Canada Coast-to-Coast

Discussion in 'Travelogues / Trip Reports' started by PaulDobbs, Sep 14, 2019.

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  1. Sep 14, 2019 #1

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    The Day Before: Why?

    The posts that follow are a report on a trip across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver, beginning and ending in Fort Worth Texas. The trip began on August 13, 2019, and ended on September 4, 2019. The posts are an edited version of daily updates that I posted to Facebook and emailed to a group of friends. They were intended for an audience which included people who have never traveled by train.

    Why Canada? First, because I’ve travelled the United States extensively on Amtrak for a number of years, and have been to just about all the places that Amtrak can take me, so I want to see some new places. Second, I’ve heard a lot about the level of service on Via Rail Canada’s trains, and want to see if what I’ve heard is true. Finally, there is Via Rail’s most famous train, the Canadian. I’ve heard wonderful things about this four-night train ride between Toronto and Vancouver. This train is so well-known that Canada even put a picture of it on their ten-dollar bill!

    I tried to ride the Canadian last year. I was going to attend O Scale West, a meet for O scale model railroaders in Santa Clara, California, then continue up the coast to Vancouver and ride the Canadian to Toronto. But while I was in Santa Clara, I got word from Via Rail that my train had been cancelled. In this country, the law states that Amtrak trains are supposed to have precedence over host railroad freights, but Via Rail has no such protection, and the Canadian had been so late so many times that Via Rail had to cancel one eastbound and one westbound train. And mine was the eastbound that was cancelled.

    So, for this year, I dreamed bigger. I planned a trip that would take me from Halifax, Nova Scotia all the way across the continent to Vancouver, British Columbia.
     
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  2. Sep 14, 2019 #2

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 1 — Tuesday, Aug 13: Amtrak 422

    Amtrak service in Fort Worth consists of two trains: the Heartland Flyer and the Texas Eagle. The Heartland Flyer operates between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. The Texas Eagle operates between Chicago and San Antonio, with a through sleeper and coach which operate all the way to Los Angeles (attached to the rear of the Sunset Limited). So, unless I am going to Oklahoma City, I always leave town on the Texas Eagle. I ride the Eagle a lot. I have ridden on the Eagle 58 times, not counting today’s ride.

    The northbound Eagle is normally train 22, but that through sleeper and coach are called train 422, and I am booked on train 422. So I will be traveling in the through sleeper coming from LA.

    I use a web site called https://asm.transitdocs.com to track trains. It has a map which displays the location of every Amtrak and Via Rail train, and shows how well they are keeping to their schedules. A little after 8 AM today, I brought up the map so see how train 22 (trains are shown by number on the map) was doing, since it is scheduled to leave San Antonio at 7 AM. It wasn’t on the map, meaning it hadn’t departed yet. The reason was obvious from the map. Train 2, the eastbound Sunset Limited, had not arrived in San Antonio yet. As it turned out, the eastbound Sunset Limited arrived in San Antonio 3 hours and 49 minutes late. The northbound Eagle could not leave until the train 422 cars (that sleeper and coach) were switched from the rear of the Sunset onto the rear of the Eagle. The Eagle then departed San Antonio 3 hours and 34 minutes late. Amtrak (always optimistic) then predicted that it would make up time and arrive in Fort Worth 2 hours and 30 minutes later than its scheduled 1:58 PM arrival time. I tend not to be optimistic about late trains. In my experience, late trains get later. Whoever’s right, my trip will be getting off to a late start. But I wasn’t worried (yet), since I have over 7 hours between trains in Chicago on Wednesday.

    Once again, experience (or is it cynicism?) triumphed over optimism. The train arrived at 6:24, 4 hours and 26 minutes late, and departed at 6:45, 4 hours and 25 minutes late. As I was boarding, the sleeping car attendant handed me a slip of paper with a 6:00 dinner reservation, so I went straight to the diner. After dinner, I went to my room and started getting set up for the ride.

    I’m in what Amtrak refers to as a bedroom. It is almost the full width of the car, less only a narrow passageway. A couch runs almost the full width of the room. At night, the couch slides out to create a bed approximately the size of a twin bed. On the other wall of the room, there is a folding seat and a toilet compartment which doubles as a shower. There is a sink on the outside of that compartment near the door. The side of the room opposite the door has a large window and a small fold-out table.

    The thing that surprises first-time riders is how very quiet it is on the train. You can easily converse in normal tones in your room.

    Usually on this train, it gets dark around Texarkana, but today we are so late that it’s getting dark in Mesquite. Am I worried about my connection in Chicago tomorrow? Net yet. Right now I’m going to have the attendant make my bed and get a good night’s sleep.
     
  3. Sep 14, 2019 #3

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 2 — Wednesday, Aug 14: Amtrak 422, Amtrak 48

    During what turned out to be a very good night’s sleep, the train obeyed Paul’s law (I think I’ll claim it, although I’m sure I’m not the first to think of it), by getting later. It was 6 hours and 40 minutes late at Little Rock, which is where I woke up. I like to sleep with the curtains open, which means I tend to get up with the sun.

    After my shower and shave, which are always more interesting underway, I went to the diner for breakfast. Amtrak practices community seating in the diner, which means that they fill the tables. If there are less than four in your party, you will get the opportunity to share a meal and conversation with strangers. This is actually one of my favorite things about traveling by train. I have eaten with people from England, Australia, Wales and Switzerland. Today, I had breakfast with a couple from San Angelo and their six-month old baby. They are going to Chicago on vacation.

    As of breakfast time, an ever-optimistic Amtrak was predicting an arrival time of 6:00 PM in Chicago, which would give me plenty of time to catch my 9:30 train to New York City. I’ve gone straight from train to train before in Chicago, so there is still some leeway. My connection is guaranteed by Amtrak, which means that they have to get me to New York even if I do miss it. How is Amtrak’s option. The two most likely choices ate to put me on a bus to catch up with the train or to put me up in a Chicago hotel overnight and put me on tomorrow’s train to New York. If they take the second option, I’ll lose a day, but that won’t be an insurmountable problem, since I added a free day in Montreal to the trip to play tourist, and it can also serve as a buffer.

    All afternoon, I kept track of our time and refining my estimate of arrival in Chicago. Amtrak was predicting 8:00, but I kept getting 8:30, which would work fine for a 9:30 departure. The Texas Eagle came to a stop in Chicago Union Station at 8:19. I got a redcap ride to the Metropolitan Lounge, which is a special waiting area for sleeper passengers with free soft drinks and snacks. I grabbed a Diet Pepsi and had 10 whole minutes to drink it before my train was called. It took a while to get a ride out to the train, since there were only 3 redcaps working, they could only take 4 people at a time, and there were 16 people waiting. Naturally I was in the last group. But I was on the train well before it departed, so I’m on my way to New York City!
     
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  4. Sep 14, 2019 #4

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 3 — Thursday, Aug 15: Amtrak 48

    I got up about 6:30, got dressed, and went to breakfast, such as it was. About a year ago, Amtrak replaced diner food on this train and the Capitol Limited with glorified box lunches. The diner is still there, but it is only manned by one person. It serves as a lounge for sleeper passengers, as well as the place where food is handed out. Last year, breakfast was a box with cereal, a muffin, fruit and yogurt. You could get your choice of beverage from the single staff member in the car. This year breakfast was slightly improved. On a pair of tables, things like bananas, cereal and muffins were laid out, and you could go to the counter and get beverages, yogurt, boiled eggs and a breakfast sandwich that the attendant heated up.

    About 12:15, I went to the “diner” to get lunch. I found out that the service had improved, but not the food. Last year, the sleeping car attendant showed you a list of the box lunches available, took your order plus the time you wanted it, then you went up to the counter in the diner and were given your box lunch and drink in a tote bag. Today, when I got to the diner, the attendant waved me to a table where there was a nicely printed menu with four choices: Chicken Penne Alfredo, Beef Provençal, Asian Noodle Bowl and Antipasto Plate. The attendant took my order, Beef Provençal, and brought me my box a few minutes later. The box contained a small bowl of salad, a roll in a cellophane bag, plasticware, a napkin, and a bowl with the remainder of my meal. On the menu the picture of this meal showed bite-size cuts of beef, carrots, green beans and mashed potatoes, all neatly separate. The reality was a lump of beef covered in gravy, a center area where gravy, vegetables and potatoes all mixed, plus a glob of more or less separate potatoes. This had all been microwaved to a reasonable temperature. I felt like I was eating a partially-mixed stew.

    Unfortunately, Amtrak has decided that this “contemporary fresh choice” meal is a success, and has decided to spread this fiasco to all trains east of the Mississippi October first. When I was on the Texas Eagle, the lead service attendant told me that Amtrak wants to infect all the trains in the country, but hasn’t figured out the logistics for the western long-distance trains. If this comes to pass, I may never again leave Fort Worth.

    Back to more pleasant topics.

    When train 48 leaves Chicago, it is a mix of cars bound for New York and cars for Boston. Upon arrival at Albany, it is split into two trains. Train 48 continues down the Hudson River to New York, while train 448 goes through the Berkshires to Boston. While the ride through the Berkshires is beautifully scenic, the trip down the Hudson is spectacular.

    The train runs down the east bank of the beautiful, wide river near water level, while the west side is dominated by hills. The bridges across the river are all at the height of the west side terrain, which means that they soar above the river. There seems to be a marina every few miles, with lots of big powerboats and sailboats. One interesting feature of the ride is that the tracks run through the center of Sing Sing prison. The prison is built in two halves, one on each side of the tracks. For a few seconds the train seems to run in a canyon made up of prison walls.

    After running late most of the day, the crew made good use of the time allotted for switching at Albany, and departed there on time. The train arrived at Penn Station at 6:30.

    I’ve come to New York City three times, always by rail, and every time, I’ve stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania. The reason is convenience. The hotel is right across 7th Avenue from Penn Station. That’s no coincidence. Both were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The hotel opened 100 years ago, in 1919. It is showing its age, but the rooms have been recently refurbished and are comfortable and quiet. But what clinches the deal for me is this. Today, my train came to a stop at 6:30. I took a couple of minutes to get off, rode up an escalator two levels to the main concourse and walked to the 7th Avenue exit, stopping twice for breath and going up one more escalator. I waited for the light, then crossed 7th Avenue, turned left on the sidewalk and walked 15 yards to the hotel entrance, I tried to use express check in three times without success, then gave up and got in the line at the desk. After checking in, I rode the elevator to the 12th floor, and was in my room before 7:00, less than 30 minutes after the train stopped. That’s convenience!

    Tomorrow, I get up early and go back across the street to catch the Adirondack (train 69) to Montreal.
     
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  5. Sep 14, 2019 #5

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 4 — Friday, Aug 16: Amtrak 69

    The Adirondack, Amtrak train 69, normally leaves Penn Station at 8:15 for Montreal. However, this summer, it has been combined with train 63, the Maple Leaf, which goes to Toronto, because of track work at Penn Station, and the combined train leaves at 7:15. The trains split and go their separate ways at Albany.

    Penn Station is a curiously appropriate truncated name for the former Pennsylvania Station, because the station itself has been truncated. Pennsylvania Station was a magnificent building built during the heyday of railroad travel, when major railroads built big in the big cities. When rail travel started declining, though, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided that they no longer needed a magnificent edifice to advertise their passenger service in New York City and started looking for a way to profit from this valuable piece of Manhattan real estate. And of course they found it. Since most of the working parts of the station (the concourses and tracks) were underground, they were able to tear down the station building while keeping the station working, and build above it in the 1960s. And what did they put above it? Madison Square Garden!

    The destruction of Pennsylvania Station created so much outrage that it is credited with kick-starting the historic preservation movement in New York State.

    At Plattsburgh, New York, the conductor passed out Canadian customs declaration forms. At the border, the train stopped at a Canadian customs station that served both the railroad and a highway. Canadian officers boarded the train, examined everyone’s passport, questioned everyone and took up the forms. When I was asked my final destination, I replied that I was going to Montreal, Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver, pick one. Apparently, this was a satisfactory answer. The delay was pretty long, as they had to deal with everyone aboard.

    I didn’t check my watch when we arrived, but I’m guessing that the train was 30 or 40 minutes late. My hotel, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, connects via elevator to the station, so the railroad station redcap brought my bags clear to the hotel lobby. Tomorrow, I have a free day to experience Montreal.
     
  6. Sep 14, 2019 #6

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 5 — Saturday, Aug 17: Montreal

    I planned this trip with free time in each of the Canadian cities I’m visiting. Today was my free day in Montreal. After buying a muffin and orange juice and eating it in my room, I went to talk to the concierge. I explained to the I had problems walking long distances and standing for a long time, and asked about things like bus tours. She told me that a bus tour would cost $60 Canadian for a 3 1/2 hour tour and proposed an alternative. For $25 an hour (minimum 2 hours), I could hire an English-speaking driver for a private tour. So, for the next three hours, I wound up riding around Montreal in the back seat of a Lincoln Navigator with a driver named Gus. Gus’s English was very good, although accented, and he knew his city very well.

    We covered the old part of the city, drove past the waterfront, and crossed over to the two islands in the St. Lawrence River, St. Helen’s Island, and Ile Notre Dame. On the latter island, we drove past the casino, and I even got a look at the track where the Canadian Grand Prix is run. I’m a bit of a Formula One fan, and I watched that race live on TV just over 2 months ago, so that was interesting. From there, we went up the mountain. Gus drove me around the area where the “rich English” live. Lots of beautiful houses, including one owned by Tommy Hilfiger. Gus knows the house because he drove Hilfiger to the airport a couple of years ago. Hilfiger offered Gus his choice of a $100 tip or a $300 coupon he could take to any store to buy clothing. Gus took the coupon. Next, we went to St. Joseph’s Oratory, a large Catholic church near the top of the mountain. The church was started by a man called Brother Andre, who is now known locally as Saint Brother Andre (officially Saint André Bessette). After a walking tour of the church, Gus took me back down into the city, where he bought me “the best bagel in Montreal” and then took me back to the hotel.

    After a nap in my room, I took the hotel elevator down into the Gare Centrale (Central Station) so that I could explore the station before my departure tomorrow. Actually, there was no hurry, since my train for Halifax doesn’t leave until 7 PM, but I was curious.

    So, tomorrow will be the next part of my journey, going overnight to Halifax. I can’t wait.
     
  7. Sep 14, 2019 #7

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 6 — Sunday, Aug 18: VIA Rail Canada 14

    When I got up this morning, I knew I had a long day in front of me before I could get on the next train, VIA Rail Canada’s train 14, the Ocean. I spent the morning in my room, mostly packing. Check out time was noon, so about 11:45, I headed down to the hotel lobby, dropped my key in the express checkout box, and took the elevator down to the station.

    The first stop was the VIA Rail ticket counter, to get my ticket changed. I had originally booked a cabin for 2 on the Ocean because the toilet in a cabin for one is not accessible at night, but an equipment change caused me to be down graded to a cabin for one.

    After checking my bag, I had lunch at one of the many dining establishments in the station. After finishing my Big Mac, I went to the VIA Rail Business Lounge, which I could use as a sleeper passenger. The lounge had free juice, soft drinks, tea and coffee. I helped myself to a Diet Coke.

    About 5:30, an announcement was made that all Ocean passengers needed to go to the Ocean counter to check in and make dinner reservations. I got in line and checked in. I was offered a choice of a 7:15 or a 9:00 dinner. I chose 7:15 and got a red ticket showing my reservation. I also got a blue paper bracelet which I was told to wear or at least have on me whenever I went to the diner.

    At about 6:30 the boarding announcement was finally made. I followed the crowd out of the lounge and down as escalator to the platform, where I was directed to my car. When I found my room, I was astounded how small it was. It makes an Amtrak roomette look like a palace. It has one forward-facing seat. About 18 inches in front of that is a toilet which faces the window. Six inches beyond the toilet is the apparent front wall of the compartment. It appears that at night, the bed will extend beyond the end of the room under the seat of the next room forward. That room is elevated above floor level of the car to make this possible.

    The train departed 15 minutes late. I waited in my room for the attendant because I wanted to talk to her. I told her that although I had thousands of miles on Amtrak, this was my first time on VIA Rail, so perhaps she should consider me totally ignorant. That got me a smile and a nice introduction to the features of my room.

    Then I went to dinner. It was excellent, in spite of not being prepared on board. It was prepared in Montreal, probably by one of the big hotels, then heated in a convection oven on board and replated. Everything from soup to desert was really good. Amtrak should take lessons.

    After supper, I went to the Bullet Lounge in the Parks car (a Budd dome observation) to write up this report. I’ll write more on this train tomorrow, but now it’s time to send this and head to bed.
     
  8. Sep 14, 2019 #8

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 7 — Monday, Aug 19: VIA Rail Canada 14

    The Ocean runs between Montreal and Halifax three times a week. It normally runs all “Renaissance” equipment except for a “Parks” car on the rear. Renaissance cars were built in 1990 for overnight service between London and continental Europe via the channel tunnel. They are a British design. When the overnight service failed, VIA Rail bought the entire fleet and rebuilt some of the cars into baggage cars and diners.

    The consist of the train I rode east was a baggage car, some number of coaches, a service car, a diner, a second service car, two Renaissance sleepers, an adapter car, six 1950s Budd sleepers, and the Parks car. Service cars have a snack bar and a lounge. They also provide a kitchen for the diner. With two service cars, the diner has kitchens at each end. Parks cars are Budd dome/observation cars named for Canadian national parks. In addition to sleeping compartments, they have a lounge under the dome, plus the Bullet Lounge in the very rear, so called because of its tapered, rounded shape.

    So what’s an adapter car? It seems that the Renaissance cars still have their European couplers, while the Budd cars have standard automatic couplers. So the adapter car, which has one of each, must be used between the different types of cars.

    After a continental breakfast, I made my way to the dome of the Parks car. At first, all I could see was trees and fog, but the fog burned off before long. Unfortunately, when it did, we were in a heavily forested area, and it was like the train was running in a green canyon. Since it was rather cool in the dome, I retreated to the Bullet Lounge, only going back up to the dome when my map application showed something interesting coming up. While I was in the lounge, a pair of crew members came around giving out lunch reservations. I got one for 1:30.

    About noon, I returned to my room and attempted to get a nap before lunch. Lunch was a cold beef plate with an unusual potato salad. After lunch, I stopped by my room and picked up the windbreaker I always carry with me on train trips. Better prepared, I went back to the dome. There was a lot more green canyon, but occasionally the view opened up beautifully.

    The train arrived in Halifax at 6:24, 33 minutes late. My sleeper was a long way from the station, but fortunately I got a ride in. My bag was the next-to-last bag on the baggage carousel. After retrieving it, I turned around, spotted a door that said “Hotel,” and walked into the Westin Nova Scotian and checked in.

    Tomorrow is my free day in Halifax, and I intend to spend part of it in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
     
  9. Sep 14, 2019 #9

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 8 — Tuesday, Aug 20: Halifax

    Today, I took it easy in my room until about 11 AM. After a club sandwich in the hotel bar, I took a cab to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. This is an excellent museum, and I recommend it highly. There were exhibits on a number of subjects, including the Royal Canadian Navy, the age of sail, the age of steam, shipwrecks, small boats, women and the sea, and the connection between Halifax and the sinking of the Titanic.

    Halifax became connected to the disaster when White Star Lines chartered four Canadian vessels to recover the bodies of the victims. The first of the four was a cable-laying ship named the Mackay-Bennett. The Mackay-Bennett carried coffins, ice, and a chaplain. She recovered 306 bodies, the first of which was the body of a two-year-old boy. Some of them had to be buried at sea, but the Mackay-Bennett returned to Halifax with 190 bodies. Halifax became the center for handling the bodies, and all the bodies recovered by the other ships were sent there. Only 59 of the bodies were identified and shipped to their families for burial. All the remaining victims received funerals in three Halifax churches and burial in three Halifax cemeteries.

    After spending quite a bit of time in the museum, I went outside to the Sea Dome, which is a tent-like hemispherical theater which uses 4 projectors, plus wireless headsets. There, I saw two short movies, one on the unlikely survival of a whale, and one on the famous fishing (and racing!) schooner Bluenose.

    Then I walked over to the pier where the HMCS Sackville is moored. The Sackville is the last surviving flower class corvette. Hundreds of these hardy little ships were built during World War II, serving in a number of navies including the Royal Navy (the original customer), the Royal Canadian Navy, and even the US Navy.

    Flower class corvettes were made famous by Nicholas Monserrat, a journalist who became a bestselling novelist after the war. During the war, Monserrat served as a RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) officer. He served as a junior officer in a flower class corvette, then as second in command in a second corvette and finally as captain of a destroyer. RNVR officers were looked down on as “amateurs” by regular Royal Navy officers. Monserrat was the first RNVR officer to ever command a Royal Navy ship, providing quite a shock to the regulars. He wrote a book, “The Cruel Sea” based loosely on his experiences in corvettes, which was made into a movie in the 1950s.

    I’ve read the book (more than once) and seen the movie, so when I found out that the last surviving flower class corvette was in Halifax, I knew I had to go see it. I arrived at the pier just in time to see the chain put across the gangway closing the ship for the day. However, I was able to spend a few minutes talking to one of the “experts” on board about the probable differences between the Sackville and Monserrat’s fictional “Compass Rose.” I also was able to walk the pier and get a good look at the ship.

    My plans for the rest of the evening are a dinner in the hotel restaurant and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, I start my westward journey that will end on the far side of the continent, in Vancouver.
     
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  10. Sep 14, 2019 #10

    PaulDobbs

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    Day 9 — Wednesday, Aug 21: VIA Rail Canada 15

    My hotel in Halifax was about a block from the waterfront and my room had a nice view of the harbor, including the lighthouse on Georges Island. But that view was blocked this morning when someone parked two cruise ships outside my window. The one directly out my window was Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas. My sixth floor room was just above the height of the bridge. Looking to my right, aft of the Adventure, I could see the stern of another ship, which was identified by the Marine Traffic application as the Caribbean Princess. And I thought I was a long way from the Caribbean!

    Speaking of being a long way from somewhere, Halifax is actually closer to Ireland than it is to Vancouver.

    At about 11:00, I made my way down to the station. I had been informed by VIA Rail that, due to an equipment change, my car and room had changed, so I needed a new ticket. This time, I had kept my cabin for 2, as reserved, and had even gained a shower. (Some cabins for two have showers, some don’t. VIA Rail charges the same for both. I discovered that my new car was the first sleeper in the train and thus nearest to the diner. On the other hand, it would be a very long hike back to the Parks car. I checked my bag through to Toronto, and made my way to the lounge for sleeper passengers.

    The lounge turned out to be a room with leather-covered chairs and sofas. When I arrived, there was only one seat available, so I took it. The room had a fancy coffee machine and a small refrigerator stocked with soft drinks. I grabbed a bottle of water and settled in to wait.

    Just before 11:00, I left the lounge and got in line to check in to the train. When I got to the desk, one person checked me in, while another gave me the now familiar blue paper bracelet identifying me as a sleeper passenger (and thus eligible for free meals in the diner) as well as a 1:00 lunch reservation. I was then free to board the train.

    The train had been broken into two halves. The Parks car and the last few sleepers were on one track, and the remainder of the train was on another. This shortened my walk to my car considerably. The train was made up of the same cars as it was on the eastbound trip, so my car was a Renaissance car. I quickly found my room and moved in.

    My room resembles an Amtrak bedroom, except that it is slightly smaller. The bathroom is bigger than the one in a bedroom and contains the sink, which is in the main room on Amtrak. There is a folding table similar to those in Amtrak sleepers, although it must be stowed in order to access the bathroom. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the room is the door. It is a swinging, rather than a sliding door, and it locks when closed. The key is a plastic card with holes punched in it that must be slid into a slot in the door to open it.

    Departing the Halifax station, the train pulled forward, then backed to couple onto the last few cars. While we were pulling forward, I happened to spot yet another cruise ship. This one was just pulling into the harbor. Using the Marine Traffic app, I was able to identify it as the AIDAvita, from AIDA Cruises, an Italian company.

    I had lunch with a couple from Edmonton and a Danish-born woman who has lived in England most of her life. Everyone agreed that the food was very good. At 4:45, a pair of attendants came by the room giving out dinner reservations. I had to choose between 5:00 and 8:30, and picked the later time.

    I never heard an announcement for the 8:30 seating, so I went to the diner about 8:45. The waitress told me that the only entree left was fish. When I informed her that I didn’t eat fish, she said she would try to come up with something else, which she did. I had chicken.

    I went back to my room, got my bed made, and settled in for the night.
     
  11. Sep 14, 2019 #11

    PaulDobbs

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    Day 10 — Thursday, Aug 22: VIA Rail Canada 15, VIA Rail Canada 65

    I got up this morning about 6:30, then went for breakfast a little after 7:00. I had scrambled eggs. I shared my table with a woman who never uttered a word of English, so conversation was a bit lacking.

    This train was scheduled to arrive in Montreal at 10:03, and I had a ticket on a “corridor” train which was scheduled to leave for Toronto at 11:00. VIA Rail’s corridor is similar to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The Northeast Corridor connects Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington. The VIA Rail corridor connects Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

    However, there was a fly in the ointment. The Ocean had been running an hour and a half late since sometime yesterday. Fortunately, the corridor train I was scheduled on, train 65, was intended as a connection for the Ocean. So, around 9:30 this morning an announcement was made that train 65 would be held for the arrival of the Ocean. Provided the Ocean didn’t get much later.

    The Ocean actually made up a bit of time, and arrived in Montreal at 11:40. Train 65 was just across the platform, so it was easy to find, but it was a long walk to my car, which was the last car in the train. I was in business class, in a car with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other. I was in a single seat, which is nice, although it faced backwards. The train left at 11:47, 47 minutes late.

    Shortly after departure, one of the attendants came down the aisle with a drink cart, and I got a Diet Coke.

    For a time, I was afraid that there were no electric outlets in this car, which is hard to believe in the age of devices. About 45 minutes after departure, I thought of a logical (but hard to see) place for them to be. I reached down, and my fingers felt outlets! So the iPad got plugged in, and the charger even kept pace with the power used by my map app.

    After a while, we left Quebec province, and entered Ontario. One way to tell is by the announcements. All announcements are in both French and English. In Quebec, the French version comes first. In the other provinces, it’s English first.

    Lunch was served at my seat. We had a choice of pasta, beef or cold chicken. I chose the beef. It had beef, carrots, green beans and mashed potatoes, exactly like the meal I had on the Lake Shore Limited. And like that Amtrak meal, all the hot ingredients were in the same dish. But unlike Amtrak, VIA Rail managed to make it look and taste palatable. There was a salad, and desert was a vegan double chocolate cookie. Not the best cookie I ever had, but, considering the disadvantages implicit in no dairy and no eggs, it wasn’t bad.

    Entering the Toronto area, the track followed the shoreline of Lake Ontario, presenting a wonderful view of the lake stretching to the horizon, with the white sails of a single sailboat challenging the blue of the lake.

    In spite of having run 90 to 95 MPH most of the way, train 65 lost more time, arriving at 5:27 PM, one hour 10 minutes late.

    After finding the baggage carousel and claiming my bag, I exited the station, crossed the street, and checked into the Fairmont Royal York where I will spend three nights while waiting for the departure of VIA Rail train 1, the Canadian, on Sunday morning.
     
  12. Sep 14, 2019 #12

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 11 — Friday, Aug 23: Toronto

    While I was planning this trip, I found three places that I wanted to visit which were clustered together near my hotel. They were CN Tower, the Toronto Railway Museum and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. In terms of my interest, the railway museum was first, CN Tower second, and the aquarium was last. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to the aquarium.

    Because of a combination of back pain, arthritis and COPD, I find it difficult to stand for long periods or to walk long distances. Since I was going to have two free days in Toronto and everything I wanted to do involved walking, I made arrangements before I left on the trip to rent a mobility scooter which would be delivered to my hotel before I arrived and picked up from there after I left.

    This morning, I went to the concierge at the hotel and talked to her about the places I wanted to visit. She was able purchase a combination ticket for the aquarium and CN Tower. She also gave me directions for any easy street route to the attractions. It was only four blocks, easy enough to do on the scooter.

    The first attraction I came to was the aquarium, so I decided to try it first. It turned out to be pretty amazing. It had excellent exhibits, good signage, and cogent, lucid explanations of everything. The absolute best part of the aquarium was a glass tunnel. The curved top of the tunnel was so clear and free of reflections that you couldn’t see it at all. Combined with the crystal-clear aquarium water, it created the illusion that the fish were floating in the air above your head. Watching a six foot long shark float right over you is a surreal experience, and one I won’t soon forget. The only problem with the aquarium is how many families with small children this wonderful place had attracted. It made moving around on the scooter difficult. I’m not sure how I managed to avoid running into any children, but I did.

    The next stop was CN Tower, and the first problem was getting in. It’s hard to believe, but CN Tower has no automatic doors for handicapped access. I was dependent on the kindness of strangers holding doors so that I could get in. Once in, I encountered long lines for the elevators. But when I finally reached the observation deck, the view was magnificent. The view of the city was great, and probably would have been even better if I had known the city. As it was, the only locations I was really able to identify were Union Station and my hotel. More impressive by far was the view of Lake Ontario. It still stretched all the way to the horizon, but there were a lot more boats on the water than yesterday, including a three-masted schooner. I ate lunch on the observation deck (not in the fancy revolving restaurant one deck up), getting a $12 hamburger. It wasn’t very good.

    The final stop was the railway museum. It is in a roundhouse, complete with turntable. The spaces between the rails from the turntable pit to the roundhouse were filled with bricks some time ago, and the bricks have sunk down quite a bit in places, making for a bumpy ride. The museum has a couple of steam engines and a handful of diesels, plus some passenger cars and a couple of cabooses. The big problem is that there are very few signs identifying anything. I wandered around for a while looking at what they had, but I soon got very tired of the rough bricks trying to shake the scooter apart, and went back to the hotel.

    Today was an interesting day, not in the least because my initial estimates of the relative value of the three attractions were totally reversed by the actual experience.

    Tomorrow, I plan to go to the ROM. (Stay tuned to find out what a ROM is.)
     
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  13. Sep 14, 2019 #13

    PaulDobbs

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    Day 12 — Saturday, Aug 24: Toronto

    Today’s plan was to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, aka the ROM. The first problem was to get there with the scooter. I had consulted with the concierge the previous day and discovered that I could get there by subway. The problem was that the Museum subway stop does not have an elevator. But, I could go one station past the museum to the St. George station, which does have an elevator and I would only have to go a block and a half back to the museum.

    The starting station for this little trip would be the subway station in Union Station, right across the street from my hotel. So I went to Union Station and started to hunt for the subway station. I followed sign after sign that said “subway,” to no avail. I finally had a conversation with a VIA Rail baggage handler that resolved the problem. Due to construction on Union Station, you have to leave Union Station to get to the part of Union Station that has the subway station. Then I had to find the elevator that would take me down to the correct platform. Union station is the southernmost station on this subway line, and both directions the train departs in are north. After I resolved this, I boarded a train and headed, well, north.

    After getting off at the St. George station, the next test was to find the elevators to get to street level. Two are needed, one from the platform to the concourse, and one from the concourse to street level. Once at street level, I used Apple Maps to help me find the ROM. As it turned out, there was a simpler solution: follow the two ladies who had ridden up in the elevator with me. They were also going to the ROM.

    The ROM is amazing! Also, the ROM is a maze. More about that later, but first the amazing part.

    The ROM has a large section on Asia: Chinese architecture, Chinese sculpture, Japan, Korea. I somehow missed the Korean part. On the second level, the theme is natural history, including an unbelievable number of dinosaurs. On the third level, there are cultural exhibits, including an extensive set of exhibits on the development of style in Europe. There is a large section on European furniture over the years. I saw so many different sample rooms from so many periods that, if I could remember it all, I could do set design for period movies. Also, on the third level, there are cultural exhibits from most of the world.

    Back when I said that the ROM is a maze, I meant it. It is in a very modern building that I was told has been added on to a number of times, and the galleries are often strangely shaped, with narrow corridors connecting them at odd angles. And the floors within each level are at different heights. Most of the time, there were ramps, but to get into the European section, I had to use a wheelchair lift that wasn’t quite large enough for the scooter.

    And then there was the fun I had trying to find the cafe. It is on level B1. But not all the elevators go to B1. And when I found one that did, I learned that there is an east level B1 and a west level B1. To quote an old song*, “East is east and west is west, and the wrong one I have chose.” Fortunately, a nice gentleman showed me how to go back up to level 1 and find the right elevator to take me down to west B1, or I’d probably still be hungry.

    I have a couple of other nits to pick with the ROM. I found the labels on a lot of the exhibits hard to read. They were in fairly small type on a gray background, and sometimes I couldn’t get close enough in the scooter to make them out. I kept having to put my glasses on and take them off. Also, it was cold in there!

    After 4 or 5 hours, I was tired, the scooter was running low on charge, and I was chilled to the bone, so I came back to the hotel, even though there was lots I hadn’t seen. The subway was a bit easier to negotiate the second time, although the elevators still tried to hide from me.

    Would I go back to the ROM? Yes! But I’d take a jacket.

    *”Buttons and Bows” recorded by Dinah Shore in 1947.
     
  14. Sep 14, 2019 #14

    PaulDobbs

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    Day 13 — Sunday, Aug 25: VIA Rail Canada 1

    I got up this morning at 6 AM. At about 7:30, I was all packed and ready to go, so I called for a bellman to help me with my bags. On interesting thing about this hotel is that they always use your name when they answer the phone. As in “Good morning, Mr. Dobbs.” When I called for the bellman, they asked where I was going, and I told them Union Station. The bellman didn’t just take my bags down to the lobby, he took them across the street and all the way to the VIA Rail information desk in the station, where he handed me over to a VIA Rail redcap. The redcap tagged the bag I wanted to check for Vancouver, then he carried my backpack to the Prestige class lounge. In the lounge, an attendant tagged my backpack for delivery to my room. The Prestige class lounge is a separate room at the back of the VIA Rail business lounge. It was well supplied with beverages and snacks.

    About a half hour before scheduled departure, the Prestige class passengers were led down to the train and boarded ahead of everyone else.

    So what is this Prestige class? On the Canadian, VIA Rail train 1, there are two classes of sleeper passengers: Sleeper Plus and Prestige. Sleeper Plus passengers ride in standard sleeper cars in cabins for 2, cabins for 1, and even even open sections. Remember the old movies, with upper and lower bunks separated from the aisle by nothing more than a curtain? That’s an open section. Sleeper Plus passengers get their meals free, but everything else costs extra.

    Prestige class passengers get more. To start with, they get a room that is much larger than anything else I’ve ever seen. According to a VIA Rail brochure, the room is 6 feet 11 inches wide and 7 feet 7 inches long. Separated from that room by a sliding door is a bathroom that is 2 feet 8 inches by 6 feet 11 inches. About 1/3 of the bathroom is a separate shower with glass doors. Both rooms are wood paneled. The bedroom has an L-shaped couch for daytime and a large bed that folds down from the wall. It also has a flat-screen TV set on the forward wall, loaded with movies, and what is carefully referred to as a cooler cabinet, not a refrigerator. It is very shallow, about deep enough to put a coke can in. It is there to store medicine that must be kept cool, but it can also be stocked with drinks. Prestige class passengers don’t pay for anything on board. Soft drinks, snacks and even alcoholic drinks are all included in the fare. Which, by the way, is ridiculous. As in, “I can’t believe I spent that much money on this trip!”

    The Canadian got off at 9:45, about 15 minutes late. The diner served a brunch from about 10 AM to 2 PM. I ate scrambled eggs about noon.

    I spent most of the afternoon in the dome of the Parks car, watching the scenery and conversing with some of my fellow passengers. I had a supper reservation for 7 PM and went to the diner when that serving was announced.

    During dinner, my Murphy bed was put down. Since I was not quite ready for bed, I went to the Parks car to hang out in the Bullet lounge and complete this report.
     
  15. Sep 14, 2019 #15

    PaulDobbs

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    Day 14 — Monday, Aug 26: VIA Rail Canada 1

    I got up this morning a bit before 6 AM, when the sky got light. After my shower, I went to the diner, where they were serving a continental breakfast. When I left the room, I put the hanging card on the door that indicated that I was ready to have my room made up, and when I got back from breakfast, it was.

    From there, I went to the Parks car. As I passed through the small lounge under the dome, one of the ladies who take care of the Prestige class passengers asked if I wanted anything. I requested a Diet Coke, and went on up to the dome, where she brought it to me a few minutes later.

    At this time, we were about 100 miles (give or take a whole bunch, I’m just guessing) north of Lake Superior, and headed west through heavy forest. We stopped in the small town of Armstrong, Ontario, for 2 eastbound freights.

    VIA Rail calls the people who care for Prestige passengers concierges, rather than the attendants that work the regular sleepers. There are three of them and they are fantastic. They make regular passes through the dome to see if anyone needs anything, so I got a refill of my drink. Every afternoon, they bring snack trays up to the dome for anyone who wants one.

    So far, I haven’t explored much of the train. The second car in front of my sleeper is the diner that I use (there are 2 on the train), and the second car behind it is the Parks car. And that’s all I really need of the train. But it’s actually a fairly long train. From my seat in the dome of the Parks car, I can see three other dome cars spaced through the train.

    Riding on the Canadian, VIA Rail lack of legal superiority over freights is obvious. We seem to stop and wait every few miles. When the law creating Amtrak was passed, Amtrak trains were given superior rights over freight trains. (It’s not enforced well enough.) But VIA Rail has no such protection, and it shows.

    The part of Ontario that the train has been traversing most of the time since we left Toronto is all lakes, rocks, and trees. As if to add variety to our trip, this afternoon was rainy, creating a darker shade of beauty.

    At 5:10 PM, we crossed into Manitoba in a rainstorm. The landscape began transforming itself into prairies. First, we left the lakes behind, then the rocks and hills flattened. Finally, the forest thinned and disappeared, revealing the rich agricultural land of Manitoba.

    At 7:55, while I was at dinner, the train pulled into the Winnipeg station. The service crew on the train is replaced here, so we have to say goodbye to our concierges. After dinner, I went to the Bullet lounge to sit with my new friends and complete this report.
     
  16. Sep 14, 2019 #16

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    Day 15 — Tuesday, Aug 27: VIA Rail Canada 1

    When I got up this morning, I discovered that the train had crossed into Saskatchewan during the night. Saskatchewan is called the bread basket of Canada because it grows more than half of Canada’s wheat. And that was evident because everywhere we looked, there were wheat fields stretching to the horizon.

    We pulled into Saskatoon about noon. I had lunch with an English couple. We started out talking about differences in our (mostly) common tongue, and segued into British crime fiction. At one point, I was asked if I had read Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. When I replied, “All of them,” I learned that the couple lived in Shrewsbury, the setting of the Cadfael books.

    Just after 5:20, we rolled into Alberta. By this time, the scenery was rolling hills. According to the route guide furnished by VIA Rail, this is cattle country. I also saw some oil wells.

    One of my new friends walked the whole train this afternoon, and reported that it was 21 cars long. You can add a baggage car and two engines to that. My car is the Chateau Lauzon, one of an order of 29 sleepers from 1954. The Chateau series was named after prominent figures in French Canadian history. Jean de Lauzon was governor of New France fro 1651 to 1657. The car contains six Prestige cabins for 2. There is also a Manor series of sleepers named for prominent figures in English Canadian history.

    After dinner, I again went to the Bullet lounge. The conversation tonight was on minor-league hockey, so I didn’t contribute.
     
  17. Sep 14, 2019 #17

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    Day 16 — Wednesday, Aug 28: VIA Rail Canada 1

    During the night, I awakened briefly as the train was backing into the Edmonton station at 1:49 AM, one minute short of five hours late. It appeared to be raining there.

    By the time I woke up this morning, we were in slightly hilly, heavily forested country, and it was obvious that we were approaching the Canadian Rockies. After breakfast, when I got into the dome of the Parks car, we were catching glimpses of the mountains ahead. We were running about four and a half hours behind, which simply gave us more time to appreciate the approach to the mountains. Even better, the day was, as we used to say in the Air Force, “severe clear.” During our short stop in Hinton, a wall of mountains was visible ahead. The Hinton station was a small three-sided shelter not unlike a bus stop. It reminded me of some Amtrak stations in New Mexico.

    The Canadian National tracks follow the Athabasca River into the mountains. As we followed the river, solid rock mountains towered over us, bare of trees not because of height, but because their rock gave the trees no place to grow. And between the mountains, we had beautiful views up the river. By this time, there were a few clouds hanging around the mountains, created by the interplay of the winds and the mountains.

    Not long after we entered the mountains, we entered Jasper National Park, the largest of Canada’s four Rocky Mountain Parks. The ambiance was not harmed in the slightest by one of the new concierges who got on at Winnipeg, who came up to the dome with a tray of mimosas.

    In Jasper, I got off the train briefly and took a couple of pictures, including a picture of a man cleaning the dome windows so that we could see the Rockies better. It was on the cool side in Jasper: 55 degrees. Given that it was 101 when I got on the train in Fort Worth to start this trip, that’s noticeable. Actually, it wasn’t bad in the sun.

    In the Parks car dome, the first three rows have signs on them reserving them for Prestige class passengers. Considering that we started in Toronto with just under twenty Prestige passengers, twelve seats seems to work fairly well. The three couples that I had gotten best acquainted with have gotten off now, one in Edmonton and the remaining two in Jasper.

    Seventeen miles past Jasper, we entered British Columbia via Yellowhead Pass, one of the lowest passes over the continental divide, only 1131 meters high. That’s 3710 feet for us non-metric types.

    Thirty-six miles from Jasper, the tracks run along the side of Moose Lake, which is about seven miles long. Moose Lake is the headwaters of the Fraser River. The train will follow rivers down out of the Rockies the rest of the way to Vancouver.

    A few miles farther along, we were treated to a view of Mount Robson, “the Monarch of the Canadian Rockies.” It is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet. The peak of Mount Robson is usually hidden in clouds, but today was one of the few days in the year with a clear view.

    Further on, the track runs through the Rocky Mountain Trench, where much of the land is muskeg, swamp land. The Canadian National Railway had to lay down beds of logs to make the ground firm enough to support the track.

    A few miles farther along, a PA announcement in the Parks car directed our eyes to the left side of the tracks, and the breathtakingly beautiful Pyramid Falls, so called because of the way the falls spread out horizontally from a single fall at the top to a wide area at the bottom.

    During the day the train made up time. Instead of us waiting in the sidings for freight trains, they were waiting for us. Even the passengers who were not experienced train riders noticed it. The Canadian rolled through Kamloops only about an hour and a half late as it was getting dark, ending my last full day on the Canadian.
     
  18. Sep 14, 2019 #18

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    Day 17 — Thursday, Aug 29: VIA Rail Canada 1/Vancouver

    I woke up at 4:30, and discovered that the train was passing through a large Canadian National yard. I thought that we must be nearing Vancouver, so I did the logical thing. I went back to bed.

    I woke up again at about 5:40, just in time to see the Canadian begin to back into Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. The train stopped in the station at 5:52 AM, two hours and eight minutes early. We had gone from five hours late to two hours early! In all my experience on passenger trains, that is unprecedented. I’m sure a lot of it was due to padding in the schedule, but a large part was really made up.

    At 6:05, the PA system woke anyone who was still asleep with an arrival announcement. This was followed by an announcement that, for sleeper passengers, the diner was serving breakfast until 8:00, but all passengers needed to be off the train by 8:30.

    After I got dressed, I went to the Parks car and got a glass of orange juice and a warm blueberry muffin. While in the Parks car, I learned that one of the couples I had met on the train would be taking the same train to Seattle on Saturday morning as I would.

    One of the concierges carried my backpack into the station, found me a place to sit, and then retrieved my checked bag and brought it to me. I could get used to being pampered.

    My next project was to find out when I needed to arrive at the station on Saturday for my 6:35 AM train. I found a VIA Rail baggage handler and asked him. Not only did he know the answer (5:00 to 5:30, because US customs clearance takes place in the Vancouver station), he gave me a customs form so that I could fill it out ahead of time. This is the second time I’ve gotten a good answer from a VIA Rail baggage handler. Maybe I should make asking baggage handlers my new rule.

    I took a taxi to my hotel, getting there shortly after 9:00 AM. It was no surprise that no rooms were ready at that hour, so I checked my bags and went to talk to the concierge. I wound up purchasing a ticket for a hop on/hop off bus tour. Normally, the tickets are good for one day, but due to a slow summer tourist season, they were now good for 48 hours, which is perfect, since I have two free days in Vancouver.

    The nearest stop on the tour is one block from my hotel, so I walked over and hopped on. I rode about half the route and got off at the harbor. I had purchased an add-on ticket for an electric boat harbor tour, so I went for a boat ride. To me, one of the most fascinating sights was an extremely busy seaplane base, with a takeoff or a landing every few minutes. We also saw Canada Place, which is the cruise ship terminal, but there were no cruise ships in port today. We passed by the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club and saw some grand yachts, both power and sail. One of my favorites was a 106 foot long schooner which has been around the world twice.

    I got back on the bus and finished the route back to where I’d gotten on. The trip back wound through Stanley Park, which is quite impressive. We also got a good view of Burrard Inlet, where there were at least ten freighters.

    I returned to my hotel and checked in. I had two projects for the evening: finish today’s log entry, and more importantly, do laundry!
     
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  19. Sep 14, 2019 #19

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    Day 18 — Friday, Aug 30: Vancouver

    The bus tour that that I bought operates two routes: the Parks Route and the City Route. The routes have a number of stops in common, making it possible to change routes. I rode the Parks Route yesterday.

    The plan today was to eat lunch at a restaurant that had been recommended to me, the Water Street Cafe in Gastown. Gastown is the original settlement that became the core of Vancouver. It is named for “Gassy” Jack Deighton, who opened the area’s first saloon in 1867. “Gassy” doesn’t mean what you’re probably thinking. It simply means talkative.

    After eating in Gastown, my plan was to ride the City Route bus tour. To get to Gastown, I rode the Parks Route from its stop near my hotel. I originally thought that this would be a waste, since I had ridden it yesterday, but soon noticed that I was noticing things that had escaped me yesterday, such as the Queen Elizabeth Theater (or is that theatre?). There are two stops (common to both routes) in Gastown. I got off at the first stop and walked to the Water Street Cafe. I got a table in the front window of the cafe with a view of Gastown’s most famous landmark, the steam clock.

    That’s right. A steam-powered clock. Sort of. The clock was built in 1977 as part of an effort to revitalize Gastown, and perhaps to prevent the building of a freeway that would have required the demolition of major parts of both Gastown and Vancouver’s Chinatown. Apparently it worked; Vancouver has no freeways to this day.

    It is a pendulum clock, gravity driven by descending weights. When the weights reached bottom, a small steam engine raised them back up. Unfortunately, the clock didn’t keep very good time, and since 1996, it has been powered by a small electric motor.

    But that doesn’t mean the steam is gone. At the four corners of the top of the clock case, there are steam whistles, with a larger one in the center. The smaller whistles sound the notes of the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes, and on the hour this is followed by the sound of the big whistle. There is always a cloud of escaping steam around the top of the clock, which is multiplied when the “chimes” sound.

    I watched the clock from noon to 12:45, and every time that a quarter hour approached, a crowd formed around the clock, and phones appeared in everybody’s hands to photograph or video the event.

    After I finished eating, I caught the City Route tour bus and rode it around learning more about Vancouver. I rode the full route plus a couple of stops, getting off at Canada Place. Canada Place was the Canadian pavilion at Expo 86, which is credited with bringing Vancouver to the notice of the world. It is now the cruise ship terminal for Vancouver. Yesterday, its moorings were empty, but today, there was a cruise shop docked there. Checking the Marine Traffic app showed that it was the Celebrity Millennium.

    At Canada Place, I boarded a Parks Route bus to ride back to the stop near my hotel. Of course, this meant repeating much of the tour from yesterday, but once again, I found myself seeing things I had missed yesterday, especially in Stanley Park. The park is named for Lord Stanley, the sixth Governor General of Canada. Lord Stanley is also known for donating a trophy cup that is still coveted by hockey players.

    These tour busses are heavily patronized, and they often have no empty seats. During the ride back this afternoon, I was forced to share my seat with a wide-bodied person, who crushed me against the side of the bus. I survived the situation and finally returned to my hotel, where I planned an early night because of an early train tomorrow.
     
  20. Sep 14, 2019 #20

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    Day 19 — Saturday, Aug 31: Amtrak 517, Amtrak 8

    I got up at 3:45 this morning because I wanted to arrive at the station just after 5 AM. When I got there, there were already people in line, but none of them in the business class line, so I got to be first in that line. A sign said that boarding would begin at 5:20. It actually began just a few minutes late. As the first person in the business class line, I was processed and assigned my seat first. Clearing customs was as simple as presenting my passport and declaration form and waiting while the customs officer looked at both and stamped the form, returning both.

    I wasn’t the first to board since I was passed on the walk out by a couple of ladies, but I was in my seat by 5:37, 58 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 6:35. The “Bistro” car was open and serving prior to departure and I walked back, bought breakfast and ate it at my seat before departure.

    “Bistro” should have been your first clue that this was no ordinary train. The Amtrak Cascades trains are funded by the states of Washington and Oregon. There are 11 trains a day, although none of them operate over the entire Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon Route. The equipment is unusual. Each train consists of an articulated trainset built by the Spanish firm Talgo (Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea Oriol), plus a locomotive. “Articulated train-set” means that the cars of a train always stay together. In fact, they can’t be easily uncoupled, since adjacent cars share their wheels. The Talgo cars ride lower than normal cars, and are designed to tilt into curves, allowing them to run faster. The individual cars are also shorter than most passenger cars. My business class car has only six rows of seats. A trainset consists of a baggage car, two business class cars, a lounge car, a bistro car and six or seven coaches.

    Train 517 got underway a few minutes at 7:00, 25 minutes late, and even then had to stop briefly twice before clearing the terminal area. At the US border, the train stopped next to a highway entry post and customs officers clambered down an embankment, crossed two sets of tracks and boarded the train. They walked quickly through the train glancing at passport pictures and collecting declaration forms. I was back in the USA.

    Shortly after crossing the border, we were informed that a freight train ahead of us had “had a trespasser incident.” That was later expanded to “a BNSF train decided to hit a truck and a bus.” We were told that we would be holding outside of Bellingham for about an hour “while they clean that up.” We finally arrived at the Bellingham station one hour thirty minutes late.

    We arrived in Seattle one hour sixteen minutes late. I found a place to sit while I waited for train 8, the Empire Builder.

    The Empire Builder was late arriving at the station for boarding. It showed up at 4:30 for a 4:40 departure. Somehow, everyone got loaded on the train and it managed to depart only one minute late.

    The Empire Builder, train 8, runs between Seattle and Chicago. Another section, train 28, starts in Portland. The two meet in Spokane during the night and are combined into a single train. The section leaving Seattle has a diner but no cafe observation. The section which originates in Portland has a cafe observation but no diner. Sleeper passengers on 28, the Portland section, get a cold box dinner. I’ve had it, and it is much better than the boxed meals on the Lake Shore Limited.

    Of the two sections, my favorite is the Portland section. It runs up the gorge of the Columbia River through some wonderful scenery. I could have ridden the Cascades all the way to Portland and taken that section on this trip, but the connection is quite a bit tighter, and I went for the security of the Seattle connection.

    Shortly after 6:00, we started climbing into the Cascades (the mountains, not the train), moving up a river valley, with mountains on both sides of us. While I was at supper, the train went through the 7.8 mile long Cascade Tunnel. Soon after we emerged, it became dark, so I headed to bed.
     
  21. Sep 14, 2019 #21

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 20 — Sunday, Sept 1: Amtrak 8

    I woke up this morning just before the train arrived in Whitefish, Montana. Montana lives up to its name. There are beautiful mountains everywhere you look, covered in thick pine forests. The route runs through the south edge of Glacier National Park up into Marias Pass. This line has everything: tunnels, snowsheds, slide fences and steep grades.

    A snowshed is a structure, originally wooden, but today concrete and steel, that is built over the track at places where steep hillsides cause the snow to slip downhill. The uphill side of the shed is tucked right into the mountainside and a steep roof allows the snow to keep sliding past the railroad. They are supported by columns and the downhill side is usually open.

    Building snowsheds everywhere is an economic impossibility, so the line can suffer avalanches. This pass has been closed for days at a time due to heavy snow and avalanches, but it’s part of the BNSF northern transcontinental route, so the railroad fights hard to keep it open.

    A slide fence is a defense against rock slides. Its purpose is to detect slides, not stop them. The wires that make up the fence carry an electric current. When a slide occurs, the wires are broken and the current interrupted. That generates a signal warning trains about the slide.

    Marias Pass crosses the continental divide at an altitude of 5213 feet, along the boundary between the Lewis and Clark National Forest and the Flathead National Forest. The Great Northern Railway constructed the track over the pass in 1890. Today, the pass is also used by a highway, US 2.

    Once over the pass, the land quickly becomes more open. It is rolling hills and the trees are confined mostly to around the creeks and rivers. This is grazing country, and both cattle and horses can be seen from the train. Some of the more level areas show signs of having been mowed and there, bales of hay dot the landscape. Farther east, grain elevators start sprouting, along with wheat fields dotted with oil wells.

    We crossed into North Dakota at 5:55 PM. By that time, the countryside had more hills, fewer wheat fields, more oil wells, more cattle. The only large building we passed turned out to be a casino, a long way from any city. The sun is now setting on day 20.
     
  22. Sep 14, 2019 #22

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 21 — Monday, Sept 2: Amtrak 8

    I woke up this morning as the train was entering the Minneapolis area. Ever since it left Seattle, the Empire Builder has been keeping pretty good time, getting at most 23 minutes behind. This morning, it arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul station 50 minutes early.

    The Minneapolis-St. Paul station is on the bank of the Mississippi River. The train follows the Mississippi all morning, until it turns east at La Crosse and and runs to Lake Michigan. When it gets to Lake Michigan, it turns south again until it gets to Chicago.

    In Minnesota, the river is broad, blue and placid, and is a magnet for recreation. Within a half hour, I had seen two sailboats, three or four powerboats and more fishermen than I want to count. And it was twenty after nine on a Monday morning. (When I wrote this, I had forgotten that this particular Monday was Labor Day.)

    Of course, the river is used for commercial purposes as well. Near Whitman we saw a dam and set of locks for barge travel. Further south, a tugboat, without any barges to push, was visible.

    Just prior to arriving in La Crosse, the train crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin. Wisconsin appears to be made up of woods and farm fields. A lot of what I see appears to my uneducated eye to be corn fields. (Where I grew up in west Texas, about the only crop landowners counted on was oil wells.)

    From Milwaukee to Chicago the scenery is unremittingly urban, with the tracks just far enough from Lake Michigan so that the only evidence of the lake is an occasional glimpse of blue.

    The Empire Builder arrived in Chicago at 3:51 PM, four minutes early. I got a ride into the station with an Amtrak redcap, who went beyond the call of duty by carrying my bags all the way to the taxi.

    The taxi delivered me to my hotel, the Palmer House. The current Palmer House is the third hotel of the same name to occupy the same location. It was built in 1923-25, and is very opulent. Check out the picture of the lobby at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Palmer_House_Hilton.

    Tomorrow afternoon, I will catch the final train of this trip.
     
  23. Sep 14, 2019 #23

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 22 — Tuesday, Sept 3: Amtrak 421

    I arrived at Chicago Union Station about 10:45 this morning. Chicago Union Station is big and complex, a bit of a maze. Today, I learned something new about it. I was shown an elevator that goes from outside, on Canal Street, to a spot near the Metropolitan Lounge. I think this is my new favorite entrance.

    After checking in at the lounge, I sat until a bit after 11:00, then went up the escalator to the food court, where I bought and ate a slice of pizza. Back at the lounge, I waited until my train was called and then got a ride with a redcap to the train.

    The train departed on time, but it had just cleared the station when the power in the rooms went off and the train stopped. We were informed that our engine had died. Amtrak mechanical came out, and at about 2:15, the power came back on. Finally, at about 2:30, we started moving again.

    The rail line runs southwest through Illinois from Chicago toward St. Louis. Major stops are Joliet, Pontiac, Bloomington-Normal and Springfield. Once the train leaves Joliet, the land is flat, and the scenery is farms and more farms. I took a nap. The older I get, the more I like naps, and the farms weren’t all that exciting.

    This is a good stretch of track for a nap. The state of Illinois began a project several years ago to upgrade these tracks so that the state-supported trains between Chicago and St, Louis could run at 110 MPH. The track improvements are done, but the required Positive Train Control system has not been implemented and tested yet, which is a requirement for the higher speeds, so trains are still limited to 79 MPH. But the improved track is some of the smoothest I’ve ridden on.

    We are running about an hour late, so the sun is setting as we approach St. Louis. During the night, the train will cross Missouri and Arkansas. If it’s on time tomorrow morning, I should awaken around Texarkana.
     
  24. Sep 14, 2019 #24

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Day 23 — Wednesday, Sept 4: Amtrak 421

    The Texas Eagle was still running late this morning, so when I woke up, we were approaching Hope, Arkansas.

    As we neared Texarkana, I did something I had never tried before: watching myself. I went to the website of Virtual Railfan, a company that has 71 video cameras in 44 different places, and pulled up their Texarkana cam on my iPad. Sure enough, I was able to watch Amtrak train 21 (421) with me aboard, arrive.

    From Texarkana, the route of the Eagle runs south to Marshall, then west through Longview, Mineola and dallas to Fort Worth. (That’s not a typo. I never capitalize dallas.)

    From Fort Worth, it runs south to San Antonio, where one coach and the sleeper that I am in will be attached to the Sunset Limited, and run all the way to Los Angeles. But not with me. Not today. I’m going home for a while.

    The ride through east Texas is nice, with interesting and varied scenery, just not spectacular. Actually, I’ve never ridden a train that didn’t have nice scenery. That’s one of the great parts of riding the train. You get to see the country “up close and personal.” You’ll never see the things you can see from a train when you fly. This is a great country, and the best way to see it is through a train window.

    We arrived in dallas at 12:20, about 50 minutes late, and the stop was shortened to 10 minutes. The dallas to Fort Worth time improved greatly a few years ago when the Eagle stopped running on Union Pacific track and started to use the Trinity Railway Express route.

    We arrived in Fort Worth at 1:14, eleven minutes early. I was home.
     
  25. Sep 14, 2019 #25

    PaulDobbs

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    PaulDobbs

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    Some final thoughts

    I don’t have a bucket list, but if I had one, this trip would have been on it. I’ve talked to some folks who said it was on theirs.

    Canada is a beautiful country, and I cannot imagine a better way to see it. I spent a lot of time preparing for this trip and imagining how it would be. It was better than my imagination ever made it. The cities I visited were beautiful, and all the Canadians I met were were friendly. The trains were clean, in good repair, and operated perfectly. Yes, they ran late occasionally, but that seldom bothers me.

    Was spending a ridiculous amount on Prestige class worth it? Yes, but the real reason was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t the big fancy room, complete with TV set. I spent very little waking time in my room, and never turned the TV on. The thing that made it worth the money was the Parks car. Or rather, what the Parks car engendered.

    The Parks car was exclusive to Prestige passengers from 9 AM to 4 PM, and even within those hours only a small portion of the Prestige passengers used the dome. Those who did became quite friendly and well acquainted, and the conversation was constant. I got to know three very different couples on this trip and my memories of them form as big a part of this experience as everything else. Good friends, great scenery, wonderful food, fantastic service. I could not have asked for more.

    Would I do it again? Yes!
     
    anumberone, Maglev and Dakota 400 like this.

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