All the trips I've made to western Canada aboard VIA Rail were missing one thing - a travelling companion! In 2019, Karen and I had been married for 32 years, and I was planning to retire, so it seemed to make sense to plan a trip together. My reading told me that retirees did most of their travelling in the first five years of retirement, after all. Karen wanted to see more of the mountains and I just wanted to ride in a sleeper again. We settled on a trip to visit relatives in Edmonton and Vernon BC, combined with seeing the mountains.
I'd been gradually accumulating VIA Preference points while travelling between Kingston and Toronto. This sweet sojourn would be even sweeter if it could be made using points! After convincing Karen (and myself!) that retiring at 55 was a good thing, I steeled myself for the phone call to the VIA reservations call centre. Actually, the agent who took my call couldn't have been more knowledgeable. She encouraged us to make the most of the accumulated points. Though there weren't enough to cover fare and accommodation for two all the way, the savvy agent broke the trip into four legs. With that bit of creativity, the points covered all but one of our legs. Success!
We planned to travel Kingston -Toronto on a Saturday, in preparation for the Sunday departure of VIA No 1, the Canadian on June 1, then a two-day and thirteen-hour trip covering 3,221 km to Edmonton from June 2 to June 4. After a three-day stay with Karen's brother Lorne and sister-in-law Chris, we'd drive into the mountains, spending two nights at Willow Ranch in Valemount, BC and driving on to Canmore for three more nights. We planned to visit Jasper and Maligne Lake after leaving Edmonton, then tour Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Banff from our base in Canmore. Although this was not to be the 'railfan tour of the mountains' there would be ample CP (mixed with UP power), CN and Rocky Mountaineer trains to be seen on the drive.
Driving over the Continental Divide, our eight-hour day would take us to Vernon to visit Karen's distant cousin Diana. On the return drive, we planned to spend two nights in Golden, our base for touring Craigellachie, Field, Emerald Lake and Natural Bridge. The second-last day of driving would take us to the Spiral Tunnels, Jasper and Hinton, before returning to Edmonton to five more days visiting. Leaving Edmonton late on June 22 (actually June 23 due to prolonged departure), we'd arrive back in Toronto on June 25, overnighting there to make up for any late arrival and catch our Kingston-bound train on Saturday, June 26.
But before all that, there was the anticipation of the pending trip. Some travel columnists say the journey IS the destination. That may be true, (especially for a railfan riding a passenger train) but surely the journey IS the anticipation. The morning after my last shift at the hospital, I was on the Kingston station platform. Proudly clutching our tickets in one hand, I snapped a photo of their yellow splendour against the blue morning sky and the Kingston station sign. All was right with the world.
VIA No 63 had engine 908 and six LRC cars, including ours - 3361. We were soon ensconced in our (forward-facing!) pair of seats, noshing on the cart-served cheese tray by the time we passed my treasured Morningstar Road crossing west of Trenton. Upon arrival in Toronto, riding the Yonge TTC Subway to our overnight accommodation was fine, but the long city-block walk above with suitcases in tow? Warm! The evening's Tim Hortons coffee had its effects. Sleep was on-and-off. Again, the anticipation! We could doze aboard the Canadian, unlike any wide-awake white-knuckled driving marathon on the Trans-Canada!
Waking up at 0630 and retracing our route to Toronto Union Station took us to the VIA Panorama Lounge, full of expectant passengers for the Canadian. Only three other trains showed on the Departures board. Checking our suitcases in the Baggage Room, we returned to wait in the lounge. Service Manager Mario had a space schematic for the entire train. We were duly recorded as occupying Bedroom E of car 110, Cabot Manor. We made a 1730 dinner reservation. VIA Customer Delivery Manager, Western Services, and book contributor Mark Sampson greeted us in the lounge. Clad in safety vest with walkie-talkie in hand, Mark was there to oversee the departure of the Canadian from the Toronto end. We would meet Mark again at track level, and later on our eastward return journey.
We boarded en masse at 0915. Car attendant Dominique was orienting fellow passengers in our car. I might need to be oriented on an airliner, but here I was familiar with 1950's Budd engineering. Sure, VIA had updated features like the toilet (push the button - whoosh!) and replacing one section with a welcome shower. But an upper berth ladder was still a challenging climb, the aisle through a sleeper was still impassable by two, and the dome was still the place to be! Mark had kindly left a copy of the Prestige Class guidebook and a DVD of the Mighty Trains TV-series episode on the Canadian in our bedroom for us. What a guy!
On-time departure at 0945 led us out through Toronto's Condo Canyon, the chess game backup moves at Snider, industrial parks to nurseries, horse farms to farmland, and our first of many delays. We waited 35 minutes at CN's Setter siding for a southbound intermodal behind CN 3208, and blue GECX leaser 2036. In the Skyline, one car ahead of diner Emerald which was one car ahead of our Cabot Manor, we'd been fortified by three rounds of hors d'oeuvres and three glasses of champagne. Brunch would be served at 1300.
We listened to activity co-ordinator Jessica as she made the rounds of the dome, telling us that Prestige Class was introduced in 2014, that that it was fully-booked as far as Jasper. With the Prestige bedroom windows 60% bigger (and 60% higher fare!) we were now travelling in a three-class Canadian: Economy, Sleeper Plus and Prestige. Funny, we were all running late together, we all saw the same scenery and we all waited for our luggage to be unloaded from the same baggage car. Mark had trained with Jessica at VIA nine years earlier. The co-ordinators had a three-day, in-class session and were expected to go forth and do their own homework on the route travelled. Jessica clutched a multi-tabbed binder with the results.
Directional running began at 1430, switching over to CP Parry Sound Sub rails at Mi. 21, Reynolds. We had a good view from the front left four-seater of Skyline 8501. Stopped at 1545, the Greenhouse Effect kicked in as the air-conditioning seemed to stop. The dome temperature soon started to climb. A puff of smoke could be seen emanating from the locomotives ahead. Hmm. Both engineers were visible standing on the ballast. Hmmm. Cool air was soon restored and we were on the move within ten minutes.
Peter Hayes was lakeside in Parry Sound and posted a video of our train crossing the trestle. Emerald's unique wrap caught my eye and confirmed it was our train in his Youtube video at Parry Sound!
Do you assign nicknames to fellow travellers on a voyage? We did. There was Laptop Guy, on his way to a wedding in BC, always found in the dome near the plug-in for his ever-present namesake device. Mr Princeton was an IT guy from the New Jersey city, originally from India. Australian Lady asked us early-on in the trip whether this train went to British Columbia. The Newlyweds with their neck pillows were likely the youngest Sleeper Plus passengers. The Teetotallers from Melville, SK did not participate in the beer-tasting. The Smoker pestered the crew for the exact time of the next stop long enough for her to have a smoke. Ivan, a Vancouver restaurateur was the lucky winner of a VIA 40 Years golden ticket. The Italian Job? Two sunglass-wearing couples who enjoyed jigsaw puzzles below the Skyline dome.
We regained CN rails at Mi 248 of CN's Bala Sub. Meeting an intermodal train led by CN 2249, the trainwatching was just getting interesting when the first sitting for dinner was called. Each diner-Skyline pair served five to six sleepers, so we needed our nicknames for our constant dome and dinner companions! Genteel dining car conversation does not blend well with note-taking and photo-snapping. CN 2689-5697 and blue IC 2460 were all in the yard at Capreol while Karen enjoyed garden salad with vinaigrette and chocolate caramel cake bracketing her prime rib with mashed. My prime rib was bracketed by clam chowder and lemon raspberry cake. Dining car steward Larry accepted cash payment for drink orders and gave out meal sitting times for the next day. We were booked for breakfast 0630-0830, brunch 0930-1400 and dinner 1700 (or 1900). An after-dinner rainbow tailed our tail-end:
Jessica took us on a beer-tasting tour in the Skyline dome as we ran about 80 minutes behind schedule. We met a heavy eastbound potash unit train behind CN 2821-2954 and two DPU's at Ruel. "Are you Ivan?", I asked across the aisle during our enjoyable twilight dome time. Having arrived in Canada in 2008 from Ukraine with $1,000, he was now chef at a 300-seat restaurant. His wife and young son were in their bedroom, all three returning west on a Vancouver-Toronto-Niagara Falls return trip courtesy of VIA, I'd followed his social media posts with photos on the eastward trip, and that's how I recognized him - that small world of ours.
Long hours of June daylight caught up to us at 2230. Knowing our dinner sitting time, Dominique had turned down our beds. An upper berth for me with a fan blowing cool air, a soft pillow and ample duvet all combined with the train's motion playing their symphony of somnolence. A one-hour stop at Hornepayne was the only nighttime event noted before Longlac. There, we beat the rush for the welcome morning shower, complete with shower-kit in drawstring plastic VIA bag. We served ourselves Continental breakfast from the Skyline's lower level. A selection of cellophane-wrapped muffins, croissants, fruit, juice and coffee, and the real fuel the Canadian ran on: crinkly-wrapped two-packs of Peek Freans cookies! We were still predicted to arrive in Winnipeg at 1800. More about that later.
Noon seemed like a suitably leisurely time for brunch. Karen sampled the 'ole-of-the-land' with the Spanish omelette while I continued going Transcontinental. By Savant Lake we were 150 minutes late, then 2 hours down by Sioux Lookout. Here, we hit the platform, then the ballast when we ran out of pavement (below, at the tail-end). Passengers were not encouraged to visit the head-end at such stops. Refuelling trucks were positioned discouragingly. The consist of our No 1: 6421-6426-6435-8604-8103-8123-8516-Bayfield Manor-Monck Manor-Grant Manor-8501-Emerald-Cabot Manor-Hearne Manor-Craig Manor-Lorne Manor-Butler Manor-Cornwall Manor-8517-Frontenac-crew sleeper Chateau Closse-Chateau Varennes (Prestige)-Chateau Maisonneuve (P)-Kootenay Park (P).
We clipped along for awhile, causing dust clouds to rise from the freshly-dropped grey stone ballast. Obligingly stopped beside Lac Seul at 1445, the service manager shared the sorry story of our sputtering sojourn. Two eastbound freights, one with air problems and a hog-lawed crew, and VIA No 2 were ahead. We would spend three hours beside this providentially-picturesque lake, partly alleviated by Jessica's dionysian dissertation during wine-tasting at 1530. Sporadic spontaneous applause erupted over dinner in Emerald as we were once again wending our way westwards. The two freights and VIA 6432-6454's No 2 had trundled by us and the closed Hudson lumber mill. Now we were six hours late! Our before-and-after minestrone soup and cold creme brulees with Karen's chicken with pesto sauce, and my crusted salmon, were settling nicely as we chatted with Laptop Guy and an Australian teacher on an Amtrak-VIA Inside Passage tour. We were soon back the Skyline topping treetops, watching a bald eagle along the Wabigoon River, now on CN's Redditt Sub.
Positively picturesque, so began another enjoyable Skyline sunset with rays piercing through clouds, reflected in shimmering lineside lakes. There are tunnels (below) at Mi 41, two at Mi 88, then two at Mi 135, the last until the Rockies are reached. Ivan, Laptop Guy and young Eric, a Canadian Trackside Guide-equipped Illinois lad on a gifted grad trip, his parents in tow, joined us as we talked trains into Winnipeg. Visions of touring The Peg were dashed by our continued lateness.
Late trains do indeed get later, and our arrival was four hours late. We had hoped to meet Winnipeg railfans Steve Boyko, Mark Perry and Brian Schuff but the late hour and looming next day of work claimed all but the stalwart blogger Steve. VIA 6456-6404 and 6448-6455 led two five-car stainless steel consists sitting beneath the trainshed. We toured the concourse, street view and trackside views of the historic station with Steve before reboarding at 0015. As we left at 0045, we were three hours and 15 minutes late.
Six freights had come and gone by the time our silvery stainless steel consist snaked its way out of the Depot (above). We watched the city lights, apartment blocks and big-box stores recede from the dome windows, before returning to sleep the night away into Saskatchewan.
Though I think back daily to my visits to my aunt and uncle in Portage la Prairie, this would be my first time to be back through Portage since 1986. Though we might have arranged a stopover with Uncle Wilf, this late hour confirmed we were not worthy of sacrificing a night of his sleep. Instead, I wedged myself on the floot next to the window, quietly watching miles of prairie tick off in the darkness as Karen slept. So much had changed over the intervening years. My twenty-something years, familiar landmarks like the town's grain elevators, and even my dear Aunt Rosemary were all gone. I could still recognize the CN station and feel the clattering over the diamonds at West Tower. My remembrance over, my reverential reverie ended, and it was time to turn in and perchance dream of Portage again.
Sun spilling in the window at Cana Junction (above) signalled the start of day three in Saskatchewan. On the third day we rose again, early for showers then up to the dome to witness remaining wooden elevators. They were many fewer in number and most were now privately-owned, unlike the ones I photographed 33 years earlier! Our 0700 arrival at Melville meant we were an even two hours late entering CN's Watrous Sub. The rolling Touchwood Hills relieved the flatlands. Elevators at Hubbard (former SaskPool, now Bryck Farms, below), Ituna, Kelliher, Leross, Punnichy, Raymore, Seamans, Watrous and Bradwell all signalled familiar territory from my 1986 trip.
Elevators at Asquith, Kinley, Leney, Biggar, Landis, Reford, Unity, Chauvin, Edgerton and Bruce were a nice mix of in-service, old and new, rail-served or no longer, and some in other uses. CN freight traffic was heavy, and delays numerous, due to excavation and installation of additional trackage between Saskatoon and Biggar. Eastbound at Saskatoon was 2823-3178, Juniata 8955-2519 and 2883-2502; 5611-5662 and 2646 leading intermodal near Biggar. There were ten more trains met before we reached Wainwright and gained CN's Wainwright Sub.
We managed only 56 miles in just under two hours, averaging 30 mph. Things were so congested that our wait for three eastbounds around Mi 126 involved pulling into a siding behind a westbound grain train for one hour. Once in the clear, we backed out onto the main with our engineer on the ground to close the east siding switch. We crossed the Battle River and 2,910-foot trestle at Fabyan on our way to the diner (below).
We had scattered train sightings during our mountain touring, and at the Spiral Tunnels lookout, CP obligingly sent an eastbound grain train that we could watch creak and squeal through three segments of its downhill descent, even though Parks Canada has discouraged tree-cutting thereby hindering visits' visibility of same.
Come away with us as we make our return trip in Part 2, Eastward.
Speaking of SCTV, alumna Catherine O'Hara is being honoured in tomorrow night's broadcast of the Governor-General's Performing Arts Awards. Sure, SCTV was big in its day, but for pure CBC campiness, you couldn't beat my tweenage must-see: Coming Up Rosie. Before they were big stars, Dan Aykroyd, Catherine O'Hara, Rosemary Radcliffe, Jon Candy, Fiona Reid and Barrie Baldaro and much, much more.
Somebody started a rumour that a Grand Canyon Railway MLW FPA-4 is coming back to Canada in VIA colours. Perhaps it's just a historical association between the two previous owners, but I think it could B. Or in this case, A.