Greetings from a Starbucks in Toronto where I didn’t go because I was particularly hungry or thirsty (a final full VIA breakfast hit the spot) but needed to go to get wifi and more importantly find a youth hostel to stay in for at least tonight. Had I been in a US city I wouldn’t have stopped and just used by iPhone to direct me (International roaming I won’t do, way too expensive). The train arrived early at 8:46 into Union Station. I currently have the bittersweet feeling I get from getting off of any decent train trip, only partially from the scenery of seeing most of Canada by train (well I still need to continue to the Maritimes on the Ocean at some point, and the train to Gatspe is supposed to have a spectacular morning along the St. Lawrence before its arrival) but from the people I have met during my three day, two night journey. What was best about the trip was the people I met. The Park car with its bullet lounge and dome are really condusive for conversation, plus the 3 meals a day in the dining car. This isn’t to say I don’t meet people in the Superliner Lounge on Amtrak. The other part of the trip I found really interesting was getting a taste of how VIA operates with four employees traveling the train with their families since it is Spring Break time in Montreal.
To not dwell on that for too long I guess I should get to the details of my final two nights and day on the train. I reboarded the train in Winnipeg and met my section mate, an architect living in Winnipeg going to Toronto to deal with her parents divorce. (It always is amazing what people will confide in me on a train). I also met my younger new porter, McKenzie (there was also McKenzie Manor deadheading on the train), who had been laid off for the winter (VIA has many seasonal employees since the Canadian is so long in summer) but had gotten called back for a run. Eventually I walked back to the darkened park car because I heard about an interesting northern lights display. There I finally really met the knitting lady. A woman from Victoria getting free train travel across Canada in return for doing knitting classes aboard the train, a pilot program of VIA’s similar to their more established musician program I experienced on my first night of the trip. She advised me of the northern lights and as we left the lights of Winnipeg behind a slight haze of green started bizarrely appearing in the night sky, totally randomly. The northern lights are really something you have to experience (the ones I saw were apparently quite poor), eventually I pulled myself away and returned to the upper berth. I might have to splurge on a lower next time for the window, although I slept better in the upper not being distracted and wanting to look out.
I awoke the next morning late in the forests (plus a few frozen lakes) of northern Ontario, scenery that didn’t change for most of the day but was so different from the prairies of yesterday. Totally sleeping through a 5am fresh air stop at Sioux Lookout. I go and take a shower and while I am getting dressed at 8:00am CT hear the last call for breakfast and rush into the diner. There I am seating with a couple from Winnipeg, an orthodontist (who was later complaining in the park car about an ad in a paper about the clear braces that don’t really do anything), and a pediatrician interested in native health issues. There is also a younger traveling from the single coach car on a Canrail pass finally traveling really outside of Prince George for the first time. He was someone I wished I had wondered up to the Park car to chat with more. I enjoy the excellent buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup, (the train is the pride of Canada) which was really my most favorite breakfast of the trip, unfortunately the non-egg breakfast option changes daily. The dining car crew has changed with nicer waiters and a steward named Leslie that I later learn was the first female VIA employee (the system wasn’t created until 1978-79).
During breakfast we go through Colmis, our last little stop in Central Time. I than do my usual trek back to the Park car and sit there enjoying the Ontario wilderness with just a few tiny towns to pass through. At 9:56 ET we stop in tiny Armstrong (it actually has a road), and I feel the east coming even closer. This brings me to mention one of the neatest installations of the Park cars, six little clocks arranged vertically to show the Canadian time zones that stretch for five and a half hours from Pacific to Atlantic and then to the half-hour earlier to Newfoundland Time. The train makes relatively good time with many stops on sidings to meet up with freight trains. The next stop is at 10:33 at MP 219 to pick up someone warring bright orange clothing at a wilderness cabin. The Canadian here becomes a flag train, and you can make a reservation 48 hours in advance to stop it any ware along the route. It also connects two First Nation Villages across a river from each other and there residents routinely (the one reservation exception) hop on the train for the 15 minute trip across the rail bridge across. The one other interesting stop is waiting for a freight train at 10:46 in Ferland across from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Soon it is time for the second seating for lunch and I am seated with two of the nice gentleman form dinner yesterday (the other one got off in Winnipeg). For this meal I enjoyed excellent asparagus soup followed by the one menu item I remembered from VIA’s online menu, the Roast Beef in a Yorkshire pudding bowl. This was my favorite lunch item. For dessert is excellent shortcake and strawberry ice cream (VIA does ice cream with lunch, cakes for dessert). Midway through the meal a man who has boarded and only knows French joins us and the crew puts on their French (all new VIA hires must be bilingual, many long time employees are not, and in Quebec there are even a few French only employees left) to serve him. For dinner they luckily seat him with one of the bilingual French families and I see them having an animated discussion in French.
Eventually I return to chatting in the park car as we kept going through the snowy wilderness. The next moment of interested happened outside of Hornepayne where an announcement was made that we were waiting for VIA 1 (the Westbound Canadian) to finish its station work and it would be about 20 minutes. I walk up to the coach Skyline car and notice its two F40PH Locomotives have been detached, none of the attendants can tell me what’s going on. I get some photos of them and walk back to the Park car. There Jason, an employee in charged of train consists traveling on his vacation has called the command center (annoyed at the employees for not accepting his services more) and found out that the head locomotive was having trouble and finally died with its starter motor failing after they tried to restart it too many times. The train can run with just one locomotive but the headlights in the front one won’t work so they are using the empty yard in Hornepayne to run the rear one up to the front. Eventually the rear one makes it up to the front after a complicated move, they hitch it up to VIA 1 and the train is on its way west. We can then enter the station at 5:13 and have a much-needed fresh air stop in the snowy little town, watching a local snowboard down a nearby hill. Others and I walk up to the front of the platform to get the locomotive shot at what was probably about twenty minutes, before Mackenzie gives a very feeble all aboard. VIA’s service manager system with all operations coming from the front-end means the staff within the train never changes except at Winnipeg when everyone does. The service managers (or any crew members) are not even allowed to talk on the mainline radio frequency with a separate staff frequency. They even technically have to wait for okay from the engine (with its two engineers) to open the door at any station stops, when spotting the train.
We finish are stop in Hornpayne and I by directly asking find out that one of the employees on board is a VIA customer experience manager and in charge of filing and responding to all customer comments. She has had a terrible trip because of a noise in her cabin and is stunned the crew hasn’t moved her to any of the deadheading cars. Part of her job though is to experience the train as a normal passenger. I do though find out she can’t drink at all since she is still partially on duty. This also turns the Park car into a bit of a VIA focus group when she is there for the rest of trip. If only I could meet one from Amtrak, I would have many comments. The first call for dinner comes as we pass Oba. I am in the second of course which means I miss both the wine and beer tasting that are only for the first call (something that should be changed, the events should either be done for the entire train). Had I known beforehand I might of done the first calls (although I would not be hungry) one day to experience those events. A schoolteacher in Hornpayne going to Toronto for his Spring Break (Ontario is the week following Quebec) joins us and I learn how Canada has really four different school systems (with many small towns having four different schools), English Public, French Public (few schools are bilingual) plus English Catholic and French Catholic. We enjoy more of VIA’s excellent appetizers.
The dinner bell comes and I end up eating with the same two gentleman again and we have more excellent conversation. One even picks up the bar bill from the beer I ordered (Thank You again), as we enjoy the excellent sea food chowder, a spinach salad, and Pickerel for a main course with poached potatoes. There is another good desert with a piece of chocolate cake. Dinner ends and I return to the Park car and chat in the bullet lounge before going up to the empty dome to contemplate the full moon and a wonderful journey coming to an end. Eventually I return to my windowless bunk and do awake in Caperal, our final service stop briefly but decide not to get dressed and detrain.
Thursday morning feels rushed, I wake up as we stop in Washago. There I find out all but one shower has frozen in the night (and many sinks as well) and go to breakfast for a final transcontinental of bacon, eggs and two servings of toast to really fill me up. I leave breakfast and find the one remaining shower unoccupied so I take a final shower on the train (there nicer than any shower in a youth hostel) before packing my stuff up and returning to the Parc Car as we go down GO Transit Trackadge, (the Richmond Hill Line). I get the narration from a local and say my goodbyes as we arrive into Union Station 45 minutes early at 8:44. I return to my section and grab my luggage. I see a ticket window that says Amtrak (open mornings only) and decide to pick up my ticket from Niagara Falls, ON back to New York for Tuesday Morning before finding this Starbucks wanting to type and reflect. I need a day of walking today exploring Toronto, not railfanning, after a wonderful two relaxing days on the Canadian, a trip I highly recommend to do in the off-season, not in summer when it becomes 30 cars long, is more expensive, and full of foreign tourists (this is from talking to others on the train) not Canadians.