Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Continental Crossing

Tuesday night at 8:30 P.M. found me striding down the platform at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station en route to my cabin for one on VIA Rail's Train 2, The Canadian, bound for Toronto after about 4 1/2 days crossing Canada.  The walk brought back old rail memories from accompanying travelers when I was all of 9 or 10 to equally lengthy trains at the old New York Central changing stop at Harmon.

This train was out of those days in length--24 cars. Of course, way back then all of the long-distance trains had consists of that size. I remember in particular seeing someone off at Harmon on the Ohio State Limited and we finally found their sleeper after passing about 25 cars.

The Canadian is big enough to have two diners and two activity cars--situated at the front and back. We managed to switch my sleeper so that I wouldn't be heading in one direction to the diner and my friends a car or two back would be going the other way. Each activity car had a dome, as did the last car on the train, the Park Car, and between Vancouver and Edmonton, probably the most scenic section of the run, there was a panorama car, somewhat like the lounge cars on Amtrak.

From Vancouver, we passed along the rushing torrents of the Fraser River for a good distance until it got dark. Waking up,  we passed along wide and narrow parts of the river and then began to climb into the Canadian Rockies, passing snow-capped peaks and Pyramid Falls, until reaching Jasper late in the afternoon. A large tourist group detrained there and a huge crowd surged on board to replace them, fresh from negotiating the icefields highway and other high spots of Jasper National Park.

From here, as it got dark, we moved toward the great plains of Canada, passing Edmonton late that night and then coming into Saskatoon the next day, finally reaching the midpoint and major stop in central Canada, Winnipeg, the next evening. There were ample provisions on the train, continental breakfast in the Park Car, so named because these cars once had murals from one of the Canadian national parks, which also came with a bullet lounge giving us a great view out the back of the train, as well as another dome.

The Canadian train comes out ahead of Amtrak in accommodations, tight but well-designed, and the diner, which can now and then achieve a level reminiscent of the old days, such as the B&O's Royal Blue. Dinners were the high point--yes, complete with great rack of lamb one night--but when the crew changed at Winnipeg, we must have acquired a chef who hailed from Quebec because his omelettes for breakfast were light and fantastic.

Amtrak, however, seems to have been more successful in negotiating with the freight carriers who own the tracks to give the long-distance passenger trains priority. In Canada, by contrast, we pulled over to let every freight train pass and there were quite a few, carrying grain, we were told, by government order. This put the train behind schedule, and even halving the two-hour stop in Winnipeg, still brought us in a few hours late.

But the scenery continued to hold fascination. Beyond the plains, we crossed the geologically-famous Canadian Shield, with much granite outcropping as we moved past so many deep blue lakes even if not on the old Canadian Pacific route closer to Lake Superior. Then we came down along Georgian Bay and saw all the cottages to which Torontonians repair when it gets warm.

Finally, we were in Union Station, Toronto, and I was able to join up with my friend from Toronto, check my bags to head right across the way to see the Blue Jays take on the Royals in a day game. They were already up by five by our arrival in the bottom of the first.

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