Westward on the Empire Builder and Back East on the Canadian
May 17 - June 4 2009
On May 17, my wife Jody and I began a dream vacation on Amtrak’s Train No. 7, the Empire Builder, to Seattle followed by a trip on VIA Rail’s Canadian, Train No 2, from Vancouver to Toronto by way of Jasper National Park. We began on a Southwest Airlines flight from Birmingham to Chicago. At 2:00PM we boarded Amtrak Sleeping Car 730 and settled into an Economy Room on the lower level next to the Family Room. Across the aisle was a European couple we rarely saw.
Walking to the train I noticed three orange Milwaukee Road cars tied to the tail end of the Builder. They were an observation car, a full-length dome coach and a baggage/commissary car. The reporting marks included www.travelrail.com so they were likely hosting a tour group. Beyond the Milwaukee cars No. 7 was made up of ten high-level Superliners led by two Genesis locomotives. Besides the baggage car, the consist included three sleepers and two coaches for Seattle, a dining car, a sightseer lounge, and two coaches and a sleeper for Portland. The lounge and the three Portland cars separated at Spokane, WA, and went southwest along the Columbia River on the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad. This was also the practice with the Great Northern’s Empire Builder and the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited.
A sold out No. 7 departed around 2:20PM and the car attendant, Dennis, stopped by to explain the routine and answer questions. Dennis was the most amiable and helpful such person I can recall on Amtrak. As we moved north through a long string of suburbs, Dennis brought us two small bottles of champagne to toast the beginning of our excursion. He was from Seattle and provided spot-on information on what to see during a two-day stopover.
It is common knowledge among passenger train advocates that the Empire Builder was recently given a special upgrade as a model for better service. Several hours into our trip I was impressed. The sight-seer lounge attendant was pleasant and efficient. The lounge car itself was divided between tables with a booth and the usual swivel couches and individual chairs. Next to each chair and couch were small zinc tables with an oval ring fastened on top to hold drinks steady. The design looked and felt good. Nearby a group of old folks like us were having an animated but cordial discussion with a group of “twenty-somethings”. Common ground was found in discussing favorite episodes of Family Guy, The Wire, and John Stewart/Stephen Colbert. A very hip group of geezers.
We entered the dining car with great expectations. Unfortunately, my flatiron steak and veggies arrived cold and Jody’s fish was cold, tough and fishy. Our friendly and accommodating dining car attendant, Noemi, heated my dish up, and Jody received an acceptable substitute of pasta. We shared our table with two middle-aged Minneapolis women returning from a cooking school course in New Orleans. They take yearly vacations together to visit cooking schools. Besides N.O. they had been to California (various places), Santa Fe, New York, Paris, Switzerland, and Berlin. Hong Kong was next. We heard a great lecture on comparative cuisine. Eventually they might open the ultimate fusion restaurant. Then we talked politics and they lectured us about the history and ecology of the Mississippi River outside our window. They were such ideal table-mates I mentally dismissed the disappointing dinner.
After a night-cap in the lounge, Jody retired while I remained to stare at the urbanizing landscape as No. 7 approached the Twin Cities. At the station stop, the Milwaukee Road cars were detached. Parked nearby were the dome-car “Sierra Hotel” and a good-looking heavyweight Pullman named “Gritty Palace.”
After a decent night’s sleep we awoke in North Dakota to a flat terrain with hilly interludes and watery places. Few humans were observed but Canadian geese, ducks, colorful birds, deer and horses were plentiful. Further west the terrain became more hilly with shallow gulches and mini-gorges. Oil and gas wells appeared on ranch lands. Soon Dennis appeared with two refreshing Mimosas. What a welcome treat!
Breakfast was good, as it usually is on Amtrak. At lunch we met an interesting young Canadian who did outdoor photography around the world. Besides his work we discussed politics in the U.S. and Canada. He said Obama’s election was celebrated throughout Canada. Our lunch consisted of tasteless veggie burgers. Strike two! Our companion said the regular beef burger was “OK.”
From the lounge we saw pronghorn antelope in fields and in someone’s front yard. At Havre, MT, we passed a big BNSF yard and then stopped for twenty minutes. I got off to renew our cash supply from a convenient ATM in a bar opposite the station. I also photographed a Great Northern 4-8-4 steam locomotive parked by the depot. The locomotive was built in 1930 and featured cool-looking air pumps hanging from the smokebox.
As the afternoon progressed we saw longhorn cattle and huge ranches with wind socks—presumably for private planes. We had reasonably good pasta at dinner and briefly conversed with a young man who had graduated from Montana State University. He and his mother were en route to Seattle to begin an Alaskan cruise.
At Shelby, MT, the train began moving up, and rugged, snow-covered mountains appeared in the distance. In the lounge a small group of Amish (or Mennonites) from Canada and the USA congregated and talked shop until Whitefish, MT, where the USA contingent got off. During this time the train had moved into a small range of foothills covered with snow patches and then onto a high plain with pine trees and more snow. From that point we could see high mountains with sharp pinnacles to the west and north. Soon the train entered Glacier National Park at East Glacier, MT, and moved even higher via switch backs. There were pine, aspens, willows, birch and poplar all around, and beautiful horses in meadows. At Marias Pass we crossed the Continental Divide where a column marks the spot.
After a second relatively good night in narrow Economy Room beds we showered and enjoyed breakfast. Thankfully, the shower was ample enough to turn around in and didn’t run out of hot water. Later we moved to the lounge car to watch our passage through the Cascade Mountains separating Seattle from Eastern Washington. Gradually, the semi-arid high desert of Eastern Washington began to gain more trees and vegetation. At Wenatchee, WA, we entered the snowy Cascades. A rain forest environment began with waterfalls, lush ferns and thick vegetation. The best part was passing through the 7.8- mile long Cascades tunnel, opened in 1927.
Arrival at King Street station in Seattle was ahead of schedule at 9:30AM. Fortunately the BNSF kept most of its numerous freights out of our way.
Jody and I toured central Seattle for two days with the help of transit authority Senior Citizen passes. We never made the monorail but rode lots of modern, nonpolluting trolley buses. Our impression of Seattle: extreme cleanliness, beautiful and well-endowed with amenities for all ages.
At 7:15AM on May 21 we stood in a long line at King Street Station with boarding passes and passports in hand for Amtrak’s No. 510, the Vancouver-bound “Cascades.” While waiting we saw a Spanish-built Talgo train leave for Portland and Eugene, OR, and “Sounder” commuter trains arrive from Tacoma.
I had hoped 510 would feature Talgo equipment but we settled for two Superliner coaches and a café-bar car pulled by a Genesis locomotive. Disappointing but better than the ThruWay buses Amtrak uses for other Seattle-Vancouver “trains.”
The ride north along Puget Sound was most eye-pleasing. Prosperous looking farms complemented the seacoast. Snow-capped mountains were visible to the west across Puget Sound in the Olympic National Forest. About halfway we obtained a clear sighting of snowy Mount Rainier to the east. Breakfast was a so-so Jimmy Dean ham and egg sandwich, but the coffee was good as one would expect on a Seattle-based train.
The skyscrapers of Vancouver appeared around 10:30. We crossed the Canadian border, the Frazier River, and stopped for twenty minutes. Finally, Canadian authorities “released” the train to enter Pacific Central Station, the ex-Canadian National terminal. After de-training we joined another long line and waited twenty minutes for admission from customs. Fortunately there was no shoe removal or baggage search.
Pacific Central Station, used by Amtrak and VIA Rail, was built in the early twentieth century. It sits in a small park on the edge of Vancouver’s downtown and is blessed with frequent bus service and a nearby station for the city’s super-elevated “SkyTrain.” In the station we paid a ten percent commission to change US dollars into Canadian “Loonies.” Oddly, the station’s ATM machine would not “support” US credit or debit cards. Best to buy Canadian currency ahead of time or find a bank ATM near the station. No information center with live people but instead an electronic board for calling hotels or motels. The magic board also provided tourist information on transportation and sightseeing.
I called our Howard Johnson hotel for directions which led to a fast ride on a trolley bus. Vancouver’s features many electric trolleys, some double-sized with accordion pleats separating the two halves. To accommodate the disabled the front of a bus “kneels” down and a ramp shoots out of the entrance way.
Weather in Vancouver was sunny and cool--perfect for sightseeing. The city’s setting is magnificent with snow-capped mountains to the east, and water—rivers, bays, inlets-- around. The Pacific lies just beyond Vancouver Island situated opposite the city thirteen miles away.
The HOJO was located within easy bus riding or moderate walking distance of downtown. The neighborhood was a colorful mix of “grunge” youth and middle-class Asians. Good restaurants and coffee shops abounded. Taking Asia at its broadest—from Turkey to the Philippines—every kind of Asian cuisine could be obtained within walking distance.
Getting around was easy in this transit rider’s paradise. City, regional, and provincial systems include eight interlinked modes: electric trolley buses, diesel-propane gas buses, SkyTrain elevated trains; commuter trains; auto-passenger ferry boats; “SeaBus” catamaran services; seaplanes; and an intercity bus service between Vancouver and Victoria via the ferry. We sampled all except commuter trains and seaplanes. Patronage on all modes was substantial.
Our best experiences during five days in Vancouver include the following: 1) Exploring Stanley Park, North America’s third largest urban park; 2) Noshing about the Granville Island Market; 3) A day trip to the garden city of Victoria via ferry boats that offered a cafeteria, seafood buffet, and a sighting of killer whales; 4) Watching the 100-year-old steam clock in Gastown tell the time with a variety of whistles; 5) Riding the SkyTrain super-elevated train twenty-five miles into the southern suburbs; 6) Riding the twin-hulled catamaran SeaBus at 11.5 knots for two miles across the Burrard Inlet between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver while giant cruise ships floated past.
Three observations about our experiences: 1) The auto-passenger ferry to Victoria leaves from the southern suburb of Tsawwassen and costs $13.50 Can. per passenger. To reach the dock from our hotel we took three connecting buses for a 60-minute ride and paid $6 Can. The ferry takes about ninety minutes to cross the Georgia Strait and reach Vancouver Island. There, one connects with an “express” bus south to Victoria—another forty-five to fifty minutes. Returning to Vancouver we paid $43 Can. for two tickets on the Pacific Coach Lines intercity bus that included the ferry ride. Excluding time on the ferry, the bus ride took forty-five minutes to reach downtown Vancouver from Victoria.
2) The former Canadian Pacific passenger station, now called Waterfront Station, is on the Burrard Inlet and is the downtown endpoint for buses, SkyTrains, commuter trains, the SeaBus to North Vancouver and seaplanes to Victoria and other points. Thus, it is very handy for sampling these modes. The interior of the station, including original murals, is well preserved. Nearby are waterfront cafes and public places to watch the SeaBus, other watercraft, commuter trains and seaplanes come and go.
3) Five days is not enough to see major attractions like Victoria or Whistler--where the Winter Olympics will be held--and explore the area’s excellent public transit network. This network also includes VIA Rail RDCs that run from Victoria up Vancouver Island to Nanaimo and Courtenay. Eight or nine days would have served us better.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday, May 26, Jody and I rode a trolley bus to the Pacific Central Station to board VIA Rail No 2, the Canadian, for an overnight trip to Jasper National Park. After baggage and ticket checks we joined a multitude in an in-door/out-door lounge near the boarding platform for coffee and snacks while watching VIA personnel put finishing touches on our 28-car train divided into two parts. At 8:00PM came the first boarding announcement. We moved with a hoard past the round-end dome-observation, Strathcona, toward sleeping car No. 213 where Section 1 was reserved. As we boarded, a man watering the other part of our train across the platform smiled, and waving to Jody and me said, “Have a good trip.” Nice start.
At 8:20 the other half of our train pulled out then backed down to couple up to our part. At the scheduled departure time of 8:30 the complete Canadian pulled out with a baggage car, two comfort class coaches, a dome-cafeteria car for coach passengers, two dining cars for sleeping car passengers, two dome lounge cars open to all passengers, nineteen sleeping cars of the Park, Manor and Chateau classes, and the dome-lounge observation. Our Manor class car featured three sections at one end followed by four roomettes, five bedrooms and a drawing room. The car was Budd built in 1952. All the other cars were constructed between 1952 and 1955 for the original CP Canadian of 1955.
Number 2 passed through Vancouver’s eastern suburbs in daylight, dusk and finally in the dark. A pretty female car attendant provided an overview of the train’s amenities, and invited us to a welcome-aboard champagne and cheese party. The champagne flowed and generated a sure enough party that lasted over two hours. Our happy group of Canadians, Brits, two Americans (us), and two moody Belgian men who spoke little English, came up with great ideas to reform health care, end the recession, and institute rational drug policies. I felt pleased with the trip as I rolled into my wide and deep bed, pulled the blue curtains shut and imagined I was on a heavyweight Pullman traveling cross-country in the 1930s.
I awoke around 6:30 as the train arrived at North Kamloops. We had traveled east, then due north, then east again through mountains to reach this spot where the parallel CN and CP lines separate. The CP line continues east to Calgary through the Rockies by way of Banff National Park. The Canadian takes the CN line North through the Rockies along the Thompson River to Harvey, B.C., where the line angles southwest to Jasper and then Edmonton. The view from dome car seats: a raging river; snow covered, saw-tooth mountains, and wildlife. What we saw compared with the best of the American Rockies and overseas mountains we have been privileged to see.
Meals were also a big plus. Breakfast and lunch were served on pink tablecloths, dinner on dark blue tablecloths. That morning I had pancakes with walnuts and maple syrup. Our table companions were English tourists who talked about rail museums and steam excursions in the U.K. Lunch was shrimp and crab cakes prepared in the galley. We lunched with the same couple and talked international politics.
Into Jasper the train was running two hours late thanks to a minor freight derailment ahead, so we enjoyed mushroom ravioli for dinner with a couple from Vancouver. He was an academic and Presbyterian minister at a theological seminary traveling to a family reunion in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At Toronto he and his wife would use a corrider train to Montreal and then VIA’s “Ocean” overnight to Halifax. They usually flew but decided to extend their vacation on the rails. So far they were “loving” it. They compared religiosity in the USA and Canada. In Canada, it seems, secularism is more advanced especially in coastal provinces like British Colombia.
We pulled into Jasper at 6PM with the “Rocky Mountaineer” tourist train on our tail. Waiting for the hotel van I watched window washers furiously scrub the windows and domes of the 28-car Canadian during its shortened thirty-minute layover.
Five days in Jasper included mountain hiking in Jasper National Park and a day driving down the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise in Banff National Park. “Icefields” refers to the mountain glaciers that come close to the highway.
Huge elk were everywhere around Jasper including our hotel parking lot where one wandered to the dining room window and stared at us. We were advised to avoid the females who were calving. Mountain goats and antelope were occasionally seen. On one hike a motorist warned us that a big black bear was wandering our trail. We saw a picture of the bear on his camera and moved to the road. In town we priced pepper spray--$50 per can—and bear bells--$5.00. The bells are attached to belt loops and give the bears “fair warning” of humans approaching. This works, unless the bears are hungry, when the “bear bells” become “dinner bells.”
On June 1 at 3:45PM we arrived at the Jasper depot to wait for the Eastbound Canadian. The train was due from Vancouver at 4:00 and would then layover for an hour and a half to re-supply and clean several hundred windows. During the layover I photographed a CN 4-8-2 on display. It was built in 1923 by the Montreal locomotive works and is beautifully preserved. I also photographed VIA’s No. 5, the Skeena, that now travels tri-weekly from Jasper to Prince Rupert on the Pacific. The new Skeena caters to tourists with gold class service in full length dome cars. It no longer travels overnight but stops about halfway at Prince George where tourists stay at a fancy hotel.
At 5:45 we boarded sleeper No. 222, the Draper Manor and settled into Section 3. This train consisted of twenty-four cars—a baggage car, two diners, two dome-lounge cars, round-end dome-observation Tremblant, a cafeteria car, two coaches, and fifteen sleeping cars. Draper Manor featured three sections, four roomettes, five bedrooms and a drawing room.
Going east, No. 2 passed forested mountains and numerous lakes and rivers. Elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and the rear end of a moose were seen from Tremblant’s dome. The high country faded into the prairies. At Hinton, Alberta, we made a brief stop, moved out past an enormous paper mill and entered a long stretch of double track. Westbound CN freights seemed to pass every twenty minutes.
At dinner we ate with an older couple from Phoenix City, AL, heading for Toronto and then Halifax. A lively discussion of Alabama politics and travel tales ensued during another great meal—a perfectly grilled beef steak. Later we moved to the Tremblant’s dome for three hours of fun-filled conversation with a group of Canadians. Among other things the merits of decriminalizing and taxing marijuana were discussed. This is a hot topic in British Columbia where an estimated half of all adults routinely use the weed.
When bar business slowed an attendant joined the give and take. We asked this personable young man about working on the Canadian. He related the following: Train staff are cross-trained for all on-board jobs and, depending on need, might work as car attendants, waiters, or bar tenders. Dining car waiters make the most money because of tips but work long hours from 6AM to 9PM with little time off. Car attendants have it “easiest” because, apart from setting up beds at night, making them in the morning and catering wine and cheese parties, they sit around unless called by a passenger. A train employee’s primary job on any given trip is chosen by seniority. Our informative barman boarded in Vancouver and lives in Winnipeg where he and the entire Vancouver crew were to be replaced by a Toronto-based crew.
Later I crawled into my lower berth in a pleasant fog and watched us crawl, stop and start, shake, rattle and roll across dozens of turnouts in the huge CN railyard in Edmonton. Mercifully, I fell asleep as we left the city.
The morning of June 2 we ate breakfast with an English couple. He was a detective and had once visited our city, Birmingham, AL, for a forensic class. We all ordered omelettes. They were as good as the conversation.
At mid-morning we climbed into Tremblant’s dome and talked with a Canadian couple from Saskatchewan. They were in potash, uranium and other mineral exports. The Train Director joined us to ask about the trip. He said that VIA will soon renovate the interior of the Canadian’s Budd cars. Due to the battleship-strength car construction, the structure and interior hardware will remain as they are.
A giant bearded man behind us asked the Director about the rumor that “our American friends” were in secret negotiations to buy VIA. I asked him which American friends? He named a consortium of shortline operators, several other groups and a big bank. The Director denied the rumor because “VIA is a Crown Corporation and VIA belongs to all Canadians.” Regarding freight traffic, the Director informed us that neither freight nor passenger trains have rights over one another but that the dispatcher does what’s “best.” The bearded one noted that because most freights no longer fit into sidings, they automatically sideline passenger trains. This is “best” because it saves time (for freight), fuel and money. Besides, the Director chimed in, it’s easier to stop a passenger train than a 150-car freight.
We lunched with German tourist Rolf and Canadian Jim from last night’s conversational binge. Good talk and excellent salmon quiche. Bison were seen. Jim lived in Victoria but was born and raised in Niagara Falls, ON. Before 9/11, he said, people living on the border and known to customs agents crossed freely to see movies, shop, etc. Now passports or special ID cards and lengthy waits are required. Osama has done enormous damage everywhere.
At dinner we ate with another English couple. I enjoyed a just-right slice of prime rib. Winnipeg soon arrived and everyone got off for a two-and-a-half-hour break. There was plenty of daylight and we strolled the clean, orderly-looking downtown. The train departed at 10:30. Jody retired and I removed to Tremblant where I met Jim and other congenial late night folks. We sat in the round end, sipped Grand Marnier on Jim’s recommendation and talked agreeably of many things.
I was exceptionally mellow when Jody appeared in pajamas with an outraged demeanor and exclaimed, “There’s a smoker in our car. Cigarette smoke is circulating through the ventilation system.” When the odor returned at 2:30AM, Jody sniffed at each compartment door and located the culprit. She gently knocked on a young man’s door and informed him that smoking wasn’t permitted anywhere on the train, and that the smell prevented her from sleeping. He tried to assuage her by saying that this tobacco had no artificial additives. He hadn’t realized that the smoke could leave his compartment.
On the morning of June 3, I bathed in a glassed-in shower with a small dressing room attached and breakfasted on yummy pancakes with maple syrup. Jim and a young girl were tablemates. She was headed for Halifax all alone. No relatives there and no friends but, she said, “I’ll soon have many friends.”
I told our waiter we were sorry the trip would end tomorrow morning. She laughed and said, “Not to worry. The trip ends the day after tomorrow.” Shock and disbelief. I was sure that the Canadian took three nights to cross Canada. The waiter was right. Kevin Holland in the 2009:1 issue of Passenger Train Journal (“VIA’s New Canadian Schedule: Too Much of a Good Thing”) writes that on December 2, 2008, the “east bound schedule was lengthened by 13 hours and the westbound by 10 and a half hours…adding a fourth night on board in each direction for passengers making the entire 4,466 km. trip.”
According to Holland the official announcement hinted of problems with CN’s freight traffic. The new schedule returned the Canadian to early 1940s timing. He thinks VIA should now dialog with the CP to return the Canadian to its historic and shorter southerly route via Calgary, Regina and Thunder Bay. We gratefully accommodated ourselves to an extra night on such a fine train that harked back to first class train travel in the 1950s.
Lunch was a delicious shrimp salad followed by maple walnut ice cream. I felt another inch had been added to my waist. Our lunchmates were a Canadian couple from rural British Colombia. He worked with the RCMP (Mounties) and advised us to say absolutely nothing if picked up for questioning. It seems the Mounties indulge suspects in innocent conversation which soon leads to revealing tidbits and eventually the truth. He bemoaned the growth of hard drug traffic in Vancouver fueled by Asian Triad gangs and Mexican smugglers who bring in drugs by boat using B.C.’s hundreds of coastal inlets.
Dinner involved another fine repast of roast pork. Jim accompanied us together with a young Finnish man who spoke no English and looked at his plate the entire time. We now traveled through an endless landscape of lakes, rivers, pine and birch trees. A few stops occurred in small remote villages where passengers got off and on. An American woman in the Tremblant dome remarked on the “Hispanics” she had seen at one village—Why were they there? Canadians told us they were, in fact, “first nation” (called “native Americans” in the USA).
Another pleasant night of fellowship passed in Tremblant’s dome with bloody marys. At breakfast on June 4, I chose an omelette with fresh tomatoes and herbs. Jody, I think, had a waffle or pancakes. The Toronto suburbs began to thicken and at 9:45AM--fifteen minutes late—we pulled into Union Station. After fond farewells to our good friends we located a B & B and rode to it on a street car. We spent the next day exploring Canada’s bustling, cosmopolitan Big Apple. On June 6 we boarded a subway train and after an interminable ride, arrived at the airport station to board an airport shuttle. Then it was back to Birmingham on US Airways via Philly.
This trip has been on my bucket list for years. It was better than I expected and I expected it to be exceptionally good.