October 2, 2011 by Jools Stone
A whirlwind day of sightseeing, socialising and Mexican food in Toronto comes to an end. I say my farewells to wonderful hosts nearafar, boomergirl50 and adventureista as we step off the streetcar and suddenly I’m alone again, outside the Fairmont Royal York blinded by the rocket lolly proportions of the illuminated CN Tower, cases in hand, feeling a litle homesick, ala Homeward Bound, looking across at Union Station.
This is how my 2 week Trans Canadian rail trip begins. There’s no time to get maudlin, I’ve a train to catch and a 2 day wait if I miss it! Entering the palatial Union Station feels like a religious experience. It’s a veritable cathedral to rail travel. Like many cathedrals its high ceilings and polished floors echo with emptiness. Apparently it’s Canada’s busiest transport building, busier even than Toronto Airport (abstractly coded YXX for some reason) ferrying some 200,000 people a day. But at 9.30pm on a Thursday you wouldn’t guess it.
The ticket hall has the comforting smell of cinnamon doughnuts. I head down the ramp and get in the queue to check in and have my meal sitting assigned. The it’s up the escalator we go – ‘take care to hold the handrail’ coos the sweetly overprotective station assistant – where the seemingly endless silver sardine can cars of the Canadian sit gleaming in anticipation on the platform for us to board. ‘Aaaaaaaall Aa-booooooard’ hollers the conductor, and so we do.
Once on board I find I’ve been royally spoilt with a triple family cabin. Just as well since this will be my home for the next 3 nights. The ubiquitous Via Rail interior livery of grey is brightened up a little with touches of pink and blue. The cabin is more than ample for one, with two beds arranged in a L shape which convert to double seats during the day.
There’s a wardrobe with shelf, side cabinet, your own toilet cubicle, a wash basin, dozens of light switches and alarm buttons to summon your porter and a clever leather pocket positioned over the bed to hold your book, ipod and whatever else you need within easy grabbing distance. The cabin doors lock only from the inside, but there’s an attendant in each car at all times and I never feel the need to use my industrial strength bike lock to secure my case. It’s just not that sort of train.
After a few minutes our car porter pops her head round and tells me there’s champagne in the bar car and that it’s going fast. No further encouragement is needed and I join the throng of excitedly chattering voices grabbing glasses and petit fours, bouncing around the narrow corridors as the train lurches into life on the tracks.
A hippyish lady in her early 60s reminisces about being packed off on the same train at the age of 13, claiming it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. A lanky English retired rail tour guide lets us know what we have to look forward to. He warns us of ‘prairitis’ and the nowheresville towns chosen as designated stops. ‘Sioux Lookout is just that, doesn’t even have a platform!’ he chirps. He’s accompanied tour groups on this journey seven times, but is traveling alone this time so he must enjoy the experience despite the dismissive quips.
As the train rolls backwards on the tracks for a good ten minutes a jovial engineer emerges and explains that the train has to back up in order to turn around. CN owns the tracks which means that their freight trains need to take priority and overtake Via’s passenger ones. Uusally when the train stops dead in the middle of total wilderness, this is the reason why.
You might think this causes frustration and a little enmity between the two train crews, but we see a glimpse of their mutual understanding when the engineer opens up the rear door of the caboose and marches out on to the tracks to meet the driver of the freight train behind. Is there some technical issue the two men need to meet in person to resolve? No, our engineer is simply delivering a flask of coffee to the other driver! This is not a regular occurrence, he assures us.
This moment of excitement passes and the bar car gradually empties, as does the champagne bottle. It’s time to settle into my cabin for the night and let the rocking on the rails work its hypnotic magic. In the morning I’ll awake to a strange new place with an exotic name and an alien landscape. Stay with me for that.
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