The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

New Year’s Day–Cross Country on the VIARail Canadian (January 2011)

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:27 am

Imagine for a second that your vacation dream trip that you’ve wanted to go on for years, was having a 75-percent-off sale. For my sweetie Meg and me, riding a sleeper across Canada on the VIA Rail Canadian had been on the top of our bucket list since we rode the Canadian briefly between Vancouver and Jasper in 2001. When it showed up as a last-minute “Express Deal” in an email from VIA in December, we reached a quick decision to put on our long johns and have a surprise last minute winter vacation in Canada.
Our trip started out on the day before New Year’s Eve, with my wife, Meg, and I hauling bags on foot to the Princeton Junction train station in four inches of snow and catching the 8:15 am express train to Newark Airport. After an unexpectedly expeditious trip through airline security, we waited more than an hour and a half for our Porter Airlines flight to Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport. Never a snag with Porter–we landed early, got though Canadian customs quickly and caught the ferryboat and the free bus transfer to the Royal York Hotel, across the street from Toronto’s Union Station well before noon.
Stopping briefly at Union Station to purchase an all-day transit pass (a single $10 pass also covers a family or a group), we rode the subway up to the trendy Annex neighborhood for our one-night stay at the Madison Boutique Hotel, which adjoins the Spadina subway station. It’s an old Victorian house in a sleepy-looking Victorian neighborhood–however it’s next door to a five-story bar on one side and a frat house on the other. Checking into our room early, we took off to enjoy an unseasonably warm afternoon (50 degrees in December in Toronto) by walking around downtown for a few hours. After a New Year’s Eve dinner at Beerbistro, which was wonderful, we rode the new year in, rail-fan style by riding around town on the Toronto subway system late into the night. Despite the proximity to the bar and frat house, our night at the Madison was pretty quiet, even on New Year’s Eve. We could hear the subway trains murmuring under the floor of our basement-level room, but after midnight the subway shuts down, and it went quiet.
New Year’s Day was rainy and cold. We checked out of our hotel before noon, checked our baggage down at the train station, and then headed back up to Dundas Street to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario. AGO recently reopened after being closed for several years, and now sports a boldly-styled facade and main entrance area designed by Toronto native Frank Gehry. Given that we would be seeing lots of rural Canada on this trip, we lingered in the gallery devoted to the Group of Seven, a cadre of Canadian landscape painters from the early part of the 20th century, whose output captured the personality, the natural beauty and the emerging national identity of Canada. Their work was prominently displayed for years in the tail-end observation cars of the Canadian Pacific’s flagship train—The Canadian.
In 1954, the Canadian Pacific Railroad placed a $40 million order with the Budd Company of Philadelphia for 173 railroad cars that included the high tech luxury cars for
the Canadian (this order to be the last time that a railroad would place a major order for first-class railroad passenger cars). Along with a medley of dome-snack-bar cars, sleepers, diners, and baggage cars that they ordered, there was a group of 18 round-end observation dome cars, specifically for use on the Canadian, known as the Park Cars. As part of the interior decorating scheme, the CP commissioned the Group of Seven to produce two paintings for each car depicting scenes of the park that the car had been named after.
In the 1970s, the CP sold off the operation of the Canadian to the government-run agency VIA Rail Canada, and the car’s ownership was transferred to VIA. During a major rebuilding of the Park Cars in the 1990s, the paintings were removed–they had become more valuable than the cars themselves, and in their place, contemporary artwork created using more temperature- and humidity-stable materials was installed. We learned that the original paintings are now on display at a national museum in Ottawa.
After a delightful dinner of British pub food at the Abbot Pub in North Toronto, we headed down to Union Station, and found seats in the first-class lounge to wait for the boarding call with the rest of the sleeping car passengers. In the lounge, we met Happy, a spry, extrovert in his seventies who rode the train frequently, and literally couldn’t wait to get aboard and find a seat in the dome. At 9:30 pm we got the call to go upstairs, where we got to take a first look at our home for the next four nights–a very regal-looking train. Walking from front to back I admired the clean, recently-polished train consist: two EMD F-40 engines, a skyline dome car (just out of the shop, out of service, and heading to Vancouver on a positioning move), a dormitory-baggage car, two coaches, a skyline dome car for the coach passengers’ use, the dining car Alexander, three Manor-series sleeping cars (the Abbott, Brant, and Craig), the sleeper Chateau Raddison, and the four- bedroom, dome, observation car Tremblant Park, where we occupied Bedroom C.
Quickly ditching our bags in our room, we surveyed the car. Built in 1955, the Tremblant Park was an excellently- preserved specimen. Entering the car from the vestibule, there is a general toilet for the use of all guests, then three bedrooms, each sleeping two (rooms B through D), along with a larger triple Bedroom A, which sleeps three. Meg and I felt immediately at home on this car. We’ve traveled on dome observation cars before, but only privately-owned ones not truly in railroad service. The car was clean, beautifully kept, and had the scent of fresh linens and hand soap.
Beyond the area in the front of the car where the bedrooms are, you have to step down a couple of steps to pass under the dome. The area below the dome holds a small pantry and banquette seating where about a dozen people can sit, play games and watch television. In the old days, this was the smoking-lounge, bar area of the train, but with alcohol consumption in decline and cigarette smoking long banished from VIA, the pantry area is mostly unstaffed. The attendant will serve you a drink from the bar if you wish, but their duties (which involve serving snacks and attending to passengers in the other two seating areas on the car, as well as portering the four bedrooms) don’t provide them the luxury of hanging out in the pantry and waiting for thirsty patrons to come along. Alcohol is a little expensive on VIA—beers at the bar cost $7 CAD, and wine is
more. I’m not going to tell tales about the passengers, but I’ll just say that while consumption of private stocks of beer, wine and liquor is not permitted, many people had their own discrete supply, and no words were spoken about this.
Canada is cold and often gray in the winter. Canadians seem to up their consumption of beer and wine seasonally, and when I mentioned to another passenger that we were riding in a Budd car, they thought I was talking about another way of avoiding depression in the wintertime that’s popular in Canada. There was no partaking of the Buds aboard the train that I could see or smell, but I did notice a couple of passengers wandering off into to shadows while we were parked, and coming back in a more relaxed state.
In the pantry area, I met Amanda, our car attendant. She quickly verified that we’d be sleeping in the Tremblant Park, and needed to know our sleeping and getting up times so she could schedule her visit to our room to make the beds up and down, replenish the linens and clean the room and toilet annex. Meg and I mentioned to her that we’d worked as porters a few times on private cars and she asked if I’d second her on the vestibule door—it’s VIA Rail’s policy to deputize a passenger and train them to open the vestibule door in the event of an emergency where crew might be injured or occupied with more serious tasks. After that, she stuck an orange sticker on my door, proclaiming my newly- awarded status.
After our chat with Amanda, we continued our tour of the car. Past the pantry, you need to take two steps up again to reach the Panorama Lounge—a large seating area with seats for about 16 people at the very rearmost point of the train, completely surrounded in windows. From there, you walk up a ladder-like staircase into the dome, which seats about 28 people, and from where you can look down on the entire train-set, and see where the train is headed and where it has been.
Settling into the dome lounge (Meg’s favorite place to be on a train trip), we noticed that about 20 people had already found their seats up there for the 10 pm late night trip out of the station. As the train cut through the Toronto streetlights, we met up with an older couple from the Washago area—a couple of hours northwest of Toronto—who pointed out the stations as we rode north out of town and into the inky blackness. Pooped from staying up late the night before, Meg and I rolled off into bed soon after the Washago stop, and slept on through until well-past Capreol the following morning.
Up around 7 am, and one of the first passengers in the observation lounge, I was surprised to find Amanda already in uniform and busy at work. A young lady of about thirty, with a skinny build, short blond hair, and a ebullient personality, she had already been up since Capreol to let someone onto the train (which meant about three hours of sleep for her), and had the coffee and breakfast pastries beautifully set up on trays. On the previous run, she and Stan the service manager had set up a small Christmas tree in the Panorama Lounge and decorated it with lights, ornaments and presents. Meg and I travel a lot on trains and are quick to notice service people doing excellent work or awful work. We were very impressed by her great disposition, her portering skills, and her seeming lack of need for much rest time. Needless to say, we liked her immediately.
Spending the day in the dome and the Panorama lounge gave us a chance to talk to some of the passengers and learn about the train and the cities that we’d be passing through. There seemed to be a significant number of passengers heading only as far Winnipeg: a two-night trip. The service crew was based in Winnipeg, and would be replaced in there by a new crew for the second part of the trip. The third night of the trip, the part between Winnipeg and Jasper, is a segment that pretty much only the cross-country passengers ride, and the train would be lightly occupied for that part of the journey. On the fourth day, we’d be stopping in Jasper in the afternoon and many passengers on ski vacations would join us for the final fourth night of the trip.
The passengers hanging out in the Tremblant Park were an interesting bunch. VIA has been running 75 percent-off sleeping car specials for a few weeks, and many young adults traveling single had upgraded to sections and roomettes. The sleeping car prices had reached a point where people accustomed to flying across Canada would seriously consider the train. It seemed like there were more than a few young teachers. Two of my best buddies for the trip, Zoe and Alexandra are professional theater people from Toronto and Calgary respectively, both serious performing arts junkies, passionate Scrabble players, and both have done some teaching. Nick, who we got to know a little later in the trip, teaches music in Vancouver, where he also skippers a water taxi, and shares my interests in beer homebrewing. Our next-door neighbors in bedroom B were Michelle and Michael, a young couple from Montreal traveling cross-country. Jayne who turned out to be a serious Scrabble sharp, had recently celebrated her eleventh birthday and was traveling with her civil engineer mom. Bob and Evelyn from London, Ontario, a retired couple in their sixties were matching Meg and me mile-for-mile for married couples who rail-fan together–they had taken a ton of trips, and the four of us spent a couple of lunches and dinners recollecting stopovers in small towns and trips on our favorite trains. We were very fortunate on this trip with our crew and our traveling companions. Pretty much everyone was smart, relaxed, hearty adventurers. It was one of those trips where you make friends that you keep up with after the trip is done.
As we headed westward across the great Canadian Shield by way of the original Canadian National route, Meg and I observed the large rock fills that the original builders of the line needed to put down in order to cross the muskeg bogs that dot the topography. Muskeg is the first-nations term for these large lakes of decaying moss and dead trees. The builders of the CN would lay some ballast and track across these flat, seemingly solid areas, only to come back a year later and discover that the track had sagged into the bog and needed to be re-laid. The Shield is also a source of incredible mineral wealth. Canada’s post-war economic growth was in part bankrolled by exploitation of gold and nickel mined out of this region. The tallest smokestack in North America was built in the early 1970s in Sudbury, Ontario to direct the highly toxic waste coming from a huge nickel refinery into the upper atmosphere. Along a roadside going into Sudbury, a large Canadian nickel welcomes visitors traveling by automobile. Fellow passenger Bob told me stories about his geologist son who had spent much of his career hunting minerals and diamonds around Ontario. While diamonds can be found easily, the quantity found has never been sufficient to warrant commercial exploitation.
The train was running on time as we passed through Oba. This is where you get off if you want to transfer to the Algoma Central to go to either Sault Ste. Marie or Hearst. Unfortunately, neither the Algoma Central nor the Canadian runs every day, and the connection times are pretty much unworkable without an overnight stay. Oba closely resembles a 1800s Wild West ghost town, and there were no hotels to be seen. About an hour later, we made an early afternoon stop in Hornepayne. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to see how really cold Canada can get in January, I put on my coat and went out with the smokers to get some pictures of the car. Walking down to the front end of the train in an inch or two of well-packed snow, I noticed that our second engine had been recently rebuilt and given a secondary head-end-power generator. This upgrade makes the engine idle more quietly and with greater fuel efficiency when parked in stations with passengers aboard. The Canadian was the last train in North America to use steam heat–only switching to electric heating in the mid 1990s. It’s nice to see that VIA is adopting the latest technology in terms of heating and lighting the cars. I was surprised to see a few dog walkers among the smokers and leg stretchers. VIA permits pets to travel in pet carriers inside the baggage car, and lets passengers meet up with their dogs during the breaks.
Back on the car awaiting the final whistle blow before the train pulled out of the station, I noticed Stan, the crew service manager, heading back from the across the street after a visit to the only drugstore in this small town. With him was a 70s-ish muscular heavyset man walking quickly through the snow, back to the train.
Leaving Hornepayne, we spent about an hour or so chatting with the passengers before being called for dinner. Our first dinner on the diner Alexander was very nice–I had a small broiled boned half chicken and Meg had pan-fried pickerel with remoulade. Dinners in the diner are all four course: soup and salad, entree and dessert. Our tablemates Bob and Evelyn were having a great time and enjoyed the food as much as we did. That night in the lounge, Amanda hosted a wine tasting where she could show off the VIA Rail selections. Generally, VIA Rail likes to feature wines and beers produced by Canadian producers, and their selections tend to be excellent.
Back at the Panorama Lounge after dinner, we found Amanda having her rest break chatting with the fellow who had walked back from the drugstore with Stan—he was a retired chef who had worked the Canadian’s dining car for more than 20 years, and was married to the chef who had just prepared our dinner. He was from Switzerland originally, and as a young man had studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for five years. Meg and I enjoyed learning about the history of the food service on the train from him, and were impressed by the level of professional preparation that VIA expects from their chefs. The chef had retired a couple of years ago, and was taking a rare trip so he could travel with his spouse. Like so many retired railroad workers we’ve met, the enthusiasm for the history and traditions of their crafts doesn’t fade, but once their career is over, there’s very little interest in riding as a passenger.
That evening, Meg and I snuck forward into the skyline dome car down the train to
stargaze and dome-watch with the coach passengers. The Skyline dome was warm, dark and toasty. I was hoping to see an aurora, which never materialized. From the dome though, I was put into a trance by the winding motion of the train in front of us as it cut through the snow-covered darkness, and as the lights from the coaches cast beams sideways across the white fields and forests, over trestles and past frozen lakes. Meg went to bed around midnight and left me there in the dome to enjoy the view. It was warm, and I fell asleep for a spell. I woke up as the car reverberated over a steel plate bridge, and wandered back to the Tremblant Park around 2 am.
In the morning, I got up early and enjoyed coffee with my train buds and the eternally cheerful Amanda. Once again, she’d been up since 4 am, the lounge was cleaned up and the coffee and pastries perfectly spread. That morning as I was sitting in the lounge, sipping coffee—I noticed that one of the other passengers in the lounge was using a laptop computer with an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes union logo sticker on the lid, so I asked her if she was a stagehand—yes, in Calgary. I went on to explain to her that most of the men in my family are stagehands, and that I’d spent many summers and Christmases growing up working relief positions on stages in New York, and currently teach entertainment technology courses at my college job. It turned out that not only was my new traveling friend, Alexandra a stagehand, but the woman sitting next to her, Zoe, also worked in the theater.
We were approaching Winnipeg and would be stopping there for a few hours so the crews could change off, and the cars serviced and restocked. Zoe warned me that it would be cold, so Meg and I decided to forgo our morning showers and bundle up using all the warm clothing we had in our bags, and head out into town for a few hours.
Leaving the train, I chatted with the CN car inspector for a few minutes as he checked over ice-encrusted brake hoses and decelostats. The railroad crews in Canada are friendly, but they tend to be reluctant about answering technical questions. We wandered into the station and over to a transportation museum that had been setup on two unused tracks in the station. We were very happy to see their well-preserved collection (which includes combines, track cars, steeple cabs, and small switch engines), but touring a museum that is -10 degrees F somewhat limits the amount of time one can spend there. The caretaker of the museum seemed to be blissfully happy and unaffected by the bone- snapping cold. After the museum, we walked over to The Forks, a shopping area built out of a group of stately old railroad buildings, where it was nice and warm inside, and the baking fruitcakes filled the building with kitchen-y aromas. In one of the shops, I learned something I didn’t know about the ‘Peg, as Winnipeg is affectionately called: there is a large community of Russian immigrants living in town. An eccentric store on the second floor sold Matryoshka nesting dolls painted with images of the Beatles, the cast of Star Trek, the Next Generation, and the Rolling Stones. I was particularly taken by the icon- like portrait of Jonathan Frakes. Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t ask to see if they had the characters from Seinfield—my Dad would have been delighted. The store also sold Davy Crockett raccoon hats—with or without the animal face in the front.
Moving onto the next building, there was a huge antique mall in the basement which
provided Meg with a few hours of treasure-hunting pleasure. As departure time approached, we walked back to the station past a huge public igloo display made with refrigerator-sized blocks of ice, and wandered back to our track. The crew let us back on the train early, but after a few minutes, the word came up to the dome from Allen, our new attendant, that the mid-train Skyline dome car had not passed its inspection and would be cut from the train, and replaced with the third dome car that had been running deadhead, attached forward of the baggage car. After about an hour, the cars were switched into position and we were on our way again.
In the Panorama Lounge, Alexandra, Zoe and I got back down to our lively show biz conversation and spent the sunny, but face-smackingly cold afternoon enjoying tea, discussing DMX lighting, favorite gel colors, cueing shows, productions that we’d been involved with, and people that we’d met.
A new passenger who had joined us in Winnipeg, decided to have a little fun with the U.S. tourists, and asked me how I enjoyed seeing the town; I commented that I was really surprised by how cosmopolitan it seemed. “Around here, we call it diverse,” she retorted smugly. Alexandra, who is in her mid thirties, and a true citizen of the World, let out an evil chuckle. Wow: Canadians letting someone from the on a political joke. I’ve been waiting for this day for years.
That night in the lower lounge in the Tremblant Park, Allen set up a DVD of the historical films that were made about the Canadian back in the 1950s, when it was new (we found it in the Winnipeg Rail Museum) and after that, we watched the Karate Kid and I pointed out upstage cross key lighting setups, while Alexandra admired Jaden Smith’s acting. Somewhere along that point in the evening, Zoe asked the all-important question: “do you play scrabble?” Zoe, who is endowed with that certain competitive energy unique to theater folks had already played Alexandra the night before, and wanted another game, but wanted to play some different people. The date was set for after dinner scrabble in the lower lounge. We quickly agreed that there would be no betting on the game.
After dinner, as the three of us set up the board on the banquette table, the biggest scrabble hustler who ever rode the trains showed up to horn in on our game—that dreaded Jayne. Jayne, who was 11 but knew more words than women twice her age and had that whole Barbara Stanwyck vibe going on (more along the lines of “The Lady Eve”, than “Double Indemnity”). She sat looking very serious in kind of a slinked up posture on the couch as she massaged her tiles and stared me down.
The memory of the game is kind of a blur to me at this point. I remember that I got some really bad tiles, and couldn’t come up with any words. The girls kept distracting me by telling me theater disaster stories and unusual uses for gaffer’s tape. Zoe kept warning me that Alexandra was a ruthless player when it came to mashing two and three letter words in, so that she could count points in several directions. Jayne kept glaring at me like we were playing high stakes poker. In the end, I was a beaten, defeated man. Bested by three women—one who could still ride at a discount on many North American transit
Along with talking shop until late into the evening, Alexandra and Zoe gave me a thorough lesson on the current state of politics in Canada. With the formation of the Progressive Conservative party, the right wing in Canada is well-funded and vigorous, however the Left side of the spectrum has a three major parties and, as in England, vote swapping between Greens, New Democrats, and Liberal party supporters is on the rise. The divide between left and right is as vitriolic and deeply-felt as it is in the US, while the discourse is often more funny and humble. Meg and I are in Canada more than six times a year of late (we’re people of Welsh and Irish extraction, we find that we get along with Canadians and understand them sometimes almost on a genetic-level), but it is very rare for people from the US to be admitted into these kinds of conversations. I’m indebted to my traveling friends for letting me into the club. At about 11:30 pm local time (1:30 my time), I just sort of started losing consciousness while talking to the two, excused myself and headed off to bed–Meg had gone in a couple of hours before me. Alexandra went up to the dome to look for a meteor shower, while Zoe were having a great chat about a play that she’s writing. The following morning I got up early to wave off Alexandra as she got off in Edmonton for her Greyhound bus connection to Calgary (at the last minute, another passenger she had met on the train offered her a ride home in his car) Day four of this trip involves passing through a national park and the craggy, snow-covered Rocky Mountains, and offers some of the best scenery for the entire trip.
Meg and I headed off to use the shower in the Chateau Raddison, the car adjacent to ours. This was a back-up car for the bedroom passengers, and empty except for one room being set aside for crew use. Amanda had stayed here between Toronto and Winnipeg, and now Allan occupied Bedroom A. (Amanda had been all set to occupy the unsold triple Bedroom A in the Park Car for her trip, but had to move out at the last minute when Stan, the service manager, sold a ticket upgrade to some passengers, and a couple with a young girl moved in.)
On day three, Meg and I made the acquaintance of Passenger Nick, a music teacher and water taxi skipper from Vancouver who was heading home. Nick was our kind of guy—a beer fan and a passionate train traveler who had been all over the U.S. The dome was packed as we rode through the Rockies. The route took us past petroleum refineries, a huge paper plant, and a large gold mine as we reached the portal to the park. Among the snowy pine trees, we spotted mountain goats, sheep and deer. In the early afternoon, we rolled into Jasper for our final long passenger stop.
Meg and I had been to Jasper before and knew our way around the town a little. We headed out to a drug store for some supplies, and stopped by a grocery to pick up some fruit. Nick went off in another direction that we later learned about—there’s a very good beer store in Jasper, and Nick had a shopping list. Back at the station, we waited with the swell of ski junket weekenders waiting to get their ride back to Vancouver. Meg and I kept an eye on Nick’s cache of rare beer bottles for him as he wandered off.
Back on the train, the evening darkness seemed to come upon us very quickly. Nick
cracked open a couple of his rare beers and shared them with us, and Meg and I got ready for another game of Scrabble with Zoe. Zoe lent me her copy of an outline of a play that she is working on, and is hoping to produce in Toronto. (It’s really good, I hope this one makes it to the boards.) That night, I won in Scrabble. The tile gods were with me. Meg went off to bed, and left me discussing Zoe’s project with her into the night.
The following morning (arrival day in Vancouver; day five–our last day of the trip) went by in a blur. The train was already a half hour ahead of schedule, and there is an approximately 30 minute pad on the schedule, which covers VIA in the event of terminal delays coming into Vancouver over the busy line that CP, CN and Amtrak share. We showered quickly and packed our bulky winter traveling bags as fast as we could—we weren’t the first people off the train. Allen found us a cart to help us move our baggage into the station.
From the station we walked across the square to the SkyTrain and rode to the St. Regis Hotel—it was mid morning and too early to check in, but they would hold our bags and move them into our room when it became available. One-day transit passes in hand, we decided to make the most of our gloomy, sleeting day in Vancouver. We rode to New Westminster to do some shopping at the antique markets, and then went over to a recently built downtown public market that seemed to be struggling to find tenants. Cold and empty-handed (though Meg found a sturdy $2 umbrella at the Salvation Army), we slid up the icy streets to the SkyTrain and back downtown. SkyTrain is a driverless, automated elevated subway system that combines features of light rail technology along with airport people-mover systems design, The system has been greatly expanded since our last visit.
Our rainy-day alternate plan for the city visit included a bus ride out to Granville Island where we lunched on sandwiches of smoked salmon and Montreal Smoked Meat on a baguette that we cobbled together from things purchased at the the public market. While there, we enjoyed samples of beer at the Granville Island brewery—a microbrewery with a small bar, that is legally limited to sell no more than 12 ounces of beer to a patron, but more than made up for this with outstanding Chocolate Stout made with chocolate from a local producer. It was a limited run, and Meg was fortunate to purchase one of the last three bottles they had on hand.
After our lunchtime on Granville Island, we stood on the rainy street across from the only road onto the island, and caught a bus downtown. We were damp, and wanted to change our clothes. Fortunately, the St. Regis had already checked us in, and our bags were waiting for us upstairs when we returned to the hotel.
After heading out again in the rain for a few more hours of shopping and walking around Gastown in the slush, we headed over to the Alibi Room Pub. Passenger Nick from the train had assured us that it was the best place in town for a microbrew. We weren’t too surprised when we looked around from seats at the bar, and spotted Nick sitting at a large table in the corner with a bunch of his friends from the water taxi fleet. Over a lively discussion that revolved around stories about trains and beer-making, we enjoyed a few
sour-style beers, and some delightful food with Nick and his friends. We needed to head off early though—we were catching Amtrak train 513, the morning Cascade Talgo train to Portand, Oregon, and needed to turn in. The weather was improving slightly, so Meg and I walked past the steam clock on our way back to the hotel.
The following morning we were up before dawn, and caught the first SkyTrain from downtown to the train station. It was hardly 6 am and already the station was full of passengers filling out their customs declarations and boarding the train. Unlike the Amtrak trains leaving Toronto or Montreal, U.S. Immigration maintains a sterile zone around the train through the use of a tall fence that completely surrounds the train, and the U.S. and Canadian immigration checks are performed in Vancouver before the train’s departure and after arrival, just as it’s done for the Eurostar trains. In addition, there is a customs check at the U.S.-Canada border at Blaine, WA—it’s a very quick check done as the train is parked next to the facility where cars are screened. It seems unusual that the immigration check (the review of ones credential for entering a country), and the customs check (the collection of duty fees, and inspection of the goods being transported) would be handled as two separate steps in different locations by different crews, but this appears to be the practice here. Regardless of the double check, the train is seldom delayed. This system was considered for a while a few years ago for use in Montreal, but currently it’s only operating in Vancouver.
Aboard, we found our way to the first class coach and read newspapers and studied our plans as the train pulled out of the station. I had brought my laptop and a wallet of movies on DVD, but so there have been no delays. and we’d been having a great time just hanging out with folks enjoying the ride. Around 11 am, we had a brief stopover in Seattle to refuel the locomotive and restock the bistro car. At that point in the day, the Seattle section of the Empire Builder, along with the Coast Starlight occupy the station tracks. It seemed like there was very little extra capacity there. Back on the train, we settled back for the end of our trip, and our 2:50 pm on-time arrival in Portland, Oregon.
Portland, Oregon is a youthful, future-thinking, New-Urbanist inspired town that seems to have one foot planted firmly in the 1930s. They design new buildings to look old, and are currently in the middle of a huge streetcar system expansion, featuring real streetcars that run with traffic in the middle of the street, like you’d see in Philly. They even build their own cars based on a design they licensed from Skoda. Stepping off the train, and passing through a well-preserved station with old-school furniture, old-time ticket windows and a large non-electric/non-mechanical old-style schedule board, we quickly caught a streetcar that took us to the Hotel Modera, our home for the last two nights of the trip. It was getting close to dinner, so Meg and I headed out to Jakes for dinner, one of our favorite haunts on a previous trip, where the ambiance is straight out of the 1950s, and during happy hour, the dinner prices are really reasonable. After dinner, we walked over to Powell’s Books, for a few hours of browsing through two of their retail buildings. One of the largest independent booksellers in North America, Powell’s shelves the new and used books together, which makes browsing the history and travel sections particularly enjoyable.
Concluding our Powell’s visit, we took advantage of our all-day transit passes and took a late night ride on the Tri Met Max light rail system. The regional light rail system has been continually expanding over the last couple of years and has reached the point where it would take the better part of a day to ride it entirely. With darkness and rainy slush covering the windows of the car, we couldn’t see much, so we gave up on our quest pretty quickly and headed back to the hotel.
The following day offered slightly better weather, so we purchase another all-day transit pass and headed out to do some neighborhood touring on foot through the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood. Riding up to Nob Hill on the streetcar, we walked back down into town passing the streetcar barn where new tracks are being laid in anticipation of the opening of a the new streetcar line later this year. Skipping lunch in favor of a chance to ride the entire Tri Met Blue line, we resumed our light rail system tour at Pioneer Square where we caught the next light rail car heading west to Beaverton. Now in its 12th year of operation, the western stretch of the Blue Line has stimulated construction of high- density transit villages in close proximity to the light rail stations in a few suburban areas. Instead of the retro “streetcar buildings” which were used liberally downtown (4-5 story mixed use residential/retail buildings that were inspired by building designs once common in cities along transit arteries), the builders went with residential-only multi-unit structures. In between stretches of preserved wilderness, the tram slows and stops at clusters of particularly cheap-looking wood-frame condo complexes dressed up with kitschy Arts and Crafts Bungalow accents, kick roofs, faux stone facades, and big parking lots. Hillsboro lies at the end of the line, and the last mile of track runs down the center of a busy street, before taking a hard right turn into the terminal building. After a brief pause for the motorman to change directions of car operation, we rode back through downtown Portland, and then out of town again, heading deep into the eastern suburbs along the original Tri Max route.
Evening was approaching, and we had a dinner meeting planed with a railroad memorabilia collector friend Paul and his wife in the vicinity of the Lloyd Center, so we transferred to a bus at the Rose Quarter Transit Center transportation center for the short ride up to his favorite restaurant, Toro Bravo. After dinner, we headed over to the Upright Brewing Company—a small brewery near the Rose Center that specializes in brewing oak-aged sour beers–a very narrow and complicated specialty in the world of beer brewing. Located in the basement of an office building, Upright opens for a few hours on Friday nights to allow the public to sample their work. We arrived close to their closing time, but made it in early enough to taste six outstanding beers: four aged saisons, a spiced Christmas beer, and a blended brett-soured beer flavored with chilies.
After closing time, we wandered through the rain down to the Rose Center (it was closer than the transit maps indicated), and caught the next light rail back to our hotel. That night, we sadly packed our bags for the trip home. Despite the cold, snow and rain, we had and outstanding and trouble-free trip, and met lots of really wonderful folks. The following day, Paul met us downstairs and drove us to the airport. A short flight to Seattle and a tight connection to a Newark flight brought this trip to a smooth end. We were back in Newark before midnight, and walked home from the train station hauling our big
winter bags through the light coating of new snow.
Just to say a couple of words in conclusion: Meg and I agree that this was one of the most enjoyable train trips we’ve ever been on (and this is coming from people who have ridden over more than 80 percent of the passenger railroad miles in North America). There is something special about the Canadian—it captures the romance, adventure and glamor of long ago, and at the same time make the rider completely aware of the present. Taking this trip in the winter not only made the trip more affordable, but put us in the same place for a few days with a very friendly bunch of hearty people—folks we had a great time with, and learned a lot from. Trips that transform the traveler never really end.

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