I’ve met some pretty interesting characters on this trip. I’m no good with names (I’ve forgotten most of the names already), but as that will preserve their anonymity perhaps its a good thing. One couple I had breakfast with on I think the third day, outside of Reddit – the man had spent his career working in IT for banks. He’d been part of installing automated teller machines back in the 70s, and at the same time automated cash drawers for the human tellers. There was so much going on that at one point he was part of operation Slumber – which consisted of temporarily mothballing all the automated cash drawers for two years because there was simply too much electric infrastructure to maintain. Back then ATMs required a lot of human maintenance, so he was always running around working on machines. Alright, it doesn’t sound like much to say now, but at the time I found it a very interesting conversation.
Another man I spoke with quite a bit was a former OPP officer, who had worked for the railway during the early 60s – what he calls the end of the glory days of rail. From what I can figure “glory days” meant there were a lot more people working (even after the demise of steam, a freight crew was 5 people – now it’s 2), and that there was a lot more drinking (in the bunkhouse, during the turnaround time, the standard thing was to get plastered). It was certainly an era of transition – due to a strike in the 50s which the union largely won, the firemen did not lose their jobs at the end of steam – nor did the excess engineers. You see, steam trains needed a lot more engineers and crew than freights – because a double or triple header diesel freight still needs only one crew, whereas two steam engines require two engineers and firemen.
As a child, his father had worked for the railway, which meant they had a family pass. This entitled them unlimited free travel, but only on the slower train – the Dominion. The Dominion ran old heavy weight steel coaches. The train was so heavy that in the mountains it was split into two sections pulled by separate locomotives. The second class section (which he was on) had an outdoor observation car! He did not ride the Canadian much as a child because the pass did not entitle free travel upon it. However, he did say he saw the Canadian being pulled, albeit partially, by a steam engine in the late 50s. Apparently CPR claims the Canadian has never been pulled by Steam – but he saw a steam engine behind two diesels pulling it up a grade near Thunder Bay. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, the steamer had to be positioned behind the diesels, so it did not have the classic steam engine out front appearance. But still – remember these cars are the same as are in service today, and it is neat to think that they have been in service since before the end of steam.
Two obvious characters on the train were Melanie and Christianne, the two girls who volunteered to fly to B.C. and take care of Fred the Dog. Fred the dog, when his master passed away on Vancouver island, stayed by his side for three days before the body was discovered. His master had no family in the region – only a sister in Montreal. The dog could not be flown because it was too big, so Via Rail offered to transport him along with two handlers from Vancouver to Montreal free of charge. The trip itself was not without traumatic moments, both for the dog, the handlers and the crew. The delay coming into Toronto wreaked havoc with their arrival plans – and also created a visual embarrassment for Via because it’s tardiness became part of the national press coverage it was presumably trying to purchase by giving the dog free passage. But, in the end everything seems to have ended well.
I also met a guitar player by the name of Kori Kameda. We picked him up in Sioux lookout, a few hours from his home in Dryden. The fact the train was 7 hours late meant he arrived at the station (there isn’t actually a station in Sioux lookout. Well, there is an old “CNR” station building, but it is condemned – but with a big sign pledging money for a renovation). I wasn’t planning on getting my mandolin out on my own, but when I saw him playing his guitar, and he said he was game for jamming, I grabbed my instrument and we had a fantastic jam. The bar car attendant suggested to both of us that Via rail offers free passage to musicians travelling on the Canadian in exchange for playing a few shows a day, divided between the Park car (first class lounge) and Skyline car (lounge and dome car for coach passengers). This option highly interests me, and I think I will pursue it next time I need to travel across country.