Two days on a four-car streamliner across northern B.C.

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, October 1, 2019

[Part 1 of 2]

I returned a week and a half ago from an excursion to western Canada to travel over two new (to me) and reportedly scenic rail routes and to sample VIA Rail Canada’s Touring Class service and one of the offerings of Rocky Mountaineer, a private luxury rail tour operator that, in part, competes with government-supported VIA for the international tourist market in the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia. The trip was timed around my birthday, but also to take advantage of lesser crowds and lower rates in the ‘shoulder season’ as the summer travel peak had begun to wane.

VIA train 6 hugging the Skeena River about 40 miles east of Prince Rupert, B.C. on Sept. 15. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
I covered VIA Rail’s thrice-weekly Prince Rupert-Jasper route, once named the Skeena (before VIA dropped all train names from its timetable except for the Vancouver-Toronto Canadian and Montreal-Halifax Ocean) after the river its route follows for its western third, as well as Rocky Mountaineer’s ‘Rainforest to Gold Rush’ excursion, a three-day affair in each direction that makes one weekly round-trip and is currently the only regularly scheduled passenger service over the entirety of the former BC Rail line, originally the Pacific Great Eastern, now part of Canadian National. 

The only way to do both routes within five days — which I did with a friend — is to start in Prince Rupert on a Sunday morning, spend a Monday night in Jasper, then depart on Rocky Mountaineer on a Tuesday morning, arriving in Vancouver on a Thursday evening. My friend and I flew from Vancouver on a Saturday on one of the only two daily flights to Prince Rupert, both operated by Air Canada using Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft, and had the fun experience of using a school bus that goes on a ferry to reach the city from its airport, which is on an otherwise forested island. 

Sleeper-dome-observation car Banff Park carries the markers of VIA train 6 as it pauses in a siding near Terrace, B.C. on Sept. 15.
After spending that afternoon exploring the city and getting a full night’s rest, we arrived at the VIA station (which is at the ferry terminal and is shared with BC Ferries) at 7:30 Sunday morning. Our bags were added to a very full luggage cart pulled by a John Deere tractor, and five minutes later the four-car consist of VIA train 6 pulled up to the platform, which was just long enough for it. The bags were loaded, followed by the 30 or so Touring Class passengers who had their pick of seats in the curved-glass-sided Panorama car, and then the dozen or so coach passengers, who boarded the ex-New York Central stainless-steel coach in front of the Panorama car, behind the baggage car. The train departed seven minutes ahead of schedule.

The two-day trip was thoroughly pleasant, with plenty of room to spread out between the Panorama car and the round-end dome-observation Park car (Banff Park) behind it, access to which was limited to Touring Class passengers. The on-board crew of two remained upbeat and friendly throughout the trip, despite having had little sleep either previous night. The included meals (three on day one, two on day two), which were served via cart at our seats in the Panorama car, were about as good as pre-packaged meals can be, and healthier than most of Amtrak’s cafe car offerings. All were cold (a continental breakfast and sandwiches or salad for lunch) except for Sunday’s one dinner, which was served hot and with complimentary British Columbia wine (as was Monday’s lunch).

VIA train 6 stops and changes crew at Smithers, B.C. on Sept. 15.
The day started moody, with dark looming clouds and intermittent light rain as the train hugged the dramatic, broad, green mountain-flanked Skeena River. As we got inland, the skies partially cleared and it got much cooler. Train 6 picked up an initial 90-minute delay waiting on a siding somewhere west of Terrace, B.C. for three freight trains ahead (one eastbound and two westbound) to make way. Passengers were allowed off the train onto the ballast and small gravel lot at this siding for about 40 minutes of fresh air and exercise — only the second time I’ve experienced this in North America. After that, the only fresh-air stops were at the scheduled dwell points of Terrace and Smithers, each of which had a historic train station that had visitor information, art, gifts and snacks for sale. We were about two hours down as the sun set, losing another half hour on a siding past Burns Lake. 

With a scheduled 8:30 PM arrival in the overnight dwell point of Prince George — this being the only North American common-carrier passenger train route whose completion requires spending a night off-train mid-trip at the passenger’s own expense, a fact VIA makes very clear when booking — having elapsed, with the 10:00 hour fading into the 11:00, we sat on a siding some 20-odd miles out from northern British Columbia’s commercial center. Eventually, the service manager announced that because a freight train was blocking our access to the station, we would be let off somewhere in the CN yard and provided taxis, at VIA’s expense, to our hotels or to the station. We reached the siding around 12:30 AM and got to our hotel downtown a little after 1:00. Luckily, the next morning’s continuation departure wasn’t scheduled till 9:45.

VIA train 6 during its station stop at McBride, B.C. on Sept. 16.
Upon reaching the Prince George station at 9:30 AM Monday, it was evident that an eastbound double-stack train was still occupying the lone station track. Informed that departure would be delayed at least 45 minutes, we had time to walk three blocks to a coffee shop for a tide-over. The train finally began to move just after we returned, followed closely by our train, which passed the station and was followed by the three-car consist of VIA train 5, bound for Prince Rupert, which reversed into the station, loaded up and departed 2.5 hours late. Our train then reversed back to the station, reboarded us and departed 45 minutes late.

View from the dome of Banff Park as VIA train 6 passes through the shadow of Mt. Robson near Tete Jaune Cache, B.C. on Sept. 16.
Monday was a perfect day weather-wise as we hugged the upper Fraser River all the way into the Rockies and traversed Yellowhead Pass. The scenery started out with inland rainforest, then rolling farmland as mountains rose in height around the valley. We only took a siding once and made no station stops except at McBride, B.C., the midway crew-change point with a beautiful station that also housed a restaurant and visitor’s center. Enjoying views of Mount Robson, Moose Lake and the peaks of Jasper National Park in evening light, we arrived in Jasper just under an hour late, before 7:30 PM Mountain time.

[To be continued...]

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