Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Moonlighters 2023

A number of years ago I became aware that some friends were making a yearly trip across Canada by train in February or March. After noticing this for two years I asked one of them about it and was told about The Moonlighters.

The Moonlighters is a very loosely organized group of railroaders (former and current) and others (like me) who get together every February or March during the full moon to ride VIARail’s Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto and/or Toronto to Vancouver. The group came about because around 2010 my friends Bill and Linda Schafer made the trip with another couple and thought that it would be fun to do it again with more friends. So the next year they contacted a few friends and they contacted a few friends and the whole thing grew to the point where as many as over 100 friends would buy tickets and ride.

Bill and Linda Schafer

Why the Canadian? The Canadian is as close to a 1950s era Streamliner that one can ride in the 2020s. The equipment, built then, has been updated and maintained by VIARail and it can be enjoyed as the train takes you through spectacular (and never boring to me) scenery on a four night run across Canada.

I had wanted to join the Moonlighters in 2015 but had been talked into going a week later by my friend Neil Lang because he did not want the big “crowd” competing for seats in the dome cars. That trip was fun but ended prematurely when a major fire blocked the line in Ontario. Via annulled the train in Winnipeg, gave us a tour of the town (in -7f weather) and flew us to Toronto instead. 

In 2016 I visited Switzerland with some friends at the time of the Moonlighters that year, so I didn’t actually join the Moonlighters until 2017,  I guess that was it’s seventh edition. From then on I’ve ridden every Moonlighters trip one way (some ride roundtrip). In 2017, 2018, and 2019 it was from Vancouver to Toronto. In 2020 there was a thought of part of the westbound train going to Prince Rupert instead of Vancouver and that possibility convinced me to ride from Toronto instead. That trip was marred by COVID and I decided to leave it at Edmonton to get home ahead of any border crossing. We went into lockdown two-three days after I returned to Pittsburgh.

Since then I made three attempts to ride a Moonlighters trip. All were canceled due to COVID — border restrictions, requirements to stay in ones room except during meals, etc. So in April 2022, when Bill Schafer announced the dates for the 2023 Moonlighters I immediately booked space, but wasn’t certain that the trip would run until very late that year. In fact, I still had doubts until the train pulled out of Pacific Central Station in Vancouver the afternoon of March 3, 2023.

On Wednesday evening, March 1, I caught a PRT bus (Pittsburgh Regional Transit, the new name for the Port Authority of Allegheny County) from near my home in Pittsburgh to the airport and checked in at the Hyatt Regency there. This allowed me to sleep-in a little before my 8:40am flight on United to Denver. I had booked the flight in coach last summer using points. The price for first class in points was way too high. Because of a knee issue I had recently upgraded the Denver to Vancouver flight to Economy Plus, but couldn’t get an acceptable upgraded seat for the Pittsburgh to Denver flight. About a week before the flight I noticed that the points wanted for first class had come down a lot and with the help of a United agent got my Economy Plus fee back and paid the extra points for first class. We left on time. I was not terribly interested in any of the available breakfast choices but did enjoy a croissant with butter and jelly as I watched M3gan—which I had previously downloaded to my iPad. (This is not the kind of movie I usually enjoy, but some folks had spoken highly of it. I ended up not liking it that much, but it was definitely diverting.) We landed a couple of minutes late.

The schedule gave me 56 minutes to get between flights and I was a bit worried because of the aforementioned knee issue and the immenseness of the Denver airport. I need not have worried as the flight to Vancouver ended up leaving from the adjacent gate. We boarded that flight on time, left a bit late, but arrived at Vancouver about 5 minutes early. I enjoyed a very nice roast beef and noodle salad with sesame dressing for lunch as I watched the first half of the movie Bullet Train on the United entertainment system This is also not the kind of movie I usually watch. It proved entertaining but ultimately too silly for me.

After the shortest walk from my aircraft to customs that I can remember I was through the immigration line and out the door within about 20 minutes from the time they opened the door on our aircraft. I caught a SkyTrain to City Centre and walked the two blocks to the Hyatt Regency Vancouver. I checked in, had a light snack, and went to a local London Drugs for some supplies. Then relaxed until dinner.

I had made a reservation at Joe Fortes restaurant for 6 people at 6pm. Three of the people ended up not being able to make it so I changed it. Then my friend Tom DeJoseph asked if I wanted to join him and Neal Payton for dinner—at Joe Fortes at 6pm! So we agreed to combine reservations and I called and changed mine to 5 people and canceled his. Then Tom got stuck on Vancouver Island and did not make it back in time for dinner so we were ultimately just four. The restaurant sat me, Neal, Art Reber and Rhiannon Allen (who I know from my poker activities) at a table for five on a noisy third floor (accessible only by stairs) of the restaurant. The table was collapsible so we had our waitress turn it into a table for four so that we could better hear each other. It was a very good meal and what I could hear of the conversation was great, but when I got back to the hotel I was exhausted.

Since Tom couldn’t get to the restaurant in time for dinner we agreed to meet for breakfast. He was staying at a Marriott near the Hyatt but we both walked about 1/2 mile to a place called the Pinnacle where we spent time catching up. Then it was back to the room to repack and get ready to head over to Pacific Central Station where I arrived just before 1pm for the 3pm departure. Almost immediately I was greeted by Bill and Linda who handed me a badge to wear during the trip. Then it was old home week as there were lots of other friends waiting to board—many of whom I hadn’t seen since 2020. The train manager checked me in and the dining car steward gave me a slip for second seating for dinner and I adjourned to the lounge to await boarding which ultimately happened at 2:30 for our 3:00 departure. 

Here is the consist of our train:

6401 F40PH (locomotive)
6442 F40PH (locomotive)
8602 Baggage 
8108 Coach
8501 Skyline Dome
8339 Sherwood Manor 
8302 Allan Manor
8321 Draper Manor
8306 Bell Manor
8329 Hearne Manor
8336 Monck Manor
8506 Skyline Dome
8413 Louise
88204 Chateau Cadillac
88710 Prince Albert Park
8316 Christie Manor ("buffer car")

All of the Manor Cars have 3 Sections, 6 Double Bedrooms, 4 Roomettes. The Chateau Car contains six Prestige Bedrooms, and the Park Car contains 3 Prestige Bedrooms.

My space was room B a so called Cabin for 2 (which I was occupying alone) in the Monck Manor. I unpacked my suitcase and then made my way back to the dome in the Prince Albert Park as we departed Vancouver. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres were served there and in the SkyLine Dome. I enjoyed a Fort Garry Dark beer before heading into dinner.

The second dinner seating was at around 7:30pm and I found myself seated with Bill and Linda and also Roy Wullich all from Virginia. The dinner menu was not as fancy as those from previous years, but generally there would be a choice of soup of the day or salad of the day, one of four entrees, and one of two desserts. That night I had the rack of lamb (in the past served the second night out) which was served without mint jelly, but was still excellent. A strawberry shortcake topped the meal off. From there it was back to the Park car to watch moonlit scenery, and finally off to bed around 10pm.

A word about my cabin for two. In day service it consists of two arm chairs, a closet, a sink, and a private toilet annex. At night the arm chairs get folded away and a lower and (if needed) an upper berth is set up. The bed is quite cosy and the room is very comfortable.

I sleep pretty well on a train as it rocks and rolls, but when it stops for an extended period I have a tendency to wake up for a while--for example at North Kamloops the first night. Generally I get out of bed earlier than usual because there is so much to see. On all four mornings aboard I woke between 6:30am and 7:00am. After my morning rituals and dressing I would go into breakfast where there were also four choices. Most times I had the "traditional" breakfast of bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast with orange juice. Other choices included the omelette of the day or the pancake of the day. (Alas, gone is the wonderful railroad French toast.) From there I'd head to one of the two domes to watch the scenery, occasionally heading back to my room to read.

On Saturday morning we were heading to Jasper, AB where we were schedule to arrive at 11:00am. The sun shined brightly and the views from the train of Pyramid Falls and Mount Robson with it's top not enshrouded by clouds were awesome. At Jasper there is an extended stop (90 minutes) and many got off the train. I'd done that several times before and had learned that they don't allow you back on the train until just before it's scheduled to leave. I elected to stay aboard. The first call for lunch was right as we left Jasper. Again I had selected the second seating which occurred around 2pm. The lunch menu included choices from burgers, to tuna melts, to falafel, served with soup.

A word about the scenery. The best (if you like mountains and rivers) scenery is west of Jasper. But each of the segments of the route has its attraction--yes, even including the grain fields of Saskatchewan. I never found it boring. (Though it's no coincidence that we tend to have slide shows in one of the domes on the third and fourth afternoons as we cross Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.)

Several years ago a few friends and I had taken the train from Winnipeg to Churchill and met a father and son. We've kept in touch with the son, Paul O'Neil, who lives in Edmonton. Paul decided to ride the train from Evansburg, AB into Edmonton, about a two hour ride. The train was running late at the time and we arrived just as I was having cocktails with Andrew and Susan Fox in their two bedroom suite. I left them to walk to the front of the train where Paul and his friend were riding. We sat in the coach dome for a while and chatted over drinks before it was time for me to go to the second dinner seating (friends are one thing--dinner is another.) Paul hopes to ride with us next year.

Paul O'Neill and I

Dinner on the second night included a very good beef tenderloin served with soup or salad and key lime pie. On the third night, after a little cocktail party in Steve and Dorothy Gregory's Prestige cabin joined by Jim Overholser, I had the prime rib and a carrot cake cheesecake. On the last night I had the pork tenderloin and a much too rich triple chocolate cake.

Left to right: Me (mid-chew), Neal Payton, Tom DeJoseph

On the second morning I awoke as we pulled into Saskatoon for another extended stop. But it was seven in the morning, it was very cold, and I'd already taken better pictures of the train than I was likely to get this time (because of the "buffer car" behind the Park car) so I elected to have breakfast instead. That evening we arrived in Winnipeg about 90 minutes earlier than the scheduled 10pm arrival. Since we weren't scheduled out until 11:30pm it would be an opportunity to go the Fort Garry Hotel a couple of blocks away where they usually have live jazz in the lounge, but because going there would mean waiting to reboard until 11pm (and the lounge closes at 10pm) I elected, again, to stay aboard.

The third morning I got out of bed just before we left Sioux Lookout another extended stop where we had been sitting for over an hour. That afternoon I actually got off the train for a while at Hornpayne where we again sat for an extended time. The last time through here there was a big freight house that added character to the scene, but it was falling apart and was demolished during the pandemic. I took a few pictures but reboarded because it was cold and the platform had a lot of ice on it. But, hey, I got to use the boots I brought along for just this occasion.

The last night we arrived at Capreol (another crew change point) well over an hour early and sat in the station until it was time to leave at 4:27am. On this last morning aboard I got out of bed somewhere before Parry Sound. Since we were due in Toronto at 2:29pm the meal service was different. A continental breakfast (that I did not partake in) was offered between 6am and 8am, with a brunch beginning at 9am until the diner closed late morning. The brunch offerings were similar to the breakfast offerings on other days with the addition of a couple of lunch items. I ended up enjoying waffles with fruit and bacon.

At some point in the morning they announced that we would be arriving very early in Toronto and I used that information and whatever cell signal I could find to change my flight home. Air Canada has two non-stops to Pittsburgh--one at 4pm and the other at 9pm. I was booked on the 9pm but was able to change to the 4pm with no trouble.

We ultimately arrived at Toronto Union Station at 11:20am over three hours early. My friend Neil Lang (who is riding westbound as I write this) was there to meet the train, and he and I chatted in the VIA lounge for about an hour before I caught a Union-Pearson express to the airport. US immigration is done at Toronto airport but with Global Entry it went very quickly. I lucked out and for once the gate was near the center of terminal one. Except that I didn't as 4pm came and went due to a maintenance issue on the plane which ultimately resulted in them sending us to a gate at the other end of the airport to board a different plane that left at 6:18pm. We landed at about 7:30pm. I had planned to catch a city bus home for free but because of the hour I got a Lyft instead and was home from a very wonderful trip by about 8:20pm.

I can't wait for the 2024 edition of The Moonlighters.