Tuesday, 24 June 2014

3 Days in Hell on Via Rail - May, 2014

What a lovely, relaxing alternative to air travel - or so we thought - we're so sick of the stress and tension of long flights and airports. We decided to begin our 6 week European journey by taking Via Rail,Canada's passenger train, from Edmonton (it doesn't depart from Calgary) to Toronto to visit friends. We booked a cabin for 2, the top option for this transit, thinking it would be rather romantic. We felt quite confident as Via Rail is quite progressive in its attitude toward passengers with disabilities. Because of my limitations I need a travel companion to assist me so, with a letter from my doctor confirming this need, the company allows the companion to travel free of charge. Yeah, my husband and I went 2 for 1! The positive experience stops here.

We arrived at Edmonton's station around 10pm after having a nice dinner with a friend. The scheduled departure was midnight so we'd given ourselves plenty of time to check in our luggage and I was told that as I had a disability I would be able to board a little earlier. We needn't have worried. Eventually, an employee announced that the train was delayed coming in from Jasper due to a snow storm. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with this area of Canada, this is not at all unusual in May. Anyway, we sat and waited. There wasn't anything around the station and, aside from 2 vending machines, nothing inside the station either. And still we sat. And the employee came out again to announce further delay. Finally, the truth came out - the train was stopped just outside of the city while 2 freight trains travelled through. An appalling fact, that passenger trains have lowest priority - and one that we discovered would haunt us the whole way. So, some time after 2am the train arrived at Edmonton station. And we waited for passengers to disembark and for the train to be prepared. I won't say "cleaned" because I saw very little evidence of this. When we were finally invited to board, we stumbled down a dark, uncovered platform in the rain to our assigned car. And then we got to our cabin. I laughingly call it a cabin - more like a 35 sq. ft. closet with bunk beds. Seriously? Honestly, my closet at home is not much smaller. And seeing as I can't, my 72 year old husband got to crawl up the tiny ladder to his bunk. What is this, summer camp? Although what 8 year old is crawling into bed at 3am?

I will admit that the configuration was somewhat better during the day with the beds stored and 2 leather chairs in their place. And having a toilet and sink in the cabin was more convenient than having to bathe after a total stranger in the shower at the end of the car. Really? For space saving purposes, a counter piece flips up over the sink for extra storage but what a pain. If one actually puts items on it then every time the sink is needed the counter must be cleared in order to access it. This, of course, is so convenient in the middle of the night after using the bathroom. Are you sure you want to wash your hands?

The dining car was the other nightmare. Now, the food was rather good considering the limited space and resources and the serving staff was pretty efficient but being forced into a seat next to any rube is one sure way to ruin even the most gourmet meal. Frankly, people who travel by train on a regular basis, and there are a fair number, are not the most stimulating group. The conversation leaves something to be desired. Sadly, that's all there is on this journey other than reading. It's a good thing my husband and I are avid readers because there is no TV, internet, radio, newspapers - no connection to the outside world whatsoever; not even a satellite signal for a cell phone. And due to delays, the few stops we made - Saskatoon, Winnipeg - were in the wee hours of morning. So, am I going to wake up at 2am just to get off at Winnipeg for a cellphone signal? Who am I going to call?

Needless to say, this train is a petri dish. Windows can't be opened and, if you don't get off at the stops, the only fresh air available is by taking your life in your hands standing between the cars. To say that I was sick as a dog after we arrived in Toronto is an understatement - nothing but tiny germs floating all around us on that nasty little train.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we couldn't wait to get off the thing. There's nothing to see outside in the way of scenery unless you enjoy endless prairie and nothing to do inside so... But wait! Remember the 3 hour into Edmonton? Well, as we chugged along over the course of 3 days, freight trains full of bitumen, grain, containers or whatever required us to pull onto a side track and stop, waiting for every one of them to pass. By the time we arrived at Union Station in Toronto, we were a paltry 7 hours late. Yes, I said 7. Scheduled to arrive at 9:20am but we finally crept into our berth at 4:30pm. Remember the "regulars" I mentioned? Not only were these folks unconcerned by this, they seemed impressed that we actually got there on the expected day. What's wrong with this picture?

This is my cautionary tale - just say no!

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