Friday 7 July 2017

Cross-Canada Trip 2017 - DAY 3

DAY 3: Across Northern Ontario
April 16, 2017
The seemingly never-ending winding rails through northern Ontario...

April 16, 2017: my first full day on board The Canadian. As I started writing my journal entry that morning, I titled it “Trees, rocks, and tress…and icy lakes!” That was a pretty fair descriptor for the views that day, but had I know all that lay in store, I would have added “…and snow, snow, snow!”

This is going to be a monster of a post. I may need to split up some of these Canadian days into multiple parts, but I’ll try doing this one as a single post.

I slept exceptionally well that first night on board. I woke up a few times through the night, but I was very comfortable, and dropped right back off to sleep straight away every time. I had set my alarm for 7 and ended up snoozing it a few times, finally getting up at 7:40. One of the advantages of travelling westward is that you continually gain time as you pass through the times zones. This day was still on Eastern time, but I had made the transition from Atlantic to Eastern the previous day, and I was still enjoying that.

The Manor roomette actually seemed much comfier than the bedroom I had the day before. I appreciated the fact that the Manors, unlike the Chateaus, have a cut-out in the side of the bed so you can actually stand up inside the roomette next to the bed without having to open the door to the hall. It’s cozy, but it works. For those interested in the details of the roomettes and other on-board layouts, stay-tuned: I’ll mention some in these posts, but I think I’ll add a separate post (like the consist one) just to give a tour on board.

I pulled up the shade to see a rather gloomy looking morning, and exactly what I expected from northern Ontario…trees, trees, tress, and some rocks amidst them. A very different view from the day before. I snapped a blurry photo, and I’m going to include it here, only because of the value it has as my “first view” on that first morning.

First view! So blurry! Hey, I just woke up

There had been a bit of rattling in my roomette during the night, and I determined it mostly came from the fan. Turning that off fixed the problem, but I would have enjoyed the breeze. There was also a bit of a rattle from the wall-mounted metal Kleenex box, which I sorted out by wedging a bit of scrap paper in behind it. One must be clever with these things…

Now to shower, and make it to breakfast before last call!

We had our first freight meet of the day just before I headed for breakfast: a huge intermodal train, for which we slowed and only stopped briefly.

No cell reception here – it would stay that way for pretty much the whole day.

This day was also Easter Sunday. That was a strange thing to realize on the train, though it’s actually the second time I’ve been on a train on Easter. The previous time was when I went to Montreal over the Easter weekend for my sister’s confirmation.

Today would also be significant because it would be the first ever FULL day I would spend on board a train – from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night!

I made my way to the dining car and was seated for breakfast. A quick note on the dining car setup: on The Canadian, the staff make a point of seating people together in the diner. If you arrive as a single passenger, they try to put you somewhere that a single seat is available with others. They know the car will fill up, so there’s no point in spreading people out. On the Ocean, by contrast, they tend to try to spread people out until they absolutely have to squeeze them in together.

At breakfast I was seated with a couple who turned out to be from Brockville, of all places! Their daughter went to the same high school I did, likely just a few years ahead of me. Might I have known her? I’m not sure.

Breakfast itself was…just okay. Perhaps I got myself too hyped up about eating my first meal on The Canadian, but I was let down. It wasn’t bad at all – I had the omelette with a bran muffin (which was excellent), and it was all perfectly good. It just wasn’t anything special. The service was also okay, but it felt a bit more “professional”, if that makes sense. It didn’t have the same kind of touch that I often find on the Ocean, but to be fair, I also know most of the staff on that train quite well at this point, which changes the equation a bit.

Table set for breakfast

Breakfast menu, Day 1
Breakfast - the first meal on #1. Not bad by any means, but nothing really exceptional. 

In any case, my mild disappointment with the dining experience would turn around through the rest of the trip. For now, I did appreciate the chance to eat in Acadian, a diner I’ve eaten in many times on the Ocean.

There was another freight meet during breakfast.

After finishing up, I headed back to the Park car. There was a bit of mist on the windows, but it was exceedingly obvious that they take excellent care of the domes on this train. In stark contrast to the scratched and bug splattered windows on the Ocean, these windows were immaculate. Clean, and not a scratch or smudge anywhere. It made for much better photos!

Looking up into the Park car's dome. I would spend an awful lot of the trip up there.

Our train snakes along through the woods. I'm not going to lie - I took a LOT of these photos.

Four of the “Prestige” reserved seats are occupied by the handful of Prestige passengers actually on this trip.

Front dome seats reserved for Prestige passengers. The first two rows on each side were reserved until the third day, when they reduced it to just the first two rows on one side and the first row on the other.

We soon had another meet – an intermodal with two Dash 9s leading, and no DPU. The wait was short, and we were back on the move.

Ted came by to chat for a few minutes – he said he’d pick my brain later (I’ve got a reputation already, it would seem). He’s originally from Kitchener, and used to take the train to Guelph with his dad back in the days of steam. That clearly made quite an impression on him as a young boy.

The gloom persists, and there are remnants of snow among the trees. No signs of spring yet here. We reached Gogama at 9:40am, and make no stop. We were running about 50 minutes late at this point. Gogama emerged as a tiny blip of civilization in the wilderness, and just as quickly it was gone. Not much there, but a nice place on the lake.

One of the many frozen lakes we would pass during the day

A couple of the Prestige passengers gaze at yet another frozen lake

I realized somewhere along here that we were travelling on concrete ties. That’s a first for me! Not sure that it makes much of a difference to the ride quality. There were lots of piles of old and new concrete ties along the right of way in several places. Sidings appeared to be all wood ties. The ride was actually exceptionally smooth, though we were only doing about 40mph.

Somewhere along this stretch I had my first wildlife sighting: a moose! Just standing by the tracks. I didn’t get a photo, but it was pretty neat to see.

[This is where a photo of a moose would be, if I had been quicker]

The dome was well populated as the morning wore on. People came and went, and at one point it filled entirely. Most people are enjoying the scenery, and some make conversation. One woman is reading on her tablet (do you need to be in the dome to do that?)

Our park car attendants for the first leg of the trip were Julie and Rosemary, who from what I understand are sisters. They were quite pleasant.

There was an announcement over the PA system about a tour in Winnipeg the next day - $30 per person for a bus tour around the city, for which you must reserve by 2pm that day. I would pass, opting to do my own thing instead. I don’t know who actually did the tour, but a few people I talked to seemed skeptical about it being worthwhile.

Red over yellow at MP 132.3 on the Ruel Sub, and we took the siding again. The speed limit on this stretch is 55/50. These are the sort of observations I was marking down! After a short wait, another freight arrives with a Tier 4 3100 on the point and a tail-end 2900 DPU. Those 3100s are eerily quiet, while the 2900 was really roaring. We were back on the move shortly.

Tier 4 GEVO leader - creepily silent, and with the lights dimmed for the meet, it almost feels like it's sneaking up

Tier 3 GEVO trailing and pushing, with the red light glowing.

Downstairs in the park there was a selection of tea and coffee, as usual, and I grabbed a coffee – man, was that ever good! The tea selection is Sloane, the same as is currently offered on The Ocean.

We hit Foleyet at 11:13am, only about 15 min late. The station is small but there is a good sized yard with many hoppers and tracks, some buildings, and a tower of some sort (sanding?). The town itself is tiny, but we do briefly have a cell signal, which disappears moments beyond the town.

VIA Rail Foleyet

We took the siding again at MP 157.7, with a freight waiting. This was one of the coolest ones I saw during the trip – a stack train with just one, single unit: a BC Rail C40-8M. That’s it. No DPU!

One unit wonder! I wonder how the crew felt when they were sent out with this one?

As many freights as we passed over this trip, I never got tired of watching them snake past our train.

There is so little habitation along that stretch of the line. We would see the odd house or cottage pop out of the woods by a lake, but overall it is incredibly sparse. There are some random sidings in the woods with no really clear access roads or anything. Perhaps just for parking MOW equipment or the like?

Our train, again. With such a long train, on curves like this you'd almost think I was off to the side of the train somewhere shooting this. That deadheading Park car still looks weird up front.

Bog, partially iced.

Another frozen lake, from a sparsely populated dome.

The first call for lunch came at 12:03, reservations only. I was reserved for the second call, so I had a bit of a wait to go.

My second notable wildlife sighting of the day was an enormous white swan with a black bill, swimming alone in a lake. Neat! I had also seen lots of ducks, pretty well in every non-frozen water body we passed.

Elsas at 12:09pm, still about 15min late.

Just past Elsas, the Service Manager (SM) came up to the dome to check in. His name is Sonny, and he looked awfully familiar – of course! He was featured in the recent Discovery Channel “Mighty Trains” feature on The Canadian! I brought this up and he started grinning as soon as I mentioned it. He said it was a lot of fun, and that they actually shot a lot more footage on board than they used.

Sonny is getting near retirement – he was counting down the trips he had left, and would be done later this year. He explained his on board philosophy: “Treat this as your home, and the passengers as your guests. Treat them well, and have fun!” Well that philosophy definitely came across among his crew, and it was clear that he loved his job and was good at it.

Crossing a bridge.

Hey look! Civilization! Well, for about 30 seconds...

In the siding again at CN Agate, MP 187.1, for another meet. We didn’t meet a train at every siding, but it was probably every second or third siding consistently. No wonder this train can get delayed! Having said that, I was impressed by most of the meets on this trip. The dispatching seemed to be well orchestrated, because we never waited for more than about 5 minutes that first day, and were usually arriving as the freight arrived, and back on the go almost immediately. This meet would be with another intermodal, with a pair of 2900s up front a mid-train DPU.

Another meet, and another GEVO.
 The Park had emptied out quite a bit by this point, as many people had gone for lunch. We passed a hi-rail truck at MP 205.4, and then stop at a small building near the tracks to drop off a pair of guys at their camp – “Camp Lostlotsa”, it appears.

Hirail in the siding.

We took the siding at MP 213.0 (CN Argolis) for a meet with an autorack train in a curve. Would have been a better photo if we were on the outside! Ah well.
Autorack meet in a curve.

With the second call for lunch coming at 1:22pm, I headed back to my roomette and fetched my reservation ticket before heading to the diner. Lunch was much, much better than breakfast. A tasty vegetable soup to start, followed by a scallop and shrimp skewer, and a delicious apple crumble for dessert. I also enjoyed a Fort Garry dark, one of the craft beer selections on board (all Fort Garry and Granville Island options). I met a new group at lunch, who were really pleasant. Three people travelling solo – an older woman travelling to visit family, another woman (originally from Tansania) who came down to Toronto to get the train instead of the closer station in Sudbury Jct. because she feared being attacked by bears, and a man or Portugese decent who just needed some time to try to find himself and figure out where his life was going. The conversation was interesting, and ranged from nature to indigenous peoples to eccentric religious ideas…and all cordial and good spirited!

Meal reservation ticket. This covered both lunch and dinner, and we got a new one each day.

Lunch menu

Lunch menu, day 1


Scallop and shrimp skewer - Fort Garry Dark, above

Apple crumble - the highlight of this particular meal!

 We had another freight meet during lunch, and….it started to snow! Bah! My April “spring” trip was starting to look very much like a winter one!


 We arrived at Hornepayne at 2:55pm. This is the first proper long stop of the day, and there’s some time to get off and walk about. It was very, very wintery! I had a walk along the train, and Ted was nice enough to snap a photo by the head end. I was regretting not having more appropriate footwear, but glad that I brought gloves and a good sweater and jacket!

Dan clears the snow out of the steps so we can get out without too much difficulty.

Snowy day at Hornepayne

Servicing the train in Hornepayne. This was about a 30min stop.

This just never looks right - but a Park car coupled mid-train is a rare sight, that's for sure.

The brave ones among us congregate in the snow, "enjoying" the fresh air

I took advantage of the brief cell service to make a phone call, and then we were back off into the wilderness!

After lunch I returned to the Park, and discovered that Julie and Rosemary had organized an Easter egg decorating contest downstairs. Cute! There were several kids on board (4, in fact – all boys. A pair of fraternal twins, and two other individuals), and they were all there taking part – while I initially thought I’d leave that one to the kids, I got talked into joining as well (thanks Ted!). I decorated mine with an image of…what else?....a train! I almost won second place, wouldn’t you know it! The Park lounge and bar were packed, and everyone was having a great time. There was also a drawing contest for the kids later on, which seemed to help keep them entertained.

Judging the drawing contest, and enjoying hors d'oeuvres

There were no other activities really happening on board during this trip. During the off season they don’t do much, and apparently the ones that did happen were just something that Julie and Rosemary wanted to do themselves – how nice of them! I was also surprised to find practically no material of any type on board - no maps, no route guides, no brochures, nothing. I have copies of route guides and amenity brochures from The Canadian, but I found them on The Ocean!

After this I got talking with the other obvious railfan on board – Rich, a gentleman from the states (near Boston), who was travelling with his son. This was his third trip on The Canadian, and he has travelled extensively in both Canada and the US. He had a scanner and a pile of maps with him, so he was about as easily identified as I was with my train shirts! I had a copy of the Railway Atlas of Canada (which I had pulled out at lunch at the request of my fellow diners, who were disappointed that there wasn’t a route map to be found anywhere on board), and Rich was quite interested in it. We chatted for quite a while, as we met two more freights.

It quickly became evident that I had been identified as the authoritative VIA expert on board. I really wasn’t expecting that, given that this was my first time on this particular train – and yet, it seemed, I knew enough (and felt sufficiently compelled to share said information) that people started asking more questions.

I noticed through the day that the Prestige passengers get treated well – they get extra little afternoon appetizers, plus continual service from the attendants downstairs.

Hors d’oeuvres were served shortly before the first supper call at 5:30. I was going for the second call, so I spent more time relaxing in the Park’s bullet lounge. I must say, I like the new “Prestige” layout in these cars a lot, certainly more than I expected to. The couch-style seats are comfy and roomy, having individual reading lights and places to set down drinks and other things is nice, and the lighting at night is amazing – very soft and relaxing. The bar setup under the dome is lovely too, and the whole car looks really swanky with the new upholstery, wall coverings, etc. I'll share more photos of the car interior in my "on board tour" post, when I get to that. 

Longlac at 5:53pm. On time. Lots more sway in the Park as we got going again, with a speed limit at 60/55. Nakina at 6:28pm.

Nakina, ON

A CN memorial near Nakina. Anyone know the story behind this?

 The dome had become chilly, perhaps because of the snow and colder temperatures. There was less to see upstairs as the snow obscured the front windows.

I headed back to my room to get cleaned up and await the dinner call. Dan came by to check in, and mentioned that he’d change the sheets and make up the room while I was at supper. He expects an early arrival for Winnipeg the next morning, and does not recommend the tour – too expensive for what you get.

Putting my feet up and relaxing in the roomette for a while, as I await the dinner call.

Auden at 7:26, no stop, no cell service. There’s a Terra Transport container by the CN building. Those things ended up everywhere!

Dinner call at 7:29pm. I sat with another new group of people for supper – in fact, over the entire trip I never ate with anyone twice! The result of that was that I felt like I had met and got to know everyone on board at least a little bit by the end of the trip.

Dining car set for dinner. 

For this meal, my companions were: an older gentleman from North Bay who was travelling alone, making the trip he and his wife had wanted to do for years (he lost her 6 years ago to cancer), and a father and son from Toronto – the father was Greek, and probably fit many of the stereotypes – his son, hardly at all. We talked Toronto, condo developments, railway signal wires (the older gentleman worked as a CP signals maintainer in 1959), and dead wood in forests. How’s that for varied conversation? Another freight meet over supper.

Supper gave me my first taste of just how well The Canadian can do food, and why it has the reputation it does. Seafood chowder to start, which was good and noticeably different from the stuff they serve on The Ocean (which I probably still like better), and the prime rib as a main – spectacular! The other options looked good, but man oh man, I was not disappointed with that choice. My only mistake was choosing the lemon/raspberry torte for dessert instead of the chocolate/caramel one. It was still good, but the other looked better. Dinner rolls (white, whole wheat, and sometimes pumpernickel) are also served with each meal, and are clearly baked (or at least warmed in the oven) just before serving. Basic non-alcoholic drinks (water, juice, milk, coffee/tea) are included with every meal, but alcoholic drinks cost extra.

Dinner menu

Dinner menu

Seafood chowder...lovely!

Prime rib...incredible!

Lemon/raspberry torte. Decent, but not breathtaking.

We passed through Armstrong over supper. It looked like CN was the only employer in town, as there were CN trucks at every house near the ROW.

Collins at 9:32pm – 38min early.

After an active day, the evening was quiet. I headed to the Park to read, but I never got the chance, as I got chatting with a couple in the lounge. They were one of the couples travelling in Prestige, and live in Edmonton – well, sort of. They have 2 homes around Edmonton, and an RV that they take to California in the winter. Now how does one get a life like that?? They regaled me with tales of their European travels, which had brought them through Malta, Venice, Paris, and Iceland before heading to Toronto to get the train to Edmonton. And I thought I was making a big trip!

I also talked with a woman who was originally from Halifax, now lives in Belleville, and has camped in Johnstown. Small world, eh?

I had seen several passengers with fancy glass mugs, so I asked about getting one for tea, instead of using the disposable paper cups. I was informed these were only intended for Prestige passengers, but since it was quiet I was given one just for the evening – with explicit instruction NOT to break it!

Fancy glass mug for tea (a delicious red rooibos and floral blend - I drank a lot of this stuff!) in the Park car's bullet lounge
While I was relaxing there, Sonny came by on the warpath – someone was smoking on board the train, and he was furious. He hadn't caught the person in the act, but could smell it strongly in a couple of areas and had a guess at who it was. He was adamant that he would that person off the train, no question about it – zero tolerance. I never did find out what happened with that…

I read a few pages of my book (the last I would actually make it through on this train), then headed back to my room to turn in for the night. And just like that, Day 3 of my trip, and full day 1 on The Canadian came to a close. Here’s what I wrote in my journal to close the evening:

“My first ever full day on a train…a great day, but I’m sure each of the next will be even better! This is a great train, and while I may prefer The Ocean crews, these guys are all great. Lots of nice people on board, which always helps. Time for bed. Sadly no signal for a goodnight call with Ash, but I can talk to her tomorrow morning in Winnipeg… Goodnight from #1, for the second time… P.S. There was another meet this eve, another intermodal with GE power.”

Next up, Winnipeg and the prairies…


  1. Like your opening, because that's my enduring memory, that and being in the dome car and seeing the sudden change from forrest to "prairie" follwed soon after by the sign for the Manitoba border.

    1. That dramatic change would be the framing for the next day - it was incredible. I didn't see the transition (overnight), but went to bed in forests like seen above, and woke up to flat land in every direction!

  2. Sonny is one of the best SMs. Sorry to hear he is retiring, but he certainly deserves it after his many years of service. Last year I was on the last run of another terrific Winnipeg-based SM: Bill. So many of the crew I have known for years have retired - well, none of us is getting younger! Now when I ride the Canadian there are very few of the crew I know. On some of my trips there have been no Prestige passengers, so occasionally the upgraded hors d'oeuvres and cheese and fruit are given to us "non-prestigious" people. I've not been offered a glass mug, though, nor a fluted glass for the champagne-type wine.

    1. It's always a shame to lose crew you've gotten to know well. I've been finding that a lot with the Ocean over the last few years, because a number of the senior crew are nearing or taking their retirement. At least in that case, I've had the chance to get to know some of the younger ones well too, and there's a good group coming up through the ranks!

  3. Enjoying the series, Tim, and you're really making me want to ride the Canadian!

    I wonder if that CN memorial near Nakina is for this accident in 1992. Two CN crew were killed and one seriously injured.

    1. Haha, that's the idea! Glad you're enjoying it :)

      You're very likely right about the reason for that memorial. I figured it was probably for a wreck of some sort, and that looks like it would fit the bill.