Riding through the floods Part 3: Bob Johnston's Canadian notebook

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Guest blog series from Bob Johnston 

Covering the passenger rail beat is always a challenge, but sometimes you stumble across more opportunities than you bargained for.

That was especially true this past May and June, when massive flooding turned a train trip to North Dakota into a week-long rail adventure that had me riding trains in two different countries, going hundreds of miles out of the way.

Here's a blow-by-blow account of a week-long adventure that contributed to the research behind two stories in the September 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, the monthly Passenger column (page 18) and a News story (page 8).

I had managed to avoid flying anywhere for any reason thus far in 2011 and wasn't about to start, so when torrential flooding canceled my return trip on Amtrak's Empire Builder (see Part 1 and Part 2), I scrambled to find another alternative that would get me out of North Dakota. 

Wait. There was my planned photo shoot of VIA's Canadians the next day. Why not actually board eastbound train no. 2, take it to Toronto, connect to Toronto-Windsor, Ont., VIA train 73, and test the Windsor-Detroit "on your own" taxicab connection to Amtrak Wolverine Service train 355 that would get me back to Chicago by Saturday night?

But how could I get up to Rivers, Man., the nearest stop, which was almost a 3-hour drive away?

Fortunately, Dale Niewoehner, the former mayor of Rugby, came to the rescue with unabashed generosity for a hapless, stranded reporter.

After I explained the situation and willingness to pay to have someone in town drive me, Niewoehner himself offered to follow me to Minot that afternoon to drop the car, bring me back to Rugby, and then drive me up to Rivers on Thursday. I bought gas and dinner for Dale and his wife Marilyn, but he only took an additional token amount for his trouble, which turned out to be substantial since we encountered a torrential thunderstorm driving into Rivers the next morning. The storm was so powerful that it knocked out all electric power in the small town, a former Canadian National division point.       

We got to Rivers at about 12:30 p.m., about 4 hours before the eastbound Canadian was due. He dropped me in the rain at the little shanty beside the boarded-up, rambling station. I stowed my bags in a corner and headed uptown to Chris's restaurant. The lights were off, but the tomato-based tortilla soup was still hot.

Back at the tracks an hour later in time to see a distributed-power-equipped westbound CN stack train blow through, I encountered Al and Donna Morken. The local residents had convinced VIA to winterize and move the small cabin that serves as today's VIA station from its previous location, a dirt platform at the now-discontinued Brandon North stop 14 miles to the east. They became its caretakers, making sure the heat and lights were working and the place was clean.

While waiting for both westbound and eastbound Canadians to arrive, Al drove me to a park near the edge of town with a railroad display and a unique bench fashioned inside some freight car wheels. He explained that they were also spearheading the fundraising efforts to transform the shuttered CN station into an eco-friendly community meeting center.

Westbound VIA 1 drifted into town first on the blustery afternoon behind two refurbished F40s, let off one passenger, and then pulled up next to a grain elevator west of the station while waiting for a 100 car-plus eastbound freight to tie up until VIA 2 arrived.

Two hours later, the 18-car, Toronto-bound Canadian was a welcome sight when it showed up after 5:30 p.m., about an hour late. An engineer grabbed my big suitcase and exchanged it in the baggage car with one from a detraining "Comfort Class" coach passenger. Service manager Maurice Desauniers then greeted me on the platform, confirming that I was indeed the guy who had reserved a lower berth in car 221. Two coaches, three Skyline domes, two dining cars, and 8 sleepers later, "Bayfield Manor" would slide to a stop, followed by another "Mano"r sleeper and the round-end dome-observation "Kokanee Park." 

Since Canadians exchange on-board service people at Winnipeg, attendant Amy Schellenberg asked if I would like my berth turned down. Then it was back to the "Park" car to join the crowd waiting for the 7 p.m. dining car seating while a scrawny sunset tried to push through clouds to the rear.

I ordered a Molson Canadian, and sat down in one of the few empty seats on the side of the solarium, but the familiar Budd observation car surroundings took me back to Labor Day 1967. That afternoon, after boarding the Burlington's westbound California Zephyr at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, I headed to the last car while waiting for dinner. I pushed the wall button and a white-jacketed waiter appeared. "I'll have a Tom Collins," I remember saying confidently, ready to reveal a driver license showing that I had just turned 21. He never asked for my ID, but brought a tall, frosted glass with sugar sinking to the bottom of the mixed drink and a cherry perched over the ice cubes. The "Kokanee Park" would have entered service 6 years later (in 1955) than its Zephyr  counterpart and today has only inward-facing seats, but it still felt like I was in the same car 44 years later at Winnipeg!   

Some of the Zephyr's sleepers had been built with open-section lower and upper berths, too, but those cars had been sidelined by 1967 in favor of all-room accommodations. Not so on today's Canadian, whose "Manor" sleeping cars had recently received a cosmetic makeover but retained the original section, roomette, and bedroom  configurations (the rooms are now called "cabins"), save for section 4's removal in favor of a communal shower.

Eight "Chateau" sleepers and four "Park" cars are being gutted and equipped with bigger windows and more spacious — and expensive — rooms (see the July 2011 issue of Trains Magazine), but for now, riding the Canadian provides a trip down memory lane, walking between the curtains at night or waking up the next morning in cramped quarters rail travelers once took for granted.

Sitting at breakfast with suburban Toronto residents Sheila and Charles Bensted the next morning in big-windowed dining car "Annapolis", I savored a cooked to order mushroom omelet, served by attendant Cheryl Masesar. It dawned on me again how fortunate I was to get a ride from Dale Niewoehner so I could work in an unplanned trip on this wonderful transcontinental cruiseliner. 

The day was completely rainy and overcast across Ontario, but looking out the back window of "Kokanee Park" at the high bridge over the Mud River, watching another Canadian pass at Tondern, and enjoying rack of lamb in the dining car (even though we sat waiting for three fleeted CN westbounds outside of Hornepayne during the entire meal) sure beat sitting in some sterile airport!

Capping it all off after dinner — just as the sun made its only appearance near Oba, Ont., was a wine tasting in the second Skyline dome hosted by activity coordinator Bill Thompson.

I had always wanted to work out a trip where I would change trains at Oba to or from the passenger train on CN's former Algoma Central Hearst-Sault St. Marie, Ont., line, but after getting a good look at the place during our pause to let off a passenger there, that future escapade lost some of its priority status. 

Next time: Still 500 miles from home, Bob Johnston makes his way across the Canada-U.S. border, by taxi, in between rides on Amtrak and VIA corridor trains. Along the way, he'll see firsthand what works and what doesn't, and how languishing infrastructure repairs are jeopardizing two well-patronized rail corridors.

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