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 flooded...so 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.

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