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Across Canada, Among the Train People

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TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Keep your dreams of private jets and fancy cars. There are others who dream of rattling toward Saskatoon in a 40-year-old chariot of stainless steel, passing their nights in a closet-size compartment, conversing by day of gauge widths and locomotive design, of the old B&O; and the new Orient Express. I am among them now. We are eastbound from Vancouver, and life is good.

This rumbling all around us is the machinery of VIA Rail’s Canadian. Like rail service all over North America, it is not what it once was, but it is still a great train ride, an adventure with historic roots, 1955 hardware and transcontinental scenery.

My itinerary says it’s a three-day, three-night, 2,800-mile journey from Vancouver to Toronto. Heading east, we will cross the Rockies, the Canadian prairies and the 700-mile, granite-floored, lake-strewn, conifer-crowded stretch known as the Canadian Shield, scraping to a halt in Toronto, on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

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We will see nothing of the cities and towns on the way, except what is visible from the tracks; there are no stops of more than an hour. But for the train person, that shouldn’t be anything to complain about. Riding the train is the point.

Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station, where the Canadian begins its eastward travels, doesn’t look like a place where dreams take wing. The building dates back to 1919 and is maintained well enough, but it sits next to a worn-out park on the periphery of downtown Vancouver, and since train traffic is so pitifully meager these days (just three departures a week for most of the year), the terminal shares its waiting rooms with the local Greyhound bus operation. It’s fairly tidy, but a newcomer can’t help but wonder: Should a classic train ride begin in a bus station?

Fortunately, the station is part of the world we’re leaving behind. At 8:20 p.m., the train groans and belches, and we lurch eastward 20 minutes behind schedule. Vancouver’s suburbs flash past the window of my first-class compartment, the sky goes cobalt, and the black outline of Grouse Mountain rises up, twinkling lights at its top. Then mile after mile of rattling nightscape.

I investigate my new residence: a box of stainless steel and pale green, 7-foot-2 by 4-foot-11, with bunk beds that fold down from the wall and a pair of reclining armchairs that rise by day from beneath the bed. Lights for reading, shaving and dressing. A framed art print. Behind a door, I have a porcelain toilet in a private restroom, which adds another four square feet to my holdings.

The shower is down the hall. The window, which doesn’t open but does have a pull-down blind, is about 3 feet by 4 feet. There is one problem: the smell of cigarettes. (The next day, I am moved into a nonsmoking room.)

With the compartment comes service. Each day while I’m off at meals or mingling in the lounge car, a cabin attendant will sneak in twice to transform bed into chairs, or vice versa. Except for the lone drawing room in the last car, these “Silver and Blue Class” bedrooms are the greatest luxury possible on the train. In peak season (assuming an exchange rate of $1.37 Canadian to $1 U.S.) travelers pay about $883 per person for these accommodations, double occupancy, all meals included. Even though I’m one person in a space meant for two, I’m paying a lot less, because I’m traveling in April, when demand is down and rates run 40% below summer peak levels.

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But the mystique of railroad travel has as much to do with common areas and fellow travelers as it does with private cabins. The prime common area on the Canadian is the bullet-shaped, twin-level first-class lounge, also known as the Park Car. It’s the last car on the train, which means there’s more to see from its wrap-around window. The room is full of Art Deco touches, including Lucite handrails and streamlined cabinetry.

“What I’m doing,” says Tom Streeter, “is satisfying a boyhood dream.”

We are back in the lounge car, and Streeter, a genial, retired auto industry man from Jacksonville, Fla., is revealing himself as a train person. Already, he has taken Amtrak from Florida to Los Angeles and then to Seattle, and then a bus from Seattle to Vancouver. (Train service between those two cities, suspended for more than a decade, resumed May 26.) Now the Canadian.

From here, he will catch another train to New York, and yet another back to Florida. It’s a 13-day trip, if all goes as planned. Streeter’s wife, Alice, whose love for trains does not run as deep as his, takes his phone calls from far-flung station stops, and awaits his return.

This sounds to me like an unusual itinerary, but that, it turns out, is only because I don’t know my way around train people.

Liz Bowling is another one. Bowling is a camera operator for a public television station in San Jose, and doesn’t look wealthy. But this is the two-month solo odyssey that lies ahead for her: first, the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto. Then another train south to New York. Then an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2. From there she’ll probably catch a steam-train buffs’ convention on the Isle of Man, and later cross under the English Channel, by train of course. Then she’ll take the Concorde back from Europe to New York. Before I dare ask how she’d be getting from New York to San Jose--hot-air balloon? Harley-Davidson?--another voice rises.

“Forty years,” Bill Bland is saying. “Forty years I’ve waited to do this.”

He and his wife, Pat, have come from Brisbane, Australia. He is beefy, bearded and just recently, retired from a government job. From Toronto, the Blands will fly to England, wander around in a camper-van, probably sample a train here or there. A three-month trip. Bill is very nearly salivating at the prospect of this. Someone asks Pat if she love trains as much as her husband does. She smiles indulgently.

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“I can take them or leave them,” she says.

This outrage is not referred to again.

We rumble through the night. I get up around 6 on Day One, and pull up my blind. Hazy rivers. Ridges thick with evergreens. Farms along a valley floor, newborn calves in pastures. Then a big still lake with a tall bluff above it--a romantic landscape painter’s daydream.

At breakfast, there is bad news containing good news. Down the line in Blue River, the westbound Canadian has derailed, and we have to make a detour. We will be at least five hours late to Toronto. The cognoscenti express concern and inquire about injuries (nine persons were taken to the hospital, but no major injuries). Then, turning attention to our own train, they celebrate discreetly.

The detour will take us south through the Rockies, via Banff and Lake Louise rather than Jasper. This is part of the route that the Canadian followed in the old days, before responsibility for passenger trains fell into the hands of the Canadian government, and then for 12 more years before transcontinental service was reduced and rerouted in 1990. (Like Amtrak’s history, VIA Rail Canada’s is shaded by cutbacks and shaky finances.)

The usual Canadian Rockies route via Jasper is still strikingly scenic, but not as striking, most agree, as the old southern route. But Canadian Pacific, the company that owns the tracks along the southern route, usually reserves them for freight traffic--except for emergencies such as ours.

“You’re riding the real Canadian on the real Canadian route with real Canadian equipment!” says an excited young man with a New York Giants cap and a zealot’s gleam in his eyes. “You never get that without a washout or a wreck, and I’ve been waiting years for those. It might be two years before this happens again.”

I don’t remember him from our departure in Vancouver, for good reason. His name is Bob Rannard. He is a 28-year-old construction worker, lives outside Vancouver, and is so well-known around the rail yard that when our new route was decided late last night, the conductor called Rannard at home. Rannard leaped from bed, dressed, hopped in his car, drove to Kamloops, and boarded our train at 3:30 a.m. Seven hours later, here he is holding court on Canadian rail history, effusing to all who will listen about the wonders ahead.

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And here they come. The Rockies tower like Alps, their outlines sharp as cutlery, cleaving a deep blue, cloudless sky marching past hour by hour. As lunch is served in the well-windowed dining car (quite passable, with china and linen on the tables), we pass through a valley with peaks on either side, and the waiters sneak peeks at the unfamiliar slopes. Some of them haven’t been this way in five years.

Outside the remote station stop of Field, we pick out perhaps a dozen dirty brown figures in a meadow: sleeping elk. A few minutes later, there’s a genteel rush in first class to the top deck of the observation car. The spiral tunnels are coming.

These tunnels, cut in 1908 as an improvement on a more difficult original route, are a rarity for the way they rise and twist. This sounds like railroaders’ inside baseball to me, until we reach the site ourselves. We enter, then twist and climb, all the while encased in mountain. When we burst out again into daylight, instead of joining a new landscape we have rejoined the one we left, only now we’re several hundred feet higher and pointing a new direction. Very strange.

Inside, we have three seatings for dinner, and three choices: halibut, grilled chicken or roast pork loin. My halibut is not great but good.

Outside, the sun sets. Calgary comes into view, a far bigger city than I had expected. The population is about 800,000, and from the tracks, its skyline in silhouette looks like Detroit’s.

For all this night and most of Day Two, we have nothing out there but prairie. This is the time to catch up on sleep or slip into a comfortable novel. I look into a little Canadian history--an instructive and humbling exercise for any American who thinks of Canadians as a society of order and restraint.

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Consider this: When the golden spike completed the United States’ transcontinental railroad in 1869, our federal government had survived more than 90 years of independence, and a national population of nearly 40 million was greedy for westward expansion and a connection to western cities such as San Francisco. But when Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald pledged his government to the goal of a transcontinental railroad in 1871, his nation was less than 4 years old, its population amounted to roughly 3.5 million (with no major cities on its Pacific Coast), and the proposed rail route was longer and far more geographically difficult than the marathon path just completed to the south. In fact, by many accounts, Canada’s plan was to build the longest, costliest railroad in history, much of it in unexplored territory, in order to serve a puny population.

This, the prime minister’s leading parliamentary opponent howled, was “an act of insane recklessness.” But the promise of a rail connection is what persuaded then-uncommitted territory of British Columbia to join Canada. And as a gesture to make tangible the unity of such highly disparate territories, it was unsurpassable. In 1885, after the expenditure of many lives and dollars, it was finished.

“We are the only nation in the world created nonviolently by the building of a railway,” concluded Pierre Berton, Canada’s leading rail historian, five years ago.

Or, to put that thought into the words of traveler John Solaris when interviewed about the same time by author Terry Pindell: “Never mind what Canada looks like on a map. It’s really nothing but a thin string of places connected by the railway, places that wouldn’t have given a damn about each other without the railway. Canada and the railway, since John A. Macdonald it always was one and the same thing.”

The prairie continues. Edmonton, where our detour ends and we rejoin our scheduled route. Unity. Biggar. Saskatoon. Portage-la-Prairie. Winnipeg, where we have an hour to stretch our legs, make phone calls, raid the snack bar and calculate that we’re running eight hours behind.

Then back to the open spaces and grain elevators. On their sides are painted the names of towns--towns with little reason to exist except that the tracks pass this way. Occasionally, there’s a huddle of low, wooden houses or a tin-topped Orthodox church, raised in decades past by Russian immigrants.

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I wander up to the coach cars and into a new civilization. In this territory, which runs forward from the dining car, passengers get the same scenery and their own two-level lounge car, but all other conditions seem to reflect the fact that they have paid a few hundred dollars less than the folks in back.

When coach passengers sleep, they curl up in their seats. Instead of fancy meals in the dining car, coach passengers have a cash cafe and snack bar (though coach passengers can pay to eat in the fancier dining car). The Park Car is off limits. Service, generally solicitous and courteous in back--surpassing anything I’ve ever encountered on Amtrak--dwindles frequently into haughtiness and suspicion. (Sometimes, unfortunately, suspicion is merited: It is in coach, not first class, that late at night I see forbidden cigarettes appear upstairs in the observation car.) And when three restrooms are taken out of service simultaneously, as happened one night, they’re all in the coach area.

But these are not downhearted travelers. Downstairs in the coach lounge car after dark, a cheerful young man takes on all comers in a complicated table game involving three parallel rows of sugar packets. A silent woman listens to a Walkman and scribbles in a journal. Cans of Labatt’s and Molson beer are open all around, and friendships are erupting.

“Salmon Arm?” interrupts a 20-something woman as a 30-something man describes his itinerary. “ I’m from Salmon Arm!”

Upstairs sits Doug, a 21-year-old from Vancouver who wears a wispy beard and rings in his ears, nostrils, chin, tongue and (he further divulged) one nipple, yet still looks about 15. He is a cook, he explains, and has made “quite a name for myself” in Vancouver. Now, armed with a few references, he’s on his way to conquer the culinary world of Toronto. He and half a dozen others are still musing in the dark cabin when I excuse myself around 1 a.m.

“Hey!” one of them calls after me as I shuffle back toward the first-class cars. “Say good night to Donald Trump for us!”

After the prairie comes the Canadian Shield, and its hundreds of miles of rock, birch, aspen and lakes with surfaces still half frozen. Hornepayne, about 600 miles from Toronto. Oba. Elsas. Foleyet and Gogama.

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Spring is barely evident here, and then, late on the afternoon of Day Three, we roll into a storm that banishes the idea of it. Through dinner, the sky is filled with snowflakes. I have the feeling we’re traveling through a shuffled seasonal cycle: summer skies in Vancouver, now the Canadian Shield blanketed in white.

In a punctual world, we would be arriving at Toronto’s Union Station at 9 tonight. Instead, since we remain about eight hours behind, the first-class service manager calls our hotels for us to cancel reservations. We spend a fourth night on the train and roll in at 5 a.m. the next day.

They wake us at 6, pour us coffee, feed us a light breakfast, line up our luggage, fling the train doors open and kick the yellow plastic platform steps into place. Out we straggle into the cold and cavernous spaces of the echoing, 68-year-old train station. The platform is bathed in yellow morning light, as if for a special occasion, and the CN Tower rises into the sky a few hundred yards away, our own finish-line landmark.

Toronto looks to be a fine place, and this looks to be a fine day, but there’s no getting around the fact that we are back in the stationary world. Bummer.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Aboard the Canadian

Getting aboard: VIA Rail’s Canadian departs Vancouver at 8 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, arriving 73 hours later in Toronto at 9 p.m. Thursdays, Sundays and Tuesdays. (Departures from Toronto are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.)

In the peak summer season (June-September), bedrooms (the most luxurious accommodations) run about $1,766 for a couple, all meals included, one way (the one suite aboard costs more). Roomettes (too tight for most couples) run about $883 per person, including meals. A section (upper and lower berths, separated from the hall walkway by a heavy curtain) run about $1,326 for two, all meals included. (Individual uppers or lowers are available for less.) Bedrooms and roomettes each have private toilets. Uppers and lowers share bathrooms down the hall, and passengers with sleeping accommodations share a shower down the hall.

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For budget travelers who don’t mind curling up in their seats, doing without showers for three days and buying their meals from the train cafe, a coach seat runs about $375.

But flexible travelers should note that all fares fall by 25% in the “shoulder season” months of May and October, and by 40% from November through April. Another money-saving opportunity: If U.S. travelers make their rail bookings at the same time they book U.S.-Canada airline tickets (and there’s no more than a day between the air and rail connections), they can have the Canadian General Services Tax excluded from their train fares--thus shaving another 7% from the figures above.

(All fares above were estimated using an exchange rate of $1.37 Canadian per $1 American. VIA Rail usually adjusts its rates each January.)

VIA Rail’s toll-free telephone number from the United States is (800) 561-9181.

Another route: Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours (800-665-7245), a private company that runs high-end Rocky Mountain rail trips from May to October, offers scenic train rides between Vancouver and Banff, Vancouver and Jasper and Vancouver and Calgary. Among its least-expensive trips: a two-day Vancouver-Banff trip, including a night in Kamloops, breakfasts and lunches on the train, dinner excluded. The one-way fare: about $371 per person.

For more information: Canadian Consulate General, Tourist Information, 300 S. Grand Ave., 10th Floor, Los Angeles 90071, (213) 346-2700.

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