Thursday, November 19, 2015

3 Budds, 7 days, and 2446 miles


Earlier this month a friend sent me a picture of a group of us on a 1987 railroad excursion that brought back memories (you'll find the picture later on in this story). I decided to write those memories up. Since I did not have contemporaneous notes, I was on my own. After I completed my writeup I remembered that one of our group, Dave Ingles, had written his own report on the trip in the February 1988 issue of Trains Magazine. The article was titled "3 Budds, 7 days, and 2446 miles" which is a great summary (and which I am borrowing for the title of this piece.) Our reports do not differ in any meaningful manner, though I used his to add a few missing details to mine.

Early in 1987 the West Coast Railway Association (WCRA) ran an advertisement in Trains Magazine's "Running Extra" section for a tour of most of the British Columbia Railway System. The only part of the line (which stretched from North Vancouver to Fort Nelson) not covered was the then out of service Dease Lake Extension. The price for a seven day tour was $675 CDN (about $475 US at the time) including all hotels and most meals, a real bargain even in 1987. A separate excursion the day before, covered the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island for a mere $99 CDN (though my credit card was charged $99 US and Mellon Bank would not fix the overcharge...I've not banked with them since.)

I was in the midst of getting divorced from my first wife, Nikki, and in need of a vacation, so I jumped at the chance to join a number of friends from around the country on this trip.
E&N and BCR routes covered

The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway

I flew to Vancouver on September 11, 1987, a day ahead of the E&N excursion and made my way to the motel my friends and I had agreed on in North Vancouver. The next morning the WCRA bus picked me and others up and we caught a BC Ferry over to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island where a train of Via Budd RDC cars awaited. Once aboard, the train took us north to Courtenay, BC and south to Victoria where we caught another BC Ferry back to Vancouver. It is the only time I've ridden on any of the E&N and will likely remain so as the line is presently out of service.

Our Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway Train at Victoria, BC
At the same time that this was happening, some of my friends (Dave Ingles from Waukesha, WI, Rick Moser from Naperville, IL, and John Arbuckle from Hutchinson, KS) were riding a Canadian National mixed train on the ex-NAR from Fort McMurray, AB south to Edmonton and then flying to Vancouver. We met up at the motel that evening.

Leaving North Vancouver

The next morning (September 13) we made our way to the North Vancouver station of the BCR. In those days the BCR had a regularly scheduled train between North Vancouver and Lillooet (continuing on to Prince George several days a week). Our three Budd RDC cars were running on the rear of the regularly scheduled train as far as Lillooet. At Lillooet our cars would separate from the others and continue on. The first of our three cars contained a cab for the engineer and fireman, a small galley, and "first class" seats. The second car consisted of reasonably cushioned standard coach seats. The third consisted of less reasonably cushioned commuter seats. A group of us quickly settled into a three sets of two seats on each side of the aisle in the second car. In addition to the names already mentioned our group consisted of Dave's father John, Joe McMillan then from the Chicago area and now the operator of McMillan Publications out of Arvada, CO. Steve Patterson of Arvada, CO, John and Marcia Lucas out of Albuquerque, Bill and Luanne Lea then of Prescott, AZ, John Garden of BC, and Roger Puta of San Francisco.

All 11 of us: Roger, John G., Rick, Joe, John A., Dave, Bill, Luanne, Marcia, John L.
John I., Steve, and me
To Prince George and on to Fort Nelson

The scenery along the entire BCR is breathtaking, pretty much everywhere. There were lots of photo runbys every day. Meals were decent (except that they were mostly chicken based which was bad for Joe, who didn't eat chicken...he thought he'd be saved the day they announced that dinner would be lasagna, but it turned out to be chicken lasagna.) The hotel rooms every night were decent, or as decent as could be expected given that they were mostly in small towns.

Our train, no doubt crossing the Peace River
For me the "new mileage" began when we passed the station at Pemberton. I had ridden a steam excursion to there during the 1978 NRHS Convention but had never ridden any further.

The first day we rode from North Vancouver to Prince George. The second day we rode to Fort St. James where we were treated to a tour of the town (including a bear "dressing"). The Dease Lake Extension went about 100 miles to the northwest from here, but we could not ride it because it was out of service at the time. We reversed direction from Fort St. James and continued on. It was night and raining as we rode the McKenzie branch into the company town of the same name before tying up for the night in Chetwynd. The third day we rode east to Dawson Creek (on the border with Alberta) then back through Chetwynd to Fort St. John. At this stop I managed to temporarily lose my suitcase because it did not get loaded onto the bus/van that took us to the hotel. Luckily, once I discovered this, I was able to recover it where it sat in the mud near the train.
A tour of Fort St. James
The fourth day we rode to the northernmost point of the line, Fort Nelson. This evening I am sure that dinner was off the train in a real restaurant. The local chamber of commerce put on a pageant for us that some of us did not attend because the real show was outside--an incredible view of the northern lights.

Did I mention the scenery? (On the Tumbler Ridge branch)
At this point it is probably worth discussing the morning ritual of our group. Early on the first day of the trip we had all agreed that the seats in the second car of the train were the best on the train. We also determined that we wanted to continue to sit together. Obtaining 11 seats together given the first come first served seating policy was potentially a challenge that we solved by having someone go to the train ahead of the bus/vans to grab the seats. We had various means of accomplishing this, but the first one I remember is when Rick and I finished breakfast early and walked to the train (along the tracks if I remember correctly) in Chetywnd at the beginning of the third day of the trip.

End of track in Fort Nelson
In Fort Nelson the hotel was way too far from the train to walk. After breakfast I went up to the front desk and asked the woman behind the desk if the hotel shuttle would be willing to take a few of us to the train. She responded by handing me the keys to their van, along with $8, and asked me to buy gas and shuttle some of the passengers (especially those with mobility difficulties) to the train along with our group. I ended up making 1.5 trips to the yard where the train was sitting and left the van in front of the yard office with the keys in the ignition when I was done, as instructed. Talk about hospitality.

A mid-day stop in Dawson Creek
Back to North Vancouver including an afternoon on Tumbler Ridge

The fifth day of the trip saw us heading back to Fort St. John and the sixth to Prince George. But before getting to Prince George we made a detour down the 82 mile long electrified Tumbler Ridge branch which had opened in 1983 to serve a pair of coal mines. (This branch closed in 2000 after the mines it served closed.) The most interesting lunch of the trip was served along this branch in a most interesting fashion. Our train had to wait in a siding near the west portal of either the 5.6 mile long Table Tunnel or the 3.7 mile long Wolverine Tunnel while we waited for a train from the east to pass us. It was a long wait and they decided to give us our box lunches to eat outside while awaiting the arrival of that train. We were warned to watch out for bears and then let loose. The rails were along a hillside and most of us climbed to good vantage points to take pictures of the oncoming train as it left the tunnel, and opened our lunches to discover a box full of pastries. When we later reboarded the train we were all on a sugar high. No bears showed before the train we were awaiting, and we all got our pictures. Unfortunately a disgruntled member of the WCRA staff, Doug Cummings, decided to step into everyone's picture just before the train appeared, but it was still a memorable few hours. We reboarded the train to continue to the end of the branch and then came back the way we had gone and continued on to Prince George for the night.

After a pastry lunch on Tumbler Ridge, this appeared
The next morning (the seventh day) we were, as usual, faced with the problem of obtaining our seats. The problem was simplified somewhat because John and Dave Ingles, and John Arbuckle had decided to leave the tour to fly down to California to ride an excursion on the Northwestern Pacific before the line was abandoned. This particular morning, Joe, Rick, and I left the hotel early by taxi and made our way to the car shops in the BCR yard. We boarded the train there and had our seats reserved before the train pulled into the passenger station where the rest of our gang and everyone else waited. The expression on some faces as we pulled in and they realized that we were already aboard was priceless.

There were two events of interest on this particular day. The first concerned a passenger, Steve Zehner from Milwaukee, who had overslept and missed the train. He hired a taxi and spent several hundred dollars to catch up with the train, most likely at Williams Lake. The WCRA asked for voluntary donations to help him pay the taxi fare. I understand he actually made a profit.

The second event was the search for Dave Ingles. The excursion was run by a WCRA member, Alan Cruickshank, who had spent entirely too much time on the PA during the trip. (In fact, one of my friends, the late Peter Putnam Bretz, would pick up the PA and do a parody of him that was almost flawless during the trip.) In any event we were all pretty annoyed with him after seven days. He came through the train looking for Dave Ingles who he claimed owed more money because of an exchange rate issue. For most of the day we would tell him that he had just missed Dave as he had gone to the other car. As far as we know, he never tumbled to the fact that Dave wasn't on the train at all that day.

The train arrived in North Vancouver after dark on September 19. I had determined that a limousine would be the cost effective way to get to the Vancouver airport and a few of us shared one to an airport hotel for the night. The next morning I flew to Chicago where I spent a few hours with a would-be girl friend and then on to Pittsburgh where the trip ended.


The WCRA ran this trip again a year or two later. I believe they traveled on a part of the Dease Lake extension, but otherwise they did essentially the same trip...for at least $600 more!

1 comment:

  1. I did this trip in 2001 with a single Budd Car (BC 10). Our trip did everything that this one did apart from the Mackenzie branch. 2001 was the last one because of the withdrawing of the passenger service and the sale of BC Rail to Canadian National. Glad that I did it when I did but such a shame that it will probably never be possible to repeat it. I took some good photographs which can be found on Flickr. William Davies.