Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 5 - Toronto, ON to Vancouver, BC
June 29 - July 2, 1999
The Canadian operates only 3 days a week going each direction. I had planned this trip so I would arrive in Toronto Monday evening, then leave Tuesday morning on the Canadian. I had booked my accommodation in "Silver & Blue" class -- which is basically 1st class with meals included, and other amenities. It was cold and rainy Tuesday AM, and after breakfast in the York Kitchen, located in the "PATH level" of the Royal York Hotel, I wandered across the street to Union Station to take some pre-trip video of downtown Toronto, the CN Tower, Union Station, etc. I wanted to get an updated VIA timetable, so approached the information kiosk in the station and was told by a young woman wearing sunglasses inside the station that there is no "updated" timetable, just a "supplement" to the existing timetable which had a few schedule changes in the Corridor service (Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal) only. I got a second copy of the "old" timetable, plus the Corridor update, and was also told that sleeping car passengers ("Silver & Blue" class) would be allowed to board the Canadian at 9:30 AM for the scheduled 11 AM departure.
I went back across the street and checked out of the Royal York, hoping one of the bellmen would carry my suitcases on the luggage cart like my 1993 video shows, but he did not use the luggage cart -- he hand carried my suitcase across the street for me, through the traffic -- oh well, so much for that. I tipped him a few Canadian dollars. I soon found the boarding area for VIA Train no. 1, the Canadian, but the train was not yet boarding. Apparently, at 9:30 the "Silver & Blue lounge" opened, but the train did not board until 10. The 1st class lounge was nothing fancy -- I believe they had free coffee, but that was about it. I sat in the lounge for a while, while the coach passengers began to line up in the concourse. In the lounge I sat next to a Canadian fellow from Toronto who worked for the York Township School Board, who was wearing a heavy VIA Rail Canada jacket, plus a hat with numerous railroad pins on it. At first glance, the fellow reminded me a little of Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk singer -- I don't really know how I made that association. Anyway, his name was Glenn, and he was one of the most colorful and personable characters on the train. He was traveling to Jasper, and many of us got to know Glenn pretty well over the next couple days.
Silver & Blue class on VIA is very enjoyable, and far excels anything AMTRAK has ever come up with. The only AMTRAK service which might compare to VIA Silver & Blue class is the 1st class service on the Coast Starlight. The Canadian is almost 20 cars long, and most of the cars are 1st class. VIA has segmented the train into several "sections" which consist of 3 or 4 sleeping cars and one "Sky Dome" car. The Sky Dome cars each have a small diner on the lower level and a dome on the upper level, and each of the several diners on the train has its own cook, waitresses, and "service chief." Passengers from the 3 or 4 designated sleeping cars in each section all take their meals in their respective sky dome car. There are one or two coach sections on the Canadian, and those sections also have their own dome/diner cars. The sleeping cars on the Canadian are basically two types -- the "Manor" sleepers and the "Chateau" sleepers, each of which has a slightly different arrangement of sleeping accommodations. All sleepers have roomettes, larger bedrooms, and sections (upper and lower berths). I was in Roomette no. 2 in the "Butler Manor" car. Unlike AMTRAK, there are no conductors on the Canadian -- the car attendants and individual service chiefs do the tasks that AMTRAK conductors do. There is an overall "on-board service chief," but he generally does not have much interaction with the passengers. At the end of the Canadian, of course, is the "Park" car, which is also a diner for one of the 1st class sections. Being anxious as I boarded, I immediately went to the Park car and sat while we were in the station, but the Park car was several cars away from my sleeper, so I soon went up to "my" sky dome car, and it was then that I learned about the different sections of the train and where I was to take my meals. I sat in "my" dome car for most of the rest of the trip, and got to know the other people from the 3 or 4 cars in our section fairly well over the next couple days. Also, on this trip, the Canadian was pulling a private car on the end of the train, "Northern Sky," a dome car which I have seen before on previous trips. On this trip, the author Tom Clancy, who had just gotten married again, had chartered the car.
Back in the dome car for my section, I was beginning to get to know the other passengers in our area, including Glenn. We met our service chief for the first half of our trip, "Lorrie." Lorrie was a cross between Kojak and Chris Darden (of O.J. Simpson fame), and quite a joker. He greeted us all with complimentary champagne upon departure and referred to himself as "the bald guy." He also told the group that one of his rules was that if you are sitting in the dome, you are not to fall asleep! If he catches someone sleeping in the dome, "it won't be pretty." Lorrie was a guy who never could give you a "straight" answer to a question you may have had, but everyone liked the fellow, and he gave good service. In addition to send-off champagne, each afternoon at 4 there was a variety of complimentary hors d'oeuvres in the lower level of the dome for passengers to enjoy.
I had some route maps of the VIA system; however, they were assembled many years ago, and I have not had access to a map depository for Canadian topographic maps since then, so my maps were terribly outdated, and not very useful for parts of this trip. When I first put together the maps, the Canadian was still using the CP line. It now uses the CN line all the way across the country. Portions of the current route of the Canadian were used by other VIA trains back in the 1980's, so I had route coverage of some areas. I found a seat by a table in the dome car and was joined by Glenn initially, who knew the VIA system quite well, especially the area around metropolitan Toronto. For the first two hours of the trip, he gave an informative "travelogue" to us in the dome car, and told us what suburbs we were passing through and what highways we were crossing over and under. But, for some reason, the Canadian left Union Station 12 minutes late -- I had thought that VIA trains generally ran on schedule.... hmmmm! Oh well, I was not worried yet -- there were plenty of opportunities to make up time, and Vancouver was 3 days away.
After pulling out of the station, we stopped again for a few minutes, again for reasons unknown. Glenn had told me that, like AMTRAK, the Canadian freight lines really didn't care for VIA Rail Canada passenger operations, and, also like AMTRAK, VIA was in a continual political fight for operating subsidies.
As I was narrating my video, I had mentioned at one point that we were passing through Thorn Hill, and Glenn promptly corrected me and told me we were not in Thorn Hill, but were passing beneath Bayview Avenue. The train passed a shopping center once, where a friend of Glenn's was standing in the parking lot by his car listening to his railroad scanner.
The route I had mapped, as stated above, was different than the current route. At a place called Concord, the Canadian slowed to a stop, then backed up and switched onto a different CN line, which heads north toward Washago, the first stop, on a more easterly route than before, thus bypassing former stops Newmarket, Barrie, and Orillia, and passing along the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe. We had several freight delays even on this first leg of the trip. In most cases, and plainly visible from the dome, the Canadian was set onto a siding while the CN freights passed. Glenn had informed me that there is a 6000-ft limit for freight trains on CN, since that is the maximum length of the sidings. I soon had lunch, and sat with a woman from Tampa, Florida, and a couple from Winnipeg. Lorrie had told us that we can make dinner reservations at lunch, and if we took the first lunch seating, we could make reservations for any of 3 dinner seatings, but if we took the later lunch, we may be limited in which dinner seating may still have room. Again, because of the setup of the 1st class diner sections, a maximum of about 24 people could eat at any one seating. The sky dome diners reminded me of a French cafe -- they were quite pleasant and "quaint." After lunch, I told Lorrie I wanted the late dinner (as I usually do) -- the 9 PM seating, but Lorrie then told me there were no seats left at 9 PM, and that I would have to take a 7 PM seating. Later in the afternoon, Lorrie approached me again, and told me that now he could "squeeze me in" for an 8:30 dinner seating, but I told Lorrie I would go ahead and keep the 7 PM seating, to which he replied that he had given my 7 PM space to someone else, so I agreed to go ahead and take the 8:30 after all.
After numerous freight delays, we left Washago, the first stop, 1 hr 7 minutes late. Pulling out of the Washago station, I saw an Ontario Northland train at the station. The next station was Parry Sound, and we departed that station 1 hr 2 minutes late. I was able to follow my maps from Washago to Parry Sound, but after Parry Sound, the route I had mapped was the old CP line, so I again was not able to follow the route on my maps. The Canadian no longer serves Sudbury, which is a major city and mining center in northern Ontario, but stops at Sudbury Junction, 14 km away. The next stop after Sudbury Junction is Capreol, where I had time to get out and walk around for the first time on this segment of my trip. It was sunny and clear, but cold! I thought Canada would be warmer in late June than it was. For the remainder of this trip, I may have to pack up the shorts and T-shirts and wear my bluejeans and sweatshirt. While we were stopped in Capreol, Lorrie had again approached me about dinner and told me he now had a vacancy for the 7 PM dinner seating, but I told him I would really rather keep the later seating, which was my original request anyway!
We arrived in Capreol 45 minutes late, and left 57 minutes late. Upon departure, we were again held to a slow speed due to freight traffic ahead of us. I eventually had dinner -- at the 8:30 seating. The only people in the diner at 8:30 were me and a German couple from Edmonton! There was no "9 PM seating." Apparently Lorrie wanted to get everybody fed early tonight. After dinner, I continued to sit in the dome. Being in Canada in the summer, of course, it does not get dark until 10 or 10:30 PM, since we are so far north. I enjoyed having a couple extra hours of daylight for my videos on this trip! In Florida where I live, it gets dark in the summer about 8:30, and light in the morning about 6 AM. In Canada in late June, the sun may rise at 4 AM! I sat in the room later, and went to bed after the Gogama stop.
On Wednesday morning, I awoke at the Hornepayne stop, and the Canadian was about 2 hours late, no thanks to a 1-hour freight delay just past the Hornepayne station. It looked chilly outside when the sun rose at 4 AM, so I donned the bluejeans for the rest of the trip across Canada. I attempted to take video from the dome car, but because of the rain, all I was getting was raindrops. I found a table in the lower level of the dome car then, where, for some reason, there were no raindrops on the window, so I was able to get some acceptable video. We departed Longlac 2 hours 3 minutes late, and Nakina 2 hours late (more or less). I had made a comment in the dome car that I believed many of these small northern Ontario outposts are inhabited primarily by "Native Americans," and was promptly corrected by a fellow passenger that they were Native Canadians, not Native Americans! (well, Canada is part of North America, isn't it?) Continuing across Ontario, the rain continued with us. During one area of rather monotonous scenery, one of the women fell asleep in the dome car and broke Lorrie's rule. As Lorrie came upstairs to take drink orders, several passengers pointed to the sleeping lady, so Lorrie approached her and said something like "AH-HA! WHAT HAVE WE HERE?!!!!!!! SOMEONE SLEEPING?" I am sure the woman was embarrassed terribly as Lorrie woke her -- well, we were warned!
We left Armstrong 1 hour 55 minutes late, Collins 1 hour 54 minutes late, Allanwater Bridge 1 hour 50 minutes late, and Savant Lake 2 hours 12 minutes late. Much of the scenery in this part of Ontario is rather boring, unless you enjoy (as I do) lakes, evergreen forests, and very little civilization! I took quite a bit of video of this Canadian Shield scenery. At the Sioux Lookout station, I again had a chance to get off the train and walk around for a few minutes. Across from the VIA station, I was surprised to see a Subway Sub shop way up here in the hinterlands! Plus the little bar across the street from the Liquor Control Board office! It was still cold and cloudy, but had stopped raining. We departed Sioux Lookout 2 hours 31 minutes late, and I shortly went to lunch and sat with an Austrian couple, then I went back into the dome for the afternoon to continue to mingle with the passengers and listen to Glenn's wit and witticisms. Glenn's sense of humor reminds of the rather "corny" sense of humor that several fellow geologists I know have! Through the afternoon, the Canadian left Red Lake Road and Farlane 2 hours 10 minutes late, and Redditt 2 hours 20 minutes late.
Late in the afternoon, the sun finally came out, as we were emerging from the lakes and pine forests of Ontario and entering the Prairie Province of Manitoba. We were still running a couple hours late, and left Malachi, the last stop in Ontario, 2 hours 20 minutes late. Late in the evening, we entered Winnipeg. As we crossed the Red River before the Winnipeg station, a young mother in our section pointed out to her son how muddy the river was. Rounding the bend into the Winnipeg VIA station, there was a baseball game going on in the stadium which is adjacent to the station, and a rainbow off in the distance. We arrived in Winnipeg 1 hour 45 minutes late, and I again had time to get off and walk around the platform. I was going to go into the station, but decided not to. It was still rather cold for the last day in June.
The crews of the Canadian change in Winnipeg, and we said good-bye to Lorrie, our service chief. The new service chief, who would be with the train all the way to Vancouver, was a British fellow named Mike, who reminded me very much of my first Division Chief at my current job in Florida. The sleeping car attendants changed also, and I now had "Chris" as the attendant in the Butler Manor sleeper. Upon departure from Winnipeg, I had dinner from the new dining car crew. After dinner, I went back into the dome to sit for another couple hours of late daylight. It was light until about 10:30 this evening, so I had more time to continue my video after dinner. Again, the maps I have only cover the route west of Winnipeg as far as Portage-la-Prairie, and the route west of Portage-la-Prairie was on the CN, which the older trains did not use; therefore, I had no maps covering that portion of the route, and would not have map coverage now until Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I talked some more in the dome car with Glenn, and the Canadian continued to experience numerous freight delays. I went to bed after the Brandon North, Manitoba, stop.
Thursday, July 1, was Canada Day, this year marking the 132nd birthday of the country. The service attendant Mike made several announcements all day pertaining to Canada Day. I awoke around Saskatoon, and we were still a couple hours late apparently. I decided to check out the shower on VIA on this morning, and it was a very good, warm, nice shower. The shower stalls on VIA are a bit larger than those on AMTRAK, and they are not the "push on for 30 seconds" type like some AMTRAK trains have. You get a good flow of warm water for as long as you wish to shower, and, of course, towels and washcloths are provided. I do not know whether there are showers in the coach class on the Canadian, but the Silver & Blue class showers were very nice. I soon found my way back into the dome car with the gang, and continued my video and followed my maps. Since the VIA timetable does not change, I was not sure if we were 1 hour late or 2 hours late, knowing that the province of Saskatchewan does not observe daylight time. I did not know whether the times listed in the timetable were standard time or daylight time, but correctly figured they were standard times, since the VIA timetable was the same as the one I had on file for the winter schedules, before I made this trip. This was confirmed after we had entered the province of Alberta, which does observe daylight time. We departed Biggar, Saskatchewan, 2 hours 11 minutes late, and Unity 1 hour 57 minutes late. If one looks carefully, there is a small sign along the tracks (best visible from the lower level of the dome car) which marks the boundary between Saskatchewan and Alberta. I tried videotaping the sign from the dome level, but got just the top of it, so couldn't really read it. We left Wainwright, Alberta, 2 hours 12 minutes late. Between Wainwright and Edmonton, we made no stops. Viking is listed in the timetable as a regular stop (not a flag stop), but, like several other such stops along this route, the train did not stop if nobody was scheduled to get on or off. In the AMTRAK system, all stops other than designated flag stops are made, even if there are no boarding or disembarking passengers. Apparently VIA has permission (????) to skip stops if the train is running late, as our train was today.
Pulling into Edmonton, the service chief Mike made an announcement that we would be backing into the station. I had map coverage of the route through Edmonton, but, 15 years ago when I assembled my maps, VIA was still using the downtown Edmonton station. There was now a new station, north of downtown, and a new route into the station, which I was able to find on the maps I had. Before we had approached Edmonton, Glenn was telling the dome car gang about the world-famous West Edmonton Mall -- the largest shopping mall in the world, which contains, among other things, a completely enclosed amusement park with roller coasters, a water slide park, an ice skating rink, and other features not normally found in shopping malls. As I was listening to Glenn and videotaping our approach into Edmonton, I saw a coyote run across the railroad tracks in one of the freight yards right outside the station!
It was still chilly in Edmonton, as I got off the train again to walk around. The new Edmonton VIA station is located across the road from a small airport on the north side of town, probably 4 to 5 km north of the downtown area. The train is serviced in Edmonton -- by rollerblading mechanics! I caught one such mechanic on video as he rollerbladed down the train handling the water hoses. It was soon time to re-board, and the Canadian left Edmonton 1 hour 55 minutes late. I had lunch with Glenn, as Mike the service chief announced we would be in Jasper in 5 hours and 15 minutes. Within the first km of departure from the station, however, we had stopped 3 more times for freight traffic. We finally got out of town, and had stopped again at a place called Spruce Grove. Adjacent to the tracks was a small greenhouse, and Mike had made an announcement that we were stopping here "to buy flowers for Canada Day." We then continued west, and again skipped the stop in Evansburg due to our tardiness, even though Evansburg is not listed as a "flag stop" in the timetable. We had departed Edson, Alberta, a little less than 2 hours late. Sometime during the afternoon, an "Activities director" appeared in our dome car and introduced himself, promising all kinds of fun activities coming up between here and Vancouver. Apparently this fellow made stops in all the dome cars throughout the day and hosted activities. After he initially appeared in our dome, however, I did not see him again until after the Jasper stop.
I was looking forward to getting some good video as we made our way through the Canadian Rockies, but, as luck would have it, the rain began again some distance before Jasper, in the Athabasca Valley, and continued throughout the mountains. I got some good video, but I wish it would have been nicer weather so I get could have gotten better video of the beautiful mountain scenery. We soon approached the mountains outside of Jasper, many of which still had snow in the high peaks. We left Hinton, Alberta, 1 hour 53 minutes late. Several people saw a considerable amount of wildlife from the train, but I am usually not as quick with the eye as others, so I missed most of it. I heard reports of coyote, deer, antelopes, and bears as we traveled through the Rockies. Glenn and I were joking that we should stop the train, get out, and hike up and down one of the many mountain peaks near the tracks.
Jasper is also a service stop for the Canadian, and I got out for a while. It was cold and drizzly in Jasper, so I had to protect my video camera from the rain by stuffing it inside my sweatshirt a few times. Glenn detrained in Jasper, but he stuck around the station with us, and he and I watched the train get serviced. At Jasper we added another section of cars to the train, so we watched the switching moves also. The front end of the train was taken off, moved up the track quite a ways, then backed onto the next track over to pick up a section of either 4 or 8 additional cars (I didn't note the exact number, but it was one or two additional 4-car sections with dome diners). During the switching move, a CN freight came the other way, stopped at the west end of the station, changed freight crews, then continued east around VIA on the adjacent track. Soon the expanded front end section of the Canadian was switched back onto the train. Also during the time in Jasper, I walked back to Tom Clancy's rented "Northern Sky" car and looked at it. Clancy himself did not make an appearance.
We departed Jasper 2 hours 13 minutes late, and, as we pulled out, Glenn was still standing on the platform and waved to the gang in the dome car as we left. There was now a different group of people in the dome car, many of whom had boarded at Jasper. There appeared to be more European travelers than there were east of Jasper, in addition to the few of us who were traveling the entire route from Toronto to Vancouver. After several more freight delays in the mountains, we continued west and I continued my video, but it was now time to celebrate Canada Day! Mike had brought everyone in the dome complimentary champagne for Canada Day, and no glasses ever remained empty more than a couple minutes! The Activities Director reappeared with a Canadian flag and the words to "O Canada," so the entire group in the dome sang Canada's national anthem while drinking the complimentary champagne and eating Mike's complimentary hors d'oeuvres. We also had to recognize the other nationalities in the dome, so we also sang (or listened to) the Israeli and German national anthems, plus "God Save the Queen" and "Nova Scotia Farewell," among others. I hope these travelers don't quit their day jobs to begin singing and touring! Somehow I was able to continue my video through the celebration and camaraderie, and even videotaped the people in the dome. We soon approached Yellowhead Pass, and spent most of an hour trying to figure out which of the cloud-and rain-shrouded peaks in the distance was Mt. Robson -- I don't think we ever all agreed on the "real" Mt. Robson. The activities director also passed out a "newsletter" he had written about this trip to everybody, and Mike's champagne and hors d'oeuvres kept coming! Eventually I had dinner in the diner with a couple from Niceville, Florida. Again, we skipped the Valemount and Blue River scheduled stops due to the tardiness of the train, and I went to bed somewhere around Clearwater, B.C.
On Friday morning, the rain and cold weather continued as I awoke along the mighty roaring Fraser River between Kamloops and Vancouver. Apparently we had made up a little time overnight and were now only 1 1/2 hours late or so. I again looked for wildlife along the river, but saw none. The dome car was much quieter this morning than it had been during the Canada Day party the previous evening! Soon the Fraser River Canyon widened and flattened, and we were traveling through the Fraser River Valley. Mike continued to make announcements describing some of the towns and scenic localities we were passing through, and we continued to skip most of the stops. While passing through the town of Hope, Mike announced that we were now in the "Bible Belt" of British Columbia, and once we passed through this town we were "beyond hope." (Ha! British humor!!) I also realized on Friday morning that the current videotape cassette I was using was only a 1-hour tape, and not a 2-hour tape like the others were. I was now approximately halfway through my 1999 trip and had used 4 videotape cassettes already, including the current 1-hour tape. This tape was almost used up, and I then had only two 2-hour tapes left for the entire second half of the trip! I guess I'll have to conserve tape again.......
The Canadian left Chilliwack 1 hour 20 minutes late and Matsqui 1 hour 15 minutes late -- at least we were consistent now! Of course, there would be no problem making my connection in Vancouver, since I would still have most of the day in town. I had planned on going to the beach in Vancouver, but with this weather, it looked like I wouldn't be able to do that, so I figured I'd take some kind of sightseeing tour or something. After the Port Coquitlam stop, I was curious to see what route the train took into downtown Vancouver, since I had never quite figured that out from my maps, but, even through the rain, I was able to determine that, after Port Coquitlam, the Canadian goes to the south and switches onto a Burlington Northern line (most likely jointly operated with CN), which it follows into downtown Vancouver. The last couple miles are the same route that the outgoing Mount Baker International Talgo train would take later in the evening.
Apparently VIA uses "padded schedules" as frequently as AMTRAK, since we arrived at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station only 20 minutes late. The Pacific Central Station is the same station that I would be departing from on AMTRAK later in the evening. And the rain and cold weather continued -- no beach today. As we pulled into the station, I got my suitcases and approached the door of my sleeper, and the "Chief," who I hadn't seen on the entire trip, was on the platform telling Chris the attendant not to open the door to our car yet, since they were going to cut off the front half of the train (the train backs into the station) and back it onto an adjacent track. The passengers in my car were frustrated, since apparently the passengers from the other cars were allowed to get out and were all filing past our car with their suitcases. Chris asked the Chief several times if he can open the door now, and each time the Chief told him no. Finally, after several attempts, Chris went ahead and opened the door on his own accord -- it is nice to know that VIA is so responsive to its passengers. I just hope Chris didn't get in trouble for opening the door. As I got off, I tipped him $5 Canadian, I believe.
I went inside the station in an attempt to store my suitcases for the day. The baggage room at the VIA station is next to the checked baggage claim area, and, since the baggage crew was busy unloading our train, the baggage room was temporarily closed, so I wandered around the station and conversed some with my fellow passengers who were waiting for their checked baggage. The checked baggage was not delivered, and the baggage room did not reopen for approximately one hour! Meanwhile I had gotten some information on a trolley tour of the City, so decided to spend my time in Vancouver on the trolley tour. I would return to the station later in the afternoon to get ready for the next leg of the trip.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience on VIA Rail Canada's Canadian, and it was in fact the highlight of the 1999 trip! If you have never ridden this great train, I encourage you to do so!
Web page by Matthew J. Melzer.
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