Wednesday 2 August 2017

Cross-Canada Trip 2017 - DAY 7

DAY 7 – Trains, planes, and autom…ated trains

Morning in Vancouver, April 20, 2017. After 5 nights of sleeping on a moving train, there was something kind of strange about sleeping on a solid, motionless bed. Thanks to the busy day before, I slept well – but had decided to wake up much earlier than I really needed to so I could pack in some extra things while in the city.

I really wanted to do two more things while in Vancouver: ride the new Evergreen extension of the Skytrain, and ride the West Coast Express (WCE). The WCE is Vancouver’s commuter rail system, and it’s not the easiest thing to just ride for fun. The WCE is truly a commuter system, running several trains in to downtown in the morning to bring people in from the surrounding areas, and then it runs the same number of trains back out from downtown at the end of the day.  So unlike something like the GO train or AMT lines, you can’t ride the line out and back in again, unless you’re starting from one of the suburban areas and coming in to Vancouver for the day.

It’s almost impossible to actually ride it the entire length, unless you’re starting in Mission City and coming in for the day, or are willing to make a several hour convoluted bus trip one way (assuming you don’t have someone who can drive you one way). But I wasn’t really concerned with covering the entire trip: I just wanted to ride some part of it to get a feel for what it was like. Thanks to the recently opened Evergreen extension of the Skytrain’s Millenium Line, it was now actually possible to go as far as Coquitlam on the Skytrain, and then ride the WCE back in to Waterfront station, assuming you went in the morning (the opposite could be done in the evening).

The ride to Coquitlam Central on the Skytrain took about an hour from downtown. I started at Granville Station (~10min walk) and rode the Expo Line to Commercial-Broadway (~7min), and then transferred to the Millenium Line (~32min). Add in a bit of a wait between trains and the short walk from the Coquital Skytrain station to the WCE station, and you’re just shy of an hour.

Granville station. A somewhat blurry photo, which is much like how I was viewing the world at 6:30 that morning...

So I headed off at around 6:30am, with my goal being to catch the 7:40am train. I figured that if I aimed for that one, I still had the 8:10am option as a backup in case I missed it.

It was a gloomy and misty morning as I made my way out. When I made the transfer to the Millenium Line train, I headed straight for the front seat by the windshield. I hadn’t had one of these seats yet (they are popular), and I was thinking that it should be easy, given how few people were on board in that direction at that time of the morning. When I boarded at Commercial-Broadway, there was one guy who got on ahead of me – and he went straight to that seat. Ok, I thought, he can enjoy the view. Nope – he immediately put his head down and went to sleep! Bah! But at least he only stayed on for a few stations, and then I snagged the seat.

One of the other things I had contemplated doing while in town was going out to photograph the Amtrak Cascades when it left in the morning. Caught up in my Skytrain/WCE plans, I almost forgot – and then I spotted it on the way out, as we paralleled the railway line. Had we got ahead of it I would have jumped off to get a better shot, but alas, the best I got was a lousy view through the wet windshield (they don’t put the wipers on, unfortunately). In any case, it was still neat to see it. This now meant that over the course of this trip I had seen all 3 Amtrak trains that run into Canada: the Adirondack in Montreal, the Maple Leaf in Toronto, and the Cascades in Vancouver.

Amtrak Cascades through the rainy windshield. Come on now, can't I turn on the windshield wiper?

The Cascades gets ahead of us, and now we prepare to diverge from following the line.

The Skytrain ride was fun, and it was neat to see a section of the brand new line. There is a really impressive tunnel along the way, that just seems to go on for ever and ever…
Behind another Skytrain. The automated system does keep things a safe distance apart, and makes for a very efficient operation. 

Splitting off on the Evergreen extension.

Head-on! Have faith in the automated system...

A WCE train on its way towards downtown.

Skytrains at Coquitlam.

My train heads off towards Lafarge Lake - Douglas, on the final stretch of the Evergreen extension.

At Coquitlam I made the short walk over to the WCE station, bought my ticket, and headed to the platform to wait. There weren’t too many people when I arrived, but the crowd swelled rapidly as the train got nearer.

The Skytrain station at Coquitlam.

The WCE station at Coquitlam Central. You walk under the tracks to come up on the other side.

A CP freight was slowly rolling by on the adjacent track, and then stopped. 

My train approaches. I really love this shot - there's a very particular mood to Vancouver in the morning, and I think this captures it really well. 

The crowd awaits as the train rolls into the station.

On board I made my way to the upper level and snagged a seat by a window. The other 3 seats around me were empty, but filled before we left the station. I had originally contemplated wandering the train and trying to find the “cappuccino car” (which has a coffee bar on board), but once the others settled in I decided to stay put. I wasn’t feeling stellar at this point (too much travelling before breakfast/coffee?), and I didn’t want to push by people.

The ride in to Waterfront Station is absolutely gorgeous. There’s a lot of industry and freight activity, which is neat, and the views along the water are stunning. With the mists hanging over the water, it was a lot like the previous morning along the Fraser Valley.

Views from the WCE. This would be a pretty amazing daily commute.

More views from the WCE. Beautiful, but also a LOT of rail-served industry along the way. A fantastic commute for a railfan.

Arriving at Waterfront, I was confused to see many people staying seated and not really going anywhere. Why the hold up? There’s no further stop, is there? Once I got off I realized what was going on: everyone was funnelling into the escalator to head up into the station, and it was like a traffic jam of people. Obviously many people know that this is the case, so they don’t bother to fight the crowd, and just hang around reading or relaxing until it clears out. If you’ve got the time before you need to be at work, why not? Unlike many other commuter systems, the train itself doesn’t go anywhere right away, and they just leave the doors open and clearly don’t mind people hanging out on board for a while.

Two of the previous WCE arrivals, on the storage tracks waiting for the evening return trip.

The other end of my WCE train. A hardworking F59PHI provided the push.

Once in the station I hopped on another Skytrain to get me most of the way back to the hostel, and then walked the last bit. Breakfast was provided at the hostel, so I had something to eat and got my stuff packed up in preparation to head for the airport.

I can’t say enough just how much I like Vancouver’s transit system, most notably the Skytrain. The ride to the airport is a breeze – a 10 minute walk to get to the Canada Line, and then about half an hour on the train to the airport. It drops you right in at the terminal, and is a pretty smooth ride. I snagged a windshield seat, and enjoyed the cab-view from the automated train. The sky brightened as we neared the airport, and it became a lovely day.
Skytrains on the Canada Line, headed for the airport.

Vancouver airport is nice – large, but it doesn’t feel as big or chaotic as Pearson or Dorval. It’s nicely set up, but they could perhaps use some additional departure screens. Security was slow, but not the worst I’ve seen.

While waiting for my flight I popped into a café to grab a sandwich and a drink, made a phone call, and then wandered to the gate.

I would be on Air Canada Flight 148. When booking the flight, I realized that Air Canada flies a couple of YVR-YYZ flights with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. I really wanted to try one of these out, so I picked a flight that used one. Fortunately I was able to get a ridiculously good deal on the flight itself, so I decided to pay the extra to upgrade to a Premium Economy seat. They don’t offer that class on YVR-YYZ flights, but you can book the seat for about an extra $100. For the rate I got on the flight, plus the fact that I paid a whopping total of $0 for my entire train trip, I figured that was worth it.

I spotted a couple of 787s while I was waiting, but didn’t spot any Air Canada planes in the new livery. I thought I saw one, but it turned out to be a Delta plane – I guess that kind of proves one of the main critiques of the new AC scheme (even though I do like it…).

We boarded with only a minor amount of chaos (there was a lot of confusion about the different lines they made for different sections of the plane), and headed away on time. I was really glad to have gone for the Premium Economy seat. Instead of the 3+3+3 layout of the Economy section, the Premium Economy section is set up 2+3+2, and spaced accordingly. The seats are roomier, with more legroom and a solid division between the seats. I was in Seat 13A, and found it quite nice. It actually felt comparable, space-wise, to riding in Economy in an LRC coach (I say that as a compliment!)
Premium Economy seats on an AC 787. Note the "dimmable" windows - they were cool, but didn't work that well.

The flight itself was smooth, and I was really impressed with the 787. It was a quiet and smooth ride, and I found the lower cabin altitude made for a relatively painless landing (as someone with inner ear issues, that’s a rarity…). The interior design of the plane is quite nice, and the new touch screens for the in-flight entertainment system are a huge improvement – they feel more like a tablet, rather than an old-school touch screen. The fancy tinting window shades were sort of cool, but they didn’t seem to work very well, and I have to agree with people that think they’re kind of a gimmick.

The view from seat 13A. It was a beautiful day and at times a stunning view, but nowhere near the same as the view from the train. You miss so much from the air...

We landed in Toronto through dense clouds and rain, but despite warnings from the crew, there was almost no turbulence. We only had to wait a few minutes to get to the gate, and then we were off in rather good time.

It was really surreal to be back in Toronto so quickly. After making that journey on the train over 4 days, making the return flight in just over 4 hours felt…well, it felt almost like cheating. I can totally see the advantages of the flight, and the ability to travel vast distances so quickly has fundamentally changed the way we see the world, and even our own country. But if you only ever fly over these distances, you never really get any appreciation for the vast expanses, the scenic and cultural diversity, and the multitude of communities that make up this amazing country we live in. I don’t begrudge people for flying – not having to spend a week travelling to the west coast is great, and were it not for the flight back I couldn’t have managed this trip – but I feel like everyone needs to do that trip by land (either by rail or by car) at some point just to really appreciate it. You don’t really see your country from the air.

Back on solid ground and suddenly into the evening (the rapid reversal of the 3-hour time change took some getting used to) it was time to get back on the rails, as I caught the UP Express back down to Union station. I love that train; it’s fast, convenient, comfortable, and since they dropped the fares, very well priced.

From Union Station I walked over to Church St. and found the HI Toronto hostel. I was in a dorm that night, so less private, but all I really needed was a bed to sleep in. At $35 for the night and a 10 minute walk from Union Station, you can’t do much better than that!

It was pouring rain as I wandered out to find something quick to eat. Back at the hostel I took in a band that was playing in the bar downstairs: a UK band called Where Fires Are, who were in town for Canada Music Week. I enjoyed them quite a lot, and it was kind of neat to see them among a crowd of maybe 10 people. As they wrapped up, I headed upstairs to settle in for the night. I was out like a light in no time at all, and next thing you know it was morning…

In the next installment, we'll get on the rails again as we head back through the Corridor to Montreal, and board The Ocean again for the final leg of the journey. 

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