I went East through the US on a train, and returned West, through Canada, on a train. Book tickets at www.viarail.ca/en. They do discounts every Tuesday – I travelled in economy (so no sleeper, no meals included, no access to events or the Park car – see Seat61 for more details). It’s also worth a look at Viarail’s special offers page, though bear
in mind that though these fares are cheaper than even the discounted ones available via the standard link (e.g. CA$760 vs $960 for a sleeper when I looked – and right now, for November, there are some great prices, around $550), they don’t include taxes (which pushed that 760 up to 860, and just like that, I lost interest).
We left at 10pm on a Saturday, due to arrive just after 8 on Tuesday. Delays are routine. My first worry was that my train from Ottawa would not get there in time. That left at 2.30pm, due to be in Toronto around 7. It was delayed an hour and a half – all in one go, waiting for a freight train – but that just filled most of the waiting time. The longer train was fine till past Winnipeg, giving time for a long break there, but was then hugely delayed in the run to Edmonton, eventually getting in to the town after 2pm.
Boarding trains in North America carries a sense of excitement. Staff – and there are lots of them on the train, as if to taunt Brits, who are told that their overcrowded trains cannot possibly afford more than one member of staff each – are pleased to see customers, and each of us is guided to the right carriage.
I love a long journey. The US and Canada were meant to be places where, with a more familiar culture, I could settle in to catching up on TV series I haven’t seen and so on, but it hasn’t quite worked out like that. A long train journey, though – so long as you have enough food, and no aches and pains, there is nothing to stop you passing the time, moving from book to podcast, looking out of the window to several episodes of Stranger Things 2 (for instance), then realising the day has slipped by. Because it is a train, you can get up and stroll around; for me, at least, that erases any sense that I am trapped in one place.
The first evening went by quickly, and we all experimented with different sleeping positions. It may be different at peak times, but our attendant, JP, was happy to tell us “you all have a 2-seater each”, and referred to it as “our area”. A little room to spread out, and it is possible to sleep reasonably well, curled into that space. I preferred to wait for the small hours and slip to the floor, stretching my legs out into the aisle for a few hours, and don’t think I got in too many people’s way. Certainly no-one tripped over me and woke me up.
Kit. I have two coats, so didn’t take a blanket. Whether you need one will depend on the train or, perhaps, the staff. My carriage was lovely and warm for two nights, then the staff changed, and it was cooler the next night. Correlation is not causation, but I wonder if the new bloke preferred it colder. I took a pillow – just a neck pillow – and that really is needed, whether you’re on the floor or wedged up against the arm rests. Food is available on the train, but I had enough for at least a day. I figured, having toyed with paying for the more expensive sleeper, I could run to the cost of a day’s food onboard.
On Monday morning, to my growing excitement, we stopped in Winnipeg. It was 7am, so I had only just woken up, and it took me a while to work out the options. The attendant came through to let us know that the platform was open till 8.30, after that, we’d have to wait till re-boarding was open at 9.15. That didn’t quite sink in, and I sat there for a while. Browsing the map using the wifi that was available via the station, I found a Safeway a good 2km walk away, and figured that was a good way for a quick exploratory walk. There are organised walks available if you want to sign up for one.
I walked and shopped, and then the import of the attendant’s announcement came home to me. I could hop back on the train before 8:30, but not after until they re-opened the platform. So if I hustled, I could get back, change and go for a run through Winnipeg. A total bonus. I didn’t mind missing Sunday, and had run the extra miles to parkrun on the Saturday anyway. But why have a second day off?
I had left the station through the front entrance and was about to do the same, only in my kit. But look! Right next to platform 4, the back entrance. And it leads right to the Human Rights museum, statue of Gandhi ready for a selfie, and then on to the river path. Glorious. I was overexcited by how cool this stop was. With re-boarding at 9:30 (not 9:15), and the train not leaving till 10, I had plenty of time. More, in fact, than I allowed. I stopped for a picture of the museum and its rainbow pavement, to be told by a passing local that “it is even more spectacular inside”. It might be, I said, but I’m on the train. “Oh,” he said, “they are just about to board now, so you’re fine.” I knew that, but it felt lovely and communal that he had just strolled through the station and knew my business. We shook hands and went on our way. Despite not getting in to the station till 9:35, I wasn’t back on the train for another 10 minutes or so. Sleeper passengers board first, so don’t rush (but don’t give in to the thought that “I could run all day!” and miss it completely).
That was it for long breaks, but I was suitably enervated. I love the long journey, and barely used the observation car, and only walked past the snack bar, content in my coach, but still, it is great to hop off the train and have a walk.
Past Winnipeg, we were into miles and miles of prairie. The banal Canadian a couple of rows back decided, in conversation with a non-committal member of staff, to delay heading into a dinner booking until we hit BC, for better views. He might have been right. But he was dull. My personal hell arrived, only for half an hour or so, when he engaged the two Australian girls in the row behind me in conversation. Banality and cliche met, like, comments on, like… oh my god. I reminded myself that it really isn’t just the English who seems functionally illiterate in conversation. But I look forward to meeting more Europeans with fabulous and well-constructed English. Perhaps it being a second (or third, or…) language forces people to think before they speak. If so, the latter is a lesson for English people all over. I have a heavy podcast habit, and hearing a professional broadcaster talk to a non-professional is stark – Jon Agnew interviewed someone from the ECB over the summer. The latter made very little sense, but what I could understand could have been expressed in (sort of, like, you know) half the words.
Anyway, such hell was short lived, and the train rolled on through prairie. I read, watched films and comedies, and changed position as I saw fit. The major stops are listed, but there are some smaller ones, like Rivers. There are two rivers there. The run down, probably disused, station building has been coloured up a little by the addition of puzzle pieces. They are pretty, but serve mainly to point out the incomplete structure of the building.
The train started to stop for long periods of time, sometimes an hour or so, as we waited for freight trains to pass. The staff kept us loosely updated, particularly when something odd was happening. At one point, a freight train was pulling up very close to our back end, for instance, so as to allow the train on the next track to pull past, with that one then replaced by another, allowing us on our way. The sleeper passengers have use of a special Park car at the rear of the train, which is glassed all round, so that announcement was mostly to prevent them worrying too much about the train creeping closer.
We pulled into Edmonton – backwards, to allow the train to pull back out and head West, and after slow progress through a huge train yard – some time after 2pm. I walked off down the road, as instructed by the hostel instructions. Walk South for four blocks, onto Kingsway, and catch the no. 12 bus to Kingsway Mall. Ask for a transfer ticket, and your $3.25 will get you all the way downtown. In fact, it wasn’t even $3.25. I had £3.05, and the driver said it didn’t matter, just put it in the slot and let’s get on with it. Okay, he didn’t actually say the last bit, but I’d have let him. His kindness, or Edmonton Transit’s possible view that “actually we’re not counting, so drop in some coins and let’s go” was much appreciated.
Viarail, train 1, across Canada. Highly recommended. Now, excuse me, but I’m going to sleep in a bed, and stretch my legs out. After a shower – washing in the bathroom keeps the wolf from the door, but there is a joy to the first shower.