Thursday, May 11, 2006

Train 2: Malachi

The flat fields of Manitoba begin to disappear, and we enter the forests that will lead us into north-western Ontario, the province that train 2 spends the most time in on it’s journey across the country. We make a request stop at the pretty little lakeside halt of Malachi to let one passenger off. As the train pulls away I see her standing back from the track with a suitcase by her side and a big smile on her face. She joins the thick album of mental snapshots I have of people who wave as we go past. Top honour in that category, unfortunately for her, goes to the UPS delivery driver who drove past me while on the California Zephyr somewhere in Utah a few weeks ago. As he overtook the train on a long dusty road, he gave a wave and a friendly smile to all of us along the length of the train through his open sliding door. Thirty minutes later I saw him going the other way, still waving, still smiling.

Seen from a train: pylons

Train 2: like an old friend

I collect my bags and return to the waiting lounges in the VIA Rail ticket hall. It’s a great shame that most of the large railway stations I’ve been in on this tour offer you very little preview of the tracks that you board your train on. Travelling by train is a special event, and it’s rather disappointing to always be herded through waiting rooms and ticket halls that are separated from the tracks by escalators or stairs. When train 2 does pull in, about one hour late, everyone is informed of it’s arrival by the immense sound of heavy cars clanking over tracks above our heads.

The lounge areas here are divided for sleeper car passengers and coach passengers. Both sides are pretty full, and they get busier as the passengers who’ve stepped off the train for a short break re-join us for boarding. The platforms are closed off at Winnipeg in between disembarkation and boarding so that the platform crew can service the train. Winnipeg is also a VIA Rail crew base, so the entire on board team is changing here. Winnipeg based crew operate on three roundtrip routes: to Toronto and back, to Vancouver and back, and to Churchill and back. Less experienced staff generally work without an ‘assignment’ – meaning that they do not know until a day or two before their next departure where they’ve been scheduled to work. Tara, my chef and sleeper attendant on my last two trains, told me how this was her first season with an assignment, and therefore with the benefit of knowing where and when she would be working next.

Just after 12.05, a boarding call is made for the sleeper car passengers. This causes much commotion in our coach lounge, and of course the human instinct prevailed: we all form a neat line ready by the gate for when it’s our turn. I recognise a few faces who had been one or more of my preceding trips on train 2: our overlapping and interweaving itineraries make for enjoyable brief friendships that come and go.

A few minutes later, the gate opens, and the neat orderly line gradually transforms into an eager rush to get on the train, and to find ‘good’ seats. Most people seem to have differing opinions of what a ‘good’ seat is, so to be honest there probably isn’t much need for rushing. I emerge onto the platform to find train 2 occupying significantly more of the length of the tracks than train 692 had this morning. Like a long silvery snake (hey, no criticism, it’s hard finding synonyms for a big long silver train) the front and back ends of train 2 dwarf the length of the station shed, stretching almost to the ends of the platforms.

I later saved myself a long walk, and got the attractive sounding roster of our train from my coach attendant. The train consists of:

Two locomotives, baggage car, coach, coach (me), Skyline (dome), Jarvis Manor (sleeper), Draper Manor (sleeper), Lorne Manor (sleeper), Skyline (dome), Fairholme (restaurant), Blair Manor (sleeper), Douglas Manor (sleeper), Macdonald Manor (sleeper), Chateau Vercheres (sleeper), Skyline (dome), Kent (restaurant), Amherst Manor (sleeper), Drummond Manor (sleeper), Dawson Manor (sleeper) and the Banff Park car.

Two of the first sleepers were ‘dead-heading’. It took some further polite questioning to work out that this meant they’re empty, running without staff or paying passengers. This does mean, however, that every crew member should have a bed to sleep in, which always makes for happier crew.

I find a seat that meets my amateur’s definition of a ‘good’ one (un-obscured window, middle of the car, away from the doors and axles) and settle in. I’m mostly surrounded by continuing passengers from Vancouver and Edmonton, but a number of people get on Winnipeg. This car has an interesting mix of younger travellers and older passengers. A friendly coach attendant checks my ticket, and we’re soon on our way, running about one hour behind our schedule.

I’ve chosen a very warm day to be leaving ‘Canada’s Chicago’. As we turn to cross the Red River through a beautiful old steel bridge, our welcome announcements begin and I head to the dome car behind my coach. We running along a track that is now heading straight east out of Winnipeg, on an embankment that affords me an even better view from the raised viewing section of the Skyline car. We skim along the treetops of St. Boniface, and the green suburbs eventually give way to the suburban commercial and industrial strips. Even out here, everything is somehow green: roadside tracts of grass and the tree lined streets are in full colour, and under a blue sky it feels good to be back on a fast train again. Winnipeg’s eastern freight yards pass us by to out left, and continuing along a dead straight stretch of track, we begin to pick up speed.

I’ve substituted the inhospitable true north of Canada for the prairies that I know and love. In doing so, it’s amusing to notice that I’ve also substituted an entirely Canadian group of fellow passengers for a mix of tourists from all over the world. It seems that it’s only usually Australian, Kiwi, Polish, French and English folk who’d consider taking a train from Winnipeg to Toronto. Snippets of a conversation in the lower level lounge is filtering up into the dome. I can hear two British men discussing Home and Away and Eastenders with a family from Australia.

We have 1,943km ahead of us, and we’ll be in Toronto by tomorrow night.

Winnipeg (twice in one week)

When I descend to the Winnipeg station ticket hall, the monitors are advising the train 2, my eastbound ‘Canadian’ is running on time, and will be departing at 12.25. It should even arrive before then to allow for servicing, so I decide not to stray too far from the station. I cross the imposing foyer, and out onto the street. A little roadside diner across the street caught my eye last time, so I head over the VJ’s Drive Through to eat the ‘special’ hamburger. It was very special indeed, and although the air is still fresh, I sit outside with a newspaper and enjoy the sunshine.

When I cross back to the station a short while later, the screens are telling a different story, and the train is now running late. So I leave my bags at the ticket desk and go for a walk in the Forks. This redeveloped are sits to the south-east of the railway station, in the small parcel of land cut off from downtown by the railway tracks. Old warehouse buildings have been refurbished and opened up into the Forks Market, and what looks like an old pumping station or generator house is a television and radio station. An old CN caboose and an old passenger carriage stand in the car park. The Caboose is intact, the train car is now a sweet shop.

I have a look round the indoor market, which is bustling at ground level with dozens of food joints, fruit and vegetable stalls and other small shops. I spend thirty minutes on a computer sending a few e-mails and bashing out a quick blog entry, and then wander a bit more. To one side of the markets is more modern steel and glass viewing tower, with a stair and an elevator that carry you up to an open air platform. The views from up here of the Forks, the river and across the train tracks towards the skyline of downtown Winnipeg are pretty impressive, and I take a few photographs in the warm sunshine. This would be a good place to watch the ‘Canadian’ sweeping across the bridge into the station, but since I don’t want to miss it, I decide it would be safer to go back to the station.

I cross beneath the tracks just south of the station, stopping briefly to peer into the windows of a car similar to one that I’ve arranged to rent when I get to Halifax. Despite a bit of driving when I was in California, I don’t how easy it will be to return to piloting myself in a vehicle; I’m rather used to being chauffeured around (so don’t forget BMM… bring your license :-)

Train 692: into Winnipeg

I wake up to the familiar sights of Manitoba. We’re back on the mainline, heading towards the town of Portage la Prairie. It’s home, amongst other things, to the world’s largest can of Coca-Cola (click on the photo and see if you can find it!) Next time I’m in town I’ll have to do my own tour of Manitoban big things to compensate for my earlier Albertan tour. I had toyed with the idea of getting off here and joining the ‘Canadian’ here before it reached Winnipeg so as to spread my layovers over a wider variety of cities, but the ticket agent at Winnipeg station had advised against risking it. It is actually better to have more time in the morning on the train – I am less rushed to get packed and off

I take a shower and have a shave to start the day. Although we’re scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg just after eight o’clock, this train always runs slightly late, so there’s no rush this morning. I know for certain that I will make my connection with the eastbound Canadian later today, so I’m not fretting. Refreshed from my shower, I re-pack my bags for the short interval between trains. Breakfast is still being served, so I go forward and have one last meal in the ‘Annapolis’ dining car. I have a hot coffee, and get teased by Carmel for asking if I can have some jam to put on one of my own bagels. Sorry VIA Rail, we Rail Pass passengers aren’t going to help you turn a profit this year.

Tara is in the process of converting our berths back into seats when I return. I shift my bags out of the way while she finishes, and settle down with my book as we race towards Winnipeg. ‘Race’ may not be the most appropriate verb, but it feels like we’re sprinting in after the crawl we moved at for most of the journey.

The suburbs of Winnipeg soon appear beside the tracks. Modern family homes are being construction in faux-communities further and further out from the downtown district. We pass underneath the outer circular highway, and begin to slow as we enter the broad sets of tracks around Winnipeg’s busy railroad freight yards. Passing the VIA Rail maintenance facility, I catch a brief glimpse of the obsolete ‘Northern Spirit’ trains that worked this service for a few years. They’re easy to spot because of the bizarre oversized decals of Manitoban animals that are applied to the sides of the stainless steel carriages. Interesting, but probably of limited interest to the actual Manitoban wildlife who get to see the train pass by every three days.

We arrive in Winnipeg’s station just before 11.00. Tara helps Vera and me down from the sleeper car, and wishes us both a pleasant trip. I’ve been travelling with a small stock of CD compilations that I have been giving to those who have hosted me during my trip – both friends and the volunteer hosts of the Hospitality Club. Since I spent four nights in her company, and she’d been such a good attendant, I apologised for not being able to leave a gratuity, but gave Tara one of the discs. Few recipients are likely to enjoy the whole album, but given my sporadic taste in music there should be something in there somewhere that she’ll enjoy. We bid each other farewell, and I complete my 3,394km round trip by heading downstairs to the ticket hall.

Train 692: The Pas

We arrive at The Pas. The train is quiet, and virtually empty save for about a half dozen coach passengers. I step off the train and take a quick walk around the old station building (which apart from the VIA Rail ticket office, is now used as offices by the Hudson Bay Railway company). The locomotives fuel tanks are being filled, and the water tanks underneath the carriages are being filled. There aren’t many people about, and only five new passengers join us.

The sun is setting out of sight, and turning the western edge of the sky pink. The colours reflect in the windows and on the stainless steel of the train. They may be over fifty years old, but these cars are still very elegant. Even on a modest and purely function train like this one, they cut a dash at every station they stop at.

I get back on board, and prepare to enjoy my last night in the comfort of a VIA Rail couchette. Tara has once again been called into action to fold, collapse and unfurl the third pair of berths. One of the passengers who boarded at The Pas has upgraded from coach to a bed, and will be joining us for the night. It takes Tara about five minutes to perform the conversion, and soon we have another pair of beds ready for the night. I’ve enjoyed this little bit of luxury immensely: it’s an affordable and extremely fun way to make an overnight trip by train more comfortable, and I would definitely consider it again, especially instead of a more expensive private room. I’m not particularly fussy about privacy, and the comfort of a berth is more than enough to make a night time journey easy to sleep through.

I close my curtains for the last time and lie in my snug berth with the blind up. In my line of sight I can see the sky dropping from a deep aquamarine, to blue, to pale blue, to grey, to white and to pink. Thicker and deeper silhouetted forests are now speeding past us as we rejoin faster tracks that will carry us in our wide curve through a slice of Saskathewan and back into Manitoba early tomorrow morning.

I tumble into my dreams very rapidly, and sleep soundly.

Train 692: Sunset in The Pas