning fags.

I come forward to have breakfast. We pass a junction with another rail line that seems to go north-west to a point on the Nelson River called Kelsey. I believe that this is the site of one of Manitoba Hydro’s larger dams, although I’m not sure. Unlike Thomson’s spur, there is no passenger service on that line.

I order the ‘Continental’ breakfast. As always, I’m still not sure which continent this breakfast comes from, because it’s definitely not Europe. I substitute cereal for hot oats, which are served with brown sugar and milk, and have coffee, toast and juice to start my day. It comes to a very reasonable C$6.

Vera is sitting near me, and as we cross a bridge high above the Nelson River (downstream from the Kelsey hydro dam) she says that it’s looking higher than she has seen it in a long while. In a recent trip south she says that the train was held up even more by very high water levels in the streams on either side of the track. I’ve yet to see a beaver on my trip, although their dams are everywhere, and these frequently have to be broken by track maintenance crews to stop overflowing water from causing subsidence to the already fragile track bed. A little later I even see a few trees felled by beavers; their trunks chewed away to leave the timber and stump with perfect exposed points, like freshly sharpened pencils.

We reach Pikwitonei at 09.30, keeping very good time so far.

Train 692: ready to return

Shortly after we arrived this morning, our train reversed out of Churchill station, and was turned in a triangular turning circuit just outside town. It subsequently backed into the station, and was left there with engines running all day. From time to time I would round a corner and hear the not too distant hum of the gently throbbing locomotives. It might seem like a waste of diesel, but it’s safer than shutting down the engines and then discovering that they can’t be re-started. This especially important in the depths of winter, when a train failure could be extremely difficult to fix, and a replacement locomotive could take days to reach us. Despite their normally short consist, trains 693 and 692 to and from Churchill operate with two locomotives not for pulling power, but for safety. If one were to break down, there would not be much chance for another to reach a stranded train for some time. And in the depths of winter, if a train with a single locomotive was to break down, the heating in the passenger cars would soon drop far below freezing. It would cease to be a matter of convenience, and soon become a matter of life or death.

I’m early at the station (old habits die hard) but there is already a hub-bub on the station platform as luggage is loaded into the baggage car. The tourist office inside the old station building has a single VIA Rail ticket desk, and it’s from here that a locally employed agent sells tickets and provides information to passengers. I notice that on the desk is a pile of the new Amtrak system timetable. Perhaps a few other long distance journeys have commenced here?

Most of the tickets being sold, however, are for Thompson. There is a small group of young teenagers here this evening, all with violin cases and luggage for a couple of days away. I learn through overheard conversations that they are actually fiddles, not violins, and that they are presumably going to play in a concert or competition.

Of the handful of passengers who travelled north with me, two are returning to Winnipeg this evening as well. The two gentlemen, who I’d already met on the first night, had taken advantage of a VIA Rail special offer, which allows one passenger over the age of sixty to take a companion of any age for free. Both being over sixty, they paid one fare and split it between the two. Having lived in Winnipeg for much of their lives, they had decided (much like me) to take a trip to Churchill just for the sake of it. They had had a similarly interesting day, but had also retreated indoors in the afternoon to warm up.

Our train began boarding at about 20.15, preparing for a 20.30 departure. There was a healthy load of coach passengers, most going to Thompson and connecting to bus services from there. I boarded the sleeper car shortly afterwards.

Earlier today, Tara had mentioned that she would be making up another of the berths for another passenger. So when I re-board the train and head to the familiar couchette end of the carriage, I meet a new travelling companion. Vera has lived in Churchill since 1979, and she runs a three room bed and breakfast on Hearne Street (call 204-675-2544 for details). She has two sons in the town, and ever since she arrived here almost thirty years ago following a period in the Wrens, has called Churchill her home. One son works on a pilot boat that guides ships into the harbour. The other is an engineer in the Town Complex, and helps with the maintenance of the water supply. Tap water is sourced from the Churchill River, at a point about two miles inland from the town. Part of his job is to maintain the water heaters that heat the water three times between the river and the two. Without these (and the element heaters that many houses have in the pipes where the water enters the house) the pipes would freeze solid throughout the winter. Along with heavy duty engine block heaters that require cars to be plugged in overnight to prevent them from freezing up, it’s just another practicality in the life of the town.

It’s rewarding to finally talk to a Churchill resident for a short while. She says she is yet to be convinced that the port will ever be open for much longer, but says that despite the bitter winters she enjoys living here. Everyone knows everyone, and it’s a tight community. I ask about the inevitable flip side of remote life in Canada: are there drug or alcohol problems in Churchill? Her answer is yes – there will always be a few heavy drinkers, but the drug problem is harder to solve. A town meeting later this week will be bringing together the officers of the RCMP and local residents. Until specific information can be brought against members of the community suspected of supplying drugs (such as fatally addictive crystal meths) not much can be done.

We leave a few minutes early, and together we watch the settlement slip away. In ten or fifteen minutes, we cross the level crossing that had announced our arrival to me this morning, and we’re on our way back across the wilderness once more. Ten hours in Churchill might seem a short justification for eighty hours of travelling, but at this time of the year I didn’t miss much in town. Besides, for me the journey has been as much the destination as the town itself.

Shortly after leaving Churchill, Tara returns to make up the third pair of bunks. A passenger in coach class has decided to pay the night fare for a couchette through to Thompson, so we’ll be losing the spare pair of seats for the night. It’s fine with us – Vera goes forward to read in the coach car, and I decide to turn in early to read. For this half of the Churchill run, I’ve paid a bit more and booked a lower berth. Getting in and out of it is easier, and I get this time I get window. If there’s one complaint it’s that the lower bunk is just slightly too low: it’s not possible to lie in bed and look out of the window at anything other than the sky or the tops of the trees beside the track. But that’s hardly a major complaint. I curl up under the sheets, button the curtain closed and dive into The Blind Assassin. Beside me, my picture window fills with an ever deepening blue, as the sun sets and night falls. I’m back in my natural habitat, it seems, warm and cozy, gently falling asleep to the sound of the train rattling over the tracks. It’s Tuesday evening: I will arrive in Toronto in three days time.

Train 692