Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My 1990 Trip on the Via Canadian

In September of 1989 I learned that Canada's passenger rail service, Via was going to cut out 50% of its service on January 15, 1990. Like most railfans I thought about all of the trains I would never be able to ride.  In my case that would be most of the cut trains since my rail experiences in Canada had been very limited.  I had ridden the entire British Columbia Railway, the Atlantic from Montreal to Moncton, the Budd car from Moncton to Edmunston, the Adirondack, and the Montrealer.

Due to limited time and funds, I soon put thoughts of covering the soon-to-be-gone trains out of mind and went on to other things.  One day in December, a friend suggested a trip to Gaspe when he learned that the train was being cut to three times a week (which means a roundtrip would require a full day layover).  I made reservations to join him, but then realized that for only a little more money, and a few more days, I'd be able to take the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, a train I'd always wanted to ride.

Our hero freezing his ass off
I booked a trip from Pittsburgh to Vancouver on American Airlines and back to Pittsburgh from Toronto using frequent flier miles. The return from Toronto involved flying through Chicago but, hey, it was free.

So it was that Neil Lang and I found ourselves on the Canadian departing from Vancouver on January 12, 1990.  The Vancouver Via station is the old CNR station on the outskirts of downtown.  We spent a few hours prior to train time exploring the station, the various trains out on the platform (#2, #3, and #4) and begging employee timetables off of CNR staff (we succeeded).  At about 3:30 we boarded our train which consisted of two Via F40's, two steam generator cars, a dead head coach, a baggage car, two coaches, a Skyline dome diner/lounge, a Chateau series sleeper (4 section, 5 bedroom, one drawing room, 6 duplex roomette), two Manor series sleepers (4 section, 6 bedroom, 4 roomette), and a Park series dome lounge sleeper (1 drawing room and 4 bedrooms I believe).

VIA Canadian awaiting its Vancouver Departure on 1/12/90
Since I hadn't experienced a night in a section (a section is the kind of accommodation that Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe shared in the movie Some Like it Hot) since my camp train days (not the one mentioned in the Trains article) we elected to try it again for one night.  We were assigned section 1 in the last of the Manor cars and settled in for the 3:55 on-time departure from Vancouver.  We then went back a car and found seats in the dome. Although the train was virtually full upon departure, we never had a problem finding dome or lounge seats when we wanted them.

This is not what it looked like in my section!
After a beer or two, it was time for us to head to the diner for our 3rd seating reservation (at 8:15). There were four seatings that first night.  The diner portion of the Skyline car had 6 tables of four and was full.  We were offered two selections for dinner, and they varied every evening.  The first night we had a choice between roast sirloin of beef or a baked sole.  I elected the sole and it was excellent. Dinner came with soup, a salad, rolls, dessert, and beverage, for $10.95.  After dinner we went back to the dome briefly and then to our berths.
Sleeping in a section is not very much different than sleeping in a bedroom except for three things.
  1. You have to change in the bed or the bathroom
  2. If you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you have to walk down to the end of the car (hopefully in your robe!) 
  3. The berths are wider than those in a roomette or bedroom, and to my thinking more comfortable.
At Field
In any event I had a slept extremely well...perhaps too well, because when I got up I found we were approaching the town of Field, BC and I had missed at least some of the Canadian Rockies.  Luckily for me the best was yet to come.  At Field I put on my boots and got off the train to take some pictures.  Although it was cold, it wasn't COLD.  There was an awful lot of snow on the ground. After Field came the rest of the climb and then the descent towards Calgary with stops at Lake Louise (gorgeous) and Banff (lovely) on the way.  I took pictures at all of them.

A stop in Banff
By Calgary a lot of groups had left the train.  From then on the train ran relatively empty (there were less than 40 coach passengers and 40 sleeper passengers out of Winnipeg).  Crew members told us that they had noticed a huge drop in loadings after about the 9th of January as people realized they'd only be able to travel one way.  It was sad, but it certainly made for a comfortable train.  The second night (BBQ Ribs and Chicken or Rainbow Trout) there were three sittings for dinner, the third (Chicken or Halibut) there were two sittings, and the fourth (Salisbury Steak or Scallops) there was one sitting.
Leaving Calgary on the 13th, we moved into the drawing room in the Chateau car. A drawing room has three beds, two lowers and an upper, and private washroom facilities.  During the day it has a sofa and two easy chairs.  Since there were only two of us we had it very comfortable.  The scenery from Calgary to beyond Winnipeg has been described as boring, but I think that is overstating the case.  True it is mostly farm land, but it has its moments.  In any event I wasn't bored by it.  We arrived at Winnipeg on Sunday morning (the 14th) 15 minutes late.  We had been on-time, but erroneously tripped a hot box detector (detects an overheating wheel which might lead to a serious failure) just before arrival.  At Winnipeg they service the train, re-stock food and beverages, and the crew changes.  This is scheduled for 50 minutes and they seem to use it all.  However, this day the train sat in the station for an extra hour or so due to a derailment up the line (nothing major, but they were fixing the track).  As a result we stayed 1.5 to two hours late most of the way to Sudbury.

A typical drawing room made up for night
Starting at Kenora (Manitoba? ... no I think Ontario) we found crowds at the station protesting the end of service.  We also learned that ours was to be the last Canadian that would make it into Toronto.  The following ones were to either be annulled at Winnipeg or converted to the new #2 and sent on to Toronto on the CNR route.  We were never able to confirm that this was really true...we kept getting conflicting information from Via and CPR employees.  Anyway, at Thunder Bay there were nearly 1,000 people standing in the cold and snow with candles and signs of protest.  This was around 10pm on Sunday night.  Also at Thunder Bay we again changed rooms, this time for the drawing room in the observation car (we had been unable to book a single drawing room the entire way).

In Sudbury
On Monday, we arrived at Sudbury about two hours late.  Just before we got there we learned that #2 was annulled at Sudbury (#2 goes to Montreal, the Toronto section runs as #10 out of Sudbury) and that passengers would be bussed the rest of the way.  The equipment for #2 which had come in from Montreal the night before was standing at the station.  Some men were spraying the front of the locomotive and we later learned that it had hit a pickup truck and killed a man and a women on its final run.  You could see where it hit the truck, and red stuff that I don't want to speculate on.  In any event we lost another hour while they switched things around and coupled the Montreal section onto our train.  That gave us an extra locomotive, an extra steam generator, and extra baggage car, and three extra coaches making for a very long train.  We headed onto Toronto through some very nice scenery and eventually arrived at Union Station at 9:30pm on Monday, 3 hours late.

Not sure I want to know what they are cleaning off the (annulled) Montreal section
We had flights home booked for around 10am the next morning, so we transferred to a hotel near the Toronto Airport. Neil was booked on a United flight to San Francisco. I was booked on an American Airlines flight to Chicago, connecting to Pittsburgh. We awoke to a foggy day in Toronto and also, apparently, in Chicago. We boarded our respective flights and they left their gates on time and we then spent the next several hours staring at each others airplane as they both sat in the "penalty box" while awaiting for the fog to lift. On my plane the pilot eventually got on the PA and said that if there was anything they could do to make our delay more comfortable, ask a flight attendant. I called one over and suggested that they find a way to feed us (it was past noon by this point.) Believe it or not, about 20 minutes later a catering truck approached the plane and snacks were delivered. Finally many of the passengers started complaining that they had no need to go to Chicago because they had already missed their meeting.

The plane went back to the gate around 2pm and people who wanted to get off were allowed off. I had a copy of the Pocket Airline Guide along and discovered that Canadian Pacific Airlines had a nonstop to Pittsburgh leaving within the hour. Following the maxim from my Grandmother ("if you don't ask, you don't get") I asked the AA rep if they could put me on the nonstop. Remember that I was on a free ticket so I did not expect what happened. They did indeed get me on the nonstop to Pittsburgh and I arrived home earlier than I would have had the flight to Chicago been on time!

It was a wonderful trip, and can't be duplicated.  There is talk of a premium service, privately owned ala the American European Express, running 8 times a month with a cost of nearly $1,500 a person. It is supposed to start this summer.  One can only speculate why the train they are keeping (renamed the Canadian by the way, and running three times a week as #1 and #2) is going to take the more northerly CNR route.  It probably has nothing to do with the fact that the president of Via is also the president of CNR.  Or with the fact that both are government agencies and the ability to do creative bookkeeping becomes easier.  It also probably has nothing to do with the fact that the northern route is less scenic and will attract fewer sightseers.  And it certainly has nothing to do with the lower population levels along the route.  I'd find it hard to believe that they were trying to discourage patronage so that a few years down the road they could say: "see, nobody wants to ride these trains anymore" and get rid of it altogether.  So there must be some other reason.  Any one out there have any ideas?

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