All those interested in taking an overnight trip on VIA Rail should first acquaint themselves with the concept of “ambient air temperature”. I had a crash course real-life experience in the concept a few nights ago and it’s kept me off the trains ever since. In a nutshell, the air temperature in the VIA cars is inherently related to the temperature outdoors. No-one working for VIA (at least not the dozen or so people I asked) seems to know exactly what the interrelationship is, but what they do know for sure is that when the temperature outdoors goes down (as it did, drastically, a few nights ago), so does the temperature in the VIA cars. Not just somewhat down; very, very down. Not so far down that you can see your breath, but pretty close to it.

Compounding the cold is the genuine 1950s chrome accents on the armrests, seat backs, walls, ottomans, window ledges, etc., which not only hold the cold but eagerly transfer it to any human flesh (clothed or unclothed) unlucky enough to press against it. Doubly compounding the cold are the air re-circulators (33% recycled air) on the ceilings that force the chilled air throughout the cars at breakneck speed (kind of like how fast VIA engineers have to go when they’re behind schedule, which is pretty much every run now due to the freight traffic, which has precedence over passenger rail traffic). The Service Manager I spoke to told me that the air in the cars is kept “more or less at room temperature”, but the problem is the chilled air that blasts throughout the cars at around 100 miles an hour. Of course he was exaggerating. Not

The good news is that the bathrooms are warmer than the rest of the train. I think it has to do with the light bulbs around the vanity, which give off some small but welcome heat. It could also be that there’s a heating mechanism (I think) under the toilet to keep it functioning in near-sub-zero temperatures such as what we were experiencing.  Or it could be that our ever-growing collective “pile” was heating up the joint. Whatever it is, the bathrooms aboard VIA Rail are definitely the place to be when ambient air temperature becomes an issue.

On the night in question (when the ambient air temperature first took a dive), there were some onboard who obviously were well acquainted with the concept, as they’d come prepared with sleeping bags, duvets, hats, gloves, scarves, winter boots, etc., and this in the first week of September. Those of us who were caught unawares were left to fend off the cold whatever way we could, which meant that at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., etc., whenever someone couldn’t take it anymore, out came the towels, the bathrobes, the extra shirts, the extra socks – whatever could be found in carry-on luggage groggily hauled down, amid muffled cursing, from the overhead compartments. All I had was a lightweight 4X4 blanket and a towel, so I draped the towel over my head like Mother Mary and mummified myself in my blanket. My feet still stuck out and my face was still getting blasted by the overhead fans, so I put up my umbrella to shield myself, but the air managed to find its way around the umbrella edges anyway. Mission complete failure.

The next day the train stopped for nearly an hour in Jasper. The first thing I did – even before checking my emails – was march to the nearest sports store and buy an emergency blanket. I’d used one before and knew they were effective in retaining body heat, but what I’d forgotten was how noisy they are. I opened up the blanket as I was hunkering down for the night, and right away I felt the blessed heat…  but I knew I couldn’t use the thing. Every time I moved – even ever so slightly – I sounded like a giant rustling chip bag. What to do? I could bite the bullet, stay toasty warm, and annoy my neighbours all night with the sound of furtive rustling, or I could freeze again and spare my neighbours the annoyance. So, being a typically polite Canadian, I froze. Actually, I found that taking frequent brisk walks helped warm me up, so I basically walked around the train all night asking myself what the heck I was doing.

Two nights later, I’m still asking myself the same question. I was supposed to be on the train that left the Vancouver station a few hours ago, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get on board. And I won’t go back until I’m suitably prepared with at least a sleeping bag and a hat. Like this: