Holiday day 10 (March 11th) From Toronto
We’re on Wednesday now, and day 10 since leaving Symi. Breakfast done, packing done, wardrobes double-checked for left items, and on-board luggage separated from baggage car luggage, we are ready to set off from Toronto and start the main part of this trip, the train.
Now then, before we go any further, before we even board, I need to tell you that for the next few days, I may get my facts tender about caboose. One of the reasons for this is that I am running off my memory and using my photos as ‘remembralls.’ This means I haven’t always remembered things correctly, and Maxine is an example. Alison, who we met on the trip, had to email me about this yesterday and point out I’d called the dear old thing Marcie, so apologies for inaccuracies. I did have a travel journal which I intended to update every day, but that good intention lasted about as far as the ferry from Symi, and I forgot all about it. So, if I get things wrong, please excuse me (and the typos) and pretend I never said them, or make up your own version as we go.
A bit about The Canadian
What I can tell you, however, is that the train we were taking is called The Canadian. It runs a 4,466 km (2,775 mi) route from Toronto to Vancouver, with numerous intermediate stops including Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper and Kamloops before ending in the bustling Pacific city of Vancouver. I was particularly looking forward to ‘Kamloops’ because it sounded like a breakfast cereal.
I can also tell you that, “On March 21st, 2020, the Canadian and most other Via Rail services were suspended due to the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic.” In fact, we didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the train’s last journey for the foreseeable future. (It’s now due to start a limited service in December this year.) When we gathered at the waiting lounge, there was no talk of suspended services or even much talk of the virus. However, we were onto extra vitamin C drinks and supplements, sanitising hands (which we do a lot of anyway), opening doors with shirt sleeves and then closing them with bare hands (d’oh!), and generally being cautious of sneezers and wheezers.
There was, however, talk of a delay as we hung about the rather grand station and the waiting room, and the news trickled in that we would be held up for an hour… Later, two… In the end, three, because there had been a problem with the equipment blower, the lube-oil filter or traction alternator or something technical. I think it turned out to be air pressure and something to do with the toilet flush, but that’s another story we may come back to. Anyway, we waited in that polite British way, got to better know some of our 20-strong party, were inundated with updates, coffee, biscuits and other survival supplies, and had a wander around the station.
Finally, we were called to board, a sedate affair which involved a short walk and the showing of tickets. Our baggage car luggage had gone on ahead, so that was no worry, and we only had our cabin luggage and bears. You’re only allowed to take a certain size of case on board with you due to lack of space, but we’d once again borrowed Gwen’s suits-all suitcase, one of those ones that fit in the overhead locker on planes, and which she usually uses to store summer things at our place when she and her husband leave Symi for the winter. Even so, once we found our cabin, it was a bit of a squeeze to accommodate everything, and we soon understood why larger cases are not permitted.
We’d taken an upgrade to ‘Sleeper Plus’ or some such, which earnt us the right to have our own ‘restroom’, sink and a door. The cabin also had two chairs which somehow magically vanished beneath two bunks that the steward arranged in the evenings, a large picture window and a few sensibly placed hooks and things for your convenience. The cabin reminded me of lines from T.S. Eliot’s Old Someone’s Book Of Something-or-other Cats’ (which I have bought Harry for Christmas, but don’t tell him). The Skimbleshanks poem, actually.
There is every sort of light, you can make it dark or bright; there’s a button that you turn to make a breeze.
There’s a funny little basin you’re supposed to wash your face in and a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.
In our case, the ‘funny little basin’ was used as a paddling pool. Or, a Paddlington pool, I suppose.
So, cabin explored (which took all of 60 seconds), chairs sat in, restroom investigated and bears bathed, we set off to explore the other amenities.
I tried to look up the length of the train, but apparently, it varies depending on demand. I can tell you, though, that our version of it had innumerable carriages, each one with its own name. One was called Kent, which was kind of them as that’s where I am from, but I think we were in one called Derek or Roger, or something which may come back to me as we travel. I can also tell you that, one day during the five days and four nights we spent aboard, we walked from the end car to the front and it took us roughly 25 minutes walking at a steady pace.
The train has skyline cars, glass-domed double-deckers or observation cars…
… sleeper cars (obviously), dining cars, saloons, a posh section at the back (below), and a general commuter/traveller section at the front. We were somewhere in the middle and were served by two dining cars, two saloons and two observation cars, though we tended to favour the ones closest to Brian, our whatever our car was called.
What VIA Rain Canada doesn’t have on The Canadian is wi-fi, the idea being that you’re there to enjoy the scenery and company rather than the endless joy of Facebook scrolling, something we were quite happy to do without.
On the way
Our route was to take us through forests, past lakes, across prairies and up mountains, and we were due to arrive in Vancouver at 8.00 on Sunday morning, stopping off, the brochure had said, at a few places along the way. There, the brochure said, we would have three hours in Winnipeg, a couple of hours in Jasper, some time here and there and so on. At least, that’s what the brochure said. According to the staff, that was a bit of a myth and, as you will see, although we stopped at those places and others, it was mainly for refuelling, and there was no time to explore. We’ll get to that in due course, but what you should also remember is that this was a no-smoking train, and we were still puffers (sorry about that, mother). Knowing we might be several days without a hit, we’d cut down to those kinds of fags where you pay for air, so it wasn’t to be a problem.
What was also not a problem was food. Boy, do you get fed! No sooner had we boarded than it was time for lunch, and no sooner was that done with than it was time for dinner, it seemed, and if you were peckish in between, you could help yourself to various carbohydrate-driven snacks, tea, coffee, and for a little extra, drinks at the bar.
Here’s an aside that’s to do with trains…
A few years ago, we went on a mid-Europe tour which I’d put together myself as I’m one of those nerds who like to arrange holidays. No offence to travel agents. I’d love to do that job, having always been fascinated by maps and timetables. We started the trip by flying to Vienna, and after a couple of days there, took the train to Prague. Did that, bought the T-shirt, caught the train to Budapest. That was an eight-hour journey, so we’d packed lunch and supplies, and bought first-class tickets because they were only €16.00 each. (Imagine how much that would cost in the UK? It’s like going from London to Paddington which, having just looked at The Trainline, I can tell you would cost you between €141.82 and €225.52 if you left today.) The Czech/Hungarian train not only had a trolley service but also a dining car which I investigated. The thing was, after Budapest, we were going to Belgrade, and that journey was to take over nine hours, so, I thought we’d leave the dining experience until then. Trouble was, when we got on the train to Serbia (first class again, but €14.00), not only was there no dining car, there was no buffet or trolley service, we were lucky to have wheels, and we’d only brought a small bottle of water and a Snickers bar to last us. You can read about that adventure in ‘Symi, Stuff and Nonsense’ if you want.
There was no chance of starvation on The Canadian.
The rest of our first day aboard was spent either eating, gazing at the scenery or chatting to others in our group in the saloon.
Later in the evening, we were sitting in the saloon with some of our group and chatting. (See? I told you that’s what we did.) Although the temperature outside was reported as being -15°, inside was pleasantly warm, and there was no need for jackets or even a jumper, in Neil’s case. We’d been on the train for about 12 hours now, and when it stopped and seemed to be taking a long time to do whatever it was doing, Neil went to enquire if there was time to get off for a smoke. A few seconds later, he comes rushing back through the saloon announcing something to do with a fag break, and practically dragged me with him towards the bow… the engine end… the front part. We dashed through a couple of carriages littered with people bedding down on the floor, or curled up on their chairs (as the general part of the train is like any other passenger service), and leapt off into the snow to light up.
We were merrily puffing away and not knowing if that was smoke or steam we were raising when Jude (from our group) arrived with Neil’s jacket and told him off for going out into -15° wearing only a T-shirt. After 12 or more hours without nicotine, you don’t care about temperatures.
Tomorrow, I may have more of an idea of where we are because I just looked ahead at the photos and noticed there’s one with a signpost. There is also one showing the name on our car, and it wasn’t Roger or Frank, but Stuart Manor and I still don’t know why. Something to do with pioneers or engineers or even mutineers perhaps.
If you enjoy this kind of flexible ramble, then you might also enjoy ‘Symi, Stuff & Nonsense’, one of my books about living on Symi, which also contains other travel tales and stories from my past.