2014 Amtrak-VIA Circle Trip: Day 4

I was up early on Day 4 (Sunday, May 25, 2014) of my Amtrak-VIA Rail Canada circle trip because I had a train to catch at King Street Station in Seattle at 7:40 a.m. The hotel offered a complimentary breakfast, but I decided to forego that. I caught a cab to the station.

The line to get seat assignments for Cascades No. 510 to Vancouver, B.C., had formed early. I held a business class ticket and because I was traveling by myself was assigned a seat on the side of the car with single seating. Unfortunately, that was not the water side of the route.

An Amtrak agent came by to encourage those with large suitcases to check them due to limited space available aboard the train. I hesitated. I didn’t want to check my bag.

What if it failed to get on the same train with me? An Amtrak crew member mentioned that the baggage section was nearly at capacity. But my large suitcase exceeded the criteria for carry-on luggage so I checked it.

Aside from a large comfortable seat, business class passengers also receive a voucher that could be redeemed in the bistro car. This is different from business class on Midwest routes where passengers receive a complimentary drink.

Just about everyone in the business class section rushed to the bistro once it opened. I had a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich, a fruit and yogurt parfait, and a bottle of orange juice.

I have ridden the Talgo equipment used on the Cascades three times before. My most recent trip had been to and from Vancouver, British Columbia, in May 2000.

That was 14 years ago but the equipment still looked the same as it did then with its cream, brown and forest green livery. I’ve also ridden a Talgo train from Seattle to Portland.

The Talgo equipment is nice. It sits low to the rail and rides well. I liked how the overhead TV monitors showed the train’s progress on a map.

Because the Talgos tilt going into curves, they are allowed a higher speed limit in some places than other passenger trains. I did not see the new Talgo train set that was built in Milwaukee for the State of Oregon.

We departed on time for the four-hour journey. We would arrive into Pacific Central Station in Vancouver four minutes early at 11:36 a.m. In many ways, this trip reflected what many think that rail travel should be or could be.

The 157-mile route links two large urban areas with modern, comfortable equipment. I came away impressed. There are other places where such service exists or could exist with the right support.

The highlight was the ride along Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay in Canada alongside the BNSF tracks. It was a cool, cloudy day and would later produce steady rain.

But that couldn’t diminish the beauty of this part of the country. The last pair of seats opposite of me on the water side were vacant so I was able to sit there for parts of the trip.

In many places folks were out walking the beaches and enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning. I made a mental note that I’ve got to come back some day and enjoy those beaches, too. The tide was out so people were walking and searching for whatever in areas usually covered with water.

The Cascades make no intermediate stops in Canada. An Amtrak crew member passed out a Canadian customs declaration form. The Canadian customs inspection is done inside the station in Vancouver.

My cell phone switched from T-Mobile to a Canadian company once we were well into Canada. I sent a test text to my wife. She received it without any problems. We had had no problems talking so long as I was in the United States.

But we had been told that the charges in Canada would be rather high. I had loaded up with lots of minutes and hoped that I wouldn’t burn through all of them too quickly.

Upon arrival, we were instructed to remain aboard the train until all of the checked luggage was unloaded. The long rows of suitcases lined up on the platform made for an impressive sight. The track used by Amtrak is separated from the other tracks and platforms by a high chain link fence.

Once the checked baggage was unloaded, the business class passengers were allowed to disembark. I claimed my suitcase and headed for one of the three customs inspection lanes open inside the station.

When I came through Canadian customs in May 2000, I laid my passport on the counter but the official never looked at it or even touched it. That was not the case this time.

The agent asked the usual questions about what brought me to Canada. I replied that I had come to ride the VIA Canadian. I also made it a point to say that the Canadian is one of the top train rides in the world. He asked how I had gotten from Cleveland to Vancouver. I said that I rode Amtrak.

That prompted him to ask, “are you a railfan?” Well, yes I am. “We get those here,” he responded. And with that I was cleared to enter Canada.

I checked two of my three pieces of luggage at the VIA counter, paying a fee to do so. However, the agent said both would be delivered directly to my room aboard No. 2 that evening. In fact, they were waiting for me in the room when I boarded the train.

I had eight hours to kill before the Canadian would begin boarding. I chatted briefly with a couple who also were going out on the Canadian that night and with whom I would share a table for lunch as we crossed Saskatchewan. They were from Ontario, but had been in Vancouver before. They planned to spend the wait in the train station.

I walked over to the nearby Main Street-Science World Skytrain station and approached a ticket machine. A guy came up to “help” me buy my ticket. He was probably a homeless guy because after I finished the purchase he asked if could spare some change. I gave him a quarter and he seemed satisfied with that. For once, I truly appreciated the help provided by a pan handler.

As it turned out, though, this must have been a free day to ride Skytrain. I never did see anyone else buy a ticket and the turnstiles were open. People were just walking freely aboard.

I got off at Waterfront Station and walked a few blocks to Gastown. I found out later that the Waterfront Station is the former Canadian Pacific station. Commuter trains still use the station along with Skytrain.

I walked around Gastown for a while and purchased some souvenirs to take home to my wife. It began raining and I took refuge in the Steamworks brew pub where I had lunch.

Both the food and beer were very good. It was still raining when I finished so I decided to spend the rest of the day at the VIA station.

I was surprised to see a VIA sign in the station that said that filming and photography were prohibited. This was a nice looking facility and I wanted to get some photos of it.

I took a few clandestine shots of the interior and later walked outside to get some exterior photos.  No one said anything so I don’t know to what extent the photography ban is enforced or by who.

Once passengers for the Canadian were allowed into the Panorama lounge, which included an outdoor patio overlooking the platforms, I got my camera out again and took photos of the equipment sitting there. I could see three Park series dome-observation-lounge cars and no way was going to miss photographing them.

A VIA employee saw me photographing but didn’t mind. In fact, he pointed to one of the Park cars and said that he had been recently refurbished for the new luxury class of service that VIA planned to launch in August. The VIA symbol on the rear of the car has changed slightly from what is used now and the blue band along the top of the car has been repainted to black.

The VIA boarding lounge wasn’t much. There were not enough chairs for everyone and. I ended up spending time in that patio area as did others, but it was quite cool out there.

A few snacks were put out, consisting of packaged cookies and, I believe, shortbread. These same snacks would be available in the Park car and lounge area of the dome cars during the trip. Drinks in the Panaroma lounge included coffee and water.

When it comes to boarding lounge areas, I would give a big advantage to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago over VIA’s Panorama Lounge in Vancouver.

The platforms at Pacific Central Station, the former Canadian National station, are not long enough to accommodate a 20-car Canadian.

The train was split into two sections for boarding and the two sections were combined shortly before departure.

As we awaited the boarding announcement, the dining car steward came around and took reservations for lunch and dinner the next day.

Boarding began about 7:45 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. departure. One of my first thoughts upon seeing the train from the platform was how long that it was.

And this wasn’t even all of it. Amtrak’s longest single-level train, the Lake Shore Limited, typically has 13 cars and two locomotives. But the Canadian seemed to dwarf the Lake Shore.

I had been assigned Room 4 in the Lorne Manor car. The car attendant asked me to move to Room 2 so that a couple could have rooms across the aisle from each other. No problem.

VIA No. 2 pulled out of Vancouver on time, although it was slow going as the train underwent a roll-by inspection. For the first few miles we retraced the route over which I had entered the city earlier in the day aboard Amtrak.

We had been told that there would be a champagne welcome aboard reception in the dome car closest to my sleeper. In VIA nomenclature a dome care is a Skyline car.

I made my way there to find that all of the seats in the dome section had been taken. I saw a few passengers sipping champagne from plastic cups, but didn’t see where they had gotten it.

I had a cup of water and two cookies, but never did get any champagne. I had also expected there to be hors d’oeuvres but there were none that I saw. Maybe those were served later.

The welcome aboard reception was turning into a bust. It would be my only disappointment of the trip, although I didn’t know that at the time.

I returned to my roomette, or cabin in VIA speak, and decided to get in bed.

If you read the cover story about the Canadian in the January 2014 issue of Trains magazine by Fred Frailey and the column about the train by Don Phillips in the February 2014 issue, you know how much both authors raved about the beds in VIA sleepers.

That was no hype. The mattress was every bit as thick and comfortable as they said it was. They also were spot on about the comforter on the beds.

This was easily a much more comfortable bed than anything I’ve experienced on Amtrak. I slept soundly that night.

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