Holidays and Other Excursions

Category: Canada (Page 2 of 2)

The Canadian – Winnipeg

Monday 11 May 2015

We lose time on our travels, an hour on departure, (originally I suspected an hour being turned but subsequent research shows that this is a normal operational move) and then we reach a loop which we are told is 30 miles short of Hornepayne where motion ceases.  We have lost more time (about an hour) to a points failure where we had to draw through a loop and out the far end, then set back into the loop from the wrong end to allow a passing freight to pass and we have to give way as the train is, I suspect, one of those longer than the loop!  The sequence of events and stopping pattern clearly indicate a problem which someone had difficulty solving easily.

Finally the engineers have reached their 12 hour driving time limit and may not drive further – but the replacement engineers are at Hornepayne.  Now someone, somewhere knows the rules and knows that this problem has been coming probably for around three hours.  We have been passing freights coming east as we progress west.  Quite easily our replacement engineers could have hopped aboard and been transported to meet us to enable a changeover to be facilitated and keep us moving.  Sadly not.  Nor presumably do the contracts have a clause whch permits the application of common sense which allows the 12 hour rule to be over-ridden so that the engineers can – if they consider themselves fit and able to continue.  And if they did not then I entirely accept it – but so far the passengers (who are not dumb pieces of freight) are only told there will be a short delay; this is eventually quantified at around three hours.  In any terms a disaster which poor management makes worse.

This line is busy and each line occupation takes up operational space.  So they use a special vehicle to bring the engineers to us – preventing movement of a freight train and the same vehicle then uses further paths to take the end of shift staff to their lodging.  They have worked hard and deserve their rest period – but putting the problem right needs managing and that is not thinking at the moment.

Consequently we reach the plains and Winnipeg near to six hours late.  Well I am on holiday – does it matter?  Oddly it does because this is where I feel that decent management would have mattered.  We knew we were six hours late before we went to bed and instead of arriving at around 8am we were likely to arrive at 2pm.  A number of people were allocated to the third sitting for lunch for 2pm.  As there is a crew change at Winnipeg it is a lengthy stop and allows travellers a chance of fresh air and legs to be stretched.

There are some photos of the refurbished station at Winnipeg can be found here.

Shortly before arrival our cabin staff member advises we should not get off at Winnipeg as third sitting would be called on time.  Then he pops back to say that we could get off on arrival (actually 13:15) but must return to the train when called at 14:30 to enable immediate service (clearly the new crew had to board but it would be reasonable to assume that much of the food had been cooked and was being kept warm for final sitting).

Not a problem, chance to wander down, see the restored station area and use the wifi. At the bottom of the slope there is a check in desk and a notice confirming the times. Good I thought someone does know how long it takes to load and go – the stop here is normally around three hours and is I suspect often used for running recovery.

After some fitful wifi use (I am not sure Colin ever did get that email) I return to the barrier to reboard the train at 14:30, along with everyone else.  No announcements, although some were told it would be another 15 minutes.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Come 15:15 I had had enough.  Locking us out of the train was not explained.  So I ask.  We don’t know answer say the “Customer” staff.  Sadly in this day and age that does not wash.  We were 45 minutes beyond the time when we should have been on the train and 35 minutes beyond the stated departure time.  Clearly no management was managing.  I asked for a manager this caused a concern and walky-talkies were deployed, in my view the manager should be on the front line managing.  I decided that this was a time for action and walked through the unlocked door and back up the ramp. It was subsequently alleged that I had left the three girls in tears.  I was neither rude nor did I physically touch them.  Good people providing service know the answers.  Nothing I did would cause tears to be shed – a shaking of heads perhaps; but not tears.

If the oft quoted health and safety was the reason for keeping us off the platform I could have pointed out that was a lie.  There was one piece of equipment which could be easily avoided and frankly there had been far more potentially serious bits of kit around when we disembarked – without warnings or guides.  Reasoning that despite the obvious lack of problems the platform had been declared dangerous I re-entered the train itself and returned to my cabin to appraise my wife of events.  I went through the dining car and the serving staff were sat not working, dining places were laid and I could not comprehend why steps were not being taken by management to get at least the diners back on the train and the final sitting served.

This could easily have been achieved once the crew swap was complete and the new stores had been put away.  The diners could have been gathered at the bottom of the ramp and one of the girls could then have called down the dining crew; each of the latter could have escorted a table of four to the top of the ramp and onto the train (the internal corridor HAS to be kept clear as there were still passengers on the train).  Once on the train they can walk through and the next table could be escorted.  The seating could and should have started at the published time of 14:30 and explanations could have been made.

Once on board I voiced my wish to see a manager and she eventually appeared towards the end of the meal.  She lacked any iota of customer care or concern and apology was only extracted almost under duress.  I expressed the view that it was not right and she agreed.  I proposed that those eating, who were the ones who had suffered principally should be offered a free drink.  She made it clear that she would offer us a free drink but could not extend the offer.  In the event no free drink was provided so even that offer was not kept.

The lack of communication throughout the period, given that this had all been foreseeable many hours in advance, merely re-inforces this passengers view derived from the problem over driver hours that there are a set of rules and no-one is empowered to think or behave outside the rules.  The lack of follow through on the proposal of a free drink (and the failure on the promise to talk to the others who were in a similar situation) is plain rude and this is a pity as all of our earlier encounters show no evidence that Canadians generally have any knowledge of how to be rude.

The problem we were advised which delayed the return to the train was the failure of some toilets.  These had been out of service from Toronto (and presumably earlier).  Attempting to fix them may mean people and kit on the platform – but there are ways of managing these things and providing ongoing explanations should be an element of that.  Whilst VIA Rail cannot fix the track or the pathing the matters on which they have failed are capable of being fixed.

[Amendment] Whilst in Whingipeg mode another couple of comments about VIA Rail.  A nice little Toronto – Vancouver route guide has been printed and provided; no doubt at some expense but did anyone copy approve it?  Inside it purports to give mileages between stops (none of this metric nonsense I am pleased to note).  Until you get to Gogama which is mile 86, whilst the previous stop was Capreol at mile 276.  Even more annoying Winnipeg (yet again) is Mile:0, yes zero, even though the prior distance was 1the Manitoba border at mile 159.  Complete nonsense as someone has just taken the miles from the VIA guide and not applied any thought.  Similarly in terms of attention to detail was the provision of some customers with timetables so they might have some idea of where they are (and consistently were not) and not to others.

No doubt the defence from VIA is simple – you are one time travellers and will never come back for repeat business so it does not matter how we behave.  And no doubt few people will read this blog.  My wife has published her thoughts on Trip Advisor and I can only hope that will get some response from VIA because writing letters (according to TripAdvisor) does not work.

Until such time as there is evidence that they understand caring and cossetting of passengers (not mere customers) I cannot recommend this trip through beautiful countryside and providing a wonderful vista of Canada; sorry.

The Canadian

Sunday 10 May & Monday 11 May 2015

The cars used in the Canadian are 60 years old but have been well looked after and generally are in a good condition for their age. A full refurbishment and reworking is now being undertaken to bring them into line with the sensibilities of the 21st century but they were well thought out.  Our cabin has bunk beds with more space than you might find on the similar period BR Mark 1 sleepers.  There is a toilet for each cabin and basin with a shower shared for 6 similar cabins and four (I think) single occupancy cabins were the bed fits on top of the toilet. Functional but not pretty.  One bunk goes up into the ceiling and another into the wall with two reclinable chairs being kept under the bottom bunk during the night.  Reassuringly the power works, the toilet is a modern airline type “whoosh” and there is a modest amount of hanging space.  Disconcertingly the cabin cannot be secured so we decide to carry passports and electronic equipment; however the staff assure us that items are safe.

The route from Toronto goes via Winnipeg and Edmonton to Jasper for us and the train continues to Vancouver but our tour does not.  The scenery over the first full day and most of the following morning is through heavily wooded land with a twisting route skirting maginificent lakes and little in the way of landscapes to mark our progress.  Being May the silver birch trees are still bare and provide a stark comparison to the fir trees with which they are mixed.

There are telegraph poles with wires at eye level along much of this route; often these seem to be routed in the water lying alongside the line, although there must be solid ground underneath. Every so often trees lie on the lines having been blown down in winter storms and in some places the poles themselves are displaced so it may have to be assumed that whilst not removed the lines are no longer carrying useful information.

Photos for this leg are here.

The entire reason for retention of this railway line is to move freight and the VIA Rail Canadian passenger train appears to be considered largely a nuisance by CN who move the freight trains and own the tracks.  On this section we regularly meet freights coming the other way.  In some cases they are short enough to fit into the 1.8m loops; some of them are now 2m long (all have only twin diesels at the front) and in the cases we enter the loop and the freight rolls past on the straight line.  I assume someone, somewhere in a control room is aware of where the 2m long trains can cross – running trains longer than the loops certainly happens and presumably there are places where longer passing loops exist and can be used – otherwise someone is backing up a long way.

Pointwork for the diverging line seems to have a maximum speed of around 20 mph, this obviously slows our progress and all points seem to be exactly the same design.  They are not particularly designed either for our top speed of 85 mph; certainly if we are not being looped but go straight ahead at our running speed there are some massive bangs as we go through the points, at night this is pretty disconcerting – certainly on the first night I cannot beleive we are still on the track.

We are on train no 1 (in terms of VIA Rail) operationally we are somewhere off the bottom of the CN operating scale!  For reasons not completely clear (apart from a late arrival) we depart about an hour late from Union Station on the Saturday night.  Sitting a little later in the bar car, having gone about 10 miles, an engineer arrives and turns on an external light and we commence going backwards.  He explains we are using a Y turning triangle as the train eventually heads off in the opposite direction to our original movement.

The solid bed is comfortable although the surroundings are noisy (one neighbour has a very bad sounding cough).  The shower works well in delivering hot water.  I should interject that there are two views in this family on the sleeping arrangements.  I consider them functional and effective.  My wife on the other hand considers them too small and far from ideal.  She is viewing it from a holiday perspective whereas I know that when built these were workaday trains.  Confusing the issue is the Great Rail description of these as the “best available” sleepers on VIA Rail but there own website is trumpeting a recent announcement of a new and far more luxurious class available (with two cars on our train).  Disappointingly at Union Station in Toronto in the three hours prior to departure no one knew the cost of these new facilities or if they were available for an upgrade price and my wife was sent from pillar to post, with a belief eventually emerging that only the “Call Centre” knew!  This was far from the first or last example that VIA Rail has no concept of passengers or passenger/customer service/care.  I can only assume that they are trained via CN and therefore the freight does not have a brain and nor do cattle.  This approach sadly matches the age of the rolling stock and needs urgent refurbishment along with the rolling stock.


Saturday 9 May 2015

The headline is a little bit of a giveaway as today the travel party reassembles in the foyer, our cases are loaded onto our Greyhound and we head off as a group for Niagara and the Falls.

Along the way we pass over the Wellin Canal a route between the Lakes for large vessels and are lucky enough to see two passing; the canal has only recently opened for the summer as the ice has cleared.

Photos for the day are here.

Our first stop of the day is at the Niagara Whirlpool which we look down onto from above.  Then into Niagara itself just the width of the river away from New York State, but if we could cross the river it is then an eight hour drive down to New York City – just to give some indication of the scale of distances hereabouts.

The “Maid of the Mist” operates from the US side of the river; on the Canadian side the Niagara Parks Commission was forced to place their tours out to tender and they are now operated by “Hornblower Tours” on vessels capable of taking 700 at a time.  Once aboad and covered with a red poncho we head past the American Falls, then past the Bridal Fall to the Canadian Horseshoe Fall.  As we visit in daytime we see the full flow over the falls but at night the flow is reduced with diversions to reservoirs where the water is then used to generate electricity, being replenished overnight.  The output of the generators is use by both Canada and the US.

The drop of the falls is not perhaps as great as might be imagined but the flow of water is dramatic and there is a huge mist from the cascading water.  The ponchos keep a person mainly dry – although sticking out arms to try and get photographs means this is not entirely successful.  And with the camera steadily getting wetter is not obvious that the photograpic quality will be anywhere near the quantity.

A buffet lunch at the adjacent Sheraton hotel gives a very good view of the Falls and allows some rather better photographs to be captured.

After lunch we meander along a little way upstream from the Falls to get a view of the width of the water and then we drive along the gorge back around the Whirlpool and to the end of the Gorge where the Falls first fell about 11,000 years ago.  They are now working their way upstream about 1 metre per year, a much slower rate due to the reduction in water flow as it used to be 3 – 4 metres per year.

The river flows into Lake Ontario and situated at the river mouth is Niagara on the Lake, a pretty little town no doubt buoyed by the visitor influx.  We have a wander around before taking seats for a couple of drinks.

Then back to Toronto and we eventually board the Canadian for the trip to Winnipeg and then onto Jasper by train.  On the trip back Jackie is most impressed that she can load photos onto Faebook using the bus wifi,  Sadly the train is not equipped.

Toronto Day 2

Friday 8 May 2015

Another bright sunny day and no planned itinerary.  We decide to take advantage of the clear blue skys and take ourselves up to floor 27 and to use the sun deck to at least attempt to go home a real brown and not rusty as we had anticipated.

Mid-afternoon changed and refreshed we head out and take the subway down to Union and walk through and along to the foot of the stupendous CN Tower where the local railway museum is situated in the Roundhouse.  Most of the major exhibits are located externally and the contents inside are quite limited.  Disappointingly the L&SWR loco is not on display.

Adjacent to the Roundhouse is the Steam Whistle brewery and the plan had been for Jackie to sit in the brewery bar and consume come cider whilst I visit the museum.  This does not work as the brewery only sells its own beer products and does not really have a bar area to allow railway widows to rest.  So she has to join me wandering around the museum which does not take a huge amount of time and the photographs are to be found here

The main delight of the evening is ahead.  We ascend the CN Tower to the dining room which revolves, taken 72 minutes to complete a circuit.  My wife sits effectively going “backwards” and is consequently warned about the potential effects of motion sickness.  By the time we take our seats we are almost looking down on the main railway line in a westerly direction and our progress enables us then to take in the city we visited yesterday so we can re-identify some of the buildings we had seen; then we pass again over the railway looking to the east and the we can look down on the waterfront (which looks much better from here) and out over to Toronto Island (which we may have visited if the weather had not been so nice) before completing the circuit to where we came in looking at the small local airfield (not the main one used when we arrived).

Photos from the Tower can be found at:

Whilst all this viewing is happening we are also eating a most excellent meal – indeed it is hard to say which is better – the view or the food.  For me asparagus with hen’s egg is a real flavour of the season and this is followed by rabbit in a mustard sauce and both are excellent, nay generous portions.  Again excellent ingredients, well timed cooking and presented beautifully on the plates.

We are well looked after again by the waiter and serving staff and he is able to answer questions on the identity of the buildings where we are unsure. Again he is also interested in our future travel plans and adds to the welcoming and interesting feeling of the residents of Toronto.

It cannot be denied that dinner in the CN Tower is expensive, BUT it also provides entry to the two floors immediately below the restaurant level – one enables a walk around to see the sights we had already seen, but completely enclosed, whilst the floor below allows a walk around exposed (safely) to the elements – and boy is that wind blowing – and also to stand on a glass floor showing the ground many stories below.  I have to admit that whilst I did stand on the glass, emboldended by others lying down and taking selfies, and that clearly it was “safe” I felt highly nervous – Jackie would not stand on it at all.

Access to these levels without a meal was (I think) about $40, so take that out of the meal costs and the whole thing, perhaps not a bargain but the meal actually becomes cheap – as with Portmeirion the package deal is highly worthwhile!

Toronto Day 1

Thursday 7 May 2015

Inevitably we awake at what is for the locals an early hour.  Dressed we wander out again on to “Elm” for breakfast but we are so early that the chosen destination is as yet not open for breakfast so out of simplicity we return to the hotel.

Photos for today can be found on Flickr here

This morning it is an organised city tour and we steadily perambulate around the city in a Greyhound bus.  And I can quite see why this city is attractive, although no doubt expensive.  The core of the City is quite compact and does largely comprise relatively modern buildings; however alongside these are older buildings and where there is an important frontage this is often retained with a the newer building rising behind the facade.

The old waterfront area is being completely regenerated; former railway marshalling yards and docks have been swept away – all land which was claimed from the waterways many many years ago.  Now new apartment blocks (condos) are being built with more to come, new moorting areas for boats and no doubt fancy prices to match.  One area that has been restored is the Distillery area and this is the only “stop” on the tour as we wander around what has been turned into a shopping and dining area, following the ending of the need for the docks themselves as goods are transported in different ways.  Our visit was around 10:30 in the morning and we did not see it as the very active place it no doubt becomes in the evenings.

Visible from just about everywhere is the CN Tower and I shall return to this magnificent edifice tomorrow when we visit it.  The Canadian banks did not get enmeshed in the financial problems of the last 7 – 8 years and they remain strong with immense skyscrapers demonstrating their strength in practical form in the financial district.

Entertainment is also strong, although an attempt to see “Kinky Boots” failed as it has not yet opened. And the local love of brewing seems to be a high priority. We see various examples of breweries during our stay and the quality of the beer is good.

In the evening the use of Trip Advisor pointed us at a restaurant called “Richmond Station” and so we took a gentle walk down Yonge until we reached Richmond Street.  Looked left, no luck.  Looked right – there it is across the road.  We walk in and not having a booking seems to cause a major disturbance in the ether as if such people as us did not exist.  Eventually we were offered the ability to sit upstairs outside the kitchen area – but the table was needed back in 75 minutes (bit quick); or we could sit at a high table in the lower area for 90 minutes, either side by side or opposite each other.  We chose the final option and after a further hurried discussion among the staff they identified which stools (with backs) we might occupy. This lack of knowledge continued when a very nice waitress joined us and tried (as is her right) to upsell us to the tasting menu – but we reckoned that completing this in 90 minutes might prove a challenge.  By now we were wondering if we had chosen correctly.

Never mind we chose an IPA for me, cider for my good lady wife, a carafe of local Gamay to follow; for food we agreed to share starters – a special of pig’s blood (black pudding) on sourdough and another one with main courses of halibut fish for Jackie whilst I selected another special a duo of lamb.

As we wait and the place starts to fill up and is clearly a popular restaurant with the post work crowd.  The higher table around us soon fills with a diverse collection of diners.  Meanwhile neither the IPA or the cider are rated quite as highly as the drinks at Elm Street the previous evening.

The starters come not together but sequentially.  Both are of good quality and well presented and soon demolished.  The black pudding equivalent being an excellent representation of the dish.  Delivery of the food is by male waiting staff – I am not entirely sure if they are also kitchen staff, but I think they may be as they are not generally waiting tables.

The lamb duo I am presented with is larger than I had expected with some nice slices of a lamb rump cooked pink and just right alongside a confit of belly lamb of decent size.  We rarely see this latter treatment in the UK with lamb, although it is common with pork, an it was a nice contrast – and almost too much too eat.  My wife also found the halibut that she was eating was properly cooked and of a good plateful.

Based on our relatively small sample (one still to come) the kitchens of Toronto have access to good suppliers of quality food and are able to cook it to perfection as well as deliver it to the table with knowledgeable and friendly staff.  The young waitress who took our order originally pops back for a chat (easily identifying our foreign accents) – at least until it starts to get really busy; but they do seem interested in travellers and what and why and where we are going – far more of an international outlook than one might find in the US.

All of which warms me to Toronto as a wonderful city and Canada more generally.

O Canada

Heathrow – Toronto 6 May 2015

This was always planned as a primary post retirement holiday and it is exactly 1 year since work and I separated. We have been elsewhere in the interim but this was a big one and it will be our most expensive holiday to date (according to my wife who knows about such things) plus being one of our longer breaks.

We head for Heathrow and Terminal 5 for a Ramsay breakfast and then our first “train” – the underground shuttle service to B gates and sadly the 787 has gone technical and it is a 777 to Toronto.  Some delays but up, up and away.

Due to a lack of communication somewhere I get an upgrade to a business class salmon salad for lunch – very nice.  Then settle back to watch series 3 of Borgen as we head west.

Even when we land the sky remains blue as we find that it can be warm and sunny in May in Toronto.  Indeed the weather we later find is a surprise for the locals – although they seem keen to enjoy it!  A coach takes us to our hotel and we unpack enough for a couple of nights.  We are tired and return to the ground floor and find an exit marked “Elm” – Elm Street running along one side of the hotel and we are looking for the Elm Street restaurant.  Which turns out to be immediately across the road!  A warm welcome from the girl on the door and we can sit out at the front to watch the world go by.  Local cider for my wife and some beer for me.  Having had about four meals already today we both simply choose a duck confit on mushroom risotto main course.

The place seems very popular by the numbers inside and the coming and going and when the food arrives we can see why.  A better duck than my last one and a very good risotto underneath.  The cider and beer both go down well.

Time for bed.

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