Strangers on a Via Rail Canadian Train
6.15am, I’m woken by a freight train which seems so impossibly long that I half wonder if I dreamt it. This and jetlag has me awake far earlier than the ‘gentlemanly hours’ I’m used to, but not quite early enough to make the first designated smoking stop at Capreol…
The staff are getting breakfast ready. They ask me if I’m up for that, I decline and sulk off back to my cabin. I lie on my bed and catch the sunrise and watch the mist rising from the lakes outside. There endeth the sulking.
Breakfast is the only meal which does not have an assigned sitting. It’s 6.30-9amish, first come, first served. It’s not the best meal of the day admittedly, but it introduces you to an important ritual on the train, especially if you’re traveling solo as I am – your first proper conversations with strangers. It’s worth making an effort to sit with new people for each meal.
At breakfast I meet Mike. An engineer from Toronto moving to Vancouver for a new job, possibly his first ‘real job’ since he looks of that age and is taking all his possessions with him on the train: a single duffle bag and an acoustic guitar! ‘ I guess I’m young enough to not have accumulated too much crap yet!’ he laughs, the carefree bastard!
He also tells me that the landscape outside the window, of pine trees sprouting from grey rocks, is typical of this part of Ontario. The rock is Canadian Shield. Unfarmable and unyielding to much else besides these trees, it’s going to be a fairly steady companion of ours for the rest of the morning.
At midday we stop at Hornepayne. This gives us a chance to stretch our legs, take some air/nicoteine… and smirk at the one horse town we have been mysteriously dropped in. It was once a thriving railroad town and later benefitted from lumber trade, but those days have long since passed. Now it’s just a place where travellers get off the train to snigger at its obscurity. Rather sad really. The biggest landmarks seem to be a Home Depot and the Sunshine Seniors’ Club, off the amibitously named Main and Front Streets.
A car porter and I stare at the fallen letters on the side of the building opposite and wonder if it used to be a pancake house and what its function might be now. We draw a blank and get back on board.
Lunch is a much better meal than breakfast with a decent range of options to choose from. I plump for the Turkey and Provolone Foccacia with no regrets. Both lunch and dinner are served as three course meals, with both soup and salad – somewhat bizarrely – for a starter and coffee to finish. Soft drinks are included but alcholic ones are not and are paid for in cash at the table. A reasonably smooth glass of hockey legend Wayne Gretsky’s Cabernet Merlot costs a reasonable $7, as does a spirt mixer, while a beer costs $6.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Canadians making this journey. They tend to make up the younger part of the train’s demographic. At lunch I sit with Michael, a talented wedding/landscape photographer in his mid 20s and two college age sisters who are making their way to Jasper for a family wedding.
Train travel in Canada, like most parts of the Western world, is not cheap and thus not that widely used for domestic travel, but these guys had all managed to snag 75% off tickets, making it only margianlly more expensive than flying. Via helpfully display these tickets, usually released a week or so before travel, on this discount deals page of their site. Many European rail companies should take note!
After lunch I check out the viewing car. It’s like sitting on the top deck of a London double decker bus, except the views are infiintely better. The landscape opens up. The sunlight strobes through the endless conifers and through the bubbly glass roof, as we pass along meandering rivers that look cut from the turf and lilly pad strewn ponds. There are very few signs of civilisation. An hour or so past Hornepayne the train slows, allowing us to take pictures of the sister train heading in the opposite direction across the track. The Bar Car Steward tells us that her sister is on the crew of this very sister train!
For rainy days and evenings when darkness descends, there’s always the activity car. As with the bar car and dining car, there are two in each train and each one has its own Activity Manager. They ciome equipped with plenty of cards, boardgames, newspapers, books and magazines. Plus this is where you can stock up on the unlimited tea, coffee, biscuits and fresh fruit provided. A rolling programme of activities is organised, from film screenings to local wine and beer tasting and – to cater for the older tour groups who make up the majority of the guests – even bingo!
Dinner in the diner, nothing can be finer
My companions for dinner are a retired couple living in Portland, Oregon. She is British and has one of those incredibly clipped, ‘military bearing’ voices not dulled by decades of New York living. He is a New Yorker, an ex-academic with a creepy laugh, nervous like a bird, he flinches massively when a waiter drops a tray. They are both straight out of a Woody Allen film. They’re traveling a lot, making the most of their retirement. Their biggest worry seems to be the possibility of ‘losing their very good Philharmonic to a bigger city.’
After dinner I’m amazed to see we’re still in Ontario. This journey really brings home just how big a country Canada is. I’m a lso a little surprised to discover the bar shuts at 11pm. I would expect a bar on a night train to be open til at least midnight. I make a gallant effort in the name of addiction to stay awake for the Sioux Lookout stop gone midnight, but I never get to look out, as we move into a new timezone I can’t manage the extra hour and retire to my cabin.
Next stop: Winnipeg (Ok, simmer down now folks!)