Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Vancouver to Toronto with the Moonlighters


For eight years my friend Bill Schafer (formerly a Director of Strategic Planning at the Norfolk Southern Railroad) has been loosely organizing a group trip on Via Rail's "The Canadian" from Vancouver to Toronto during the full moon in February. For those who aren't aware, The Canadian is one of the last significant passenger trains in North America that utilizes equipment mostly made in the 1950s. It completely evokes the feel of riding a streamliner in that era. Yet it provides scheduled twice a week (three times in Summer) service across Canada throughout the year.

View from  the Laurentide Park along the Thompson River Canyon
Why February, and why the full moon? Because traveling across Canada in the snow is magical, and if it isn't cloudy, the full moon allows one to see the land well into the night from the many dome cars on the train. Oh and the fare is significantly less in the off-season.

I first became aware of this trip because friends who were riding the 2014 edition posted pictures on Facebook or wrote about it elsewhere. I contacted Bill and in October of 2014 he sent me a copy of the announcement of the 2015 trip. After a discussion with my friend Neil Lang, we decided that the idea of a trip was a good one, but we could not make the schedule work. So he and I and another friend of his (Greg Sommers) made the trip a week after the Moonlighters that year. Big mistake. Although the Moonlighters train that year ran on time or early throughout, our train ran late or even later throughout. Although the Moonlighters got to Toronto pretty much as scheduled, our train was terminated in Winnipeg and we were flown to Toronto (after a tour of the city in -7F weather) due to a major derailment west of there that tied up the line for weeks.

The front end of our train taken from the rear end
I did not go on the 2016 edition because some friends and I had already planned an extensive trip to Switzerland shortly thereafter and it would be too much time away at once.

When I received the announcement of the 2017 Moonlighters from Bill in late August I immediately resolved to go and began to make reservations. I booked a Cabin for One (roomette) from Vancouver to Toronto leaving on February 10. I discovered that the senior price for the room was only a bit higher than the discounted price for the room and it give me more flexibility should I have to cancel...I treated the small extra cost as insurance.

I started looking at options for getting to Vancouver. I could fly on many different airlines and transfer at many different hubs. Taking into consideration winter weather and the possibility of not making a connection I had already determined to arrive in Vancouver a day ahead of time. (The train leaves at 8:30pm so theoretically I could have made a same day connection.) Being risk averse when it comes to flying I decided to go out of my way and switch plans in Los Angeles where weather delays were unlikely. I booked a nonstop on Southwest to LAX and another on Air Canada to YVR. I had previously asked for advice from frequently fliers on FaceBook and friend Steve Cohen in particular chided me for going so far out of my way. He suggested Denver as a better and shorter alternative. He also suggested that I was more likely to have trouble getting out of Pittsburgh than getting into and out of Denver. After thinking about it, and well within the 24 hour cancelation time for the other reservations, I made the change using United Airlines miles to book a first class ticket from Pittsburgh to Vancouver via Denver.

At the same time I booked my return flight from Toronto. Although the train was due in Toronto at 9:30am the flights available left at 2:10pm from the downtown Toronto airport or at 4:35pm out of Toronto Pearson. I elected the latter as a bit of extra time security. (Now that there is a high-speed rail link from Union Station to Pearson it is not a big deal to get there.) About mid-October I learned that they had changed the flight time to 6:45pm. Perhaps more of a cushion than I wanted but so be it.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

We've had a relatively mild winter in Pittsburgh. Hardly any days with any significant snow. So it was not surprising to me that when I went to bed on Wednesday evening they were calling for 3 to 5 inches of snow overnight. I set my alarm for 4:15am (instead of 4:45am) and went to bed early. I woke to the alarm, finished packing, and looked outside at the snow covered streets. It being Pittsburgh 3-5 inches didn't worry me too much but I thought I'd get an early start anyway. I left the house at 4:45am and was at the airport and through security by roughly 5:45am (including dropping my car at an off airport valet.) I figure that the snow cost me at most 15 minutes. My flight boarded promptly at 6:30am and we were at the deicing pad shortly after the 7:05am scheduled departure.

United has new seats in first class (or at least did on the Airbus 320 that I was flying on.) The tray tables have holders for tablets so that you can sit them upright while watching a movie (which I did not do). They also appear to be impossible to stow properly without the assistance of a flight attendant (it happened to me on both flights. On the second one even the flight attendant couldn't figure it out.) But other than that the flight was fine. A few bumps here and there, but we landed in Denver and arrived at the gate a few minutes ahead of our scheduled 8:45am. The Denver to Vancouver gate was right across the concourse but since the boarding wouldn't begin until closer to 11am I elected to use a United Club pass I had which would expire at the end of this month. The Club was a few steps from the gate as well. I was not impressed by the amenities in the club, but it was a relaxing place to wait. As I was heading to the buffet to get a bit of cereal I hear "Chuck Weinstock!" and turn around. It was Dorothy Gregory who I have been friends with since at least the 1980s. She, and her husband Steve who is a VP at Iowa Pacific Holdings (and who I've known since the 1970s) were going to be on the Moonlighters as well. She was chatting with two other Moonlighter passengers from Denver, Dave and Jean Gross.

The flight to Vancouver boarded and left ahead of its 11:30am schedule, did not have to deice (it wasn't freezing and it was a bright sunny day in Denver) and arrived in Vancouver on time around 1:35pm. Immigration and Customs was a breeze. They have these new automated kiosks that do most of the work if you hold a Canadian or US passport, and there were plenty of them. I had planned to take SkyTrain to downtown, but since there were so many of us going to more or less the same place we elected to share a taxi instead. I was in my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency well before 3pm.

Much of the first day the Canadian Pacific parallels our route
I had arranged to meet some poker friends for dinner but it wasn't clear whether that was going to work because the area had gotten significant (and unusual) amounts of snow and ice. In the end friends Tanya and Jordan and Kelly had to cancel, but five of us: Becca and Dean and Mike and Murray and myself got together for dinner at a nearby Cactus Club and had a great time. Dean picked up the bill for all of us and we didn't even have to play CCR.

Needless to say by the time I got back to the hotel at around 8pm I was ready to collapse. I stayed up for a while in an attempt to switch time zones but was fast asleep before 9:30pm.

Friday, February 10, 2017

When traveling to the West coast I usually wake up early in the morning. Not this time. I didn't roll out of bed until nearly 8am. I showered and dressed and returned a call from my doctor regarding a test that I took on Wednesday. I then went across the driveway from the hotel to a Rexall drugstore to pick up some medicine he suggested and then stopped at a Tim Horton's to pick up some breakfast. I took my time in the room and checked out finally at noon. After checking my bags with the bell hop, I walked several blocks to The Keg where I met (for the first time) Tom Simpson. Tom DeJoseph had invited me to join them but he was not there yet. Sitting at the table with Tom S. was Ron Batory who is the President of Conrail. I had met him and his lovely assistant Francine on the Jersey Devil two years ago. Alas Francine was not with him. Shortly the other Tom and Bill and Linda Schafer arrived. Linda and I split an order of sliders and some fries as we knew dinner was going to happen at 5pm. Tom S. picked up the check for all of us.

I went back to the hotel, spent a bit of time in the lobby, and then retrieved my bag and arrived at Pacific Central Station at about 3:30pm. I checked my bag and chatted with Mark Metz and Neal Payton among others. I met many other people in the group while waiting for 4:45 when we all (or most of us) walked over to Campagnolo, a family style Italian restaurant about a block from the station. The meal was great. I sat with, among others, Allen Rider and his wife, Don Phillips, and Gordon Mott. Good conversation and good food.

We had been told to retrieve our bags by 7 and that the train would start to board about 7:30. The Prestige and coach passengers boarded at 7:30(ish) but the rest of us were left hanging. At about 8pm they announced that there was going to be a delay in boarding the rest of us. Apparently there was a car that had not been service or stocked. I'm thinking it's was the extra dome car added in the last two days. (We now have a train with 2 diners, 3 dome cars, and a Park car.) While we were waiting they pulled the front part of the train out of the station and added it to the rear part so that it was a single train when we began to board at 8:30. The train left at 9:00, 30 minutes late. I was in the Park Car by then.

Along Kamloops Lake

The Park Car is a round ended observation car with a dome and lounge area. The cars that Via refurbished (such as this one) also has Prestige Class rooms, plus the one handicapped room on the train. The dome had markings that indicate that the front two rows of seats are reserved for the Prestige Class passengers. (There was another full car of Prestige rooms ahead of the Park car.) That rule was enforced as necessary. I rode in the Park car dome until we were well past the Fraser River bridge and gave up my seat when a couple came up looking for seats and went back to my roomette to get organized and ready for bed. I expected we'd be in or past Kamloops when I awoke in the morning.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Well so much for that. When I woke this morning we were over 5 hours late. It turns out that while I was sleeping our train was pretty much creeping along for at least two reasons: 1) a freight had broken down in front of us and it took a fair amount of time for it to get running again, and 2) due to the massive snow in previous days followed by the significant warming, the railroad had a fear of avalanches occurring in the Fraser River Canyon and all trains were running under slow orders. (Paralleling route 5 was closed all day.) So I when I awoke at 7am we were just beyond North Bend instead of just beyond Kamloops. The lack of high speed motion no doubt added to the restfulness of my sleep but the 5 hour price we paid was a big one.

After dressing, at about 7:30am I headed to the dining car for breakfast. I was seated with Bill and Linda Schafer, and Bill Strong (who I had met the day before). We had four choices for breakfast. I chose the bacon and eggs with hashbrowns and toast, but almost went for the stuffed French toast with compote. During breakfast we got to choose our seatings for lunch and dinner. I picked the second seating for both.

An advantage of our late running is that for the first time I got to see the Thompson River Canyon which is normally traversed at night. It was a bright sunny morning and the vistas from the Park car dome were spectacular. It was a very enjoyable morning. At Kamloops we were able to get off the train for few minutes while it was being serviced and I was able to take some pictures that I would not normally have gotten had we run on time.

At lunch I sat with Steve and Dorothy Gregory. I forget who the fourth at our table was, but the conversation was lively. I had the shrimp and scallops over a cranberry chutney that was really good. It came with a small caesar salad and apple cobbler and ice cream for dessert.

I spent the afternoon in one of the forward domes, just for variety, and managed to doze off until everyone started to get excited about the approaching Pyramid Falls (which I was awake enough to photograph as we went by.) I then had a nice conversation with Linda Schafer and Neal Payton in the downstairs lounge before heading to the Park car for a pre-dinner libation. During that libation I talked a fair amount with Susan Fox from Chicago who I had met almost a quarter of a century ago during the St. Louis NRHS convention. We sat together on part of the epic trip from St. Louis to Pine Bluff (ask me about chiggers some time). She mentioned that it was her first excursion.

At Kamloops
As we approached Jasper they made the second call for dinner...which meant that I would not be able to get off the train during the hour plus servicing stop. Since it was dark and not particularly moonlit this was not a big deal to me. I dined with Tom DeJoseph, Don Phillips, and Jason Kuehn. I've known the first two since the 1970s. I just met Jason. The choices for dinner included rack of lamb, salmon, and duck, plus a vegetarian dish. I would have been happy with any of the first three, but decided on the rack of lamb which was outstanding. Dessert was a chocolate caramel torte which I could not finish.

As I wrote this we were about an hour west of Jasper, Alberta at around 9:30pm MT. We were supposed to leave Jasper at 5:30pm but are running about 3 hours late. Still making up two hours of delay is pretty impressive. Tomorrow I'll wake up (hopefully) in the Central time zone as we enter Saskatchewan. Although there is an early continental breakfast available, it being Sunday they serve a "come when you want" Sunday brunch from 9:30am local time. They do not have a lunch service. I'll just have to suffer until dinner.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

One of the advantages of riding with the Moonlighters is that we have a lot of railroad officials and customers aboard. This means that the operating railroad (Canadian National) actually pays attention to the performance of this train. Almost every freight we encountered was "in the hole" waiting for us. In a previous trip on this line almost every freight we encountered passed us while we were "in the hole" waiting for it. Big difference. When he got off the train in Winnipeg, Andrew Fox talked to a crewman about something and was asked "who are you people?" They were amazed at the priority given our train. Later crew on the radio were discussing the great expediting of the train and said "we ought to invite these folks to ride with us every second Friday" (so that we'd be on the train with the same crew) to which the other person answered "since about half the passengers have radios on I think you just did!"

Pyramid Falls
All of this helps to explain the fact that we were able to make up two hours of our delay in something like 12 hours of travel yesterday and reached Jasper only about 3 hours late. We maintained roughly the same level of lateness out of Edmonton, but then made up all of the lost time (3 hours!) by Saskatoon (a bit over 300 miles). That made for a very rough night in terms of rocking and rolling but I awoke at about 8am near Biggar.

Since brunch service didn't begin until 9:30 I elected to bundle up and get off the train briefly at Saskatoon where the temperature was 24 degrees. It was good to breath the fresh air and walk/slide around a little on the snow covered platform, but I soon reboarded. At 9:30 they made the first call for brunch and I joined Tom and Don at a table for three. I had banana pecan pancakes with bacon and a mimosa (complimentary). There were also lunch-type items on the menu. After breakfast I settled down to a tough morning of watching the prairie roll by from the dome and chatted with several friends including Ed Ellis.

At 2pm, Bill Schafer had organized a "seminar" in the lower level of the rearmost dome and I decided to attend. I heard interesting talks about the building of the Canadian Nation route (then Grand Trunk) to Winnipeg, and a prairie branch line in the Edmonton area. Also, one of the passengers worked for the consulting firm Oliver Wyman and gave a fascinating talk about the implications of over-the-road automation for the railroads. Finally, Bill Schafer gave a talk about rebuilding the Tennessee River Bridge north of Chattanooga after a collapse in March of 1916.

Rack of Lamb on Saturday night
At that point it was time for the first seating for dinner, a bit early because they wanted to get the two seatings in before we reach Winnipeg which looked to be earlier than the scheduled 8:45pm. I again sat, by chance, with Tom. We were joined by a woman, Agnes, from Winnipeg. Somebody on the train who was not part of our group. I ordered the Prime Rib which was a little more well done than the advertised medium rare, but otherwise was quite good. Dessert was a small piece of lemon cake.

I spent an enjoyable few hours after dinner in the Park car dome chatting with Tom and Bill Schafer and others and watched us approach Winnipeg. About the time the attendant came up and said we would arrive in 30 minutes, we could practically see the station. About 5-10 minutes later we 7:55pm, 50 minutes early.

We were told that we could get off the train to see the sights of Winnipeg but that if we didn't reboard by 9pm that we'd have to wait until 10pm. The sights nearest the station were the Forks (a tourist area) and the Fort Garry Hotel. Neal Payton and I decided to head to the hotel where we had some Fort Garry Dark and enjoyed listening to the pianist and singer. I also made use of the wifi but left in time to reboard by 9 so that I could take my shower before the train started to move. Others boarded at 10, and by 10:33 (3 minutes late) we were on the move again. Others were in the lounge, but I was beat went to bed. The train should be in Ontario when I get up in the morning.

Monday, February 13, 2017

I awoke during the night and realized that the train had been stopped for a very long time. I muttered to myself "so much for traveling with the pros" and then I looked out the window and see that we are (and had been) in Sioux Lookout well ahead of our departure time. I went back to sleep and was awakened by the speaker in my room with a "Ladies and Gentlemen this is the second call for breakfast." I quickly dressed and had my breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast. The morning went by very quickly with good conversation in the dome and before I knew it, it was time for a bison burger topped off with some wonderful black cherry ice cream at the second seating for lunch. (Not bison burger a la mode, though you can read the previous sentence that way if it amuses you.)

At Hornpayne
Shortly after lunch the train arrived in Hornpayne, a crew change and servicing stop. We were due at 3:05pm but arrived closer to 2:30pm. We were due out at 4:10pm so the on board crew gave us all instructions to be back on board no later than 4pm. Two years ago the train had left some folks behind at this stop. They caught up to the train about 8 hours later after a long taxi ride (the train waited for them somewhere.) Some of us went off to explore the city. Others of us (including me) spent some time taking pictures. In any event I was on board well before 4pm and made use of the cellular signal (not available in may areas West of Winnipeg) to catch up on email, etc. Then it was back to the dome for a Fort Garry Dark before dinner. While in the dome I chatted for a long time with Susan Fox and Rick and Suzanne Wilson. Rick and Suzanne had spent three weeks in Switzerland a year or so ago and we shared stories of our common experiences.

The hero of this story...and me
Just West of Oba (where the CN crosses the Algoma Central) we took a siding and waited for about an hour for two freights...the first time that has happened to us all trip to my knowledge. At Oba we passed another freight and shortly after Oba yet another. So as I write this we are about 40 minutes late, but they are still predicting an early arrival in to Toronto. This would be a bad thing because it drops us there just in the middle of rush hour and they won't let our train occupy a platform for very long (which means an early awakening if this holds true.)

I spent some time in the Park car talking with friends about possible trips in the future and then turned in around 10:30pm.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I awoke twice during the night. Once at Capreol, where the train is serviced and once around Parry Sound. We were running a bit late at that point. When I got up at about 7am I found that we were still running a bit late and had not yet made the (due at 6:49am) stop at Washago. We stopped there at 7:10 as I was shaving. This likely meant that we would be on time or perhaps only a little bit early into Toronto, but not ridiculously so. I finished packing and then went to the diner for a cheese omelet breakfast with Gordon Mott. I spent a few last minutes in the Park car as we approached Toronto at the end of the commuter rush and then went back to my roomette for our 9:25am (5 minute early) arrival. Given the lousy flight connections available, I would have preferred a noon arrival but that's certainly better than the 9pm arrivals that have happened recently!

Since I had lots of time to kill because my flight wasn't until 6:45pm, I thought about taking a train ride to Kingston and back. After all, what better thing to do than to ride a train after four days on one! However, when I looked further at the schedule I decided not to put myself through the worry of missing my flight due to a late return. That and the fare for a few hour joy ride was quite high...over $200. So plan B was to join a tour of the nearby railroad museum that a passenger put together at the very last minute.

While waiting for the noon tour I spent time in the Via Business Class lounge talking with fellow passenger Ira Silverman and his wife. The lounge was a very comfortable place to spend time. So comfortable that I left my Kindle behind when I went to join the tour. There were about 20 of us in the tour which was supposed to head to the railroad museum nearby (normally closed) after a tour of Union Station. The tour ran so long that I never actually got to the museum. I learned some interesting facts about Union Station though...such as it was built over 15 years and it has so far taken 17 years to rehab it! Also when it was built no trains came to it for a tracks. The city and the railroads could not agree on a viaduct arrangement. This led Will Rodgers to joke that this was the first time he'd encountered a train that could not find the station.

At about 1:15 I received a text from Steve Gregory and went to join him and Dorothy at a bar at the Royal York for lunch. After a very excellent lunch I went to the airport on the Union Pearson Express. Senior fare was only $6 and it was quite quick...taking about 25 minutes. Once I found out which terminal and walked to the customs area checking in and US customs was a breeze (thanks to Global Entry) and I was fairly quickly in the Priority Pass lounge where I had a two hour wait before I needed to walk to my gate (at Pearson the gates they use for the Pittsburgh flights are a good seven minute walk from a point that takes about 10 minutes to get to!) In the lounge I discovered that my Kindle was missing and called Via. After several minutes they found it and then the problem became retrieving it as they would not simply mail it to me. Thankfully Steve Gregory agreed to pick it up from Via and mail it to me after he gets home tomorrow.

As was the case with all flights and trains this trip, my flight home was early, landing at 7:39. I quickly retrieved my car, and stopped for dinner before heading home. I arrived home about 9:30 happy about the whole trip. I want to do the Moonlighters next year if possible! I'd love to get Barb to join me. I already know the answer but it doesn't mean I won't ask. I am sure she'd have as much fun as everyone else did on the trip.


Daddy's home and all is well with the world
Tom DeJoseph went to the trouble of recording information about all of the cars on the train. For those who are interested:

#2. The Canadian (Moonlighters)
Vancouver to Toronto
Feb 10, 2017-Feb 14, 2017
VIA 6409 GPA-30H
VIA 6434 GPA-30H
8613 Baggage
8103 Coach
8507 Skyline Dome
8414 Paliser (diner)
8338 Rogers Manor
8302 Allan Manor
8317 Cornwall Manor
8315 Carleton Manor
8327 Fraser Manor
8336 Monck Manor
8500 Skyline Dome
8515 Skyline Dome
8409 Fairholme (diner)
8324 Dunsmuir Manor
8334 MacDonald Manor
8325 Elgin Manor
8319 Dawson Manor
88213 Chateau Lauzon
88709 Laurentide Park
All Manor series cars are 4 roomette, 6 double bedroom, 3 section
Chateau car is Prestige series with 6 bedrooms
Park car is a Dome, round end observation with 1 handicapped bedroom and 1 Prestige bedroom


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I love your love and fascination with trains, I need to find something like that to fill my days and life with. Good writing!

  2. Visited there last weekend with a group of friends, and had all the fun we could handle. I really like the ambiance at San Francisco venues. There's a decent draft beer selection at a reasonable price and the bartenders are good at what they do.