Thursday, July 11, 2019

Riding VIA's Canadian, June 2019

It's a rare treat to travel on VIA's ex-CP Canadian. Even non-enthusiasts marvel at the enduring nature of Budd's 1950's design and the stainless steel elan that the Canadian still conveys. This post shows the car's interiors and gives a glimpse of what it's like travelling on the Canadian today. VIA's Customer Delivery Manager Mark Sampson was a man of his word (as well as an expert on the Canadian and a valuable book contributor), meeting us on the platform at Toronto Union. We would also meet Mark on our eastward trip about VIA No 2. When we had a chance to talk, Mark asked me a question that really got me thinking...."So, how does this compare to riding this train in the 1980's?"
One thing that has not changed is the genteel nature of train travel, the daily highlight of eating in a moving restaurant - on No 1, the ex-CP diner Emerald - and the unsurpassed quality of the meals served. Impressive on land, but unparallelled when created in a moving, rolling box of a galley kitchen. Dominique, our car attendant from Cabot Manor is also in the diner as we sit down to our first brunch of our trip, near Washago, ON (above). Lunch and dinner each comprised two sittings, roughly 1730 and 1900, with reservations made in the Panorama lounge at Toronto by the dining car steward, then for the next day's meal while in the diner. Brunch menu:
Every day it was the Transcontinental for me. Hard to beat. I can order it the same at Ramekins Restaurant here in Kingston, at Denny's, or on the Canadian: Scrambled-Sausage-White Toast (SSW - I just think of the Cotton Belt!) The toast was always just right and jam-ready, and the coffee full-bodied and hot. My wife and I at brunch (below). On our No 1, continental breakfast was available in the lower level of the Skyline or the diner 0630-0830 or later, with brunch 0930-1400 then two dinner sittings. Since brunch was on a relaxed schedule, the diner was not full. But for lunch and dinner, it always was, and we would be seated with an array of fellow passengers, usually another couple. The unfortunate IT guy from Trenton, NJ was seated at one meal with three non-English-speakers. Quiet. Just look at that toast:
Fun fact: the tablecloth is always set on a large white towel, to cushion the surface. Cream is always in a pitcher, and salt & pepper always require at least one good knock on the table to get them flowing. Across the aisle we can glimpse limpid lakes among the endless evergreens and the occasional outcrops of igneous rock (below). With meals included in fare, there is no settling up with the steward after each meal, except for liquor purchases. This greatly speeds up sittings, and without internet coverage, how could I pay by Square anyway? Nor do I have to write my order down on paper. Tipping is still allowed, though the 25-cent tip is long gone.
We are in Skyline 8501 with The Smoker - daydreaming about her next, distant smoke break - and Ivan, whose onboard posts from his VIA No 2 I had enjoyed before leaving home. We're enjoying a Caesar for my wife and Steamwhistle, brewed in Toronto's ex-CP John Street roundhouse, for me, both from the under-dome bar. Surprisingly, this bar service is not highlighted or even mentioned to passengers. Fun fact: neither Skyline had been remotely recently refurbished, with bad-order seatback tables and fraying upholstery.
Skyline activity near Washago, ON (below). The Italians, IT guy, the BC political Granny and The Smoker enjoy the sunlight. There are three printed exhortations, of various eras, reminding passengers not to hog the dome seating. Thinking back to Mark's initial question, on my earlier trips, VIA had not reversed the Skyline direction-of-travel yet, so there was no previewing of who was in the dome or who was coming upstairs. One could appear surreptitiously at the back of the dome and scope out your seat. Not any more! Some glass panels have also been replaced with seizure-inducing wavy glass. So not all seats are created equal, and ample air-conditioning also make one pick one's seat, so to speak.
The activity co-ordinator onboard updates the lower-level activity board in each Skyline. In our case, we were the first Sleeper Class Skyline, there also being an Economy Class Skyline ahead, a second Sleeper Class Skyline behind, and finally the Prestige Class Park car. The Three-Class Canadian was upon us. In the 1980's, there were no such distinctions and no lettering on various car end-doors warning off-Class passengers from going any farther. I 'get' that VIA is offering more luxury for Prestige passengers at a higher price, but we all travel together, are all as late as one another, and all cluster around the baggage carousel together. Unlike the 1980's, there was a functioning PA system, though notices of time changes and announcements regarding passing sights were not always given.
Continental breakfast on our second morning (below). Yes, we're still in Ontario, near Auden on CN's Caramat Sub. We've got juice, coffee, muffin and bagel, with fruit and endless Christie cookies available all day downstairs. The Railroader From France is also up with the chickens! Awakening to the non-functioning 'space-toilet' in our Double Bedroom (er, Cabin for 2 - there's another change since the 1980's) we left a note for Dominique and the train rider reset or otherwise remedied the pesky plumbing problem. Train riders were riding both our trains - a positive change from, "The carman will probably look at it at Winnipeg."
Hey Smoker, it's smoke time!! Walking the non-platform at Sioux Lookout with the Chicago Grad's parents and many others - only the second major stop since Toronto, the first being Capreol while we were enjoying our Prime Rib in Emerald last evening, then Hornepayne in the wee hours of the morning. In the wake of Greyhound's reduction of service throughout Western Canada, VIA is left to provide a modicum of inter-city transportation. Twice-a-week is not what I'd call reliably convenient, or even conveniently reliable. But it's something. Most of the Economy Class folks seem to be inter-city travellers. Meanwhile, in Sleeper Plus Class, we only met one other Ontarian, and not many more Canadians. Two words: land-cruise. For all, a great opportunity to appreciate the awesome Rapido Trains-like underbody detail of VIA's Canadian:
Car wraps were not a thing back in the 1980's. This one on Emerald, promoting Churchill was actually eye-catching. Roster shot by my wife. Of the diner, not me. I took a deep breath entering the kitchen end of the diner everytime. Hoping for that hot food/damp air/cigarette smoke/steam table smell of years past, and only inhaled one of the four!
Patient and persevering, fellow blogger Steve Boyko waited for us to possibly emerge into the Beaux-Arts beauty of Winnipeg depot - which we did. Steve did yeoman service touring us around the street-side and trackside of the Depot. I related to Steve that in the 1980's, I would disembark into the depot, then not-so-surreptitiously slip through under the tracks into East Yard and up at track level to see the wonders of VIA (and the hulks of CN and CP passenger service) on display. Not anymore. The servicing stop looked frenetic, especially since we were running late, and I suggested Steve not run any later, since for one of us the next day, duty called. I heartily recommend Steve's book Passing a Half Century, an essential part of my post-trip armchair travel research!
For the inquisitive boarding passenger, eager to find his or her place in the Canadian milieu, there are these schematic boards at major VIA stations. This one is nearly anatomically correct, with our No 1 having three locomotives and six, not five, mid-train Manor cars. The 'Not in Service' car actually represents a Chateau car (Closse on our train) in crew-sleeper service. Fun fact: Porters/car attendants also requisitioned space in unoccupied Sleeper Class accommodations. Also note the impressive bulk of your humble blogger's reflection and the innards of the depot in the reflection, as well as an enlarged vintage black & white photo of the station environs in an much earlier-than-the -1980's era!
Crossing the wilds of Alberta, on-board entertainers enthrall in the lower level of the Skyline. A nice change to break up the monotony of Saskatchewan or the somnolence of Manitoba. On No 1, a pair of folk singers with various Canadian animal puppets and accessible percussion instruments. On No 2, the virtuosity of David Shewchuk the violinist. The VIA website notes artists' meals may or may not be included, but David should not only NOT be asked to wash the dishes, he should be given a cab ride for his unbelievable onboard stringed-instrument skill! All-ages view from the dome:
Another smoke break, this one at Saskatoon. Vestiges of tracks for Railiner runs to other Western cities remain in foreground, while the station itself basks in 1980's lettering and graphics near the ticket counter. Unlike the 1980's, there is no escaping steam, and refuelling is done direct from on-call local tank trucks. But rail enthusiasts are not encouraged to watch, and passengers are warned in advance not to go near the locomotives or cross any tracks. Safety Second, Risk-Aversity First!
On June 22, we watch VIA No 2 'back' into Edmonton's station, located in the hinterlands, south of CN's Walker Yard. Or in VIA terms, Bottleneck Yard. A classy train, in my opinion, does not require a back-up move, though these were made variously at Edmonton, Saskatoon and even Armstrong. Gone are the days of waiting in the bottom of CN's Edmonton tower, and definitely Calgary's basement waiting room. But stay behind the fences, here and in Jasper, little sheep. My interior shot was photo-bombed by a well-attired, long lens-toting rail enthusiast, at right:
Our early-evening, lurching 15-car pied-a-terre pedestrian-pinball-procession to Glacier Park let us enjoy the Prestige treatment at the non-airhorn end of the train. We actually travelled both ways inside, eschewing a platform walk to get us there one way. A crew member wisely advised Three Points of Contact at all times. This can apparently include one foot, an elbow and a forehead, in my case. As early-evening turns to evening, the car is momentarily empty. In the 1980's, those pedestal drink caddy/ashtrays seemed to be in the way, and the single chairs did not encourage as much canoodling. These sofas are downright comfy and my wife even approved:
Not the 1980's anymore - riding in the vestibule, angling out a Dutch door. Not only is this practice strictly forbidden, it's often impossible due to storage of bags and boxes for removal. No more taking in three senses simultaneously. Stairway to Heaven: taken on our one-and-only trip to get some receding shots near Rivers, here is the stairway to the Park car dome. I missed having snacks and junk food available beneath the Skyline dome. Though included-in-fare meals more than mashed my melancholy. Coffee and refreshments available at right:
Sections are still around. And part of me still wants to try one. Though a larger part of me asks, "Are you crazy?" They are the widest berths on the train. Thirty years ago, pamphlet racks along these aisles held a variety of VIA promotional literature. Getaway to Chatham, Get to Know your Service Manager, and the like. The Long Walk - Sections section. On today's Canadian, many of the on-board staff (either they're getting younger, or...they must be getting younger) refer to the number of 'seasons' they've been aboard, working only high-season summer trains. One mentioned that there about 400 that bid on these jobs. While some of the 1980's porters and waiters were younger, some were definitely seasoned veterans who must have come across from CN or CP. Service was not always their number-one priority. Each porter now seems to be responsible for one-and-a-half sleepers.
At the end of a rollicking dome and diner day, it was actually a relief to climb right in here. Even my wife, who was fearing Sleeping on a Train, (as well as Snakes on a Plane) quickly acclimatizzzzzzz. The little box for Lames Utilisees/Used Blades is gone, and the spring-loaded refuse receptacle under the sink - replaced with a plastic bag-lined dollar-store garbage can. No more pulling out stinky banana peels and who-knows-what for the car cleaners. Harking historically back to a bygone era, I burrowed under the duvet (whaddya mean no more CN Maple Leaf Ayers blankets, made in Lachute, QC??), and before shutting off the 1950's light fixture, revelled in thoughts including, but not limited to:
  • Everything in railroading is heavy and made to last. Look at the rollers holding my bed in position!
  • My (unshineable) shoes are safely waiting in the aisle-accessible shoe locker, but the porter named Roosevelt or George was no longer there to stealthily shine them and return them while I slumber.
  • I'm glad I don't have to wear a suit because I can barely fold my jeans for tomorrow in the close confines of this space!
  • Portage la Prairie in darkness? Scheduling guru, you screwed up!
  • ALL three S's in the morning!

Running extra...

Fellow Kingston railfan Paul Hunter kindly shared his photo of tonight's VIA No 68 with VIA 906 with the new 'Love the Way' lettering through Kingston behind 6407, then four LRC cars, then VIA 6438-6428 elephant-style on the tail-end:
You won't find a plethora of mountain majesties on here - this is not Instagram nor a travelogue. Okay, just one. The non-$20 bill view of Moraine Lake:
Just watched 'Barney's Version' with the versatile Paul Giamatti, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. And I'm richer for it. Not to mention cameos by Bruce Greenwood, David Cronenberg, the Laurentians and Central Station, where Barney meets love interest Miriam (Rosamund Pike), dashing onto ex-CP stainless steel coaches from the vestibule-level platforms. Conductor with CN blazer and Amtrak hat!


ross johnson said...

ive done the Canadian 113 times love it. and am the singlemost travelled Canadian citizen with a disability to travel the iconic VIA Rail Canadian in its0yesr history

Jeffrey said...

Super post and commentary. It's got me pumped up for my Winnipeg-Toronto trip coming up in early September!

I'm 6'5" and always take a lower section. The best sleeps on the train! I also kind of like the idea of not having a toilet a few inches away from my bed. :)

Eric said...

Thanks for your comments, Ross and Jeffrey.

Yes, I've seen your trip accounts and even meeting YDS and touring the loco shop, Ross! Enjoy!

Indeed, the toilet is close-by and the bathroom seems to have no ventilation whatsoever. But at least I don't have to lift the bed to use, as in a roomet, Jeffrey! I've seen debates re: perpendicular vs. parallel to direction of travel and which gives a better night's sleep. Just like better to travel the Canadian eastbound or westbound. Endless fodder for discussion.

We are all wise to use VIA while we can!

Michael said...

Ah, that final shot of Moraine Lake. I was last in Alberta in 1991 yet I remember being at that lake like it was yesterday. Great thoughts about a Canadian institution (pun intended).

Eric said...

The old $20 in two colours really didn't do it justice, Michael!
Glad you enjoyed this post. This was one institutionalization (longest word ever typed on Trackside Treasure!) I did not object to!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I truly enjoyed and appreciated this excellent blog. I learned a lot of recent things going on at VIA that I was unaware of. You did an outstanding job. I know this won't be your last trip on the Canadian, how could it after this great trip.

My long range goal is for you to take a trip to Churchill and give that line the coverage that it deserves.

The highlight of this blog was your picture in front of the Churchill-designed dining car. I did not realize that these were used anywhere else other than on the Churchill line.

Thanks again for this wonderful presentation.

Eric said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Bill.

Yes, Emerald is a free-runner on the VIA system.

Though we don't have any plans to ride the Canadian or Churchill train at this point, it doesn't cost anything to dream!


Jeffrey said...

Question: how was access to the Park car handled during your trip, for the "lower class" passengers? :)

Eric said...

Good question, Jeffrey.

We only made one trip back. Walked right in, albeit after 4 p.m. as suggested. Park car dome was pretty full. Most seats appeared to have Reserved for Prestige Class signcards on them. Crew and passengers were quite welcoming. There's no outwardly visible to tell what 'Class' each passenger is. One lady seemed to be staring at us over her red wine, but we later found out she was actually travelling in our car. It felt like a poker/poseur game of 'who belongs here and who doesn't. I'm surprised VIA doesn't make Prestigae Class passengers wear plastic wristbands or lapel pins!

Though we didn't have hopes of sticking around either in dome or lounge, we did have a convivial time with other Sleeper Plus/Prestige pasengers in the lounge.


Jeffrey said...

Thanks for the feedback, Eric! I'll be doing Winnipeg-Toronto next month, and was wondering how it looked "on the ground"!

Eric said...

Our Winnipeg-Toronto leg was a lot of WET ground!! The next morning out of Winnipeg, we woke to a sunny lake view, though by breakfast and thereafter we were into drizzle the remainder of the day.

The tree-tunnel is prevalent throughout. Lots of meets with freights. We looked for a moose like crazy, seeing none! Though our daughter had a cow and calf 30 feet from her lakeside in Algonquin Park shortly thereafter, so she had our 'proxy' sighting!

CN is busy with lots of track projects, but their Right-of-Way maintenance is slipping. Lots of new signals. Regardless, there is always time to relax, talk to new people and enjoy some good meals!


Leo said...

Only a few days ago, after exploring some abandoned rails on OpenRailwayMap, I understood why the Washago station building stands at a strange angle: it's aligned to the original line to North Bay, which went that way.

Eric said...

Hi Leo,

There used to be a small map in the VIA system timetable showing the Bala and Newmarket Subdivision routes north out of Toronto. I've ridden over both toutes during my VIA travels. Nature does not take long to reclaim abandoned rail routes.

Thanks for your comment,