Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Steaming my way to BARGE 2019

On the afternoon of July 31, 2019, Big Boy 4014 passes through Enterprise, IA
This is the story of my abbreviated trip to BARGE 2019. I've attended this event every year since 1993 and organized it, with a partner, between 1995 and 2008. It occurs in Las Vegas over most of the week culminating in the first weekend of August and involves playing poker, gambling, dining, and just plain having fun with friends I've known for years. This year was supposed to be no different. In fact I had airline reservations to fly to Las Vegas on July 30 and return on August 4--my usual schedule. Then something happened which changed everything.

The "something" was that the Union Pacific railroad announced that their Big Boy 4014 steam locomotive would be touring the eastern part of its system from mid-July to early August. The UP had taken this, the worlds largest steam locomotive, from a display in a museum in Southern California and over several years restored it to running order in time for the sesquicentennial celebration of the first transcontinental railroad last May. A fair number of my friends went out for that celebration but I elected not to because I expected it would be too crowded--it was, but I've since regretted that decision. So when this tour was announced I looked at how I might participate.

I contacted frequent traveling companion Rick Moser of Naperville, Illinois and we settled on the two day leg from West Chicago, Illinois to Des Moines, Iowa with an overnight in Cedar Rapids. This was the best time for both of us but it necessitated a change in my Las Vegas plans. At Rick's suggestion I changed my flights so that I would fly to Las Vegas directly from Des Moines on Thursday, August 1 instead of Tuesday, July 30. I then spent a fair number of evenings using Google Earth to help identify potential locations for pictures. I was guided by the schedule of the train (it would make several stops during the day for as long as 45 minutes which gave us time to get ahead of it.) This gave us a better chance to get ahead of it to shoot it from multiple locations. Our general idea was to get one shot somewhere on each side of a stop.

On Sunday, July 28 I flew to Chicago on a mid-afternoon United flight. The flight left on time, but the ride on the "L" to downtown Chicago took almost as long as the flight...the CTA was doing maintenance between Jefferson Park and Montrose and this necessitated a bus shuttle between those two stations. The trip took nearly two hours instead of less than one. But, hey, it only cost me $1.50. I checked into my hotel, the Conrad at Erie and Rush. The hotel was really nice. A while later I walked about six blocks to the Wildfire restaurant (also on Erie) where I enjoyed dinner with Debby Shapiro her partner Larry Goldberg, and John Warsaw. I went to school with Debby and John (6th-12th grades) and the Shapiros and Weinstocks have been friends dating back at least to my early childhood.

In spite of a comfortable room, I did not sleep well and was up earlier than I needed to be. I dressed and had breakfast at the hotel with Scott Frazin, did some work in my room and then had lunch with Al and Marlene Marks at a dim sum restaurant in the uptown area of Chicago. Al and I have been friends since my family moved across the street from his when we were both four years old. During lunch it poured, but by the time we finished it was sunny again. I picked up my bags and caught a bus to Union Station where I caught the 3:57pm departure for Naperville (which ran nonstop to Downers a very fast trip.)

Rick met me at the station and dropped me at the Courtyard in Naperville. I cleaned up and pretty soon Rick and his wife Jane and Alison (their oldest daughter) picked me up to go to dinner at a place unfortunately named The White Chocolate Grill. (Unfortunate because I dislike white chocolate and would not have picked the restaurant on my own based on the name.) It was excellent...if noisy. I met Rick in 1983 and met his wife Jane and two year old Alison for the first time perhaps a year later on memorable New Years Eve rail trip to St. Louis. Barb and I have traveled with Rick and Jane multiple times of the intervening years.

Through Creston, IL, July 30, 2019
Tuesday morning, Rick picked me up at the hotel at 7:30am and we headed to Creston, IL, our first photo location. This was fairly far from the starting location of West Chicago, but we were pretty sure we would have only one opportunity before its station stop in Rochelle, IL and we feared that close in locations would be mobbed. When we arrived the sun was dead on to the track (meaning full backlight no matter where we shot from) so we chose at Creston in a nice open area on the north side of the tracks. The wait was long enough that the sun shifted a bit before the train arrived and we would have been better off, I guess, on the south side. But we made of it what we could.

A freight and Big Boy 4014 approaching Sterling, IL as seen across the Rock River
From there while the train was stopped in Rochelle we headed to Rock Falls, IL. The train would proceed along the opposite shore of the Rock river into Sterling, but we expected to be able to get a good shot of it across the river. When scouting the trip I had identified a well situated marina and had tracked down the owner who gave us verbal permission to stand on his docks as the train came through. When we arrived there was an eastbound freight stopped on the southernmost track (meaning that if the steam train came through on the northernmost track we wouldn't be able to see it.) It eventually moved and was soon followed by another eastbound before, eventually, the 4014 and its train arrived. We got our pictures and I called the owner and thanked him and offered to send him a picture if he gave me his email address. It arrived by text shortly after the call. I sent the picture I took to him later that day.

Big Boy 4014 crossing the Cedar River, July 30, 2019
From there the plan had been to try to beat the train into Clinton, its next stop but traffic was so bad that we made a decision to head to the planned location. But then we looked at that, a place called DeWitt, IA. Given the traffic we had just seen and the fact that there was only a single viable road (US 30) to get from there to the planned location the other side of Wheatland we decided to have a quick lunch at a Portillo's in Davenport and drove on to the location at the Cedar River bridge in Cedar Rapids. There we had to make a choice...a near straight-on shot from a trail bridge over the tracks, or another broadside from the park along the river. We chose the latter and were able to park our car in the shade and enjoy the afternoon as we awaited the train's arrival. A note about this: the Union Pacific had thoughtfully provided a website that provided location updates throughout the day. So we knew roughly when it was time to get out of the car and choose our shooting location. Shortly the train came through, we took our pictures and drove to the Tru by Hilton on the west side of Cedar Rapids. The Tru is a "new concept" hotel that has a vibe similar to Starwood's (now Marriott's) trendy Aloft, but is more spartan and not as well executed. But it was comfortable enough and after a quick (too-quick) dinner at a nearby Texas Roadhouse with an acquaintance, Nick Thoralson who lived near by, we retired to our rooms for the night.

Through Watkins, IA on July 31, 2019
Wednesday morning the train was due to leave Cedar Rapids at 9am, so we left our hotel at 8:15am to get in position in Watkins, IA. There was already a reasonable crowd there but plenty of room at our chosen location along a road crossing the tracks. Our next location was in Le Grand, IA, on the other side of the train's Belleplaine IA stop. This was a shot from a highway bridge and we had no trouble getting there since US 30 did not actually run along the track at this point.

Through Le Grand, IA
Using Google Earth I had scoped out a location along a nature trail near Highland Acres road after the Marshalltown, IA stop but it turned out to be overgrown. The obvious choice of the Highland Acres road bridge was too crowded so we headed for an alternate broadside that I had also scoped out...but it was too constrained. Instead we went to Nevada, IA (Nev-ay-da) grabbed a sandwich for lunch and went to our next location which was at a place called Chicago Junction just south of where the train left the Chicago to Omaha line to head south to Des Moines its stopping place for the next several days. This was a fine location, but while we waited the sky became overcast. The pictures were still very worthwhile.

Through Nevada, IA
From Nevada we drove to Enterprise, a location not too far from Des Moines. We liked this location very much as well in spite of the overcast (which actually allowed us to shoot from the east side of the tracks which were vastly less crowded than the west side). From there I had found a location where the train made a turn to the east to enter the Des Moines yard, but when we got there it was 1) raining, and 2) incredibly crowded, so we called it a "chase" and headed to our hotel, the Doubletree at the airport for the night. We relaxed in our respective rooms for about two hours before going to dinner at a great local place called Skips. After returning to the hotel I said goodbye to Rick (who I wouldn't see until October) and watched a movie before bed.

Ending the 4014 chase as it comes through Enterprise, IA, July 31, 2019
By the time I was ready for breakfast on Thursday, Rick had already left on his drive back to the Chicago area. When planning the trip I had offered to drive back with him and continue onto Las Vegas from there, but he said I should just fly from Des Moines...that the 4+ hour drive back for him alone was no problem. So that's what I did. The only reasonable flight to Las Vegas was a noon nonstop departure on Southwest. The flight arrived on time at 1pm, I called for a Lyft and I was soon at the shared-ride pickup area looking for my friend Nolan to pick me up. Instead I was picked up by Ignacia who proceeded to tunnel me even though my Henderson destination was nowhere near that part of town. Since Lyft sets the fees ahead of time the only thing I lost was about 15 minutes, but I was still at the business meeting I had to attend in plenty of time.

After a quick lunch meeting, my colleagues drove me to the Green Valley Ranch Resort where I checked into a wonderful room with a view of the pool area, and my BARGE 2019 began. I immediately headed for the poker room getting lost on the way and met up with a whole lot of friends who were deep into poker games. I had organized a group of nine of us (it became 10) to go see the Las Vegas Aviators play the New Orleans Baby Cakes (AAA minor league baseball) at the brand new Las Vegas Ball Park. The ball park is in Summerlin...about as far from the GVR as possible, but some of us had cars so getting there was easy. Lori Miller had been promising me a ride in her Tesla Model S for several years. She agreed to take me to the ball park, showing off all of the cars autonomous features in the heavy rush hour traffic.

We arrived at the ball park, and parked in the free parking lot (the only bargain) just as the gates were opening for $2 beer night. The ball park is an amazing place, especially when compared with the old one, Cashman Field, which was a bit of a dump the last time we saw a game there. We had comfortable seats in the shade, and had plenty of time to explore the various gift shops, and food and beverage vendors. Here is where I got my big surprise: the prices were major league, with simple hot dogs around $6, refillable soft drinks around $8, premium hot dogs at $9 or higher, etc. Water was over $5 so I opted for a $5 bag of peanuts (same price at PNC Park in Pittsburgh) and a $2 Dos Equis. (When I went back for a second later in the game all they had left is Coors Light--you know, water.) The game itself was poorly played (a dropped pop up? In AAA ball?) and clocked in at over 3 hours. My return ride, Linda Lewis (Lori lives near the ball park) was ready to leave before the ninth inning as were all of her passengers. She graciously stopped at a Walgreens on the way back to GVR so that we could stock up on water, Diet Coke, etc. I was in bed around midnight.

Friday dawned and because of time zones I was wide awake at 7am. The BARGE Board of Directors and the Organizers had scheduled a breakfast meeting at 9:30am and Peter Secor and I were invited (we remain Emeritus Directors.) The first poker tournament I participated in, the Tournament of Champions, began at 11am. This tournament consists of three different limit poker games: Texas Hold'em, Seven Card Stud, and Omaha Hi-Lo Split. I played ok but not great and finished in the top half of the field as best I can tell. It was 3pm and I had not eaten since breakfast so I grabbed a hamburger at the on-site Fatburger. As was my poker performance, it was ok but not great, but at least I finished it. At 5pm the BARGE Symposium started. The Symposium involves food and a player auction. This year the food was practically banquet quality ... perhaps even better. The downside was that drinks at the bar were quite expensive. For the auction I participated in a small syndicate. Five of us contributed $100. After the auction we heard a talk by Adam Pliska, the CEO of the World Poker Tour about its past and future and then the Board had its annual meeting.

For many years, Kevin Un and I have gone off to share shrimp cocktails during BARGE, with the buyer usually being the loser of a bet on baseball. In the good old days it was 99 cent shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate. This year we paid 10 times as much for much better shrimp. Since our baseball bet ended in a push we played credit card roulette for the bill. Of course the real attraction of this is not the shrimp, or paying off a bet...rather it's a chance for two friends to spend time catching up. So it really didn't matter who paid (but thanks Kevin!) After shrimp it was time to go to another BARGE tradition (albeit unofficial) Karaoke. This year the Karaoke was sponsored by Dan Goldman's company Virtue Poker and it was great. One of the highlights was seeing Nolan in a tux and Becca in a gown singing "Shallow" from A Star is Born.

A tradition I had missed by arriving late on Thursday was a Thursday morning breakfast with a small group of friends, typically including at least Randy, Goldie, Bruce, George, Chic, and JK. They held the event without me, but then the group (without Randy and with JRX) had another breakfast on Saturday morning at the Egg Works about a mile or so away. We were back in plenty of time for the start of the 11am No-Limit Hold'em tournament. I outlasted at least half the field in this tournament as well and had a stack commensurate with the number of players left when I went out with my A-K against a pair of tens held by Dann Nussbaum (who went on to finish third I believe.) I had a great time and at least I won my Go for Goldie event (won because I lasted longer than Goldie, though I went out within about 30 minutes of him.) By the way, I was an underdog on the hand pre-flop (42% to 58%) but I felt good about my play throughout the day. This was about 3:30pm.

At 6:30pm JK, David K., Goldie, Chic, JRX, and I went to King's Fish House for a great dinner and then back to the poker room for the Reindeer Games (wherein crazy BARGErs take over the poker room with wild poker games that go on to the wee hours.) Me, I played a little video poker and won $20. As I was heading back to the poker room to say goodbye to my many friends and watch as much of the final table as I could I heard "Hello stranger!" and turned around and there was Diane Lable and Gina English, a pair of dealers the whole BARGE community has known for years from Binion's. She had come out to GVR to say hello to her old friends. I watched the final table until it was down to about seven at which point I went up to my room to finish packing and get ready for bed and watched the live stream of the final table a bit longer (thanks Rodney) until our syndicate's last two players busted (netting us a $40.50 a person profit.)

I had a non-stop flight booked back to Pittsburgh on Sunday morning, but because of the 737 MAX problems Southwest had canceled that flight and I ended up connecting through Nashville. That flight was due to leave at 10:25am with a 50 minute connecting time. On both flights the middle seat was empty which made for a first class Southwest experience. By the way, I have a near foolproof way for ensuring an empty seat assuming a non-full flight: 1) pick a row near the front of the aircraft where a large individual is sitting alone, 2) be large yourself. People will skip your middle seat in hopes of finding a roomier one further back. I caught a Lyft home from the airport and arrived before 8:30pm after a successful rail/BARGE combination trip.

Monday, October 14, 2019

2001: A Train Odyssey

The Royal Canadian Pacific at a Paterson Grain facility in Dunmore, Alberta, June 2, 2001

The other day a friend posted a picture of a train on the Union Railroad in Pittsburgh and that got me thinking about the time I was able to ride a train on a railroad that was actively hostile to railfans. Then I started thinking that, unlike these days, there were a lot of opportunities to ride trains that year so I thought I'd put together an overview of the trains I rode (or in once case almost rode) in that year.

On Saturday evening, February 3, 2001 I begin my first railroad trip of the year. I had not been feeling good and still wasn't when I caught an Airtran MD-80 from Pittsburgh to Chicago Midway. There was a light load that Saturday night and they moved me up to first class for plane-balance reasons. When I got to Chicago I took the L from Midway to the Standard Club on Plymouth Court near Jackson Blvd. My parents were members and they had nice hotel-style rooms for members

Sunday, February 4, I had a small breakfast (still wasn't feeling great) in the fancy club dining room, walked around the Loop, a bit and eventually found my way to Union Station where I met up with Rick Moser of Naperville and Dave Ingles of Waukesha, WI to board the Texas Eagle. The purpose of the trip was to get some significant new mileage  due to the train being rerouted for trakc work on the Union Pacific, over the former Texas & Pacific between Texarkana and Jefferson then via the Kansas City Southern to Sulphur Springs, Greenville, and Wylie and into Dallas. The plan was to return from Dallas on February 5, getting to Chicago on February 6. I was still not feeling well on the southbound trip so, when we got to Dallas, I canceled my Amtrak return, and booked a one-stop flight home (via MCI) on Vanguard the next day. Dave and Rick returned by train. Note that two out of the two airlines used in this trip no longer exist.

I did not partake in the next significant trip of the year due to planned shoulder surgery. The 3rd Annual Remote Canadian Rail Adventure started on April 15, 2001. Dave and Rick (and Rick's Dad) did. It went from Winnipeg arriving at The Pas morning of the 16th. From there it went on to Lynn Lake to Flin Flon and back to Canora for an overnight. On the 18th it went to Edmonton via Humboldt, North Battlefield and Vermillion. After arrival in Edmonton on the 19th it went to Swan Landing and then north to Grand Prairie before returning to Edmonton. Friday it went to Calgary with an overnight at the Palliser Hotel. From there it took the mainline to Saskatoon then down to Regina and back to the mainline at Melville before heading on to Winnipeg where the trip ended. They also did some coal-mine branches west of Edmonton, too, some in snow. A trip I dearly wish I had been able to take.

Other photos of the Royal Canadian Pacific, late May and early June, 2001
No matter, in those days there was always another coming up, so on Wednesday, May 30, 2001 I boarded a Delta flight in Pittsburgh and changed at MSP to a flight to Calgary. At Calgary I made my way to the Palliser Hotel to await Rick and Dave and the start fo the Royal Canadian Pacific trip chartered by friends John Harmon and John Wicks. The train left from the station under the Palliser Thursday morning for Red Deer, Hardisty, and Wilkie where it tied up for the night. On Friday it went from Wilkie to Saskatoon, to Lanigan, to Regina before tying up for the night in Moose Jaw. On Saturday the train left Moose Jaw for Swift Current, Dunmore, tying up in Lethbridge. On Sunday we went from Lethbridge to Montana, to Nerniskam, to Stirling, to Coutts, back to Lethbridge, and onto Okotoks. Finally on Monday morning it ran the short 26.2 miles from Okotoks to Calgary, from where I flew home the same day.

The train was made up of Canadian Pacific Railroad office cars and luxury cars with private baths and showers. The meal service was first-rate. So first-rate that we asked them to tone it down a bit. For instance, we did not need a separate wine pairing with each course at each meal. There were a bit over 20 of us aboard. The demand for this rather expensive (for the time, not now) was heavy enough that they ran a second section (with perhaps a dozen passengers) a few weeks later.

Things were quiet until August, but Dave, Reg Mitchell and I spent the time planning a visit to Halifax and Sydney, NS around August 11. At some point, after we had purchased air tickets an even better trip surfaced in about the same time frame and we ended up canceling this trip to Canada. The better trip was Bennett Levin's Northern Express To reach the start of the Northern Express all I had to do was get out of bed on August 18, hop in a taxi to Pennsylvania Station in Pittsburgh to catch a ride to Harrisburg with Clark Johnson on his Caritas private car. Earlier in the month Clark and his car had been on a "Bikers Special" to the Sturgis, SD motorcycle festival. Rick rode, Dave was ill, and I had another conflict. One evening during the layover in Newcastle (where the train was parked) someone broke into the Caritas and among other things destroyed Clark's laptop. It turned out I had a spare Powerbook to lend him and I brought it along. At Harrisburg I transferred to Nav Fosse's Silver Solarium observation car where Phil Moser (Rick's brother) and I had a bedroom for the trip.

Catching a ride to Harrisburg, around Horseshoe Curve, August 18, 2001
The train, organized as a part of the Buy Miles consortium of that era (a group of private car owners who committed to Amtrak to spend a certain amount on travel for the year) was led by Bennett's restored Pennsylvania Railroads E-8 diesels. On August 19 it ran to Erie via Emporium. After an overnight in Erie we were joined by both Rick Moser (who had been seeing Broadway shows with his wife before flying to Erie) and my good friend Bill Metzger of Pittsburgh. The train proceeded down the Bessemer and Lake Erie to its connection with the Union Railroad at Unity Junction and thence onto Duquesne Junction on the Union, before it retraced its steps to Butler where it tied up for the night. At Butler, Bill's wife Pam joined us in the dome for dinner and then she and Bill departed for home. The next day the rest of us rode back to Harrisburg via Dubois, and Driftwood. I caught a ride back to Pittsburgh, I think in the Caritas again, but I am not certain. For a person who has spent most of his time railfanning in the Pittsburgh area this was a fantastic trip. But wait, there was more...

The Northern Express, August 2001
Some of the "usual suspects" in the Silver Solarium: Phil Moser (far left), Rick Moser,
Dan Carter, John Arbuckle, Bill Metzger, and Peter Putnam Bretz
Every year the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners (AAPRCO) runs a convention and runs special trains of private cars to the location. In 2001 it was scheduled for Denver in early October. Of course, shortly after I returned from the Northern Express, the September 11 terrorist attack occurred and it wasn't exactly clear what was going to happen (not that the train was on the forefront of anyone’s mind at the time.) In the event, even though much of the US population had stopped traveling, the convention and the connecting trains ran as scheduled. I've written about this trip in detail before, so I'm only including a summary below.

I left Pittsburgh on September 28. Dave Ingles and I shared a bedroom in the Silver Solarium to Denver when the train left Chicago on September 29, 2001 and reached Denver on October 2 with overnight stops in Kansas City, Amarillo, TX, and Pueblo, CO.

On October 3, four of us, John Arbuckle, Reg Mitchell, and Carol Sulanke embarked on a Colorado Narrow Gauge railroad tour that included rides on the Durango and Silverton (roundtrip between the two cities in its name on October 4) and the Cumbres and Toltec from Chama to Antonito on October 5. On October 6 we drove back to Denver and boarded the eastbound AAPRCO train for Chicago via the Kansas Pacific which departed the next morning and arrived in Chicago on the evening of October 8. I flew home to Pittsburgh the next morning.

View from the AAPRCO special to Denver, October, 2001
The Cumbres and Toltec, October 5, 2001
Yours truly, at Monarch Pass, CO (elevation 11,312) on October 3, 2001
I believe that ended the rail travel for me for 2001. I don't promise that the above includes every ride I took that year (it probably doesn't) but it does include all of the major ones.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Train to Churchill

Awaiting departure in Churchill, MB, 09/12/2019

In July of 2017, friends Neil Lang, Phil Gosney, and I planned a trip by train from Winnipeg, MB (near the US border) to Churchill, MB (on Hudson Bay). Churchill is known for being a place to see Beluga whales (in the summer) and polar bears (in the late fall). During those times the train to Churchill is very busy and tour groups book up a lot of the sleeping car space. In September Churchill is known for May flies (I think I’m making that up) so the tour groups are not present on the train, making it easier to book a room.

Sometime after we made plans for the trip the northern portion of the rail line was washed out by spring floods. The line could not be repaired until the permafrost froze in winter, so Via Rail Canada refunded our rail fares. Our credit cards came with travel insurance and that covered refunding most of the airfare.

It would be nearly two years before the line was reopened. In the interim, the town of Churchill was in dire straits because the railroad was the only land-based means of access. This meant that food had to be flown or floated in. Via Rail Canada had one its trains in Churchill when the line washed out and subsequently had to charter a ship to rescue the equipment. The line reopened in early 2019 and we made plans to ride from Winnipeg to Churchill and return September 10 to September 14.

On the morning of September 9 I caught a bus to the airport. Because of some new major road construction near downtown Pittsburgh, I took an earlier bus than I needed to. I needn’t have worried...they had rerouted the bus to avoid the worst of the traffic and the trip took perhaps 10 minutes longer than the usual 55 minutes. My flight to Chicago was scheduled for 11:24am and I was through security and in “The Club” by 9:45am. 

I noticed the inbound flight, a 737-900 had arrived significantly early which was nice because I only had a 44 minute connection in Chicago. We boarded early, left early, and arrived about 15 minutes early into gate B12. My Winnipeg flight left from E10...about a 15 minute or so walk. However, it was running late so I had time to make a leisurely walk and grab a bag of Garrett popcorn and a hot dog for lunch before boarding the CRJ200. When the doors closed I had an empty seat next to me, but before we pulled away from the gate the flight attendant had seat-belted in a major backpack belonging to a good-old-boy who was going hunting (or fishing...I couldn’t tell) with his buddy. At least the backpack didn’t try to talk to me. 

The flight was fine, customs was quick (and didn’t require the usual long walk through a huge airport) and I had soon gotten some money out of an ATM and caught a taxi to the Fort Garry Hotel, a grand old hotel within a block of Union Station. When I checked in I noticed some signs that the Hallmark Channel was filming a “Christmas at the Plaza” movie in the hotel. Apparently this will be broadcast in November, but I did not see any of the actual filming. The beauty of this location is that it's less than a two block walk to the station.

After a quick visit to the station we went to Earl's for dinner. Then I needed to go to a Rexall before it closed so that I could buy a few supplies that I needed. It had been raining and the crosswalk across the major road was were my shoes and socks. After a glass of Fort Garry Dark beer with Phil back at the hotel I spent much of the rest of the evening drying things out with the hair dryer.

Boarding our pocket streamliner in Winnipeg, MB, 9/10/2019

The next morning, September 10, we took our time with breakfast, walked around town a bit (it had finally stopped raining) before checking out and going to the station around 11:15 for our 12:05 departure which was delayed until 1:10pm because of a late arrival the night before. Our train was a beautiful pocket streamliner consisting of two locomotives, a baggage car, two coaches, a Skyline Dome (where meals were to be served) our Chateau-series sleeping car, and a Park-series observation car.

Phil had elected to stay in a so-called “cabin for one” (but we know it as a duplex roomette). Neil and I shared a “cabin for two” (a bedroom). The bedroom has an upper and lower berth and Neil graciously took the upper. (Not sure how I would have been able to use my BiPAP machine from an upper anyway.) Lunch was served immediately after departure. This train has a limited menu so we chose from the same selections day after day. I chose a tuna sandwich which I did not particularly care for.

The day passed quickly enough and we had made up all but about 30 minutes of our lateness when we were stopped just short of McCreary, MB for an extended period. Apparently our authorization to proceed had run out and the dispatcher had not given us one for the route ahead. We were about two hours late when we finally moved.

During the overly long layover in The Pas, SK, 9/11/2019
Dinner was earlier than I would have liked, and the pot roast was just “ok”, but the conversation there and in the dome car after dinner was just fine. Around 9:30pm I went to bed. Neil came in a bit later. At various times during the night I was aware we were stopped, but I slept pretty well. When I woke up at about 7:40am we were approaching The Pas, MB a good 6.5 hours late. I quietly dressed so as not to wake Neil but it didn’t matter as he was up by the time we arrived. We learned that the reason for our lateness was that one of the engineers took ill and had to be life-flighted off (and a replacement found). I later learned that this occurred around milepost 84 on the Togo subdivision and that the symptoms seemed to be those of a mini-stroke. Apparently the actual illness may have been as simple as an inner ear infection -- later in the trip we were told he was doing well.

In The Pas they allowed us off the train for a while. After we re-boarded we learned that the satellite radio (the infrastructure for VHF radio simply doesn't exist in some of the more isolated portions of the route) in the engine had failed and had to be replaced. So they let us off again for a more extended time on the platform. Ultimately we left The Pas 8 hours and 18 minutes late at 10:48am. Strangely enough the site that estimates arrival times showed that they expected us to be on time by Gillam.

Train time at Thompson, MB, 9/11/19
Lunch was a little after noon. I had a cheeseburger this time. It was good. It turns out that there were only 13 passengers in the sleeping cars on this train and they feed us all at once. Over the several days we all got to know each other. During this lunch Neil took a group photo including Preslee and Amber the two waitresses/car attendants.

A word about the cars: the observation car is known as a “Park” car because all of such cars in the Via Rail fleet have names that include “Park”. Ours was the Waterton Park. The car is only open to sleeping car passengers and has dome seating for 24 -- with our small group seats were never at a premium. It also has downstairs seating at the rear-end for another 12 or so, plus a lounge area where an attendant serves drinks in snacks on some trains. On this train the car was unmanned...snacks and drinks could be purchased in the Skyline dome. There is one drawing room in the car (sleeps three with two lowers, an upper and a private bathroom), and three bedrooms (sleeps two with a lower and an upper and a private bathroom.) The next car forward was the Chateau Radisson, the car Neil, Phil, and I were riding it. It has eight duplex roomettes sleeping one on a pull down bed with a toilet and sink, one drawing room, three bedrooms, three sections (upper and lower berths arrayed along the hallway, think the train scene in “Some Like it Hot”), two restrooms and a shower for use by the whole car.

The next car forward was the Skyline 8505, which has a dome and a lounge usable by both the coach and sleeping car passengers, plus a dining area (with kitchen and snackbar) seating up to 32. If you are a sleeping car passenger, meals are included in your fare. In front of that were two coaches and finally a baggage car.

After arrival in Churchill, 9/12/2019
Interestingly, north of The Pas there are no hot box detectors. A hot box results when a wheel bearing becomes overheated usually due to a loss of lubrication. If not detected a hot box can lead to an axle failure and derailment. Railroads typically have detectors placed along their lines every 20 miles or so. Because this line didn’t have them our train was required to stop every 50 miles or so, let a crewman off the rear and then back up slowly so that he could check the axle temperatures with a thermometer. Assuming nothing is found that is out of order he re-boards the train and we continue on our way.

We made reasonable time the rest of the day to Thompson Junction, except that we had to make one stop for the smokers and another to meet train 690. So we lost a bit more time. There is a long (five hour) scheduled stop in Thompson to meet the aforementioned train so that people could do shopping trips from Churchill. Since we were running so late they cut the time in Thompson to less than 45 minutes and we were only about 4.5 hours down down by the time we left. Before reaching Thompson it was time for pre-dinner alcoholic beverages and then dinner. This day I had the salmon which wasn’t very good (very dry).

I slept fine with visions of a noon or earlier arrival in Churchill which would have made for an on-time return departure. Since the engineers require 6-7 hours of mandated rest any later arrival means a late departure. I woke at 5:04am as we were leaving Gillam. Somehow we’d lost another hour during the night. The Via website was now predicting a 1:35pm arrival in Churchill.

After a breakfast of bacon and eggs I spent much of the morning reading in the “Park” car dome as we traversed exceedingly barren scenery at 10mph. As we were leaving breakfast the train manager was predicting a 3pm arrival in Churchill with a subsequent 9 or 9:30pm departure time. Upon questioning it developed that there was no formal place we could stow our bags while exploring town, but that we might be able to leave them in the station at our own risk.

What we saw in Churchill, MB, 9/12/2019
Lunch, again, was at noon. This time I had an ok grilled ham and cheese sandwich and Phil and I sat with Paul (a fan from Edmonton who ran a radio station) and his father David (a retired doctor from rural Alberta).

We continued to lose a bit more time due to slow orders and eventually arrived at Churchill at about 3:40pm after wying the train outside of town. We judged that there was too little time for a tour, and besides it was neither whale or bear season so we elected to spend some time photographing the train upon arrival. Big mistake. Fellow passengers Barrie and Marion Evans took a tour and saw and photographed several bears. 

What Barrie and Marion Evans saw in Churchill, 9/12/2019 (photo by Barrie Evans)
While they were doing that we walked to the city beach heeding the bear alert signs along the way. Some of our friends further along on the beach saw a pod of beluga whales but all we saw was the beach, an ATM, a grocery/liquor store and dinner at the Seaport Restaurant. We each enjoyed two Kokanee beers with our good meals. But the best part was that the chairs were comfortable and we could dine at our leisure.

Due to the previously mentioned crew rest requirements departure time was set for 10:15 rather than 7:30pm. We boarded at 9:45pm and actually got settled and left at about 10:17pm. There was a much bigger crowd aboard this first night out of Churchill. A flight was canceled and as a result almost every room was occupied. Paul and David hosted a small party in their drawing room before bed time.

Nearing departure time, Churchill, MB, 9/12/2019
We’d been told to expect to lose additional time between Gillam and Thompson but at least to Gillam, which we reached after a very restful sleep we had not lost any additional time. At the stop I learned that Lorraine from Creston BC had not had a restful night in her upper berth because of a rowdy First Nation drunk across the aisle. The crew was able to calm him down for a while but then he started up again. Ultimately this led to a fight in the “Park” car during the night and the passengers involved were detrained at Gillam and told they were not allowed to ride again. Lorraine was rescued by the crew and spent at least part of the night in a roomette. I had heard none of this as I slept the night away.

Breakfast was a cheese omelette with bacon. We spent the morning mostly in the dome of the Park car. The fall colors were amazing. Lunch was a chef’s salad. There was a big enough crowd aboard at this point that there were two seatings for lunch. That afternoon we spent a pleasant 20 minutes exchanging photos and contacts with the group in the Park car before our arrival in Thompson where most of the additional sleeping car passengers left the train and we met our counterpart train heading back to Churchill.

Enjoying the captivating scenery as we back into Thompson, MB, 9/13/2019

The northbound train at Thompson, MB. Our train is immediately in front in the distance. 9/13/2019
After departing Thompson we enjoyed cocktails and dinner (a pretty decent chicken parmesan but with the same apple pie they served every night of the trip.) Bedtime was about 10pm and I slept soundly until I awoke at 3:15am as we were leaving The Pas ... on time. Somehow by the time I finally got out of bed around 7:20am Mountain Time (we were in Saskatchewan by then) we were nearly an hour and 30 minutes late. Breakfast was pancakes and then I spent the morning in the dome with everyone else. 

Group photo somewhere in Manitoba, 9/14/2019
The morning passed quickly with lots of camaraderie in the dome and before we knew it it was time for lunch...I had the chicken burger which was easily the best of the lunches of the trip (though the salad the day before was fine.)

Paul and David O’Neil left the train and Dauphin and the rest of us went on to Winnipeg. We were making great time and expecting to be into the station before 6:30 when the train came to a stop near Gladstone. I pulled the railroad radio out of my backpack and heard that there was a freight that had broken down ahead of us and had been there for two hours trying to find the problem. As we stopped they had just found a broken air-hose and after a not really too bad wait they started moving again...but we could only move as they moved. There was no way around them. The freight would notify our engineer how far up the line he could proceed on a rolling basis. We finally it the mainline at Portage Le Prairie and even though we didn’t pass the freight and were not able to go as fast as normal on that stretch of track, we ultimately arrived at 7:23pm...that’s two hours and 47 minutes late. Because we were running that late the Via crew served us miscellaneous snacks including Cliff Bars, Pringles Potato Chips, fruit, and a very tasty chicken sandwich. 

At Dauphin, MB, 9/14/2019
We left the train and walked through Union Station to the curb where Phil hailed a taxi to our hotel, the Courtyard at the airport. After checking in and getting settled the three of us met in the bistro for a final small meal together. It was nice to eat something that wasn’t on the same menu after five days on the train. Alcoholic beverages were consumed.

The next morning I walked from the hotel to the airport a bit too early as security and US customs did not open until after 9. My flight (this time a UA RJ145) left on time and arrived at ORD roughly on time. The connection was long enough and close enough that I had time to stop at Garrett's for more popcorn but not enough time to grab a lunch before boarding the RJ175 to Pittsburgh. We were early into Pittsburgh and I quickly was on a city bus back home.

This was a great trip and I finally got to check a route I'd wanted to ride off of my bucket list while spending quality time with old a new friends.