Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: VIA Rail

Canada, O Canada

Friday 22 May 2015

Homeward bound we finally reach our front door lateish on Saturday afternoon, my thanks to Cerys Matthews (Radio 6; Sunday mornings), Johnnie Walker (Radio 2; Sunday afternoons) and Mike Brown (CHBN – the Friday Alternative, should be compulsory listening) for providing an aural disguise to the jet engines on the 747.  No photographs on this section!

If I have not gushed enough about Canada on the individual blog posts then this is my last opportunity.  Taken in the round we loved the trip itself (with diverse views on the sleeper accommodation on the Canadian between Toronto and Jasper); we thought it gave a wonderful representation of the country and speaking personally I would hope we can find an opportunity to visit the eastern part of the country that was missing on this trip.  Oddly Victoria was outstanding as we were completely ignorant of the place and another trip covering just there and Vancouver might be planned – simply because we feel there must be more to see than just the highlights we hit.

Not a single meal which could be rated as poor over the entire holiday – and in general service was outstanding – usually friendly chats with waiting staff provoked by an initial enquiry about our accents and of course a shared history and interest.  The good service rating does not extend to VIA Rail who should take up operating freight trains given their incompetence and complete absence of passenger service (and passenger needs are far higher than any mere customer).

It is impossible to single out a highlight – up the CN Tower, Rocky Mountaineer, Jasper, Victoria, Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff, Vancouver – there are too many good bits.

We enjoyed it and had a great time.  I think the sunshine helped – apparently we were somewhat lucky in this respect.  If you can go then do so.  Another great holiday.

Westward to Jasper

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Around Winnipeg the scenery changes and becomes very flat and is major grain and potato producing countryside; the line is pretty straight compared with earlier and we no longer seem to always have the lineside telegraph poles – they come and go.

Come morning the scenery has changed again, pleasantly undulating and a mixture of small lakes, forestry, farming and even some nodding donkeys as we are in oil country apparently.  There are even some curves to try and get some pictures of the locomotives at the head of our consist.

Again the photos can be found here.

The meal arrangements change again with a “continental” breakfast followed by “brunch” at an early lunchtime.  Early because we are due to arrive in Jasper before three normal sittings could be achieved.  However we are still running around five hours late and apparently management has now become aware that we are late.

So we watch the world going by and reach Edmonton about the time we should have been in Jasper having consumed a very nice lobster ravioli for my brunch.  At Edmonton an extra observation car is cut in about half way along the train and now we are due to start climbing through the run to Jasper.  Anyway in the dining car over lunch we are allocated to the second sitting for dinner (at 7pm) if we are running late and have not reached Jasper.  It seems likely however that we will reach our destination about 18:00.

Actually in general terms the food on the train has been pretty good.  The menu has contained a couple of vegetable soups – in four meals why repeat anything? – a good chicken soup and some excellent huge veal chops at dinner.  Good generally well prepared food has been a welcome comfort in the light of the other aspects of the operation.

The same cannot be said of the choice of wines.  All Canadian, three white, three red.  I am advised by my resident advisor that only one of the reds is consumable – a pity as evidence in Toronto was that local wines are not that bad.  Perhaps whoever chooses for VIA Rail has a different set of taste buds.  A reasonable selection of local beers for me; but no cider and the local ice wine is on the menu but not in stock.
Disappointment – no cheeses provided in the dessert selection; the chocolate cake and others are highly recommended but the diabetic is offered a fruit cup which eventually and reluctantly is admitted not to be entirely fresh but to contain an element of canned and therefore contained in syrup fruits.  This seems to be mixed as certainly a couple of the fruit cups were not drowned in syrup.  It seems the diabetes problem does not exist in Canada.

As we run in towards Jasper the Canadian Rockies initially appear as snow capped distant hills but develop steadily as we close on our destination, still nearly 6 hours late.  On the outskirts we traverse a tunnel and as we emerge there are two black bears on the hillside above the train as if they were looking for a can opener!  We arrive and board a coach for a trip around the town and into our hotel.  We have wifi and communication with the rest of the world and we can stop counting how long the freight trains are as the ground is now stable under our feet.

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.