I’ve just spent 24hrs on a train. No, this wasn’t in the UK, which would have been the wrong kind of leaves or an unseasonal 5mm of the wrong kind of snow, but deliberate choice to get across Canada.
We got a cheap BA flight into Montreal from LHR and wanted to get up to Halifax to do a bit of sea paddling and visit an old friend. Googling around at the same time I booked the flights I found a sleeper train service between the two which is run by Canada’s VIA rail and booked in advance on the discounted “sleeper plus” service. This worked out bit less for a family of four than an air fare plus overnight stay so a good deal by the time you took into account meals etc.
We’d arrived in Montreal late on the previous evening so stayed for a quick overnight in a local hotel and then dropped our luggage off at the train station to go and explore the city first thing the next morning.
Check-in at the rail station is all very civilised and involves booking a dinner time slot in the dining car with the concierge. The train was running late, but that didn’t really make too much difference to anything, just more opportunity to stave off the jet-lag with bad coffee in the VIA rail lounge before being shown to our train.
The tiny sleeper cabins were incredibly reminiscent of the current UK ex-BR sleeper services to Scotland which was a little strange given we were on the other side of the Atlantic. I’m certainly not a train spotter, but I do know that North American railways are built to a huge loading gauge (a bigger gap is allowed in tunnels and at the track side so their trains can be much taller and wider than the UK) so it was a bit weird to see a train with three huge locomotives and a big stainless steel “skyline” double deck observation car at the front and “park” car at the rear but with dinky intervening carriages that looked like they had come straight off the Northern Line in comparison. More on this later!
Dinner was good, moderate choice of perfectly good food to keep even my fussy family happy. Service was brisk as there are two fixed time sittings in the dining car and one has to be finished and the table cleared for the next occupants on a timescale.
I didn’t particularly know this when we booked but the sleeper plus tickets we bought gave us access to the dedicated “park” observation car and lounge at the rear of the train with free drinks and snacks etc throughout. Surprisingly it was nearly empty for much of the journey, VIA Rail laid on live entertainment with a travelling folk singer which was neat. The evening was spent watching the sunset over the infinitely flat prairies from the observation deck as the train trundled it’s way through Quebec.
Chatting to the conductor, it turns out that I was right to feel the sleeper cars were familiar as according to him, the Canadian railways got a “special deal” on a job lot of carriages that were originally ordered in England from Bombardier but subsequently cancelled when it was realised that they were too big to fit in some of the tunnels on the route they were planned for! He drew a parallel with the British submarine fiasco* which seems to be a big thing out here. He did recover superbly from explaining what a race of Arthur Daley style dodgy used train and submarine salesmen the British are by telling us that the best views of the whole trip were to be had around sunrise the following morning when the train would be following the Matapedia and Restigouch rivers out into Chaleur Bay. So it was that after a so-so night’s sleep I was back up in the park car at 5:30 to catch our first views of Atlantic Canada as Quebec gave way to New Brunswick. Yes, it is breathtaking! I’m getting really excited now and just want to get out there.
* — The Canadians were sold a job-lot of “one careful owner” diesel electric submarines by the British government over the last decade. According to the folks that we talked to, when they went to pick them up, they were apparently in much worse condition than described in the Gumtree advert, with lots of dents and bad welds and in some cases fuel tanks full of water. Tragically one of them caught fire on the journey back to Canada, killing several Canadian sailors (this incident is about the only time that I remember seeing anything in our media and the only bit that I know to be true). Most Canadians in the street feel bitter that they have been deliberately and cynically ripped off by our government. It is sad how many times conversation turned to submarines when talking to Canadians once they had recognised our accents — these things seem to be a major blot on our international reputation. Anyway in the interests of diplomacy I pointed out each time that they really should take note of Hanlon’s Razor when evaluating the conduct of governments. I explained that it was considered quite normal in the UK for our own government to spend billions on defence projects that never got completed and they probably didn’t think for a moment that Canadian Navy was actually going to try to put to sea in them. Didn’t seem to help!