Tuesday 11 July 2017

Cross-Canada Trip 2017 - DAY 4 (Part 1)

DAY 4: Part 1 – Winnipeg
April 17, 2017
View from my roomette as Day 2 on The Canadian began. Still gloomy, but very different landscape from the previous night!

Good morning! Day 2 on The Canadian, and Day 4 of my trip, began as we approached the once-major-railway-hub and capital of Manitoba, Winnipeg. Despite having made a trip west back in 2010, this would be my first time in Winnipeg, as we had previously just driven around it on the bypass highway.

I woke up that morning at around 5:30am, and then went back to sleep until about 6:45. My alarm was set for 7, but with the time changing again (welcome to Central Time), my body was ready to go early. I headed off to shower (it was free, so no wait), and then to breakfast.

A side note: for those who have travelled in the roomettes in VIA’s Budd equipment, you’ll know that the bed folds down over the toilet in the room (more on this in a future train tour post, for those of you not familiar). This can be a hassle if you need to use it in the night, as you have to get up and flip up the bed to access it. In the Chateau sleepers, this involves getting out into the hallway, so I always just go down the hall (or more often to the front of the next car, since that’s closer), and use the proper bathroom. In the Manors, by contrast, I found that the cutout section of the bed actually provided plenty of room for me to stand up and flip up the bed without leaving the roomette. Cozy, for sure, but it was definitely doable and surprisingly easier than I expected.

It was another gloomy morning, but no snow - yet as I’d soon discover, it was plenty cold! The view out the window was a dramatic change from the night before. The hills, rocks, and trees were gone, replaced by much flatter terrain and sparser trees. This would gradually change even more as we made our way farther west later in the day. Being April, everything looked pretty brown and bland, particularly on such a gloomy day.

I had breakfast that morning with the mother of the twin boys, who was really very pleasant, and the twins themselves. They live mostly on an island on the coast of Maine; she raises oysters, runs the general store, and her husband is a lobsterman. We had plenty to chat about, and I think we unfortunately bored the twins quite a bit! I would ultimately leave with an invitation to come visit if I ever found myself in that part of Maine.

Breakfast this morning was markedly better than the day before, though perhaps I just made a better choice. I went for the pancakes, and they were splendid – well cooked, and tasty. I’m not usually a fan of pancakes at restaurants, but these were actually really good.

Breakfast menu

Breakfast! Tasty pancakes.

We arrived in Winnipeg on time (actually slightly early). The stop in Winnipeg is scheduled for 3h45min, as they do major train servicing at that stop. The crew changes (our crew out of Toronto is Winnipeg based, working Winnipeg-Toronto-Winnipeg, and the new crew heading west would be Vancouver-based, working Vancouver-Winnipeg-Vancouver), the train is re-supplied, windows are washed, laundry and garbage are taken out, and the whole thing is just generally spruced up to ensure that it’s in top shape for the second half of the trip. Passengers are invited to de-train and explore the city. There’s the formal tour, but you can also just go wandering by yourself. Access to the train and platform is restricted from 10-11am, while the cleaners are working, and boarding re-commences at 11:15 for the 11:45am departure.

I didn’t get off right away, as I was still finishing breakfast. There’s no rush, so I disembarked at 8:36am (CT), and headed in to the station to get on WiFi and check some emails, send some messages, and make a phone call. You never know when you’ll have service on this trip, so best to take advantage of it when you can! As I left the train I thanked Dan and bid him farewell, as I would have a new attendant when I returned. Two freights passed us while in the station (before I got off), and unfortunately I didn’t see another one during the stop, aside from a stopped intermodal train just beyond the station.

The Canadian at Winnipeg. Freights pass on the tracks to the right.


There was no snow here, so we brought some with us!
The station itself was incredible! I had no idea Winnipeg had such an enormous, impressive station. The dome roof alone is breathtaking, and the whole thing is just gorgeous. You can tell it was built for a time when Winnipeg saw more far more than a handful of trains each week. There was relaxing jazzy music playing inside, which made for a lovely atmosphere.

Descending from the platforms into the station

Winnipeg station

Winnipeg station. Canada 150 deco here too. I would hit most of the stations on that list during this trip.

The top of the dome inside the station

Winnipeg Union Station - interior main doors

While I did enjoy getting to wander about in Winnipeg, it was unfortunately bitterly cold! The windchill was below zero, so I was glad to have at least brought gloves. I decided not to wander into downtown, and instead headed off to the Forks. I explored a bit on the paths around the park by the river, and checked out the markets as well. I was amazed by how much of a railway theme there was everywhere – the past influence of the railways on Winnipeg was evident everywhere you looked! A lot of things unfortunately hadn’t opened yet. The major thing I was waiting for was to get in to the Winnipeg Railway Museum. It came very highly recommended, but it didn’t open until 10am.

Intermodal train stopped on the bridge over the Assiniboine River. The Forks is of course where the Assiniboine and Red rivers split.
High water on the Red River
Looking towards downtown from the other side of the bridge over the Red River.

What, just because the sidewalk is underwater I can't use it?? Okay fine, I'll try the other side.
This is the other side. Hmm...funnily enough, this also had a "sidewalk closed, please use other side" sign. What to do...

He seems unperturbed by the sidewalk closures. 
...probably because he can just take off and fly to the other side. Sidewalks? Where we're going, we don't need sidewalks.

High speed buses. Or something like that.
Hotel Fort Garry.

An old lift bridge, now part of the paths at the Forks and adorned with interesting visuals.

An old caboose.

Some old boxcars, now a stage (on the other side)

This car and its companion...

...had been turned into an arcade!

A VIA van!

Not sure if that's legitimately the heritage of these buildings, but I do know this area used to be all railway property.

Inside one part of the markets at the Forks. Really nice, but most things had yet to open.

My train, just hanging out and getting freshened up.

Another bridge over the Red River - this one has a restaurant halfway across.

Gandhi, in statue form, takes a stroll in front of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Back entrance to Union Station.

A VIA pickup
After killing some time, 10 o'clock rolled around, and I headed back inside the station to find the entrance to the museum. The Winnipeg Railway Museum is located right in the station, and has many of its displays on two of the former station tracks that are now enclosed. I’ve been to quite a number of railway museums over the years, and I would say that this is easily one of the absolute best. Their collection is impressive and well taken care of, the displays are interesting, and there is so much equipment that you can access and interact with in some way that it makes it all the more engaging. It may have helped that I was there early on an off-season Monday, because I ended up being the only person there. I felt like I had the free reign of the place, and the staff made me feel that way too. You know how some places feel like the employees are watching your every move, paranoid that you might break or steal something? Not here. They made me feel welcome, and while I didn’t talk to them much, they were clearly very knowledgeable.

That hour and a bit just flew by. From the model railway display to the first steam locomotive in Western Canada, to getting to play around in the cab of a GMD-1 and enjoying the impressive VIA “shrine”, I had an absolute blast. The collection was impressive, the general layout of the museum was well conceived, and the ambience was really nice (good lighting, various railroad sounds playing in the background, etc.). I could easily have spent a few more hours there, and definitely felt like it was $5 well spent (and easily worth much more than that!). I would highly recommend it to anyone passing through, even if you don’t have a particular interest in trains. The general historical information and context alone was fascinating. They also had a neat gift shop, and I picked up a little VIA Skyline car pin – one proper souvenir from the visit!

A look inside the Winnipeg Railway Museum
The Countess of Dufferin - the first steam locomotive to operate on the Canadian prairies, way back in 1877.
This railway museum has trucks too.
Really funny looking trucks...
An unusual electric locomotive.
A description of that unusual electric loco.

A cab simulator. This would be neat, but...
...there was also a real cab to check out!

Yeah, I had a bit of fun there. In the cab of CN 1900, of which I took no exterior photos, for some bizarre reason.

There was a window to look out to the in-use station tracks. The Canadian was on the far track, and Chateau Laval was hanging out on the nearer track. 
Inside the Point Ste. Charles van (or "caboose", if you prefer that term)
Some old passenger cars

A signal/telegraph display
The VIA "shrine"! I felt very at home here :-)

More VIA stuff

More interesting little locomotives

An old rail bus

A display about women on the railways

Very fittingly, a display about the history of The Canadian

At 11:15, after what felt like an overly brief visit, I headed back to the station to wait to board the train. A crowd had gathered, and it was clear lots of people had taken advantage of the time to get off and tour about. I got chatting with a guy in line who I had seen before on board, but hadn’t talked to yet. He had a really impressive camera, and was clearly much more serious about his photography than I was about mine. We chatted cameras for a bit, and I recall he also mentioned having some connection to the east coast (I believe he recognized the X ring), but for some reason I didn’t note that in my journal – and now I’ve got myself confused. Was it actually a connection to Prescott? Bah! In any case, I would chat with him and his wife more through later parts of the trip.

Back at the train I met my new car attendant, Greg. He seemed nice as well, even if his name wasn’t also Dan. We left on time at 11:45am.

Returning to board the train. A useful sign-board reminds us of when we can return.
I’ve been debating where to cut this section off, since there is a lot to cover later on in this day. Let’s keep going through lunch time, and then cut it off after that.

I had a nice chat on the phone with my girlfriend as we pulled away from the station. Cell reception seemed much more reliable at this point, though it would disappear again as we got into more remote territory.

The first lunch call was at 11:55am. I had kept my reservations for the late sittings (new reservations were made after the previous night’s supper), so I wouldn’t be going yet. Heading out of town I spotted a large red fox in a field, and had a good look at VIA’s Winnipeg Maintenance Centre. Among other things in the yard I spotted Evangeline Park, which a friend of mine (whose daughter is named Evangeline) had been keeping an eye out for. It had been a regular on the Ocean for quite a while, but had been hanging around out west more recently.

VIA WMC - some locos and a baggage car.
More VIA equipment at the WMC. Evangeline Park is the second Park car in from the left.
Heading back to the Park, it was still a cloudy day, but brighter than the day before. The lack of snow in the air probably helped! Little laminated “reserved for Presige” tags had now been added to the tops of the reserved rows in the dome, presumably by the new crew.

The new landscape. What lives in those little blue domes? I can only think of X-Filesy explanations...
More railfan-fanning. Man, it is hard to get good shots of these guys! It's like they position themselves based on what will get them the best photo of the train, not make them easier for me to photograph. How selfish.

Another one of these snaky train photos. As the topography opened up, these got a lot easier to take. Now if only it would get sunny...

Reserved for Prestige. In case we didn't see the huge band across the seat back.
We arrived at Portage la Prairie at 1:10pm. This is a very popular spot among railfans, as the CN and CP lines converge in town, and the CP and CN even cross just west of the station. There’s an old CPR station that is now a museum, with an old caboose, GE switcher, and baggage car preserved outside. We were picking up a few passengers here, and would depart at 1:14pm, only to be stopped immediately at the signal just west of the station. I also spotted a Cavendish Cryo-Trans car – a long way from PEI, but interestingly enough, you’ll never see any of these cars anywhere near the island where their product originates.

Cavendish car, healthily graffitied. You won't see one of these on PEI (or any active railcar, for that matter).

The old CPR station at Portage la Prairie, now a museum.

A classic CPR baggage car.
A plume of smoke appeared in the distance. If I hadn’t known better, I could have sworn a steam engine was approaching! In reality, it turned out to be a smoking GE – CN 2685 – which was really throatily chugging and belching smoke as it made its way past us.

Something smoky this way comes...
A toaster getting toasty. The trailing unit is an early 2500-series unit with the 4-window cab. I saw a lot of those on this trip.

The second call for lunch came at 1:28pm. Before I headed for the diner, I spotted the next thing we were waiting for – a CP train crossing the main ahead of us, with a GP20C-ECO and a string of hoppers and reefers. We got back on the move, and I headed for lunch.

CP GP20C-ECO...the only CP power I would see until Vancouver.

As I settled in to the diner, the sun arrived! At long last! Some patches of blue sky began to appear over the prairie. At lunch I was seated with a group of passengers from the Economy section – evidently there was enough space at the second sitting, so they were allowed to come in for lunch. There was Jon and Hope from Winnipeg, who are now living in Calgary and were taking the train back from Winnipeg to Edmonton (can’t recall how they were continuing to Calgary) as they moved their final things to the new locale. Then there was Jonathan from Quebec, a francophone and language teacher. They were all young (similar age or a few years my junior), and all very pleasant. We talked about hobbies – Jon and Hope love escape rooms, and Jonathan loves rock climbing. Jon is also a big Star Wars fan, and we both chatted excitedly about the new trailer for a few minutes.
Lunch itself was excellent, continuing the increasingly impressive meals as the journey continued. There was cream of asparagus soup to start, and then I opted for the bison burger with Cesar salad – really delicious, and super filling, very much what I was in the mood for. Then black cherry ice cream for dessert – you can’t go wrong with that.

Lunch menu

Cream of asparagus soup

Bison burger and Cesar salad - spectacular!

Black cherry ice cream. Always a favourite of mine, and even better on a train.

My table mates at lunch were astonished by the quality of the food – they were expecting airline style stuff, and had no idea that it would be as good as it was! They had clearly missed the memo about The Canadian’s reputation. Even paying for their meals, they felt like it was excellent value and very much worthwhile.

We had three freight meets in a single siding while at lunch – the congestion was really picking up.

The new crew in the diner seemed nice. There were several trainees, clearly getting used to the routine of working on the moving train. There were also some veterans – Danny, our dining car steward for this leg, was quite the character! As we all got settled in to the dining car, he came out and shouted “Everybody, stop talking! Ok, today’s soup is…”, followed by the soup selections, and then “…ok, you can talk now!” He was quite entertaining and charming, and repeated this routine at every meal, much to the amusement of everyone around. The dining car atmosphere was always bustling but relaxed, and very social.

After lunch we would continue on across the increasingly open, flat country of the prairies. Some bits of snow were still visible from time to time, but not much. This was farming country, no doubt about that.

Alright, I think that’s a reasonable place to split this installment. When we return, we’ll continue our voyage across the prairies…

Could it be?? The sun! Blue skies! At least we'd get a bit of this in the afternoon. Stay tuned...


  1. If you liked the railway museum then get yourself to York in England, you'll love that. There's a second part to it where all the locos in steam are based (the diesals too). If your in England then there's a few preserved lines to try. Bluebell (take BR to East Grinstead), Severn Valley (train to Kidderminster) and the Central, the only preserved former mainline, double track too (train to Loughborough)

    1. You know, I actually had two different people over the course of my trip recommend that! It's definitely high on my list, and of course would love to check out the preserved lines too. I'm hoping to be able to make a trip to the UK in the not too distant future, and then of course the challenge will be figuring out how much I can fit in!