Via Rail's "Canadian"
GM's "Train of Tomorrow" of 1947 became the inspiration for the "Canadian", when it toured North America. GM's demonstrator train, in blue and silver, consisted of four custom built Pullman cars (coach, diner, sleeper, observation) each with an "Astra-Dome" observation deck above the lower level of the car. Now commonplace, a dome car in 1947 was a novelty..
My father and I visited the "Train of Tomorrow" in Montreal in 1949. It was impressivly huge for a 9 year old. And I didn't get to ride its Canadian cousin until 63 years later.
Originally run from Montreal and Toronto through Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary / Banff to Vancouver by the Canadian Pacific Railway, it was transferred to Via Rail in 1978 and re-routed to Canadian National tracks in 1990. This made the route longer and slower, running Toronto to Winnipeg via northern Ontario (instead of the Lake Superior route), then to Saskatoon and Edmonton / Jasper to Vancouver. Many have never forgiven Via Rail for this politically motibated change, as the scenery and roadbed was far better on the southern route.
In season, the train boasts 21 cars 3 times a week and is booked well in advance. It covers 4466 km (2775 miles) in about three and a half days. This is a full 9 hours slower than the original 71 hour schedule of 1955. Freight trains have priority on the tracks so the average speed is low (33 mph) and there are frequent stops to pass opposing traffic.
I rode the "Canadian" in September 2012 to celebrate my 50th anniversary of graduating from McGill University in Montreal. The train leaves Edmonton, Alberta eastbound at midnight, so there is not much to see until Saskatoon next morning. Prairie scenes and potash mines make up the ride through Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Here we change locomotives and service the train, then head into northern Ontario for two nights en route to Toronto, Ontario. Fifty tiny towns, 50,000 tiny lakes, and a few billion trees later, orchards, dairy farms, and the suburbs of southern Ontario finally show up. It is probably the roughest, wettest roadbed in the country, and yes, it's boring. A change of train and a first class coach with excellent food and unlimited alcohol fueled us on to Ottawa, Canada's capitol city, and my original home town. After a couple of days sight-seeing in Ottawa, we drove to Montreal to check out old haunts, old schools, and old residensces of my boyhood days.
The food and service on the "Canadian" are five-star and the ride in the Skyline dome car is superb, evem on the rough roadbed. We slept in a deluxe double berth cabin in a "Manor" series sleeper eastbound and in a similar unit in a "Park" series observation car on the way home. In 2014, some of the deluxe cars are being converted to "super-deluxe" -- the various bedrooms will be much larger, so fewer passengers per car, at twice the price (or more). The last three cars of the train will be super-deluxe, so the peasant-class will not get into the tail-end lounge. They will have their own Skyline lounge.
Replica of the derrick that drilled the famous Leduc #1 oilwell at Devon, Alberta. Oil, gas, grain, cattle, and lumber are big business in Alberta.
Memories -- McGill 50 Year Reunion
Previous commitments meant I could not attend the McGill Engineering "Class of 62" 50th anniversary reunion in October, but Bob Smythe, an old school chum, escorted me around McGill, commenting knowledgably on all the changes and additions. The lower campus still feels like the refuge it has always been. New and renovated buildings push outward on the perimeter. Activists are still active, freshmen looking lost still troop the pathways. Afterward, we checked out Westmount and Mont Royal lookouts to compare the skyline with old postcard views from the 1950's. Later that day, we relived the family outing to Chalet BBQ on Sherbrooke St West -- menu, flavour, location, and staff (or their clones) unchanged since 1944. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".
The best memory brought back in force was the ride on the "Gold Car", an open-air sightseeing streetcar at ExpoRail (Canada's Railway Museum) that used to run in summer in Montreal. This was our favourite outing when we were kids in the 1940's and 50's. The ride, and the tour of the Museum, was escorted by Steve Cheasley, the museum President, who generously provided a personalized commentary on the background and significance of each exhibit. It was a wonderful re-visit to the railways of my youth, all the way back to my grandparents early days, with some of the best restorations in the world on display.
I thought I would feel more nostalgic, even sad, to see these memories brought to life again, but it was - thankfully - really pleasant. They say "you can't go home again", but this trip was pretty close. Like the airline pilots say before landing in New Zealand, "Set your watches back 40 years" -- Montreal is in that time zone too.
A few maples were just beginning to redden, the weather was clear and mild, and the train trips across half the continent were very restful. Good food and good companions made this a vacation to remember.
OF MY YOUTH - 50 to 60 YEARS AFTER