Notes on trains - Over the hills and far away - CycleBlaze

Notes on trains

Train journeys bookended my tour.  I took VIA trains from Ottawa west to Hinton, and Amtrak trains back east from Everett on the Washington coast to Utica in upstate New York.  I like to travel by train between cities when I can, even on our less-than-admirable system in Canada.  In this instance, using the train let me start my tour in a small town east of the Rockies (Hinton), and finish my ride on the Washington coast, without the hassle of air travel.

Following are notes on my train journeys.

Notes on the outward leg in Canada:

Dates and duration:  I began my journey on VIA Rail in Ottawa mid-afternoon on Thursday, June 16, and disembarked at Hinton just after lunch on June 21—call it five days in all.  That period included two nights and three days in Saskatoon, arriving late at night on Saturday, June 18, and departing late at night on Monday, June 20.

Ticket class:  I took an economy coach fare from Ottawa to Toronto’s Union Station.  There, I made sure that my bike was in order for the westward trip (more below on the bike-on-the-train), spent a happy two hours with our daughter over a meal and a drink, and boarded train #1, “The Canadian” at 9:40 PM.  I had booked a discounted upper berth ticket to Saskatoon, so that I would sleep in a bed on Thursday and Friday nights; for the overnight run from Saskatoon to Hinton, via Edmonton, I had booked an economy coach class seat.

Cost:  The fare from Ottawa to Hinton was about C$200 (tax included) for the two economy tickets, Ottawa-Toronto and Saskatoon-Hinton. The sleeper ticket, from Toronto to Saskatoon, two nights and two days, all meals included, cost about $900, also tax included; this, I covered with accumulated points from my credit card.  The modest cash outlay made this trip a bargain. If I had had to pay the entire amount in cash, it would not have been a bargain. I still might have taken the train, however, as doing so let me see friends in Saskatoon whom I’ve known for more than forty years, but whom I see only infrequently.

Punctuality:  My departures from Ottawa and Toronto were on time. I reached Saskatoon about two hours later than scheduled, arriving around midnight instead of 10 PM.  My departure from Saskatoon was an hour later than scheduled (also about midnight), and my arrival in Hinton was about two hours later than the “scheduled” 11:30 AM. No big deal.

The quality of the ride:  The run from Ottawa to Toronto was reasonably smooth and uneventful, as it usually is. The ride from Toronto to Sudbury, and then north and west across Northern Ontario to Winnipeg and then Saskatoon was visually splendid and all too often bumpy-lurchy and screechy-clanky, as the railbed (owned by CN and CP, and rented by VIA) is a shambles, desperately in need of rebuilding.  Do its owners ever ride their trains, I wonder?  More to the point, do they ever ride on German or Danish trains?  The journey itself was slower than warranted by the shambolic rail bed, however, because the numerous freight trains have priority.  The passage from Saskatoon to Hinton was comparatively smooth, but the journey was slow because the numerous freight trains have priority.  (Did I mention that the numerous freight trains have priority?)

I had booked a sleeper between Toronto and Saskatoon because one of my friends there had told me that we’re too old to spend several nights in coach class, and I learned long ago to trust her judgment in just about everything.  In this instance, it all worked out even better than I had expected.  I took my place in my discounted upper berth, and for my entire journey to Saskatoon, I was all alone in my combination of two berths on one side of the corridor, and two seats on the other.  For my second night, Colin, the cheerful attendant from St-Boniface, said that I should just take the lower berth, as it was empty and more comfortable.  So, for the two days I spent travelling across the Shield in Northern Ontario and the prairies from Winnipeg to Saskatoon, I spread myself and my on-board luggage across two sets of seats, enjoying the sun from the southern side of the car or the shade on the northern side.

The passing scenery:  Here’s an example of what a passenger sees:

Capreol, ON -- small towns and big trains
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Northwestern Ontario: water, sky, rocks, and trees. (The black flies are invisible, modest creatures that they are.)
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East of Winnipeg, the flatlands appear
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Food and company:  The food in the dining car was surprisingly satisfying in its variety, quality, and price, and the company of fellow travellers was diverse and enjoyable. I chatted with people from the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., along with Aussies, French, and Germans.  One or two were shepherding tour groups, and were much more knowledgeable than I about train travel in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Asia.  They were pretty scathing in their comments about federal transport policy in Canada and the U.S., and the refusal to invest in trains.  I could only agree with their take on the matter. 

Summary assessment:  Overall, I enjoyed my time on the train heading west across half of Canada.  It had been a full four decades since I had taken a similar trip, and then, I had travelled from Toronto to Winnipeg in January.  Over the 28 hours, my window had offered me rocks-and-trees-and-snow-and-ice; and then more rocks-and-trees-and-snow-and-ice, all in coach class.  This time round, the combination of summer scenery, a reasonable sleep for two nights, and decent food outweighed the dreadful railbed and made for a good trip.  The “but” is that by the time I reached Hinton, I felt that the prologue to my ride was far too prolonged.  Prepping my bike in Hinton’s tiny bus shelter of a train station was just The End of The Beginning, and not a moment too soon.

The bike on the train in Canada

VIA’s policy on bikes on trains is that the bike must be checked baggage – that is, it’s checked and placed in the baggage car. It may be boxed or unboxed.

As the nation’s capital, Ottawa is a special case, ha-ha-ha:   Trains to and from Ottawa usually do not have baggage cars.  Although to this passenger’s eye there are places in coaches with sufficient space to accept bikes, VIA’s policy requires that for bikes to go onto trains, they must go into baggage cars as checked baggage.  So, a cyclist in Ottawa who wants to take his/her bike by train to, say, Hinton AB, must take the bike to the Ottawa Station the day before departure, box it, and pay a CAD30 fee, plus tax, total about $35.  VIA will then send the bike by Purolator Courier (I’m not making this up) to Toronto, where cyclist and bike will be reunited when the cyclist’s train reaches Toronto.  Then, bike and cyclist both board the train for Hinton, AB.  Simple, no?

VIA’s policy on bikes-on-trains is strictly observed, except when it isn’t.   Thus:  On June 15, before my departure the following day, I loaded my bike into our station wagon, took it to the train station, had a pleasant conversation with the young guy in charge of checking baggage and hence couriering bikes-in-boxes, got a big box, removed my handlebars and pedals, locked my brakes fore and aft with my Bike Brake Bands, sealed up the lot, paid my fee, received my receipt, and waved g’bye to my precious bike until tomorrow.  Then I learned that I need not have done any of these steps, which are required by policy.  As I was paying my fee, the young guy’s older colleague happened by, and said that I could put the bike on the baggage car to Montréal, free of charge, and that the bike would be delivered to Toronto the next day.  Who knew??  I decided I’d rather not reassemble in reverse order, so decided to keep my bike in its box, away from prying eyes, and left it to go to Toronto.

Embarking for Saskatoon:  In Union Station the next day, I walked up to the Sleeper-class check-in desk, showed my bike-box ticket, received a reassuring nod towards my box behind the counter, checked in two panniers bound tightly together with bungee cords, kept the two which I’d take with me on board to Saskatoon, and spent a nice time with our daughter, catching up on her busy life in the city.  All good, and at 10:00 PM "The Canadian" left on time, the only such moment in my journey.

Disembarking in Saskatoon three days later, my bike box and my two panniers-bound-as-one were delivered to me promptly by the station attendant. He very kindly also gave me a ride in his huge golf-cart-like luggage wagon along the apron beside the very long train, just to make sure that I identified my precious cargo.  Then, helped him unload the awkwardly sized box.

Another policy question:  During the break in my train journey in Saskatoon, what to do with my bike, while I visited my friends?  I had asked this question of VIA’s central booking agent when I reserved my tickets a few months earlier.  He had told me, clearly and unequivocally, that the bike was my responsibility when I broke my journey in Saskatoon.  This could have posed a problem, as my friend has a Toyota Corolla sedan, and there was no way that her car could swallow the big bike box.  I had planned to extract the bike, discard the box, and fit it into her car that way.  Before I left Ottawa, however, I asked the helpful young guy at the checked-baggage desk for his advice.  He said I should check with the Station Agent in Saskatoon—they had discretionary authority, and might be able to hold the bike for me.  I did so, and the kind 30-ish woman cheerfully said, “Of course, no problem!” and stored the bike-in-its-box behind the counter, where I readily reclaimed it two days later.  The box had been bashed about a bit, but everything seemed intact inside.  The only casualty, if that’s the word, was VIA's policy.  

Reloading the bike onto the train for Edmonton and then Hinton was no problem at all.  Similarly, offloading everything in Hinton was straightforward.

Conclusions to be drawn:  What I take from all this, is that policy is policy and practice is practice – and in my experience, the latter was the more sensible.  VIA’s staff members were courteous and helpful at all times.  The variable is that policy can be quite variable, and a customer has no way of knowing when it might be so.

On balance, I’d recommend boxing the bike for a long journey. And, if you break the journey (as VIA allows you to do, without paying for the stopover), check beforehand that the Station Agent can allow you to leave your bike in storage.  The only problem I had in shipping my bike and gear was one of my own making.  I neglected to stash my folding Abus lock inside a pannier, leaving it instead in an external pocket, from which it dropped out.

Notes on the return leg in the U.S.:

Amtrak routing and schedule:  I caught Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” at Everett, WA at 5:40 PM on Sunday, July 17, and reached Chicago three minutes before my scheduled arrival at 4:00 PM on Tuesday, July 19.  I was mightily impressed by such punctuality.  After a five-hour layover in Chicago, I caught the 9:00 PM Lakeshore Limited, bound for Penn Station in Manhattan.  My destination was Utica, in upstate NY, a small town just east of Syracuse, about 3 1/2 hours’ drive due south of Ottawa.  My wife, Marcia, bless her, drove down to meet me, and we drove home together – we know the drill well, as we regularly drive to Utica and catch the same train to Manhattan to visit friends there.  The only problem was that the Lakeshore was due to arrive in Utica about 12:15 PM, but was two-plus hours late.  The good news was that Marcia was delayed by road works for a similar length of time.

The fare and cost:  I booked a coach class fare from Everett to Utica, at the very reasonable price of CAD 225, travel insurance included.  This was substantially less than the approx. C$550 which VIA would have charged me for a four-day coach ride from Vancouver to Ottawa.  So, I changed my original plan to ride north up the coast to Vancouver, re-routed myself to Everett instead, and saved myself three hundred bucks.  Amtrak staff members were also very helpful when I had to adjust my schedule a couple of times in the months before travelling.  The changes were made with no extra fees being charged, and the transactions were handled promptly and courteously by phone.

The quality of the ride on Amtrak:  The northern route of the Empire Builder runs due east of Everett, parallel to and slightly south of my own ride westward through Cascadia on SR 20.  Attractive as the rail route is, it was rather a letdown after my intimate acquaintance with the hills, streams, forests, pasturelands and clouds over the preceding weeks. The two-storey cars on the Empire Builder were spacious, as were the easily adjustable seats, but for all that, I had trouble finding a comfortable position on the three nights I was on the train.  For that reason, I did not sleep as well as I had on the VIA sleeper (understandable), nor even on the VIA coach.  On the other hand, the railbed on the Everett-to-Chicago leg was noticeably smoother than VIA’s railbed between Toronto and Hinton – Amtrak’s was on a par with the good-quality railbed on the main line between Ottawa and Toronto.  The railbed for the Lakeshore from Chicago to Utica was markedly rougher and noisier; in contrast, I know from experience that the section beyond Utica, to Albany and thence down the Hudson to Penn Station is quite good.

Food on the train: Before boarding in Everett, I had stocked up on cheese, fruit and nuts, dried sausage and granola, so I was well primed for the journey.  I did have two or three meals in the dining car, and to my surprise they were quite OK.  The beer was decent, too, as was the coffee, also to my pleasant surprise.

The bike on Amtrak:

Cost and packing:  Amtrak charged me USD25 for a bike box, and $10 per leg of my journey from Everett.  The box was slightly smaller in length and height than the VIA counterpart, but I managed to fit the bike inside by removing the bars.  It was a squeeze, with the stem cap pressing against the roof of the box.  I should have taped the top of the stem cap—during the travel, the cardboard was damaged at that point, and the oxidized finish of the aluminum cap was scraped. Not a serious problem, as I tidied it up with a fine file and emery paper.

The allowable weight is 50 lbs, box included.  This limit let me pack my bike with pump, tool bag, 3 bottles and 3 racks (front, rear, and handlebar).

My checked baggage thus included the bike in its box, and two panniers, wrapped together with bungees to make a single item.

The transfer in Chicago was uneventful.  Amtrak handled the transfer of my checked baggage.  But ...

The gremlins had one last card to play:   We averted a potentially awkward problem at the very end of my journey.  When I disembarked in Utica, I was told to expect my bike momentarily.  It did not appear, however.  As the conductors were chivvying the last passengers to board for their onward journey, I asked a conductor near the front of the train about my bike.  He checked, and found that in Chicago it had been put by mistake into the baggage car which would eventually go to Boston when the train would split in Albany!  Good thing I asked; no harm done, and the train was delayed another five minutes while we unloaded the bike and my panniers.

                                  -- Here endeth the tale. --

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