Sunday, October 14, 2018

Jasper to Prince Rupert on the Skeena

Sunrise on the Skeena (our eastbound counterpart) parked in the yard at Prince George
I'm starting to write this on October 9, 2018, from the Fairmont Hotel at Vancouver Airport where I am spending the night and hoping to get home tomorrow. This is at the tail end of a mini-"vacation" I took with Neil Lang to finally ride the Jasper, AB to Prince Rupert, BC train (the train formerly known as the Skeena--which is how I will refer to it henceforth.).

We'd been talking about doing this trip for several years, but it wasn't until Amtrak cut back the number of special train possibilities in the US that we decided to do it. Back in March we decided on the general parameters of the trip:

  • We'd meet in Edmonton, AB on October 6, rent a one way car to Jasper and spend the night in Hinton (nearby) enroute.
  • We'd catch the Skeena in Jasper the afternoon of October 7th.
  • Along with the train we'd overnight in Prince George, BC that evening..
  • After an overnight in Prince Rupert on October 8th we'd catch the afternoon flight from there to Vancouver and then connect to our respective homes on October 9th.

Thus it was that I booked a ticket from Pittsburgh to Edmonton via Denver on the 6th and Neil booked one from San Francisco to Edmonton the same day. Since it's impossible get to Pittsburgh from Prince Rupert in one day, I booked my fights to overnight in Vqncouver and continue on the morning of the 10th...that is to say, tomorrow. (Neil could get home to San Francisco and so booked accordingly.)

A change of plans

About a month ago we received an email from Air Canada notifying us that they had canceled their afternoon flight and had booked us on the 11:10am flight instead. That shot our plans to spend part of a day looking around Prince Rupert and gave both of us long layovers in Vancouver so we looked at alternative flights. Neil moved his San Francisco flight up 3-4 hours. I elected a same day connection to Denver to spend the night there and have an easier flight home at the end of the trip. That is how things stood as we departed Pittsburgh and San Francisco respectively.

Getting to Edmonton

We both had short connections enroute to Edmonton so that was our first worry. It got worse when Neil's flight had a schedule change cutting his connection to 44 minutes in Seattle. Mine was a much more comfortable 45 minutes in Denver. My flight left on time and the connection in Denver was easy. Neil's flight left about 50 minutes late due to an issue with a toilet and he sweated the whole way to Seattle but eventually made his flight (but barely I think.) He arrived in Edmonton ahead of me, and was waiting for me when I cleared Canadian Customs around 2pm. We quickly rented our car (which turned out to be an "upgrade" to a Ford Escape) and headed to Hinton with the intention of taking time to take pictures of some trains on the Canadian National Railway which more-or-less paralleled us even though there was essentially no sun showing.

A CN freight at Magnolia

We took pictures of a CN eastbound on Magnolia bridge which crosses over a side road just off of highway 16 and then had pretty much decided just to go directly to Hinton when, as we got near, we saw a very late Via Canadian eastbound sitting in the main line at Hargwan. We made a u-turn on 16 and found the road crossing (such as it was) at the siding and waited to see what would happen. We ended up getting pictures of both a freight heading west, and the very long Canadian as it left. It was about 7 hours late at the time. We could have waited for the freight that was parked behind the Canadian but elected to head to the motel instead. After checking in to the BCI Hinton we walked up the street for a not terrific dinner at the Rancher before calling it a day.

A CN freight at Hargwan

The Canadian shines its headlight on the rear of the same CN freight

The Canadian departs Hargwan over seven hours late

The rear of the Canadian

On Sunday, October 7 we left the motel for Jasper at about 10:00am. Again the day was not sunny, but the drive through part of Jasper National Park was beautiful. Interestingly there is a toll gate at the entrance to the park, but when we told the ranger that we were just driving to Jasper and would be immediately leaving on a train we did not have to pay the $20 fee. (No sightseeing allowed!)

Jasper to Prince George

At Jasper we stocked up on a few provisions for the train, gassed the car, turned it into Avis and then waited at Jasper's Via station for the 12:45pm departure. Boarding was called about 12:30 and we went out to find a pocket streamliner composed of a single engine, a baggage car, a coach, and an observation lounge dome car (with snack bar), Banff Park. The conductor/train manager/snack bar attendent/baggage man gruffly told us to put our suitcases and backpacks in the overhead rack if we didn't want to check them and re-inforced that a few minutes later. While a bit of a martinet on "his" train, Bruce turned out to be a nice guy who kept us "foamers" informed and engaged in conversation periodically.

A CN freight at Jasper

Via #5, the Skeena, awaits us at Jasper

The train left at 12:40 (five minutes early) with something over 30 passengers aboard. Most of the passengers were on a tour and would only ride to Dunster, about 2+ hours up the line where they were picked up by their tour bus. Once they got off there were only 16 of us left. Since the dome seats 24 and not everyone was even interested in going up there we had continuous access to it. (Though Bruce kept enforcing the "no more than 1 hour at a time in the front seats" rule.) The scenery leaving Jasper through to Mount Robson was great (though because of the usual clouds I could not see Mount Robson yet again...I've been through that area 4-5 times now and only seen it once.) Dispatching was pretty good for once and we only had to wait for one or two freights. We arrived in Prince George, BC, where the train stops for the night at 7:42pm, 34 minutes late.

Neil and I walked the 12 blocks to a brand new Courtyard hotel with ultra modern rooms and an excellent rate. The only issue with it was that all of the dining options on Thanksgiving eve were about 4-5 blocks away, but it wasn't too cold or damp so we walked to the Coldwater Brewing Company for dinner. Since it was Thanksgiving I had their Thanksgiving pizza along with a brown ale. The pizza had turkey, stuffing, etc baked onto it and cranberry sauce on the side. Neil had the smoked salmon pizza. Both were very good.

Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving!

Prince George to Prince Rupert

The next morning I walked over to the Tim Horton's across the street to get a couple of donuts for breakfast and a couple of sandwiches for lunch and dinner. It turns out that the Courtyard and Horton's are in a sketchy area and I got semi-acosted by two druggies as I left the restaurant and walked to the convenience store next door to pick up a soft drink.

The train was due to depart Prince George for Prince Rupert at 8am but that time was dependent on what time the train from Prince Rupert arrived the night before. It arrived very late and thus our departure was pushed back to 8:30am. We caught a taxi to the station at about 7:45am and after getting out of our cab we found that Via had another taxi to take us to the yard to board the train there since the station was blocked by a freight. In addition, the Via station person never showed up to open the station.

Our Skeena parked nose-to-nose with its eastbound counterpart

The eastbound Skeena in the yard

Via #5 (left) says good morning to Via #6

At the yard we were treated to the sight of #5 (our train) and #6 (the train heading to Jasper) parked nose-to-nose. We put our luggage aboard and then went to take pictures of both trains. At some point Bruce noticed and yelled at us to get on the train or he'd get in trouble. We did. We thought we'd left on time (on the delayed schedule) at 8:30 but we had to back into the station to get some paperwork and some luggage stored there overnight. This necessitated getting someone to actually open the station. At any rate by the time we left the station it was 9:02am and we immediately got stopped at the end of the yard limits to await a freight coming into the yard...we left there about 9:30am already 90 minutes late. After that the dispatching was actually pretty good until we reached one siding where we had to pull in behind a westbound freight and both of us waited for an eastbound to pass. After it did the dispatcher had us back out of the siding and go ahead of the westbound freight.

We spent the rest of the day recovering from that (we had been about 2.5 hours late at that point) and actually made over 30 minutes of that up before we got stabbed by another freight which put us back into the 2.5 hour late range again. But that was ok, we figured we'd make some of that up and maybe get into Prince Rupert at about 10:25pm ... two hours late. No such luck. We were trucking along quite nicely when I heard a conversation between our train and the dispatcher. Prince Rupert is a huge container that provides more container traffic to the Canadian National than Vancouver. The container yard is maybe 4 miles east (in railroad terms) of the Via station. The people at the container yard had made up an eastbound train and it was blocking the main waiting for a westbound freight that was running ahead of us. That necessitated the westbound to go into a siding and for us to go into a siding several miles east of there. There was some negotiation between our engineer, the engineer of the freight ahead of us, and the dispatcher involving answering the question of whether we would we fit in the closer siding behind the freight. It turned out that there was already a 3,000 foot cut of cars in the siding, and the train ahead of us was 10,000 feet long (think about those numbers a moment). When the freight pulled into the siding there ended up being 400 feet left...we were about 320 feet (again, think about those relative numbers) so we barely fit. This saved us at least 45 minutes I'm told.

The offending freight left and we backed out onto the main and arrived at the station at 11:49pm ... 3 hours and 29 minutes late. The station is also the British Columbia Ferry terminal (so several miles from downtown) and we had to wait our turn in line there for one of the four taxis operating on Thanksgiving at that hour to take us to our hotel, the Crest. We were in our rooms by about 12:15am and I, at least, was in bed before 1am.

Getting home

Prince Rupert is an interesting town for lots of reasons, not the least of which is its airport which is actually on Digby Island, about a 30 minute ferry ride from the mainland. A shuttle (included with your air ticket) takes you and your luggage from a shuttle stop in downtown Prince Rupert to the airport (which is not near the ferry stop on the island). This meant that we had to be there at a specific time for our flight..we were told 9am, but it could have been a bit later. We left the hotel around 8:45am and walked to the shuttle stop. Did I forget to mention the fog? There was a lot of it but it didn't seem too bad until we got to the airport (such as it is) and went though security (more people manning security than there are flights out of the airport!) and realized that the pilot of the incoming flight could not see the runway. She aborted two landing attempts before having to fly over to Sandspit airport on Graham Island to refuel and to wait for the fog to lift. There were no amenities in the airport aside from a washroom and some vending machines. It was a somewhat unpleasant place to spend the hours waiting ... made worse by worrying about the tight connections that some of us had at Vancouver.

In the event, both Neil and I missed our connections. There was no alternative for me that evening, but Neil was barely able to get on a connecting flight through Portland back to San Francisco. I was able to book myself on a flight leaving at 1:48pm on October 10 through Chicago to home sometime around midnight. I did that before we left Prince Rupert once it became clear that there was no way that I could make the Denver flight. While we were in flight United sent a message saying that due to anticipated thunderstorms in Chicago they recommended I consider rebooking yet again. I was going to take my chances, but I kept picturing me arriving in Chicago to find that the last flight to Pittsburgh had been canceled with people sleeping in the airport, etc. I slept soundly in spite of this worry until 4am (six hours of uninterrupted sleep). At that point I started worrying (none of this will surprise those of you who know me well) and I could not get back to sleep and decided to see if I could get on the 7:59am departure for Denver connecting (with the almost six hour gap) to a flight to Pittsburgh arriving around 10:20pm. I could, so I made the change and was easily at the gate in Vancouver in time to board the flight. (As I write this, at this point, I am in the United Club in Denver and they have announced an almost 1 hour delay in my flight onto Pittsburgh...the flights through Chicago appear to be operating without any problem...but, hey, what was I going to do with the day anyway...other than worry about Chicago weather!)

So I don't know how to take good selfies--sue me!

All was not lost however, because I emailed friend David Lawful who lives in the Denver area and he suggested that I take the train a couple of stops from the airport where he'd pick me up and we'd go to lunch. He took me to a very good deli, Rosenbergs, in a smallish mall made out of a converted hanger at old Stapleton Airport (I hope I got this right). We spent a couple of hours together before he dropped me back at the airport.

The time at the United Club when fairly quickly but was extended when I found that the Denver to Pittsburgh flight was going to depart late. (There we no delays on the flights through Chicago.) After settling into my seat on the flight, which left about 50 minutes late, I had a brief conversation with the person in the seat next to mine, enjoyed a chicken and macaroni and cheese dinner, and relaxed until we landed at about 11:05pm...also about 50 minutes late. I retrieved my car from valet parking and was home before midnight. It was a (mostly) fun but (very) tiring vacation. I'm ready for the next one!