Bon voyage, Moonlighters

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, February 26, 2018

At 8:30 sharp tonight, VIA Rail’s Canadian should be leaving Pacific Central Station in Vancouver with scores of happy and celebratory passengers in its sleepers—the Moonlighters. That’s the name Bill and Linda Schafer gave their merry band of train lovers who join them every year, these sojourns beginning about the time Bill retired from Norfolk Southern a decade or so ago. (You don’t need an invitation from Bill to ride, but you do need a ticket.) Anyway, Moonlighters derived from Bill’s desire to travel during the period of a full moon, to facilitate night photography. 

I joined the Moonlighters once and had a good time.  But I never rejoined. Bill asked why and I explained. First, Andrew Fox engaged me in Rail Baron to the point I became addicted and didn’t pay attention to the railroad world around me. And if it wasn’t Andrew, any number of other friends kept bending my ear and diverting my attention. There’s nothing wrong with that, I told Bill, but couldn’t we socialize some other place? And second, the damn train was dead on time the entire way. I saw nothing but Canadian National freight trains  sitting in sidings as we whizzed by. Boring. This happens because so many active and retired railroaders are among the Moonlighters that CN is embarrassed to treat this train as it usually does, which is like someone’s bastard child. So it paralyzes itself one trip of the train a year for the good PR this entails. I think that’s fine, but it’s not my ideal ride on the Canadian.

My ideal ride on the Canadian gets us to Toronto eight hours late on the dot, at 5:30 pm, just in time for cocktails and dinner at the Royal York Hotel across the street from Union Station. Four full nights and four full days, with lots of hijinks with CN freights to enliven my experience.

In this regard I appear to be a minority of one. So I wish for the Moonlighters scores of stopped, boring Canadian National freights and an on time arrival in Toronto. The signs I see auger well for that to happen. For the first time since November, the westbound Canadian left Toronto last Saturday evening less than two hours late, became on time in Northern Ontario the next day and remained so to Melville, Sask., in what I call the Valley of Death, between Winnipeg, Man., and Edmonton, Alt., where congestion is most severe. This is how the system is supposed to work, with lots of padding for meets with freights, but seldom has lately, recently or for that matter, in my living memory.

After two months in the Colorado Rockies, I admit I did need to get away, if not quite yet to Canada. My date on the Canadian is just over three weeks from now, with two of my grown daughters. So with my wife in New York City for the week, I gathered our dogs and drove south yesterday. I am writing this is Room 218 of La Posada in Winslow, Ariz., overlooking the BNSF tracks. Jack and Lucy are asleep at my feet. This is our home the next three nights. Not quite the same as the Canadian, but damn fine just the same, with a train slowing for or accelerating from a crew change a mile away three to four times an hour. I hope you are jealous of me. You certainly ought to be.—Fred W. Frailey 

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