It's about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, 1996, and I'm at Union Station in Winnipeg, Manitoba waiting to board the Hudson Bay for Churchill. This trip has been described as "always an adventure and truly one of today's unique travel experiences." It will be something of a first to me, as I have no reason to go to Churchill except for the sake of taking the train there. I have made many other trips by VIA and Amtrak in the last five years, and have at times gone somewhat out of my way to take the train, but in each case, I had some non-rail-related reason for getting to my final destination. This is the first time that I am taking a trip on a scheduled (non-railfan) train for its own sake!
After having visited my cousins Debbie and Aaron Kahn, I arrived via American Airlines this morning from Chicago. The flight was over three-quarters empty, and we arrived about 20 minutes late. My cousin Sheppy Coodin picked me up and took me to his home in the Garden City section of north Winnipeg. After lunch, we attended a memorial service for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Israel, and then we met Sheppy's brother Shalom, his sister Dvora, and their families for dinner at a kosher restaurant on Main Street. The food was quite good, and I also used the opportunity to buy a little more food for the trip. At about 8:30 p.m., we left for the station, stopping along the way to pick up some Canadian money from a cash machine.
At this hour, the station is virtually deserted. The westbound Canadian had been scheduled to depart at 6:35 p.m., and although it was somewhat late, by 9:00 p.m. it was long gone. The central feature of this station -- designed by the same architect who designed Grand Central Terminal in New York -- is an imposing rotunda, but this large space is entirely empty (except for a maintenance person sweeping the floor). The ticket window is open, but no one is buying any tickets. We walked into the concourse leading to the trains, which now doubles as a waiting area. Only a handful of people are waiting there. We started talking to one young man, Philip, who is originally from Germany and now lives in London, Ontario. He had bought a VIA Rail pass that permits 12 days of travel in 30 days, and was using it to go from London to Winnipeg to Churchill and back. Like me, he was making the trip just for the fun of it. Opposite him was Pat from Alaska, also traveling on the train for the fun of it. He also had a VIA Rail pass, and had arrived the previous day from Vancouver on the Canadian. There are three people in the next row of seats who appear to be Native Americans, and two women ahead of us are returning to their home in Dauphin, Manitoba -- only several hours out of Winnipeg.
At precisely 9:40 p.m., the boarding of the train is announced, and everyone goes up to board the train. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the train, I saw that it was covered with steam. As I had hoped, the train is made up of steam-heated equipment, which will be phased out entirely by next month. As Dawson Wolk, the Customer Service Manager in Winnipeg, had mentioned to me, only two railroads in the world still operate steam-heated equipment: VIA and the Trans-Siberian Railway! My attendant, Pete, showed me my duplex roomette #12, where I put my belongings, and then walked down the platform to explore the train. The train consists of two F-type engines, two steam generator cars, a baggage car, a 76-seat coach, a lounge-diner, and my sleeper Elmsdale. All are old Canadian National cars, now painted in the blue-and-yellow scheme of VIA. The lounge-diner has a dining area at one end, a counter with stools in the middle, and a lounge area at the other end, with the aisle going down one side of the car at this end, and a wall rather awkwardly separating the lounge area from the aisle. The sleeper consists of eight roomettes, four double bedrooms and four sections. My room #12 is an upper-level accommodation, which proves to be desirable in that it contains a shelf on which my large suitcase easily fits. (As I learned from my last trip on VIA, the lower-level roomettes have less conveniently accessible storage space.)
I reboarded the coach, and at precisely 9:55 p.m. as scheduled, we departed. I walked through the car and counted precisely eleven coach passengers. My attendant informs me that there are four passengers in the sleeper, making a total of 15 people on this eight-car train (including engines and steam- generator cars). There are two conductors, probably two engineers, and three on-board service personnel (Pete, the sleeping car attendant, Lloyd, the lounge car attendant and Edgar, the cook). Seven crew members for 15 passengers. No wonder VIA must be losing a fortune on this train! Looking at the seat checks, I noticed that, of the coach passengers, only my two friends from Germany and from Alaska are going all the way to Churchill. The other passengers are going to Dauphin, Veregin, Hudson Bay, The Pas and Herchmer.
I returned to my room and started writing these memoirs. At one point, Pete came by and, seeing my computer, warned me against trying to recharge it by plugging it into the outlet in the room. He explained that the old electric generators on this car can produce power surges that will ruin the computer. Oh, well. I guess I better heed his advice, but maybe I'll be able to recharge the computer by plugging it into electric outlets at the stations along the way where we are scheduled to make long stops.
When I walked through the lounge-diner before the train left, Lloyd informed me that the kosher meals I had requested were indeed on board. That is a story in itself. I had made the reservations for this trip several months ago with the Rail Travel Center, a travel agency in St. Albans, Vermont which specializes in rail travel. A week and a half ago, I called up the travel agency to ask them to request kosher meals for me. Several hours later, they called back to inform me that they were told by VIA that kosher meals are not available except on trains operating in the Toronto- Montreal-Quebec corridor. That seemed to be the end of the story as far as they were concerned. But I was determined to pursue the matter further. I sat down on my computer and wrote a letter to VIA asking why kosher meals could not be obtained, and then -- using a fax number I found in their timetable -- I faxed the letter to VIA's Customer Service office in Montreal. Several days later, I received a phone call from Dawson Wolk, VIA's Manager of Customer Services in Winnipeg, who was not entirely sure where to obtain kosher meals, but said that he would do whatever he could to make them available to me. I gave him the name of a kosher delicatessen in Winnipeg, and he assured me that they would have the kosher meals that I requested. I'm glad to see that my request has been honored. Later on, Pete presented me with a book that VIA produces for its Silver and Blue Class passengers on the Canadian -- a gift from Mr. Wolk, which he had also mentioned to me when we spoke last week.
At 11:03 p.m., we arrived at Portage la Prairie, our first scheduled stop. I walked up to the coach, where the conductor was standing by the open dutch door. No one would be getting on or off here, and the station was closed, but we had to wait seven minutes until our scheduled departure time of 11:10 p.m. On the way back to the sleeper, I stopped in the lounge car and asked Lloyd for a cup of tea. He replied that tea was not available at this time, since the car had already officially closed, but that I could have a cold drink or a cup of coffee if I liked. I chose the coffee, which I was not charged for.
Lloyd started talking to me about the train, saying that this old steam-heated equipment was never maintained properly by VIA, and that it is barely hanging together at all. He confirmed what Pete had earlier said to me about the electric outlets producing unreliable power, and said that we were lucky that the lights worked! He also confirmed that we had two steam generator cars because one might break down, which could result in a very unpleasant and even dangerous situation (due to the extreme cold prevalent in this area) if no backup were available. Lloyd then asked me if I had ever ridden in the cab of an engine, and when I replied that I had not but would very much like to do so, he said that he and Pete had been planning to arrange for a cab ride for me, either on the way up or on the way back! I had sort of hoped that this might happen, but I was truly amazed that it was offered to me without my even asking for it! We'll see if it actually materializes. Lloyd also told me that, in the summer, this train becomes quite full, with three sleepers completely sold out months in advance.
I walked through the coach again. By this time, everyone but two of the Native Americans (who were going to Herchmer, the last stop before Churchill) was sound asleep. Then I went back to my room, turned off the lights, and watched us slow down as we passed through the town of Gladstone. At this late hour (11:55 p.m.), the town seemed completely deserted.
Soon I decided to go to sleep. I was not really tired, and it took me quite a while to fall asleep. I was awake when we arrived at Dauphin at 1:37 a.m. Here, two passengers got off, and a woman boarded the train and occupied the roomette directly opposite mine. We stayed at the station for 13 minutes, until the assigned departure time of 1:50 a.m., and then pulled into the yard and waited another 20 minutes while the steam generator cars were refilled with water. We made a few more stops, but I couldn't tell where we were. I did note, though, that at 3:18 a.m. we passed the southbound Hudson Bay, which was made up of the new head-end power equipment. (Subsequently, the conductor told me that the southbound train had been held up because there was a hot journal bearing on one of the cars.) I was also awake when we arrived at Canora at 5:37 a.m. We spent ten minutes there. (The conductor later told me that while the conductors change at Dauphin, the engineers change at Canora. This is a very unusual arrangement, which I never heard of on Amtrak.)
Finally, at about 7:15 a.m., I woke up for good. I got dressed and walked down to the coach. On the way, I stopped in the lounge-diner, where the conductor told me that we were running half an hour late. I now counted only eight coach passengers on the train, the others having gotten off at Dauphin or Veregin. I returned to the sleeper where Sandra, the woman from Dauphin who occupied the roomette opposite me, mentioned that she works for Parks Canada, and is based in Riding Mountain National Park, near Dauphin. She was going to Churchill on business -- to train people who work for the Park Service there on how to operate a new computer accounting system. She mentioned that she could have flown to Churchill, but it would have cost $1,000, while the train -- with a roomette -- is costing her only $300 or so.
At 8:10 a.m., we arrived at Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan. Here, the rail line makes a sharp turn to the left (north), but the station is on a short spur off the main line. So the crew has to throw a hand switch to get onto that spur, and then -- after stopping at the station -- the train backs up to regain the main line. We stopped for three minutes here; one person got off, and an envelope was handed to the conductor. I, along with Philip from Germany, stepped off and took a few pictures.
Then I returned to my room and soon went to the diner for breakfast. There were four tables set up at the rear end of the car, but I was the only passenger eating at this time. I had orange juice, corn flakes and coffee, with the attendant giving me refills on the orange juice and the coffee. He mentioned to me that the meals are not included in the price of the sleeping car ticket, but said that since all I had was cold cereal, he wouldn't bother charging me anything!
When I returned to my room, Pete, the attendant, came by, and we started talking about the train and its patronage. He said that today, the sleeper -- with only five passengers -- was very "crowded." Other days, he explained, there were even fewer passengers in the sleeper, and sometimes there were none at all! The five passengers consisted of myself, the woman across the hall who was going from Dauphin to Churchill, a man by the name of Ed from Denver who had boarded in Winnipeg and was going to Churchill and back just for the fun of it (he occupied a double bedroom because he originally intended to bring his wife along on the trip), and two women who were going from Winnipeg to The Pas and travelling in sections. He also mentioned that no one else was scheduled to board the sleeper for the rest of the trip, and that each of the three on-board crew members had appropriated a double bedroom for themselves.
The scenery up to this point consisted of almost unbroken wilderness, with trees growing only about 30-40 feet high. Occasionally, there was a small settlement or a road crossing. Soon, a road started to parallel the railroad on the left, and then some buildings began to appear. We were getting near The Pas.
At 10:58 a.m., we arrived at The Pas. I got off the train, went into the station, and plugged in my computer. The hour or so that we will be spending here should suffice to recharge the batteries for a while. Then I walked along the train and took pictures with my camera and with the video camera that Harry Harczstark had lent me. I finished a roll of print film, put in a roll of slide film, and took some more pictures. The train is refueled and watered here, and the crew is changed. After walking around the block, I returned to the station, where Pete informed me that we had a slight problem. Last night, he had noticed that the dining-lounge car seemed to be riding rather roughly, and when the maintenance crew checked the car, it was determined that it had a flat wheel. He said that he wasn't sure what was going to happen, and that they might even have to cancel the train!
A few minutes later, though, Pete came back and told us that they had decided to replace the wheel. This would require them to uncouple the sleeper and back up the rest of the train to the yard where the work would be done. He estimated that we would be delayed for about an hour. That's fine with me -- I don't really care when we get to Churchill, but I do want to get there on the train!
In the meantime, I went back into the station and continued working on these memoirs, my computer having been recharged in the interim. At about 11:20 a.m., the mixed train to Lynn Lake -- which had been scheduled to depart at 11:00 a.m. -- pulled in. It was powered by three CN diesels, which were followed by about 20 freight cars, baggage car 9631, coach 5186 and a CN caboose. A Native American family, with two small children, had been waiting at the station for the departure of this train, but only the husband actually boarded the train. He was the sole passenger. The agent mentioned that combine 7201, sitting on a side track, was still operable, and could substitute for the coach and baggage car if they were bad ordered. That car has the old-style ceiling with air vents, and must be about 70 years old. The agent also pointed out that while Lynn Lake can be reached by road from Thompson, many communities along the way are reachable only by train, and the one person aboard this train today was going to one of those communities.
I got back on the train to retrieve my food, and then the train backed up to the yard so that the wheel could be replaced. I went back into the station. Sandra and Philip went out in search of a restaurant, while I remained in the station along with Ed and the station agent. The agent mentioned to us that when he started working for the railroad, The Pas was a very busy place, with daily trains to Thompson and tri-weekly trains to Churchill, and Railiners to Regina and Flin Flon. Now there were only the tri- weekly trains to Churchill and Lynn Lake. He also pointed out that these trains are used much less in the winter than in the summer because, in the winter, "winter roads" can be built on the frozen terrain, permitting one to drive to locations that cannot be reached in the summer. He also indicated that it was unlikely that our train would depart before 2:00 p.m. Soon Ed left in search of something to eat.
At 12:15 p.m., after eating a can of tuna salad with some crackers at the station, I decided to explore the town. The agent said that it would be fine if I came back by 1:30 p.m. I walked down to the center of town, where the one thing that appeared to be of interest -- a museum of local history housed in a 1916 courthouse -- was closed. I also stopped in a bank to change a $20 bill. As I was leaving the bank, I noticed that our train seemed to be pulling up to the station. I walked back to the station and -- sure enough -- the flat wheel had already been fixed, and the train was ready to leave! It was only 12:30 p.m. By this time, everyone had returned except for Ed; he was quickly located, and we departed at 12:42 p.m. We were almost two hours late, but I had expected much worse. Lloyd, the lounge car attendant, told me that he was astonished that the wheel had been fixed so quickly.
Soon after we left The Pas, Pete asked whether I would like to eat lunch. Although I had eaten the tuna with crackers, I was still a little hungry, so I went to the diner, where I was served a kosher meal from Omnitsky's Delicatessen in Winnipeg, consisting of a turkey sandwich, kasha varnishkes, a pickle, cole slaw and two kinds of mustard -- labeled "mild" and "hot" (I chose the "hot" one). I was charged $5.50 for the meal, and $1.00 for the accompanying soda. Then I went to the coach and sat there for a while. There were now only eight passengers on the train -- Ed, Sandra and myself in the sleeper, and Philip, Pat and the three Native Americans in the coach. And we still had a crew of seven!
At 1:49 p.m., we stopped at Cormorant, said to be "the first settlement of any size along the Hudson Bay Railway." According to the Scenic Rail Guide to Central and Atlantic Canada, "Cormorant has two stores and two churches," and one of each was visible from the train. I had the chance to step off the train here and take a picture. No one got off here, but a young woman with a baby got on. She was going to Wabowden. The number of passengers on board had just increased by 12«% (and that doesn't even include the baby)! I walked to the back of the train, and took some video pictures out the back and through the open dutch door. Then I walked through the train with the video camera and took pictures of each of the cars.
From here to Wekusko, a distance of 40 miles, there are no roads paralleling or crossing the tracks. As has been the case all day, the scenery consists of scrub trees, with the ground completely covered with snow. If you look at the timetable, you see names of what appear to be towns every few miles along the way, but in fact these names signify nothing more than signs along the railroad, with no signs of civilization whatever nearby. (In fact, there are only eight stops normally made in the entire distance from The Pas to Churchill: Cormorant, Wabowden, Thicket Portage, Thompson, Pikwitonei, Ilford, Gillam and Herchmer. And these are the only significant places of settlement along the entire route!) The train was very quiet, of course, and I used some of the time to read and evaluate one of the papers for Justice Elon's course.
Our next stop was Wabowden, where we arrived at 4:02 p.m. So far, this is the biggest town we've come to north of The Pas, and it even boasts a hotel visible from trackside! The Rail Ventures book states that Wabowden "acts as a transfer point for goods destined for more remote regions." Indeed, Wabowden is the end of the line for a weekly train to Gillam, and there is a wye just south of town, used for the sole purpose of turning this train around. But despite all this, no one got on here, and we paused for only one minute in order to let off the woman and baby who had boarded at Cormorant. They were met by two men in a car, and the number of passengers on our train once again dropped to eight. We have made up about half an hour since our tardy departure from The Pas, and are now only one hour and 18 minutes late.
After Wabowden, we once again traverse a stretch of track that is nowhere near any road. The trees along the right-of-way in this section are somewhat higher than those farther back, and the area has more of an appearance of a forest. About 20 minutes out of Wabowden, I noticed that we were going through a rock cut. This is the first time I've seen such a thing in awhile; up to here, the ground has been very flat. I spent some time in the coaches, and actually fell asleep for a few minutes.
About 5:20 p.m., as we were approaching Thicket Portage, the brakeman (who essentially was the assistant conductor) asked me if I wanted to come into the baggage car to take some pictures when we stopped at the station. Instead, I elected to get off briefly when we arrived at the station at 5:26 p.m. For the first time on the whole trip, our stop here was a real center of activity. Nine people (all Native Americans who live in Thicket Portage) got on the train to go to Thompson, and various items (including mail) were loaded onto and unloaded from the baggage car. I took several slides with my camera, but the video camera's battery seems to have died, so I couldn't get any pictures with it. After I reboarded the train, I went into the baggage car (which was still largely empty) and took a picture out of the open door.
I might add that the baggage car on these VIA trains serves a very different purpose than those on Amtrak trains. On Amtrak, the baggage car is used only for checked baggage, which means that the baggage must be checked in with the station agent, and picked up inside the station from the agent. That means that both stations must be served by agents. With VIA, by contrast, you just go over to the baggage car, hand your parcels to the conductor, and then pick them up from the conductor at your destination. This permits one to utilize the baggage car for large parcels even at stations without agents, and this arrangement seems to make much more sense to me. Soon Pete came over to me and said that I would want to go to the back of the train to observe the pipes used to pump freon under the tracks so as to prevent the permafrost from melting in the summer. I observed this feature looking out of the back, where both dutch doors were now opened. Then, at 5:54 p.m., we reached Thompson Jct. Here, the brakeman had to get off to throw the switch for us to go onto the branch line to Thompson. He got off at the front of the train and, after rethrowing the switch to reset it for the main line, got back at the rear.
Now we were on our way to Thompson. This branch line is far more scenic than the rest of the line so far has been. It has many curves, and there are also a number of deep rock cuts. The conductor encouraged us (meaning myself, Sandra and Ed) to stand out on the back vestibule and look out of the open dutch doors. To improve the viewing, Pete lowered a plastic covering that had been placed over the open vestibule in the back, so we could see out of the back without the somewhat dirty piece of plastic impeding our view. I remarked how different the attitude of the VIA employees is from that of their counterparts at Amtrak. Ordinarily, I wouldn't dare try to open dutch doors on an Amtrak train and look out; when I open the windows in the Superliner doors, I always try to make sure that no Amtrak employee is watching. Here, by contrast, the VIA employees actually encouraged us to stand on the back vestibule and look out of the open dutch doors! It is true that we are on a single-track railroad with no other trains in the area, and that we are going no more than about 40 miles an hour (and often much less than that). But still, the attitude of VIA employees in general is much more friendly than that of their counterparts at Amtrak.
I watched the train cross the scenic trestle over the Grass River, and then returned to my room and updated these memoirs. I also started talking to Shayne, the young brakeman who acted as assistant conductor. He told me that he grew up in a railroad family, with his grandfather having been an engineer and his father being a conductor for VIA working out of Winnipeg on the Canadian. He seemed to enjoy his work, but said that he would really like to become an airplane pilot instead. When I asked him what he thought of the future of this line, he said that the train from Winnipeg to The Pas might be abandoned, but service north of there could not be discontinued because it is essential to the villages that cannot be reached in any other way. (Dawson Wolk subsequently told me that the Government deems only the service from Thompson to Churchill to be an essential "remote service," but VIA chooses to operate the train all the way to Winnipeg, since it does not have facilities to properly maintain the equipment north of there.) When I asked Shayne how he would get back to The Pas, he explained that he, the conductor and the engineers would be driving back -- and that it would take them only four hours, instead of the six hours or so that the train takes. Shayne also mentioned to me that he's never been to Churchill!
At about 7:00 p.m., the train was wyed, and then we backed into the Thompson station, where we arrived at 7:11 p.m. Quite a few people were there to meet us. Here two flat cars containing trailers are added to the back of the train (thus, of course, blocking the view -- but, then again, you can't really see anything out the back in the darkness, anyway). To accomplish this maneuver, the front engine is taken off, it couples onto these flat cars, and then they are pushed onto the back of the train. Of course, the engine then has to be moved back to the front of the train. While all this was going on, vans were pulled up to the baggage car, and a good number of parcels and boxes were loaded onto the train. Also, the train is watered here. All this takes quite some time.
As soon as we arrived, I walked into the station in the hope of finding an outlet to plug in both the computer and the video camera battery. I found only one outlet that worked, and that one had a Coke machine plugged into it, leaving only one available plug. I plugged in the camera battery, and then asked the ticket agent if I could plug the computer into an outlet in the office. She was glad to oblige. In the meantime, I started talking to some of the people who were waiting to board the train. One young woman was a nurse who served Ilford, with a population of about 150. She was the only trained medical person in the town, and in case of emergency, the only recourse is to call for an airplane to transport the person to Thompson. She pointed out that, at best, this takes several hours. Accompanying her was her boyfriend from Calgary. A young man and his girl friend were on their way to Pikwitonei, where he was raised and still lived. Other people were going to Gillam and Churchill. For the first time, it seemed that there would be a considerable number of people on the train.
When I stepped back into my sleeper, Pete mentioned that two of the bedrooms had now been filled by people going to Churchill. That left only one bedroom for the crew, so two attendants had to move to roomettes. I also talked to Lloyd, who said that he thought he could arrange for me to ride in the engine on the trip back from Churchill, probably from Thicket Portage to Wabowden.
At about 8:10 p.m., the boarding of the train was announced, and we left at 8:15 p.m. We had spent just over an hour at Thompson, rather than the hour and a half that we are scheduled to spend there. Now, we were only 55 minutes late. I updated these memoirs and then, at 8:40 p.m., I went to the dining car for dinner. I was first given a fresh salad, and then I was served a roast beef dinner prepared by Omnitsky's in Winnipeg. The roast beef was accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas and carrots, and it was quite good. Despite the fact that quite a few people had boarded the train in Thompson, no one else chose to eat dinner at this time, and for the third time I had a table to myself.
After dinner, I talked to the conductor, who was a CN, not a VIA, employee. He explained that he and the remainder of the crew is based in Gillam, and told me that there were now 24 coach passengers on the train. Since only three of those coach passengers had boarded before Thompson, that means that 21 coach passengers got on there (in addition to four sleeping car passengers). Most (but not all) of these people were Native Americans. I walked into the coach, and for the first time it began to look sort of full (although there were still plenty of empty pairs of seats). If my count is correct, there are now a total of 31 passengers on the train -- certainly nowhere near capacity, but at least a fairly respectable number.
I returned to my room and did some more work with the computer. Soon, I noticed some lights on the left side of the train. We must be approaching some village! So I walked down to the coach just in time for our stop at Pikwitonei at 9:44 p.m. Six people got off, and they were met by snowmobiles, which apparently are the main means of transportation here. The conductor mentioned that there is a "winter road" to this place, and I did see one truck in the village. There is also an airport, but I would imagine that flying to and from the village is quite expensive -- and there may not be any scheduled air service. The village seemed like a very charming place. I imagine that I should be able to get a better look at it on Wednesday morning, when it should be light for our stop there.
I then went to the dining car, where I brought my computer and worked on an evaluation of a paper for Justice Elon's course. (I might add that I chose the dining section of the car because the lounge section -- which was relatively small -- was quite full with passengers and crew members, many of whom were smoking, which is permitted in that area.) Since no one was using those tables to eat dinner, the crew had no objection to my sitting there -- again, quite a contrast with the general attitude at Amtrak. I noticed that three people who appeared to be crew members were sitting at the counter eating dinner. Two of them were wearing shirts with the wording "CN Assistant Conductor"; the other one was the person I had already identified as the conductor. They explained to me that, in this area, CN rules require a train to be operated by a conductor and two assistant conductors. Exactly why so many people are needed was not made clear; the train seemed to be running quite well while all three of them were sitting in the diner and eating dinner.
Pete mentioned to me that we probably will not be making up any more time and that, as a result, we most likely will not arrive in Churchill until about 9:00 a.m. He also pointed out that this will probably result in us leaving about an hour late tomorrow night, since the crew has to get 12 hours of "rest," and if we arrive late, they won't get their 12 hours unless the train departure is pushed back to about 10:00 p.m. (Earlier in the day, though, Lloyd pointed out that the main reason why a number of long stops are needed on this route is that it takes quite a while to add water to the steam generator cars, which seem to require water in very large quantities. This will all change soon, he noted, when all the trains on this line are converted to head-end power.)
About 11:15 p.m., I was getting rather tired. I walked down to the coach once more (by this time, most of the passengers were asleep), returned to my room, pulled down the bed and climbed in. I quickly fell asleep, but woke up when we arrived at Ilford at 11:50 p.m. The stop took three minutes, presumably because items had to be unloaded from the baggage car. Ilford seemed to be an attractive village, although I could not see the station, which was on the other side of the tracks. As we pulled out, I noticed someone driving by on a snowmobile.
We arrived at Gillam at 1:02 a.m. When we stopped, the window of my room was directly in front of the station. Today, Gillam is a very large (relatively speaking, of course) community, with a population of about 3,000. But this is only because a hydroelectric power plant was constructed nearby about 20 years ago. Up to then, only a few hundred people lived there, and its primary importance was as a railroad division point. The map of Manitoba that I brought with me, dated 1976, did not show a road to Gillam, but the conductor told me that a road was built there about ten years ago, so the community is no longer dependent on rail and air transportation.
I pulled down the shade to my room and fell asleep long before we left Gillam. I slept soundly until about 4:00 a.m., when I woke up and looked out the window. The vegetation had changed significantly from the previous day. Now there was nothing but thin evergreen trees, no more than about 15 feet tall, with large open stretches where almost nothing grew.
At 5:46 a.m., we arrived at Herchmer. This seemed to be a very small community, built right next to the tracks. The surroundings looked very bleak. As we pulled away, I noticed the passengers who had gotten off the train (three of whom had come all the way from Winnipeg) walking into their homes, which faced the tracks and were situated only about 100 feet away. I also noticed a boxcar and a tank car parked on a siding. Herchmer seemed to be a particularly isolated village -- quite a contrast with Winnipeg, from which these passengers had just come. We were now an hour and 15 minutes late, having actually lost some additional time since leaving Thompson.
Soon after we left Herchmer, I noticed that it was snowing! This represents quite a change from the weather yesterday, when it was above freezing all day long and the sun was shining. (In fact, one of the people boarding the train in Thompson told me that the temperature had gone up to 50ø yesterday afternoon, which is exceptionally warm for this area during this time of the year.) The warm temperature was quite unexpected, but it permitted us to spend quite a bit of the ride looking out the open dutch doors without freezing. I was warned, though, that the temperature in Churchill can be very different. I also noticed, for the first time, an electric power line running to the left of the tracks. Presumably, this line originates in Gillam and supplies power to Churchill and the small communities along the way. The upper part of the poles are constructed in the shape of inverted triangles, and the poles are each supported by four guy lines.
I didn't fall asleep again, but I stayed in bed until about 7:00 a.m., mostly looking out of the window at the scenery. Then I got up, dressed, and walked down to the front of the train. There were now about 12 coach passengers on the train, the others having gotten off at intermediate stops. I then went to the diner for breakfast. Again I had juice, coffee and cold cereal, and again I was not charged for the meal (although, according to the menu, I should have paid about $4.00).
After breakfast, I went back to the coach, where I started talking to the conductor. He pointed out that the way freight (actually, a mixed train) leaves Churchill every Wednesday morning, and suggested that I take that train to Gillam rather the train leaving tonight, because that way I would be able to see the scenery in the daylight. I told him that I might consider doing that on the next trip, but for now I would stick with my original plans. He also said that this will be the last run of the steam- heated equipment to Churchill. (When I returned to Winnipeg, Dawson Wolk said that this was not entirely accurate. He told that the particular equipment used on this train was being taken out of service, but that other steam-heated equipment would probably be used for some trains on this run, at least until the end of March. And, indeed, when my friend Ben Anderson took the Hudson Bay to Churchill two weeks later, he also rode in steam-heated equipment -- in fact, he had the very same sleeper, Elmsdale!)
We were now getting close to Churchill, where we would be arriving at about 9:20 a.m. When the conductor saw my video camera, he pointed out that there was a curve ahead, and suggested that I take some pictures from the dutch door in the rear of the coach. He opened the upper half of the door, but the blowing snow made it very difficult to get any good pictures. I returned to my room and started getting my belongings together.
Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Churchill station. It was 9:12 a.m., so we were 52 minutes late. I took my backpack and camera bag off the train, and then returned for my suitcase. Lloyd had told me that Leona, who owned the Churchill Motel, would be picking him and the other crew members up and taking them to her motel, where they would be staying for the day. He suggested that I do the same, and I gladly agreed. I brought my belongings into the station, and then went out to take some pictures.
The Churchill station is a two-story frame building with a rather dilapidated appearance. The first floor is still used as an active station and ticket office, but the waiting room is surprisingly small for a station of this importance.
I walked through the snow to the front of the train, so I could get a picture of the front of the engines. Right after I took the picture, I saw Ed waving at me from in front of the station. Leona had come to take us to her motel. The two of us, along with Edgar, the cook on the train, piled into her Suburban, and after a short driving tour of the town, we arrived at her motel. (Although there are no roads to Churchill, there are roads in and around the town, and many people apparently own pick-up trucks, utility vehicles or cars, which are transported to the town by train.) After settling in my room, I went back to the station (which was only a five-minute walk away, and was in fact visible from my room). Our train had already been pulled away, but the consist of the mixed train which would depart tomorrow morning from Churchill had just pulled into the station. There were two CN engines, an empty boxcar filled with snow, VIA combine 7209, and a CN caboose. I took some pictures and made a few phone calls, and then I returned to my room, where I reviewed the videos that I had taken so far, took a nice, hot shower and updated these memoirs. I also determined from the weather channel on the television that the temperature outside was 3ø. It was much colder than yesterday, and cold enough to wear both my heavy down parka and Sorel boots that I had brought along for this very purpose, but it was nothing like the -30ø readings that I thought I might encounter.
Next, I took a walk around town. Churchill is a very compact town, and it is easy to walk to everything. I visited the town center, which contains a school, library and recreational facilities. Then I walked back to the motel and ate lunch, which consisted of a can of salmon and crackers.
After lunch, I decided to go the Parks Canada visitor center. There are a few exhibits, but the main feature of this facility is a small theatre in which videos are shown. In the busy tourist season, there is a schedule for the showing of these videos, but in the off-season, they are shown on demand whenever a tourist happens to walk in. Pat from Alaska came in around the same time, and we both watched an historical video which focused on the Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the bay, a video on the construction of the Hudson Bay Railroad, a video on polar bears, and another one on life around the ice in the ocean. I also met Sandra, who was now busy at work. Then I went to the Eskimo Museum, where I bought a T-shirt, a book on the construction of the railroad to Churchill, and some postcards; to the post office, where I mailed the cards; to the bank, where I exchanged my remaining American money for Canadian funds; to the library, where I looked at a book about the history of the Hudson Bay Railroad; and to the supermarket, where I bought a few items for dinner. As can be seen, despite its low population (currently, only about 1,000), Churchill is a well developed community, with all the facilities that one would expect to find in a much larger municipality.
Of course, I mentioned to many of the residents of Churchill that I encountered in the course of my wanderings through the town the fact that I had come by train. As might be expected, most of the residents had, at some point in their lives, traveled to and from Churchill by train. However, the majority of the people I met indicated that they preferred to fly in and out whenever they possibly could, rather than take the train. There were a few exceptions, though. The owner of the convenience store told me that he always took the train. And the woman at the museum mentioned that on her family's annual vacation, they arrange for their car to be shipped by train to Thompson, where they travel by train, and then they drive from there to eastern Canada where they have relatives. She explained that they found this to be the most cost-effective way for her family of four to travel.
Generally, the prices in Churchill are -- as one might expect -- significantly higher than they are back home. Obviously, the fact that everything has to be trans-shipped by rail must add to the cost. In many cases, I found that items in the supermarket cost twice as much as they would in Teaneck. (At the convenience store, I found that a can of soda sold for $1.45, and a small jar of peanut butter for over $5.00.) But there were some interesting exceptions. I found that a half gallon of Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice, which normally sells for $3.49 in Teaneck, was selling in the supermarket for only $1.99 Canadian, which translates to less than $1.50 American funds. It was a sale item, but still I was amazed that something so bulky, heavy and perishable would be sold here at such a low price. Of course, I bought a container, and used it to accompany my supper. I also bought a package of rice cakes for $1.00, which again seemed to be a very reasonable price.
I also took a walk down towards the port. The large grain shipment facility is, of course, totally deserted at this time of the year, when the port is frozen solid. Also visible along the way were parking areas where the tundra vehicles used to transport tourists to view polar bears were stored. At the Parks Canada exhibit, the ranger on duty had said that it would be possible for me to walk across the ice to the fort, and I thought of doing so, but it was getting late, and I decided against the idea. I returned to my room, and ate dinner, which consisted of a can of sardines with jalapeno peppers (purchased at the supermarket), crackers and orange juice.
During my earlier visit to the town center, I noticed a sign which stated that the pool would be open this evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. I had brought a bathing suit along, and thought that this would be an interesting way to end my visit. So after dinner, I went back to the town center and took a swim. The large, Olympic-size pool was open to anyone -- whether or not they resided in Churchill -- upon the payment of an admission fee of $1.90, but it was largely empty, with only about half a dozen people (at most) in the water. I swam for about half an hour, and then returned to my room, where I started packing everything up again.
At 8:45 p.m., Leona called and said that the time had arrived for us to return to the station. I brought my belongings to the front desk and checked out. Then I started talking to a Native American woman sitting nearby who lived in Rankin Inlet, Northwest Territories. She had come south to Churchill for medical treatment, and when I started saying how expensive things were in Churchill, she remarked that things were far more expensive in Rankin. For example, she said that a two-liter bottle of Coke sold there for $10.00! Rankin has no roads or railroads leading to it (except for "winter roads"), and everything must be flown in. She also mentioned that the price of a round-trip ticket from Rankin to Churchill was over $1,000, and that she was able to come only because the Government paid for her trip, since it was made for medical reasons. (The Government also has a contract with this motel to house such people during their stay in Churchill.)
Ed and I piled our belongings into the Suburban, and we left for the station. The woman from Rankin Inlet accompanied us, as she had never been on a train and wanted to see what one looked like.
When we arrived at the station, it was filled with a group of teenagers. They were Native Americans from Island Lake, an isolated community in eastern Manitoba, near the Ontario border. There were 14 students, accompanied by a teacher and the vice- principal of their school. The teacher (who came from Fredericton, New Brunswick) explained that this was a class trip. Last Friday, they flew to Thompson and took the train from there to Churchill, and they were now returning to Thompson on the train. Several other people were also waiting for the train, and it was rather noisy, with one of the students playing the song "It's a Beautiful Life" rather loudly on a boom box.
Among the people waiting for the train was, of course, Pat from Alaska, who told me that his wallet had disappeared somewhere in the town center. In it was several hundred dollars -- all of the money that he had planned to use for the remainder of the trip. He reported the loss to the police, who promised to contact the VIA agent at Churchill if the wallet were found. Fortunately, he still had his train and airline tickets. I offered to lend him some money, but he said that that would not be necessary at this time.
While waiting for the boarding announcement, I went outside and took some pictures and videos of the train. Of course, the equipment was the same as it was on the way up, including the two trailers on flat cars (which were now presumably empty) at the back of the train. At this point, the baggage car was positioned just north of the station, and baggage was being loaded onto the train. Then the train was pulled forward and, at 9:25 p.m., boarding began. Everyone got on the train very quickly, but we did not actually depart until 9:55 p.m. -- fifty-five minutes late.
After walking through the coach and the lounge, I returned to my room and spent about 45 minutes writing about my day's activities. Then I went to the lounge car, where I started talking to the conductor. He mentioned that there were about 25 people in the coaches. (From my previous conversation with Pete, I found out that there were five people in the sleeper, with two double bedrooms and two roomettes occupied.) We talked about the route followed by this train, and I remarked how unusual it was that we would not be meeting or passing any other train all the way to Gillam (and probably to Thompson, too) -- a little different than Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line from New York to Washington! The conductor mentioned that the only settlement on the railroad between Churchill and Gillam was Herchmer, and that village consisted of only a few houses which were inhabited by section workers for the railroad. He explained that the tank car that I saw on the siding yesterday morning was used to supply the village with water! Apparently, it is an insulated car, which prevents the water from freezing. (The conductor said that Weir River, the other location shown as a scheduled stop between Churchill and Gillam, used to be a small village for section workers, but that everyone who lived there has now been moved to Gillam, and the train no longer stops there.) I also walked through the coach where, by now, the lights had been dimmed and almost everyone was asleep (although the young man with the boom box was still playing some song, but a little more softly).
By now it was 11:20 p.m. I was still not that tired, even though I didn't sleep at all during the day, but I decided to go to sleep. I fell asleep very quickly and slept soundly until about 1:30 a.m. when I heard some communications on the scanner. The train had stopped, and although I couldn't see the station, which was on the other side of the tracks, I concluded that we must be at Herchmer. When we left a few minutes later, I fell asleep again, and woke up again about 4:30 a.m., as we were about to cross the large bridge over the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids. Although it was still dark, I could see the front of the train as it passed around a curve on the approach to the bridge.
I was still awake when we arrived at Gillam at 4:50 a.m., but again I fell asleep. When I next woke up at 6:00 a.m., we were still there. So I decided to get dressed and see if I could step off the train here. Before I had a chance to do so, though, I heard "highball" on the scanner, and we started moving. I took the video camera and got some views of the town as we departed. Gillam apparently has a population of about 3,000 -- much larger than Churchill, and it seems to be a pleasant, modern community. Soon, though, we stopped again. Apparently, there was a problem with one of the steam lines which had to be repaired, and we didn't start moving again until 6:24 a.m. We were now an hour and 15 minutes late.
I walked down to the coach, where almost everyone was still sleeping. I counted 29 passengers in the coach, which probably means that a few people got on at Herchmer or Gillam. I think that there are now more people on the train than there have been at any time since we left Winnipeg! It was now snowing, and the temperature was much colder than it had been on Monday (although probably not as cold as it had been yesterday in Churchill). On the way back to my room, Edgar the cook offered me a cup of coffee, but I told him that I would come back later for breakfast. I returned to my room and, although I did not expect to fall asleep again, I climbed back into bed, took out my computer and recorded the night's events. I also started reading Turmoil and Triumph -- the book on the history of the Hudson Bay Railway that I had purchased yesterday in Churchill.
The history of this railroad is another thing that makes this trip so fascinating. Unlike most of the major railroads in the United States and Canada, which were built before the turn of the century, construction of this railroad was not started until 1913, and the line to Churchill was not completed until 1929. Turmoil and Triumph recounts the incredible stories of the men who built the railroad. They endured sub-freezing temperatures in the winter -- and black flies and mosquitos in the summer -- while living in the most primitive conditions. Another thing which is unique about this railroad is that it has always been the subject of controversy -- which continues to the present day. The whole reason for building the line to Churchill was to provide a short route to a port, but the limited season at the port of Churchill (it is only open about four months a year) lessens its usefulness and makes it relatively expensive to operate. In 1926, while the line was still under construction, the editor of Railway Age magazine was quoted as saying: "The Hudson Bay Railway is one of the most chimerical transportation projects ever conceived. The people of Canada would much better dump $75,000,000 into Hudson Bay than carry it out. If it is carried out they will lose not only their original investment, but millions of dollars every year in addition." There are those today who believe that this statement has proved to be correct. Nevertheless, the port of Churchill is still in operation, and while passenger service is no longer operated on the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, VIA still runs a tri- weekly passenger train to Churchill.
I stayed in bed until shortly before 7:30 a.m., when I heard on the scanner that we were about to stop at Ilford. Before I got dressed and had a chance to walk down to the coach, we had already stopped there, and since the stop lasted for only two minutes, I didn't have a chance to step off the train. At least five people got on at this rather small village. I walked through the coach again, and for the first time -- with about 35 people in the car, or nearly half its capacity -- the coach began to look a little crowded! In fact, I couldn't find a single pair of unoccupied seats, since some people had appropriated two or even four seats to themselves, and eight facing seats at the back of the car were used by the crew.
I went to the diner for breakfast, which consisted of my usual juice, corn flakes and coffee. Although I again had a table to myself, this time a Native American woman and her young son occupied the opposite table. She had gotten on at Ilford, and was traveling to Thompson to do shopping, etc. It turned out that she was the assistant nurse for the community of Ilford, who substituted when necessary for the regular nurse, whom I had met on the train on Monday evening! This time I was charged $1.00 for the orange juice (since it was served in a can) but, again, the remainder of the meal was free. Lloyd remarked that the take-out counter in the car had been pretty busy this morning, with many of the Native Americans ordering hamburgers for breakfast!
After shooting some videos out of the back (including the crossing of the Nelson River at milepost 240.9), I returned to my room, where I heard on the scanner the conductor telling the engineer: "Keep an eye on 226 -- Rusty said that he might have some fish today." Sure enough, at 9:11 a.m., when we reached milepost 226, the train stopped, and a man got on with a cardboard box tied together with string. He lived in a small house adjacent to the tracks, and apparently made a living from fishing in the area. This is the first stop of the kind that this train has made, but it will stop just about anywhere along the route to pick up or discharge passengers.
As we were arriving at the next stop, Pikwitonei, I walked to the coach, but the conductor said that I could not step off the train here. We stopped just for a minute and departed at 9:35 a.m., but eleven people got on here. There now were close to 50 people traveling in coach on the train! I'm sure most of the people are going no further than Thompson, though.
At 10:00 a.m., we arrived at Thompson Jct., where the conductors had to leave the train to throw the manual switches. As I noted from the ride going up to Churchill, the branch line from here to Thompson is particularly scenic. I did go out to the back of the train and take a few pictures through the open dutch doors, but the blowing snow made it difficult to get good pictures, and the cold made it difficult to stay outside very long. I also walked back to the lounge car and coaches. As one might expect, the lounge car was quite crowded, with many people playing cards and smoking, and a number of people were also eating meals in the diner section. Because of the large number of people in the lounge car, the coach ended up not being exceptionally crowded.
After setting out the flat cars with the trailers at the wye outside of Thompson, we backed into the station at 11:14 a.m. Most of the coach passengers got off here, including -- of course -- the school group from Island Lake. After taking some pictures, I went into the station and plugged in my computer. Everyone quickly left the station except for the school group. It turned out that the van that they had arranged to meet them had broken down, so they had to proceed to town via several taxis.
At about 11:45 a.m., Lloyd came over to me and told me that the regular engine crew was not working today, and the substitute crew was not receptive to the idea of my riding in the engine. However, Lloyd explained, it would be possible for me to climb up and look at the engine while we are here in Thompson. So I quickly put my computer away, gave it to Lloyd (along with the video camera), and climbed up into the engine. The engineer gave me a copy of a booklet about this line put out by CN many years ago, moved the train forward to position it to receive water, and then climbed down, leaving me alone in the engine! I was a little surprised at this, but was glad to have some time to look around. After about 10 minutes or so, the assistant engineer came into the engine and backed the train up so that the coach would be in the appropriate place to receive passengers. Then the engineer returned and asked me to get back onto the main part of the train, since we would soon be leaving. I would have liked to ride in the cab for some of the trip, but at least I got a chance to climb inside and take a very short ride along the station platform.
We left Thompson at 12:19 p.m., and were now only 40 minutes late. Quite a few people got on here, almost all of whom were Native Americans going to Thicket Portage. I tried to get some video pictures out of the back, but the steam coming out from under the cars made this somewhat difficult, and the task was complicated by the cold and wind. After we crossed the bridge over the Grass River, I went back inside and proceeded to the diner for lunch. My kosher meal was served promptly, and today consisted of a corned beef sandwich with potato salad, together with mustard and cole slaw. Soon Pat came in and sat down on the table opposite me. He had inquired at Thompson about his lost wallet, but received no information. I asked him how he was going to pay for his meal, and he replied that Lloyd had said that he was going to treat him! We both thought that this was very nice of him -- indeed, Pat wanted to nominate him for Employee of the Year (Lloyd told him that VIA does not have such an award).
At 2:01 p.m., we arrived at Thicket Portage. Here, most of the passengers from Thompson (there were about 20 of them) got off. Trucks pulled up to the train to take the baggage being unloaded, and because of the volume of parcels to be taken off the train here, the stop lasted for five minutes. Of course, I had plenty of time to get off the train and take pictures.
After we left Thicket Portage, there were only ten coach passengers on the train, which now began to resume the relaxed, quiet atmosphere that it had on the way up until Thicket Portage. These ten passengers included Pat from Alaska, Philip from Germany, a family of four who were going to Canora, one man going to Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, and a retired couple going from Thompson, where they were visiting his daughter and grandchildren, back to Winnipeg, their home. The husband told me that he was traveling by train because he was a retired railroad employee and was able to travel for free, but that otherwise he would have driven or taken a bus, since it takes only seven hours to drive from Thompson to Winnipeg, while it takes 22 hours to go by train. (This is largely due to the circuitous route that the train takes.) Subsequently, he told me that he was formerly a supervisor at CN's Symington yards in Winnipeg, and that at one time several hundred people worked under him.
Soon, Lloyd came over to me and gave me a copy of the manifest. He had crossed out the number of the "cafe-lounge" (as it was termed) listed on the manifest and inserted the number of the car that was actually on the train, explaining that other car had been bad-ordered at the last minute and was replaced. Unlike the computer-generated manifests that Amtrak uses, this manifest only gave the number of passengers expected to be on the train leaving Winnipeg, Thompson and Churchill. The numbers on the manifest turned out to be very inaccurate -- in each case, they were significantly lower than the actual counts. Lloyd explained that while reservations were theoretically required for travel on this train, most people didn't bother making reservations, and the crew is very glad to accommodate anyone who shows up.
I decided to spend some time in the coach, which was now largely empty, so I brought my computer there and started working on these memoirs. Soon, though, I began to get sleepy, so I turned off the computer and slept for about 15 minutes. When I awoke, I heard on the conductor's radio that we will be meeting the northbound Hudson Bay at Lyddal, and since we were almost there, I decided to go to the back of the train where I would hopefully be able to get a good view of the passing train.
On the way back to the rear of the train, I passed through the lounge car, where I started talking to a woman sitting there. She, her husband and their two children were going to Canora. She explained that her husband worked for CN as a track maintainer, and that they were moving to Churchill, where she would be working in the cafeteria at the town center. Since she had been separated from her husband for the last few months, he lived in Canora while she lived in Hudson Bay. So they were going to Canora tonight to pack up his belongings and load them in a boxcar, then at 5:10 a.m. on Friday morning they would be taking the northbound train back to Hudson Bay to pack up her belongings, and finally next week they would take the train to Churchill! Both she and her husband seemed to love Churchill, where they had been living for the last month, and very much looked forward to moving there. She explained that although some housing in Churchill is available for purchase, most people choose to rent housing from the government for about one- fourth of one's monthly pay, and that is what they would be doing. Later on, when I talked to her husband, he told me that, despite his past and future employment at CN, he did not presently have a pass to ride the train, but that he and his family were nevertheless riding for free because his father used to be a conductor on this line and everyone knows his family.
I then proceeded to the rear of the train, where I saw the northbound Hudson Bay pass us. Unfortunately, because of the steam coming out of our train, I could not get a clear view of the entire northbound train, but I did notice that it was a head-end powered train with the sleeper Chateau Verchenes (or something like that). On the way back to my room, the assistant conductor mentioned that he thought that our train would be the last steam-heated train on this line.
I finally got to spend a little time working on updating these memoirs, but before I knew it, it was 3:39 p.m. and we were pulling into Wabowden. We only stopped here for two minutes, but both the conductor and Lloyd, the attendant, went into the local store to purchase some items, so I had enough time to get off and take some pictures. Moreover, Ed from Denver also stepped off the train here, so I had him take my picture. A family (husband, wife and young child) got on here, and they loaded some packages onto the baggage car. (I later found out that they were going back to Cormorant, where they lived.) Pete told me that Wabowden is a center for processing fish, and that in the summer this train often carries large quantities of fish in the baggage car to be dropped off here. I wonder what the car must smell like then! When we left Wabowden, we were only 20 minutes late, and the conductor told me that we should be arriving at The Pas on time.
I returned to my room, where I started talking to a teenager who boarded the train last night in Churchill and was going to Winnipeg. His hockey team was going to be competing there, but the rest of the team would be flying down. He decided to leave earlier with his father and take the train because he enjoyed the train ride and wanted to spend some time shopping. The two of them were staying in a double bedroom, but for part of the ride he moved over to the roomette opposite mine and listened to music on a CD player. I also talked to a woman who was occupying a roomette on the other side of the car. She was returning to Winnipeg from Thompson, and chose to take the train because she enjoyed it. It seems that these three people, together with Ed and me, are now the only passengers in the sleeping car.
By now, the sun had come out, and I decided to try to take a few more video pictures from the rear of the train. Since most of the track here is quite straight, though, it was still hard to get any good pictures. After spending some time in the lounge car and the coach, I returned to my room, where I did some reading. It was very quiet on the train, and the scenery was the usual unbroken wilderness.
We stopped briefly at Cormorant at 6:07 p.m. The three people who boarded at Wabowden got off here, and were met by a pick-up truck, into which they all somehow fit. Their parcels were unloaded from the baggage car, but all this took only about a minute, so I didn't step off the train.
The sun had already set when we crossed the bridge over the Saskatchewan River and pulled into The Pas at 7:19 p.m. I got off and went into the station, where I plugged in my computer for recharging and made a few phone calls. I could feel that it was much colder than it was yesterday. I also noticed that steam generator car 15477, which I saw on Monday in the middle of a string of freight cars, had been moved to the siding next to the station. The agent explained that this car had developed a hot journal near Gillam last week, and had to be taken off the train there. It was brought back to The Pas on a freight train, and now would be added to our train to be taken to Winnipeg (where, presumably, it will be scrapped). Sure enough, this car was added to our train in front of the baggage car.
I went back to the train to get my book on the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway, and sat in the station, reading the first chapter of the book which -- quite appropriately -- talked about the near-riot conditions which developed in The Pas around 1915 when foreigners who had come to seek work on constructing the railroad were turned away empty-handed.
Before we reached The Pas, I asked Lloyd if he could heat up my kosher dinner. He replied that the oven in the dining car was no longer working, so he would have to heat the meal in the oven at the station at The Pas! (This did not pose a problem when it came to serving the non-kosher meals to other passengers, since they were all of the "boil-in-a-bag" variety.) Sure enough, I saw him bring the kosher meal into the station and, about 8:05 p.m., he told me that the meal was now ready. So I took the computer, reboarded the train, and ate my meal, which consisted of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas and carrots. We left The Pas at 8:22 p.m., just two minutes late.
While I was eating dinner, I heard on the conductor's radio (the two conductors were sitting right behind me) that we would be taking the siding at Turnberry (on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border) to permit a freight train to pass. About 9:10 p.m., I noticed that the freight train was stopped on the track to our right. I walked to the back of the train, where the conductor explained that the engineer of the freight train had already lined the switch for us to take the siding, and that he would be relining the switch once we got back on the main track. Then he asked me: "Did you ever line a switch?" When I replied that I hadn't, he told me to get my gloves. I got off the train with him and, after he unlocked the switch, he let me move the lever which lined the switch! Another unexpected bonus of this trip.
I walked down to the coach, where I noticed that seven people had boarded the train at The Pas, all going to Winnipeg. Together with the nine coach passengers on the train from earlier, this means that there are now a total of 16 coach passengers on the train. I noticed that one person who boarded the train at The Pas was a boy who had been on the train Sunday night when we left Winnipeg. He explained that both this past weekend and this coming weekend, he has had Thursday and Friday off from school, so he went to Winnipeg to visit his stepfather. On Sunday, he was returning home, and today he is going back. Since his father works for the railroad, the trips cost him nothing. (Parenthetically, I might add that this means that at least seven of the 16 coach passengers on the train are traveling for free -- and two of the other nine are traveling on VIA student tickets at greatly reduced rates.)
I returned to the diner, sat down at a table, and started updating my story of the trip. Edgar came over and offered me a cup of cranberry juice, which I gladly accepted. He later stopped in my room and gave me two oranges.
At 10:20 p.m., we backed into the station at Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan. The station was closed and the platform was both unlighted and covered with ice. About five passengers boarded the train here, including three elderly people who spent the night in section accommodations. (Two of them later told me that they used to live in Hudson Bay, and were returning to Winnipeg after having attended a funeral in Hudson Bay.) The conductor pointed out that the station here has been closed since last year. I told him that there should be some way to have the platform lighted and the station open at train time, even in the absence of an agent, and mentioned how Amtrak sometimes hires caretakers to open stations where there is no agent. The dark, icy platform seemed to be a real safety hazard. (I mentioned this to Dawson Wolk in my subsequent conversation with him, and he promised to check into this.)
After we departed Hudson Bay at 10:27 p.m., I returned to my room and, at about 11:15 p.m., pulled down the bed and went to sleep. I fell asleep rather quickly, although I woke up briefly at 1:00 a.m. when we stopped at Canora. I slept pretty soundly until 4:00 a.m., when we were approaching Dauphin. We spent about 20 minutes at the Dauphin station. The very large, old station was visible on the left side of the tracks, but it was unlighted and seemed to be unused. We left Dauphin at 4:38 a.m., which meant that we were 18 minutes late. (Subsequently, the conductor explained that there was a freight train blocking the main line at Dauphin, so we had to go through the yard, resulting in a slight delay.)
About 5:00 a.m., I heard on the scanner the report of a defect detector. (Here in Canada, the defector announces "no alarm," rather than "no defects," the term used in the United States.) This was the first time I heard the report of a defect detector since Sunday night. There are no such things on the line north of Dauphin! I stayed in bed and tried to fall asleep again, but I don't think that I could have slept for more than a few minutes.
At 6:15 a.m., I decided that I better get up. Last night, Lloyd had informed me that -- due to the fact that this will be the last run of the diner-lounge and everything will have to be taken off the train at Winnipeg -- breakfast will be served only until 7:00 a.m. this morning. I got dressed and walked down to the coach, where there appeared to be about a dozen passengers. Then I returned to my room. We were now passing through flat, open farmland, which actually looked even bleaker than the wilderness we went through on the way to Churchill.
At 6:50 a.m., Pete came through to announce the last call for breakfast. I went to the diner, where I was promptly served my standard breakfast of juice, cereal and coffee (except that this time, raisin bran was substituted for corn flakes). We passed the Portage la Prairie station at 7:00 a.m., but again no one got on or off and we did not even stop here. After I finished eating, I walked down to the lounge section of the car, where I saw Pat studying a directory of lodging in Winnipeg to ascertain where he could stay tonight at a low cost. (He had to stay overnight in Winnipeg because the westbound Canadian would not leave until tomorrow.) When I asked how he would pay for his room, he mentioned to me that various people had loaned him some money, so I gave him a Canadian $20 bill, which was just about all the money I had left (except for $10, which I wanted to use to tip Lloyd and Pete). We each exchanged addresses, and I promised to send him a copy of my story.
On the way back to my room, I gave my tip to Lloyd, and mentioned that I hope to publish the story of the trip and wanted to know whether there would be any problem including such details as leaning out of dutch doors, going into the cab of the engine, etc. I explained that I did not want to get him or any of the crew members in trouble for their having violated VIA's rules. He replied that there would be absolutely no problem in reporting everything that took place. Again, quite a contrast with Amtrak, where even the most friendly and helpful employees are concerned with being cited for violating the railroad's strict rules about what passengers are allowed to do. I got Lloyd's address and promised to send him a copy of the story.
I then started talking to Pete, who mentioned that -- for each weekly round trip he made from Winnipeg to Churchill and back -- he was paid $18 an hour for working 19 hours on each of four days. If I got these figures right, that would mean that he is paid over $1,300 for each round trip. Presumably, Lloyd must be paid at least as much, and Edgar has to be paid, too. Thus, the salaries of just the on-board service personnel for each trip must amount to well over $3,000. Given the very light patronage of the train and the number of people traveling for free or for a greatly reduced fare, I doubt whether that much was collected in fares from all the passengers traveling on the train. And, of course, the operating personnel (at least four people for each leg of the trip) must be paid, and then there are expenses for maintenance of equipment, use of CN's right-of-way, operation of stations, etc., etc. It's not difficult to see how VIA must be losing a fortune on the operation of this train! (Subsequently, Dawson Wolk told me that VIA spends $17 million a year to operate this train, but recovers only $4 million in fares. He also mentioned that the crew agreements for this train have recently been changed, so that in the future only two on-board employees will be required during the off-season, rather than three.)
Soon, we were approaching Winnipeg. I packed up my belongings and brought my luggage to the rear of the car. At 7:58 a.m. -- two minutes early -- we pulled into the Winnipeg station. After I got off, I had a station attendant take my picture, and then I walked down to the front of the train to get a picture of the engine.
By the time I went down into the station, everyone else had left, and my cousin Kayla was almost ready to give up on me! She explained that she had tried to go up to the platform to meet me, but was not allowed to do so. We walked to her car and she took me over to Sheppy's house. (Dawson Wolk subsequently mentioned to me that it is because of insurance requirements that persons other than passengers are not allowed on the platforms at Winnipeg or other VIA stations, but that persons meeting passengers on trains are generally permitted to go onto the platform if they agree to sign a waiver. It seems rather ironic that VIA should be so concerned with liability for persons merely going onto station platforms, yet tolerate -- at least informally -- passengers riding in vestibules and sticking their heads out of dutch doors of moving trains!)
And so ended my trip to Churchill on the Hudson Bay. The trip was everything I had expected it to be. My only regret is not having been able to take a real cab ride, but that is something that I could not have counted on, in any event. Perhaps the train ride to Churchill can best be summed up in the words of the Rail Ventures book that I quoted earlier: "Always an adventure and truly one of today's unique travel experiences."