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Oh, Canada: In the middle of the middle of nowhere

Full disclosure: I’m not looking forward to the trip from Toronto to Winnipeg. It’s a 40-hour journey through the hinterland of Northern Ontario, with only a few station stops (at unmanned “ghost” stations). It’s also two nights on the train in coach class, sleeping sitting up. I’ve done one-nighters from Halifax to Montreal and sworn I’d never do them again. But here I am – heading into a two-nighter and wondering if it wouldn’t be better just to take a plane to Edmonton and catch the train to Jasper from there, since it’s really only the mountains I want to see. Years ago, a friend who’d taken the trip from Toronto to Winnipeg a few times warned me how awful it was. Maybe it’s the memory of that warning that’s making me so reluctant to board now.

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So yes, there I was – on the night before the Big ChooChoo from Toronto to Winnipeg, checking out flight costs on the Flight Centre website and hoping for a freakishly cheap rate from Toronto to Edmonton that would be a sign to me that flying was the way to get to the mountains. But no – if anything, the flights were freakishly expensive, so I wasn’t going to be able to wriggle out of the train ride that way. It was either get on the train to Winnipeg, or not go west at all. And if I didn’t go west, I wouldn’t see the mountains, and seeing the mountains is the only reason I’m going west.

So …

… onto the train I got, but in body only. My mind was somewhere else (for the most part back in Whole Foods, which I’d reluctantly left in Toronto and was now counting the days until I could see again in Vancouver). It didn’t help that I found out more or less as soon as I settled into my train seat that there would be NO ONBOARD INTERNET UNTIL I GOT BACK TO TORONTO. I kid you not. The entire western half of the country is an Internet black hole on VIA Rail, except for the train stations at Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Jasper and Vancouver. That info must have been in super-dooper-teeny-tiny-1-size font on the VIA website, because I don’t recall seeing it anywhere, and had I known that there would be no onboard Internet west of Toronto, I likely wouldn’t have signed on for a 60-day tour. As I’ve been telling my mother over and over again (and to paraphrase Dustin Hoffman, sort of): I’m working here. I’M WORKING HERE!

 

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It’s raining. My window is leaking water onto my laptop. The car is full of screeching kids because, as the VIA ad promises: “Kids aged 2 to 11 travel for only $15 anywhere in Canada in economy class, from June 20th to August 31st”. So I’m now not only counting the days until I see another Whole Foods, I’m counting the days until the $15 deal expires on VIA and the parade of screeching kids come screeching to a halt.

These kinds of things should come with BIG WARNINGS on the VIA website. Not having Internet for days on end is not just an inconvenience; it’s a deprivation and, in my case, potentially lost business. And having to travel for days on end with screeching children stomping endlessly up and down the aisles is not just an annoyance; it’s a torture and, in my case, potential homicide charges.

Haha – just kidding!

I wouldn’t kill the little bastards – I’d just tie them up and muzzle them (but NICELY!).

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Even with the rain, it would be nice to step outside at the next stop. The air looks so clean and fresh (no dreaded pollution haze on the horizon). In theory, you would think it would be pleasurable to step outside during the station stops, but noooooo…. The reality is that no fresh air greets you, since the nicotine-starved travellers have gotten there first and are stinking up the place. The air around the train during the station stops is probably more polluted than Beijing during its infamous smog alerts.

via rail smoke stops

So this is looking more and more like Plan B is the next step. Plan A was to head to Vancouver, spend nine days on the coast, choochoo it to Jasper and up to Prince Rupert and back, head for Winnipeg and up to Churchill and back, and then return to Southern Ontario and points east. However, being out of Internet range for all of the train time west of Toronto might not be practical for me. Plan B (which I just now invented, out of necessity) is to head to the west coast as planned (I’ll have Internet access for the nine days I’m off the train on the coast), but then cut off the side trips to Prince Rupert and Churchill. As sad as I am about that, I can’t sacrifice my clients to my pleasure or I won’t have any clients. This means I’ll be back in Southern Ontario two weeks earlier than planned, which will actually get me there for the Toronto Garlic Festival on September 18th (YAY!!), so all is not lost.

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There’s a heavily pregnant woman onboard with three screeching kids. She’s past her due date, and she asked the train attendant to find out how much it would cost to upgrade to a sleeper for the night. He came back with the news that it would cost $800 per head (so, $3,200 for the woman and her three rugrats; I’m surprised they didn’t charge her another $800 for the one in her belly). This is absolutely ridiculous. I used to upgrade to sleeper quite frequently when I was travelling between Halifax and Montreal. At that time, coach class tickets were ALWAYS around $100 (the didn’t vary according to moon phase or algorithms, like they do now) and getting a sleeper car for the night was around $60 extra (once I even got it for $40, since that’s all I had on me). Generally speaking, the upgrades were just over half the price of a regular ticket, and they were liberally offered onboard by attendants who would walk through the cars at around 10 at night, asking if anyone would like to buy a sleeper.

Train ticket prices, like airline tickets, now spike and drop according to some mysterious pricing law that I have yet to figure out. However, the norm for a ticket from Toronto to Winnipeg is somewhere in the $200-$400 range, depending on when you book. If we then apply the previous formula (that a sleeper upgrade is approximately half of the ticket price), then it should cost no more than $220 tops. How on Earth did they come up with $800 a piece (especially since all her kids were under the age of 12 and are supposed to be travelling for free)? This, plain and simple, is gouging. It’s also a way to keep the hoi polloi out of the sleeper class area. As the sign warns: “Sleeper class passengers only past this point.” If you can’t afford their hyper-inflated upgrades, then you just don’t belong there. It’s as simple as that.

 

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PEASANTS KEEP OUT!

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The sun has come out, the clouds are clean and fluffy, the sky is clear blue (no pollution haze in the boonies!), and I’ve brushed my teeth. All of this means I’m in a slightly better mood, but still no Internet (or, for that matter, cell phone reception). I look out the window and swear we’ve been passing by the same stand of scrubby jack pines for the past 12 hours. Now we’ve stopped again in the middle of nowhere (or, better said, in the middle of the middle of nowhere), having to make way yet again for yet another emergency priority delivery of emoji pillows to Giant Tiger.

emogi pillows

On the American-owned CN lines, junk from China trumps passengers every time. We should all be happy to know, however (as one attendant sternly advised me), that the delays are not as bad as they used to be. And we’re warned about the delays on the VIA website, so we can’t claim ignorance, and if we suffer for them, it’s our own damn fault.

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It’s odd, but I haven’t seen any wildlife since I left Toronto last night. Nearly 24 hours in the wilderness, and nothing. Not even a bird. That’s very strange and a bit unsettling. I was hoping to see a bear or two (or at least a beaver) but I’d even settle for a crow at this point. Where have all the animals gone? It’s possible that the screeching train (or screeching kids) scared them off. Maybe if we sit here long enough, something will wander by.

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[Several hours later….] We’ve been sitting on the tracks for nearly two hours on an unscheduled stop due to a faulty engine. I asked an attendant what was going on, and he admitted that the engine actually has to be replaced, here, now, in the middle of the night and in the middle of the middle of nowhere. The train is being violently shunted forward and backward as the new engine jostles into place. An attendant I asked nearly an hour ago informed me that the delay would be short and we’d be leaving right away, but here we still sit. Looks like we’re due for a late arrival in Winnipeg.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog entry, I did not want to go on this trip from Toronto to Winnipeg, and delay after delay for freight trains and now engine car replacement isn’t endearing me to the journey. That I don’t particularly want to go to Winnipeg isn’t helping matters any, either, as is my not particularly wanting to go to Edmonton, or Vancouver, or even Jasper. I just want to see the mountains. If I train it out to the mountains, get my fill of the view, and then train it back to Southern Ontario, I’d consider it mission accomplished. Since there’s Internet on all the trains east of Toronto, maybe I can spend the last 3 weeks of my rail pass hunkered down in a weekly hotel somewhere in Toronto and doing day trips around Southern Ontario and Quebec. That would be fine by me, and plus it would not only resolve the Internet issue, it would also take care of the dreaded “hostile” problem that is currently compounding the Internet one: I’m just not cut out for the group-hug mentality of the hostel lifestyle.

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Finally pulled into Winnipeg, two hours behind schedule. No apology or explanation for the delay. Overall, I’d give the trip a C minus, but only because I’m feeling generous now that I’m off the train and I got to keep a two-seater all to myself the whole way. Otherwise, the rating would have been in the D range.

Here’s why: the bathrooms were either Out of Service or out of toilet paper and there was no seat-side garbage collection at all (as there was in every train east of Toronto). Hordes of shrieking kids were left to run wild without any oversight by the crew. We were also left totally in the dark about what was going on at any given time. No announcements about any of the delays (I only found out because I asked attendants). There was even allegedly a robbery (which I found out about from one of the passengers, so I can’t verify it one way or another), which accounted for one of the longer delays. No announcements about keeping valuables close at hand. No announcements about time change when we crossed the Manitoba border. Overall, no directives at all. People were sleeping on the floor across the aisles like in third world countries. This is supposed to be the “flagship” of VIA rail, but maybe all the flagshipping was in the upper classes because I didn’t see much evidence of it in economy.

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The verdict? Not looking forward to doing a 2-nighter in coach class again anytime soon (or ever again). Can’t believe I’m thinking this (given how much I was looking forward to being on the trains) but I might consider other transportation options for getting back to Toronto.

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