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On the Canadian

Saving the Best for Last


View North American Train Trip 2022 on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 24, 2022

It was raining when I woke up, so instead of what I hoped would be another day of walking, I stayed in my room. I made some coffee and ate my remaining fruit for my breakfast. The rain had stopped by mid-morning, so I packed my bag and checked out. I left my suitcase to be picked up on my way to the train station.

Back when Po and I lived in Calgary, we enjoyed a special beef jerky from Vancouver’s Chinatown. We had never actually purchased it ourselves, instead we would ask a friend to pick it up for us. The first time he followed our instructions by simply going to Chinatown and asking people where the shop was that had the good beef jerky. It should be noted that he is an immigrant from Scotland. It was not like he was asking everyone in Cantonese. It was English with a Scottish brogue. But it worked. Then we moved to Toronto. We never found beef jerky that was that good, or at least satisfied Po. Of course, since I was going to be in Vancouver, she asked if I was going to find the store.

But it had been over 20 years since our friend had gone there. Rather than relying on a physical hunt alone, I decided to see what I could find with a Google search. It came up with a few options, but most were way out in the Vancouver suburbs, far beyond walking distance. But I did find one promising looking possibility in Chinatown. I headed that way.

This was a different Vancouver than the tall buildings I had passed the day before.
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I came to the place that I thought had the jerky. It was closed on Mondays. Also, it looked like they did not sell jerky but specialized in Chinese BBQ. That was too bad, but there was a Chinese bakery and restaurant next door, and it was open. Back in my post about my full day in San Francisco I mentioned porridge and donuts. I could see the donuts in the display case. I was offered a seat and a menu. I took the seat but declined the menu. I just asked for porridge. What kind of porridge did I want? I wanted seafood. Oh, and maybe an order of dumplings.

It was great.
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I asked the waitress about the beef jerky. She did not know what I was talking about. I ordered a custard tart at the counter on my way out the door. They are another thing that I miss and wish I could buy in Newfoundland.
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It was time to go to the hotel to get my suitcase and head to the train station.
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With the construction the station was not very photogenic.
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Pacific Central Station was built in 1917 to serve the Canadian Northern Railway. It is now the terminus for Via Rail and as I wrote about in my last post, for Amtrak's trains from the US.

I entered the station and saw a check in line for sleeper passengers. I also saw a café on the other side of the lobby. I chose the latter. I brought my latte back and sat down. The train was not leaving for some time, so I had time to finish my coffee before dutifully lining up. I chatted with a young German tourist behind me who was taking the train so he could see the Rocky Mountains.

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We were both checking in and choosing time for our first dinner. I chose the late meal at 8:00. It was my first meeting with Amanda, the train’s service coordinator. I really liked her then and would come to really love her over the next two days. After my issues with her counterpart on the Zephyr, I was already thinking that this train was going to be different. This train was going to be better.

I was directed into the lounge. The inside part was not big, and all seats were taken.

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But the outside patio had lots of seats and heaters. I guess for most of the year the Vancouver weather would make the outside lounge somewhat comfortable, certainly not luxurious.

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Soon I would be on Via Rail’s flagship train, the “Canadian”. I was excited to be boarding another train but was more excited that I was going to be finishing my crossing of Canada by rail. I was not competing for a prize, so was not concerned that I had done the first legs of the trip heading west from Halifax to Montreal and then Toronto and would now be going east.

In terms of history, I would not be covering the original path of Canada’s first transcontinental train, which took a southern route across the prairies and the Rocky Mountains. The original route was to be the route of this train, but Canadian Pacific Railway had instead built their tracks to the south, through what is now Calgary and Kicking Horse Pass in the Rocky Mountains. The first transcontinental passenger train departed from Montreal and arrived in Port Moody, BC on July 4, 1886. The terminus was soon moved just a little further to what is now Vancouver.

Eventually CPR had competition from Canadian National (CN) and the Canadian Northern Railway, which eventually merged with CN. Fast forward several decades to post World War II and there were two cross continental trains, CPR running on the southern route and CN on the northern one. The original “Canadian” was actually CPR’s southern route which began operations in 1955. CN called their train the “Super Continental”.

Via Rail is a federal crown corporation formed to run passenger trains in Canada. It took over the route in 1978. Initially the Canadian continued to run on the southern route while the Super Continental ran on the northern route until 1981. It was brought back in 1985 but ran only as far east as Winnipeg. This lasted until 1990 when the Canadian was switched to the northern route, and Via discontinued the service on the old CPR line. There is now a private company operating trips on that route that only run during the daytime. Passengers disembark and spend their nights in nice hotels. They also run two other routes that pass through Jasper. Maybe something for a bucket list?

We boarded right on time. I was in Car 210. I would later learn how important it was to remember that.
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I met our car attendant, Tyler. I liked him right away. He was more like Guillaume from my Halifax train than my two Amtrak attendants. A word that came to my mind to describe Tyler and my other new Via Rail friend, Amanda, was bubbly. They were upbeat, energetic, helpful. I would never have used these words to describe any of the employees that I met on Amtrak.

This is Tyler. You have to wait until my next post to see Amanda.

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Tyler showed me how to bring down my bed so I could do it myself rather than relying on him. I could choose my bedtime like a big boy! It was simple, just turn the handle and it slowly falls from the wall. Then make sure it clicks into place. I would really take advantage of this skill since the lowered bed covers up the in-room toilet.

There was a welcome, bon voyage party in the lounge. Since we had been asked to wait for our attendants to cover basic instructions before going there, and I had been one of the last to get my instructions, it had been underway for several minutes by the time that I got there. I sat down across from a French speaking couple. They did not seem interested in talking. I thought maybe someone would be serving drinks, but nothing was happening. I went to look for the free champagne, only saw a pitcher of water and coffee and a big line at the bar.
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I gave up on champagne and went exploring. I passed my room, grabbed my camera, and started walking to the back.

The walk took me from car to car, all identical. Each had three parts. First would be the berths, with seats on both sides of a middle aisle that could convert to beds at night. The corridor then made a turn and went along the windows, with bedrooms on one side. Then you make a slight turn to go through another middle aisle with “sleeper for one” rooms (my kind) on each side, their doors covered with curtains. You exit through a door at the end of each car, pass through the vestibule, and then go through another door to the next car.

All this time the train is moving quite fast, down the tracks but also rolling side to side. You tend to bounce off the walls. You definitely need to use the walls to stay on course. There is no room to pass on the long window corridor, so you have to wait if anyone is coming the other direction. It seemed to go on forever. Later I would count six sleeper cars.

I finally entered another lounge with stairs to a dome. I walked up the steps. I was amazed. This is what I had been looking for on the Amtrak trains. This was way better than their lounge cars.

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Here is a short video that shows my room, a trip through a sleeping car (in this case going towards the front) and the dome car.

It is ironic that the first dome cars were first introduced in the United States in 1945 and was used on the California Zephyr. CPR then used it on its “The Canadian” train starting in the 1950’s, which ran on the southern route through Kicking Horse Pass. Via Rail has continued with its dome cars whereas Amtrak has their lounge cars. There is no comparison. The dome cars offer a far superior experience.

There was only one person in the car. He mentioned that he worked for Via Rail and was returning from a brief vacation in Vancouver.

I stayed there for a short time but decided to do some more exploring.

I have described my walk through the sleeper plus area. The only place I had not seen was our dining car which was just ahead of the lounge. I had gone through the middle of the train. I did not know the exact numbers at first, but eventually figured out that our two engines were pulling 18 cars. The first was the baggage car. Then came two coach cars and a dome car. After that was the sleeper plus cars (my section) made up of a dining car, a dome car, six sleeper cars and a second dome car. At the back of the train came some fancy cars, the Prestige class, with two sleeper cars, a dining car, and a lounge car.

If you are counting, there is one more car at the very back. I did not know what this one was for, but I have since seen an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about Via running buffer cars as a safety measure on trains that use the old stainless-steel coaches that were built almost 70 years ago. The article quoted an email from Via, “The corporation has added buffer cars at the front and back end of all trains with stainless steel equipment to reduce the consequences in the unlikely event of a train-to-train collision.” The steel cars are being reinforced to make them better at withstanding collisions. Another thing I have learned since my trip is that there was a collision on a section of track between Jasper and Edmonton that we would use on the second day. In 1986 a freight train failed to heed the signals at the end of a twinned rail section and crashed head on with Via’s Super Continental (the train that operated between Vancouver and Winnipeg when the Canadian was still on the southern route). There were 23 fatalities, including the engineers on both trains. Since we were riding in shiny steel carriages, I was glad that I read all this after the trip. Also, does this mean that we in the middle section were safer?

There were three distinct classes of service on the train. The coach passengers were not permitted to come into our area. We “middle class” folks had our own dining room and two dome cars. During the busy summer season, we would not be permitted to go to the dome car at the back of the train. But Tyler had said that because it was now off season, we could go back there.

I had not considered travelling in that part of the train. The service might be amazing. The wood paneling was nice. They had real beds. But the prices are multiples (4 times?) what I had paid. But I decided to check it out.

I first entered the sleeping car section. It had wood paneling. I did not see into any of the fancy rooms.

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I then came to their dining room.

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And finally I found the dome car. I passed through the bar area and made my way to the fancy lounge.
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Although the people seemed friendly, I felt a bit self conscious. These people were paying way more than me. I was greeted and my Penn State sweatshirt was commented on. That seemed to be a pattern on this trip. I was wondering if I was the only person left wearing their college sweatshirt. The man noted that another passenger was a Ohio State person (Fan? Employee? Grad?) who did not say anything. Maybe he isn’t a football fan? Not likely. We had a big game that weekend. I said hello and went up the steps to their lounge. It was quite busy.

I decided that I liked our own place better and went back to my dome car. The same man was still the only person there. I asked him about his job, and he told me that he was an engineer. He lives in Jasper and usually does the train that goes north to Prince Rupert, but sometimes fills in on the Canadian. He had been taking a few days vacation in Vancouver, was returning home, and would be working the next day. He mentioned that the car had not yet been upgraded like most dome cars on the line. We had fabric. They now had leather seats on most of the domes. I thought it was still pretty nice.

I had used the word bubbly to describe Tyler and Amanda. I was feeling bubbly, just having a great time. So, something had to go wrong. It was my camera. My camera has both an electronic viewfinder and a touch screen monitor. Those of us used to high end (or somewhat high end in my case) SLR cameras are used to using the view finder for taking photographs and the monitor for reviewing them. With my new camera I was now using the monitor for both. My monitor was set to activate unless I was looking through the viewfinder. But today it was not working. It would work some of the time, and I could always take photos and videos using the viewfinder, but it was hard enough to take them on a moving train, without having this major complication. I tried to remember if it was still within the warranty period (didn't think so) and if I would have time to visit the camera shop in Toronto.

I still took many photos.

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I stayed in the dome until the daylight began to fade and then returned to my room. Tyler came by with the third call for dinner.

I was asked to sit next to my new engineer friend. Across from him was another railroad man, a retired CN employee. The engineer had also retired from CN and then went to work for Via. Apparently, the western area of Via has many retired CN engineers. He really enjoys the work.

I asked him about driving a train. I hoped that my question did not sound too flippant. He explained about all the signals that the engineers needed to remember. They need to know not only what they mean but where they are located. A signal would give warning of the next signal, such as “Prepare to stop”. He said that on the Prince Rupert line there are dozens of different speed limits. Following the speed limits is necessary for safety and also the comfort of passengers.

A fourth person joined us. It was the young German man I had met at the station. He was travelling around Canada and named some places. One was St. John’s, Newfoundland. But he did not make it to Pouch Cove.

We were given a choice of soup or salad, than a choice of main course. We all ordered the rack of lamb. My soup was good. The lamb was excellent, absolutely better than anything I had eaten so far on my trains. This was far beyond my airplane rating system, more like fine restaurant quality. This was my great train dining experience. I had a glass of wine which I had to pay for. That was a small plus for Amtrak since on their trains we were given one free drink with each meal. For dessert I had the strawberry shortcake which had a cream and strawberry filling. It was also very good.

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I could not stop telling everyone how much better this train was than Amtrak. It might have been a bit tiresome for my fellow passengers to keep hearing that, but just think if I had done the trip the other way. If I had seen this level of food, service, facilities first, could I have kept my mouth shut when I saw what Amtrak was like? Not likely.

Amanda came by to ask for our reservations for the next days lunch and supper. I chose the late sittings, 2 pm for lunch and 7 pm for dinner. I asked about breakfast time, wanting to make sure about any time changes and was told that we would still be in British Columbia. Lunch would be in a new time zone.

I left the dining room to go back to my room. It should have been a quick trip since I was in the first car. I just had to pass by the berths and bedrooms. It had not occurred to me that I was so close, especially after walking up and down the train before dinner. I walked right past my room. As I wrote earlier, the cars all looked the same. I was looking for car number 10. But the cars actually had two numbers, this particular train's number and a number that I assumed stayed with the car. After missing the first car I kept on going. I went all the way back to the dome car. Then I knew I had missed it. I was annoyed, but only a little bit. I was not worried. I was still on the train so could only be a little bit lost.

After I finished my exercise I decided to take a shower. This is an area where Amtrak is a bit better, at least for those of us in the cabins for one. We either had to go down the long corridor past the bedrooms or through the vestibule into the next car. I chose the long corridor. Just like on my other trains, there was a small changing area and a separate shower stall. The water was hot. I was fast and then managed to get dressed again (the hard part on a moving train).

I was happy to have a cell data connection to investigate my camera problem. I determined that my monitor was fine, instead it was likely the sensor that determined if I was using the viewfinder. The sensor was known to be a fussy and could easily be blocked by dirt or condensation. I could also push a button to activate the monitor. It was a relief and left me feeling properly bubbly again. My first hours on the Canadian had been fantastic.

I was also happy that I could choose the time to put down my bed, which I finally did, since I wanted to get up before daylight. Tomorrow would be a big day since we would wake up in the Rocky Mountains.

Posted by Bob Brink 13:04 Archived in Canada Tagged trains canada vancouver via_rail

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Comments

I would love to do a train journey across Canada. I am sure the scenery would be lovely. This train sounds like it would be pretty comfortable and enjoyable to travel on.

by irenevt

Traveling Canada was amazing; the Via Rail trip through the Rocky Mountains was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I'm truly glad you're still traveling and writing about it; not a mere record of travel and facts, but enriched with your personal viewpoint. Greetings from Germany.

by Stefan

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