For the "non" VIA types, these are stainless steel cars built and delivered in the mid fiftys to Canadian Pacific. They were extensively rebuilt around 1990, and are in beautiful condition. The sleepers have 6 bedrooms (upper and lower plus enclosed restroom) similar to Amtrak, 4 "roomettes" (privacy curtain plus a door) that have one pull-down bed plus sink & toilet (bed must be up to access toilet) - about as much space as an "economy" Amtrak room, and 3 "sections" of open berths (double seats across a folding table in the day, converts to rather wide upper and lower beds at night - upper and lower sold separately - no toilet facilities, no door, just the "curtains" you see in the old movies. There are also 2 "community" restrooms, and a 4th "section" area has been converted to a shower/dressing room in each car. The rear car on Canadian trans-continental trains is a "Park" car (all named after Canadian parks). There is a dome, a "bullet" shaped rear end lounge with plush seating, a cocktail lounge / smoking area under the dome, four regular bedrooms, and a "drawing room". The bedrooms alternate between the beds running crosswise or lengthwise in the car, and the "drawing room" is basically a combination of two rooms, but with only one bath and the crosswise bed & sofa does not have an "upper', so there are 3 beds available. It is just about like 2 of the old 10/6 rooms "en suite" except there is a little more floor space due to only having one restroom instead of 2.
Anyhow, I wanted the "Park" "drawing room" for the girls, and had started looking in July. The answer from VIA was "sold out". This was for the entire summer, and the "off season" began October 15th. That didn't help either. It was also "sold out" for the rest of October AND November. The first open slot was out of Toronto on 12/7, which I then used to fit the rest of the trip together. I booked the space myself with VIA and got a reservation number before talking to the Amtrak NARP desk, and that was very fortunate. When I tried to set up the whole thing, I was told that I should NOT have booked VIA myself, but they would "try" to incorporate what I had done on my own (they did so). After NARP had done their "thing" I called back a couple of days later to confirm that they had my VIA portion correct. I asked if they in fact had my "Park" "drawing room" and was informed that "sir - we do not know anything about "Park" or other names, or anything about "drawing rooms". We have car numbers and room numbers. You are in 139-A! Hey these are the people who were SPECIALLY TRAINED to handle the Amtrak/VIA reserviations for the pass! I couldn't BELIEVE they didn't know the canadian system!
Anyhow, for you non-VIA'ers (again), Amtrak uses a numbering system of train number and car number, with the car number "series" identifying the use. Example: on the Starlight, the "30" series are sleepers - in train #14, the first sleeper is 1430, 2nd is 1431, 3rd is 1432, etc. (they seldom if ever have more than 3 sleepers). Canada uses a similar system, but in the summer they often exceed ten sleepers, so they start with the "20" series. Train number I was on was #1, so first sleeper from the front was 120, next 121, etc. If they run beyond 129, they just go to 130, 131, etc. Since the "Park" car is always on the rear, it is numbered (in this train) 139. (apparently they don't exceed 19 sleeper cars, or if they do, they use some other scheme). Also, their car diagrams clearly identify the "A" room in the "Park" car as the drawing room, so I knew it was OK, but I found it interesting that the NARP desk didn't.
Another item of interest to any of you who might consider a trip on the Canadian - travel in the off-season! Due to HEAVY tourist use in the summer, the trains are not only usually sold out, but VERY expensive. Due to the "off" season (ONLY 6 sleepers plus the "Park" rooms), I was able to book the drawing room PLUS a section berth (there was no "en-suite" wall to close to give grandma privacy) for the 3 night trip, which 9 full meals for a TOTAL of $1038 US! That's only a little over $100 per person per day, and I thought it was a GREAT deal. There was a large tour group on our train - apparently the "normal" consist in the pre-holiday travel off-season is as low as two sleepers on the train (but the "Park" car is always there - book the "39" car if you decide to go).
OK - off on the Canadian!
We roll out of the station, head north, soon reach CP Snyder, and stop. Crew (when asked) says tracks ahead have been torn out on original route, so we now go a different way. It involves backing around a connection to the west, then crossing our path now headed east. We reach CP Doncaster and swing north again on a different line. A check of my handly Atlas reveals we are now on a line that is used by "GO" (commuter) trains and comes directly from the same station we just left without the backup and detour! Any "Canadians" on here with an explanation? I am using a 1991 Atlas prepared by the "Railway Association of Canada" - Perry Printing Ltd. According to the Atlas, the line we are on DEAD-ENDS at Lake Simcoe! I am not familiar with the area, but we eventually end up at our first stop (Washago), so either map is wrong or they built new tracks. Again, any Canucks reading this? Anyhow, as is the norm, everyone "packs" the domes in the first part of the trip. I relax, as I know it usually (and does) peter out with plenty of space after the novelty wears off.
VIA advertises "Silver & Blue" first class service, and they certainly try. The attendant in the "Park" car breaks out complimentary champagne as we leave Toronto (they do the same leaving Vancouver, and also BOTH directions out of Jasper). This is followed shortly by hot hors de'oveures. Throughtout the trip, the observation area is stocked with fruits, juices, rolls, peanuts, etc. Meal service for dinner is done differently than by Amtrak. Instead of constantly calling reservations as tables open up, they fill a full sitting, wait until everyone has finished and vacated the diner, then clean and restock, and seat another full sitting. All orders are taken at once, all are sent to the kitchen together, and all the meals come out of the kitchen in a quick flurry. How they do this with 40 plus meals at once is beyond me, but they manage it quite nicely. The food is excellent, but Amtrak's is certainly comparable in every aspect.
The country transited for the first couple of days is not particularly scenic (kinda like riding across on the Empire Builder), and we make stops in Winnipeg (just after dark), Saskatoon (middle of the night), and Edmonton (mid-day). Edmonton is interesting as it has suffered the fate of many US cities. There is a beautiful skyline of downtown on the horizon, and we pull in (actually back in) to a shack in the boonies on the outskirts (tracks have been pulled out thru the city).
We then start climbing gradually and soon see the first glimpses of the Rockies. The mountains seem much more jagged and stark here than the Colorado crossing, but there is a very long "lake" thru the valley as Jasper is approached that tends to dry up in the winter. It is basically mudflats, and party dried. There is substantial wind and this produces what at first seems to be fog, but what really just turns out to be ugly brown blowing dirt everywhere that makes me think of the smoggy air in most cities.
As we reach Jasper, we leave the lake behind, and are greeted with clear air, sunshine, and a large herd of elk wandering around the train station!
As we take a shuttle to our hotel, we stop on the road as a "bighorn" ram decides he has the right of way, then proceed onward into the evening.
Our stay is at the Canadian Pacific resort hotel the Jasper Park Lodge. Situated on a pair of lakes (one of which has been "zambonied" into a central rink with a "track" of about a mile around the outside, golf course (frozen over), with one story room buildings all over the property. Large central complex with shopping arcade downstairs, 3 story high cathedral ceiling main lodge with fireplaces, etc. Room rate (posted on our door) is cdn $429 (and this was "and up"!). It's the VERY slow season. I get room for cdn $104 (about $70 US). As we prepare to leave Jasper, the eastbound Canadian comes thru town with the same consist we rode west, except they have left Fraser Manor and Hearne Manor in Toronto. Train also cuts out Brock Manor and drops it in Jasper.
Our #1 soon arrives, 6449 and 6444 on the point. Consist:
8502 sykline dome cafe
Carleton Manor sleeper
Bell Manor sleeper
Blair Manor sleeper
Douglas Manor sleeper
Strathcona Park dome-obs-sleeper
6449 is removed and 6443 is added to the point. 6449 will be "rotated" onto the next "Skeena" to Prince Rupert (due in as we leave). Brock Manor is also added into our train as we board the same tour group that was on the train we arrived on.
Since leaving Toronto, it seems we had a "meet" at almost every siding for the 2 days of running (but I never notice us passing westbounds). CN is apparently having a VERY busy freight season. Many of the meets are "waits" (apparently no "expedited" passenger trains in Canada either) but we always run on time, so the schedule is obviously padded to include heavy freight traffic. Also, the observation car makes for great track watching - most of the line appears to be CWR with concrete ties - ride is smooth, with almost no "rocking" sometimes typical of the rear car of a train. Just before we are due out of Jasper, I am surprised to see a heavy westbound coal drag depart ahead of us. Talk about no passenger priority!
As we pull out, the inbound "Skeena" radios they have a passenger that would "desperately" like to catch our train (this is not a connection). They arrange a "meet" at a crossing and transfer the passenger aboard in a matter of seconds. "Skeena" is REALLY in the slow season (although they say it is the normal winter train). Consist:
Prince Albert Park dome-obs.
Talk about your "pocket streamliner"!
Turns out to be quite a few miles of westbound double track, and at the end we roll past the waiting coal drag, so now I see why it rolled out of Jasper so close ahead of us. At a later point we are again on double track and begin to pass a westbound manifest moving just slightly slower than us. Then we slow down and the freight gradually pulls ahead and disappears! Again I wonder about "priority". We then hit a red block and wait for a brief moment and proceed, soon hit double track again and pass the moving freight and take the lead for good. Apparently it's easier to stop and start us than a long freight on these grades, but our delay was minor so it really hasn't interfered.
We roll thru the night and reach Vancouver in the rain the next morning. The station approach is another reverse move around a blind sharp bend of a "Y" into the station, and the obs car is perfect for observing. The "non-existent" condcutor (who now rides the head-end) drops off, throws the switch, and boards the obs car for the reverse move. As we come around the blind turn we encounter serveral yard tracks and a headlight approaching that is hard to tell what track it is on since it is still in the "curve". The conductor radios his hogger that there is a freight ahead and to slow down (we are moving slow anyway), then we round the curve and the freight is on OUR track and approaching about 100 ft away! Conductor tells hogger and train stops, and freight stops also. Conductor bails and hightails it down the track to the freight, and I imaging the blistering the dispatcher must be hearing! We sit for a while, then conductor walks back to us and freight reverses back thru some switches and we proceed. A query reveals this is NOT a dispatch error. This is "rule 105?" territory - "see and be seen". Freight was just as surprised as us and had dropped into emergency stop when we came around the bend in his face (we were 20 minutes early!). Anyhow, speeds were so slow that there was no real danger, but it sure was a SURPRISE!
Anyhow, we back into the station "on-time". It is raining hard, so no yard excursion is in the works, but I observe "Tremblant Park", a couple of skyline domes, and numerous other cars in the station area. There are some old canadian heavyweight car(s) on display, and a skyline dome sat out by them as well. Someone said it was to be part of the display, but I could not see if it was 8508 or 8509. 8508 was "wrecked and retired" several years ago, and presumed scrapped. If anyone wanders the Vancouver station, I would very much like to know if this car could be 8508 or if they are "retiring" 8509, or if the person was just "blowing smoke"! Thanx.
There is a 9:15 bus to Seattle (we arrive at 8:55) that is not a guaranteed connection, but the next bus is at 12:30 and a connecting train does not leave until 6:00PM, so I am anxious to catch this first bus. Unfortunately, there is the "tour" group along, so mucho luggage to unload. Ours finally pops out, we grab it, hustle to the bus area, and make it with 2 whole minutes to spare!
We decide to extend our stay in Seattle and fly (dirty-dirty word). Seating is 3 across "squash", 2 hours, and they not only have cut out meal/snack service and dropped peanuts, even the pretzels or other substitues are history!) Anyhow, we fly to San Jose to catch the same Starlight that departed 24 hours before from Seattle: we caught 6:30AM flight due in San Jose at 8:30AM, and Starlight is due San Jose at 10:30AM and I will be home at 3PM. I call 1-800-USA-RAIL from the airport upon landing and SURPRISE! #11 is "4hrs 52min late at Chico"(groan!). (Turns out delay was a broken rail that had to be replaced plus a small brush fire somewhere added more delay). Is this the end of the trip?
Nope, this is a 30 day "unlimited" stops pass. I still have tickets for next week SLO-SAN DIEGO, then SLO-SAN FRANCISCO over christmas, but that's "mundane" travel and not part of this. So, in retrospect, we had a GREAT trip! Grandma's ready to roll AGAIN and even wifey admits it was relatively trouble free (and maybe I'm off the hook for the around-the-world cruise I "owed" after the last fiasco). None of the delays we encountered were Amtrak's fault, all equipment worked fine, employees were courteous, and we got great value for our money.
In case I never mentioned it, the "NARP" pass for all the travel in the off-season is (US) $450/$405 senior.
Catch a train and go see the continent!