In the first part of this Trans-Canadian railway trilogy, the prior perusal of which I recommend for reasons of strictly following the tracks, I had written about the historical importance of the railway for the establishment of Canada. The current importance for passenger traffic can be inferred from the location of the train station in Edmonton. It is situated far from the inner city and not even connected by bus. Edmonton, I should remind readers, is not some tiny hamlet, but the capital city of Alberta.
Because my chest of books is too heavy to drag all the way to the station, I have to ask a taxi driver for help. Coincidentally, he has just moved from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Asked about the difference between the destination and the point of departure of my journey, he succinctly says: “Winnipeg is better for social life. Edmonton is better to find work.” Perfect, then I am going in the right direction, always running away from work.
The station is still closed, but a few other passengers are already waiting. Like me, they expected a grand station with restaurants to spend the last stationary hours, and like me, they are now freezing in the cold. There is a French-Australian couple also taking the train just for the fun of it. There is a Canadian, who introduces himself as Trevor, not only with a hearty handshake, but by pouring out his heart right away. His mother has died, aged 75 (from pneumonia and infections) and he is going to Ontario for the funeral. He left her, his stepfather, his siblings and his children behind eight years ago, when he moved to Edmonton for a job, something with truck parts. In Canada, people work so much that they can’t visit their families before retirement or death. “The last five and a half years, I haven’t taken any holidays at all,” he explains proudly. For all that effort, he looks exhausted and drained. This is what capitalism does to people.
Now, Trevor has given up the job. He wants to start over in Ontario and reconnect with the family. Sometimes, somebody needs to die before we realize what’s important.
The oldest of the early arrivals looks even more haggard. A wrinkled, unshaven man with cowboy boots, leather jacket, wool cap and no more than a few teeth, he looks about 80 years of age. He points to the freight trains in the station and says, with a strong Russian accent: “I used to jump onto those trains and travel across the whole country.” Which country he means, he doesn’t say, but I have the strong suspicion that it was one of those countries that no longer exist.
Then, the door opens and a Via Rail employee, who identifies with his employer so much that he has assumed the proportions of a locomotive, summons the passengers: “Welcome to the home of the late train!” Nobody even bats an eyelid about the announcement that the train already has a delay of two hours. In any case, we are compensated – or maybe seduced into acquiescence – with free coffee, jam-filled biscuits and ice cream.
Once on the train, you recognize the experts of train travel, by which I mean myself, because they immediately change from hiking boots into slippers. The beginners, on the other hand, are those who are shocked by the absence of internet. I would like to hope that they will be positively surprised by the internet-fee days ahead of them, but some of them have already moved down too far on the path of addiction. Just like the smokers who beg the conductor that he may please wake them up each time the train makes a stop, even if it will be at 2 o’clock in the morning.
The sun sets before we leave the station, hence there is no beautiful sunset shot today. Finally, with a delay of three hours, we get rolling. I have caught the train just in time for dinner in the restaurant car (vegetarian curry) and go to bed immediately thereafter. Returning to my seat, which is all I have for a bed, from dinner, I notice that we are still in Edmonton. During all that time, we have only moved around 3 km. That’s gonna lead to a hefty delay! I am not too perturbed, but Trevor may miss the funeral. Signs of nervousness are creeping into the sadness already engulfing him. As medicine, he brought several bottles of beer.
We are held up by those bloody long freight trains again, of which there seem to the thousands on the rails. Even worse, some of them have derailed in recent months. So, this may turn into a very slow journey.
Once the train picks up speed, I am quite convinced that we will meet the same fate of derailing. It’s scary how much the train sways, jerks and screeches. Even my two Atlantic crossings were less rocky. The whole ruckus is all the more disconcerting because the ride through the Prairies should be along an even and straight line.
There is no thinking of sleep. The train driver seems to be hell-bent on catching up the delay, forgetting completely that he is ferrying human beings through the night instead of cargo across the plains.
At the end of the last train ride, I didn’t even want to get off. This time, the night is so restless and unedifying that I already worry about the next leg of the journey, another 35 hours on the train, from Winnipeg to Toronto. Plus delays. At 6 o’clock in the morning, when we stop in Saskatoon for 20 minutes, I am already awake and step outside with all the smokers.
My hope is that the fresh air will do what the lack of sleep couldn’t. And then, perfectly choreographed, the sun rises just as we are pulling away from Saskatoon.
The delay has shrunk to two hours, the conductor informs us. So, the train was really speeding like a maniac all night.
Slowly, the passengers are introducing themselves. After all, depending on the final destination, we will spend one or several days together. The Canadians talk about shops, businesses, buildings and who owns what, yet again. One very adventurous couple reports about having driven to the USA, where they visited a Walmart supermarket.
Only the old Russian seems to have somewhat more intellectual tendencies. He waves me over to his seat (as on the last trip, every passenger has at least two seats, which is very relaxing) and opens a briefcase, old and old-fashioned, probably made of Soviet leather. “I have something for you to read.” In precautionary mode, I explain that I really have enough books with me, but he interrupts me: “Oh no, you certainly don’t have anything like this.” I am fearing some religious pamphlets, because who else pushes reading material upon innocent victims?
He pulls a stack of about 80 typewritten pages from an envelope. “I write film scripts. I want you to read this and to tell me your opinion. Your honest opinion.” He only needs 4 million dollars for the production, he says, adding that this isn’t really much for a motion picture.
The script has been wandering through many hands, that I can tell from the crumpled pages. From the title page, I learn the name of the author and fellow passenger (Beniamin) and the year it was typed up (1982). “I have six more scripts,” he threatens, but this one seems to be the best one, the one he carries with him, wherever he goes.
I begin to read, something about cowboys and horse races, not bad at all. The dialogues are good and flowing naturally. When I get to the point where an old man remembers how once, as a young man, he had been riding a freight train and jumped off in Winnipeg because it looked as if there was work to be found, I can’t tell if the script is based on the author’s life, or whether he enriches his own life story with the product of his creativity.
The story becomes more serious, the contrast between countryside and the city is one of the issues. I like the caricature of the Canadian obsession with work, money and real estate. As I pass my verdict, Beniamin almost becomes angry because I failed to spot all the references and connections. Impatiently, he explains how the film is to be interpreted.
The anger may be borne from frustration about his journey, because, as he hastens to tell me, he took the train west to Vancouver, to Calgary and to Edmonton to sell his script from 1982. But the journey was unsuccessful, probably not for the first time in his life.
Time for breakfast. In the restaurant car, the waiter points out a bison farm. “Good meat, very tender,” he explains, looking at the animals outside. Unfortunately, that meat is only served in First Class. Yesterday, I thought that slippers and jogging pants are enough to prove my train travel expertise. Today, I realize that iron cutlery would also be clever utensils to bring aboard, because breaking plastic forks are annoying. I bet in First Class, they have proper knives. On the other hand, with proper knives come proper murders, as we know from the Orient Express.
As I am sauntering up and down the aisle – one of the pleasant activities, which you can hardly engage in on planes, buses or in cars, at least not without irritating others -, I sometimes sit down for a talk with the scriptwriter. After all, we have plenty of time. On one of these visits, I have a newspaper with me, and with that, disaster takes it course.
Beniamin points to the headline promising or threatening changes to Canadian asylum law, and he gets going faster than the train in which we are sitting: “This will be the subject of my next film! I have been telling you for 20 years already that you are allowing too many foreigners into your country,” he agitates. He thinks that I am Canadian. I asked him when he came to Canada, but he fails to notice the irony. He emigrated or fled in 1975.
I explain that I deem migration to be something quite natural, that all groups of immigrants to North America were seen as a threat at first, but that they all integrated quickly, that the term “illegal immigration” might be best applicable to the European settlers in North America, and that it is rather comical that a Russian explains to a German, both living in Canada, that Canada has too many immigrants. But Beniamin isn’t interested in my objections, I notice. He prefers to keep talking without pause and responds to his own arguments. Maybe that’s the effect of writing movie scripts. I have to ask him several times where in the Soviet Union he came from. And even when I, quite excited, tell him that I have actually been to his hometown of Chișinău, it doesn’t stop the flow of words and prejudice.
The flat terrain may be a more appropriate symbol for the country than the Rocky Mountains, which insinuate audacity and wilderness, for which Canadian culture has no place, except in mythical self-perception. An announcement on the train informs everyone that the bar on board only has a license to sell one alcoholic drink per passenger per hour. The conductor also warns that he will intervene upon the smell of marijuana products, strong perfume and smelly feet. Smoking is banned and frowned upon anyway. So much for the Wild West. It only looks like it.
Quite as flat as Hungary or Holland the Prairies are not. But you can’t call them hilly either, maybe wavy. Just so much that tractors and harvesters find no insurmountable obstacles.
The landscape is dominated by agriculture. We pass small towns like Young in Saskatchewan with cute wooden churches. But the real cathedrals are the grain elevators.
The distances between the towns look as if one could walk for several days without coming across any human settlement. I wonder where in these eternal plains the Trans Canada Trail runs.
From below the fields, mines produce potash, which is then distributed on the surrounding fields as fertilizer. Or, as an old gentleman in the panorama car explains: “Potassium is an alkaline metal, but in nature, it only occurs in ionic salts and thus has to be distilled.” He keeps talking of potassium silicates, macronutrients, lignin and turgor pressure.
All of this he is not telling to me, but to a young lady sitting across from him. For the remainder of the ride, it remains unclear if she is his granddaughter or not. She calls him Joe, they share meals, she gets him a beer from the bar, but on the other hand, she tells him about her life as if he doesn’t know her yet. Or maybe he is just not interested. Like many old men on this train, he prefers to listen to himself talking. I sense, with some dread, that I am encountering my future self on this journey.
I had taken a book to the panorama car, but Joe speaks not only very loudly, but is also quite fascinating to listen to. The contrast between appearance and rhetoric couldn’t be any greater. He looks like a farmer, at least 80 years old, with white hair. He scuffles through the train with a bent back. His pants are held a bit too high by a pair of suspenders. How many teeth he still has, he can successfully conceal. He looks like Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind”.
And he speaks with exactly the same eloquence, no longer about agricultural economics now, but about the bourgeoisie before the French Revolution, the Oracle of Delphi, about Sparta, the Amazons and the Isthmus of Panama. He speaks slowly, but refined in his expression and with a conviction as if he had personally lived through everything that he has read.
The next town justifying a stop, if only for ten minutes, is Melville in Saskatchewan. The local ice hockey team is called, in typical Canadian-capitalist fashion, the Melville Millionaires. Or maybe the founders simply couldn’t come up with a better alliteration.
The old station building is no longer in use, but there are plans to restore it. As so often in Canada, this needs to be financed privately. To that purpose, the band Soul Deep will give a concert on 27 April 2019, charging a steep entrance fee of 60 $. But then, in a town of millionaires, that’s nothing.
It is a beautiful sunny day, but the wind sweeps across the platform so crazily that the driver has to keep the foot on the brake for the whole stop, to prevent the train from being blown away. Now I understand why it’s always so darn cold in the middle of the Canadian meteorological map.
What I don’t understand, on the other hand, is the absence of wind turbines and solar panels. Here, you got space, sun and wind in abundance, and a population that likes to earn money and won’t protest if something gets built. (In Canada, there are only protests if something is not getting built.)
Back in the glass-domed panorama car, Joe is still holding a monologue, now about the diminishing role of OPEC, the necessary reforms to the election law, Belize and Curaçao as possible places for his retirement (how old does this guy want to become?), Bitcoins and the separation of the train passengers by classes. Sometimes, he has to cough so severely that one can already hear the Grim Reaper, but other than that, there is nothing that can interrupt him.
Joe would actually be a good person to play the main character in Beniamin’s script. And, speaking of the writer, I soon run into his arms and thus into another long conversation. On the one hand, he is educated, talks about Schopenhauer, about Nietzsche, about the work as an artist giving wings that make you independent from the opinion of others and of society. “If you are an intellectual, you know it yourself. You don’t need anyone’s confirmation.” But he regrets that he just isn’t a salesman when it comes to his own work. I can sympathize with him on that one.
On the other hand, he is stuck in the past, speaks favorably of Lenin, fears evil Western misdeeds behind every corner: “Everything that you read about Russia is false propaganda.” He still lives in the Cold War. He insists on calling the popular uprising in East Germany in 1953 a “putsch” and is proud that he helped subdue it with his tank. And he won’t realize how dopey it is that a Jewish Soviet refugee from Moldova, living in Canada, is ranting about migrants with a Russian accent.
The old men on the train provide more entertainment than the musicians organized by Via Rail, although on this train, they are quite good. The clientele on the ride across the heartland is different from that on the train through the Rocky Mountains. Fewer tourists, but more people who simply have a lot of time. Or maybe they are all afraid of flying.
The landscape is less dramatic than the one in the west, that’s no surprise. But the ride is more relaxing, because I don’t constantly have to jump from left to right to capture dramatic photos of mountains and rivers.
The conductor is running through the train, all excited, informing us that we have more than caught up the delay and that we will reach Winnipeg early. “I haven’t seen that happening in more than two years,” he is stunned.
Outside of Winnipeg, the land becomes totally flat, so that the wind is roaming across the Prairies unhindered and inexplicably still unharvested. The sun disappears behind hazy clouds, unspectacular like the whole ride. Yet, a bit of melancholy overcomes me, as the capital of Manitoba is coming closer. The train has become a home, the fellow travelers flatmates. Some of them are oddballs, but interesting characters, like in a Steinbeck novel. Joe reminds me of a farmer in “Pastures of Heaven”, who devoured the encyclopedia and the Greek classics.
The generous approach to time means that even those continuing the journey get to spend three hours in Winnipeg. Thus, they can smoke as much as they need, go for a walk and maybe look for a shower. As I say goodbye to Beniamin, he tells me that he doesn’t even know where he is going to live now. He sold his house, all in an attempt to finance the film. “But,” he adds self-mockingly, “because that didn’t work out, I have a lot of money now.” Which proves that you can earn a living with writing, after all.
- The website of Via Rail has all the information, schedules and booking options.
- In summer, the train goes three times a week, in winter twice per week.
- If you are flexible, try out different dates because the prices vary greatly. In summer, the train is quite booked out, and a conductor has told me that from 1 June, the prices will double. In the off-season, the complete ride from Vancouver to Toronto is available from 466 Canadian dollars (= 300 €). I haven’t seen any cheaper price, except for teenagers or seniors, which may explain why there were so many geezers on the train.
- I couldn’t book the ticket online with my European credit card and thus had to go to a travel agency. In the off-season, it is however possible to simply buy the tickets at the train station before you depart. I saw some of my fellow passengers do that.
- What you should take with you: a book, a blanket for the night, slippers.
- Internet is only available at the train stations. (The lack of internet was one of the factors I liked the most. It made people much more communicative.) But every seat has a power outlet.
- A tip for cost-conscious travelers: The tap in the washroom is high enough to allow bottles being filled up with water. That way, you don’t need to spend anything for drinks on the train. And if you want to be a supersaver, you will most likely find an empty plastic bottle in the rubbish bin of the train station where you embark. – As I always say, traveling doesn’t need to be expensive.
- The food on the train is actually not expensive (take a look at the menu), but if you really want to save, you can bring everything with you. There is boiling water next to the kitchen, so you can prepare tea and soup.
- Calculate a few hours of delay. In no case should you book a flight directly after the planned arrival.
- Part 1 of the train trip across Canada. Part 3 coming soon.
- A short story inspired by the conversation with Beniamin.
- More articles about train travel.
- More articles from Canada.
- Seat61 with a wealth of information about train travel in Canada.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.