2014 Amtrak-VIA Circle Trip: Day 6

Day 6 (Tuesday, May 27, 2014) of my Amtrak-VIA circle trip started much like Day 3 had aboard the Empire Builder. I awakened and noticed that the mountains were gone and we were traveling across a high plain.

I also noticed that we were waiting for freight train traffic to clear so I took that opportunity to shower and get dressed.

Like Amtrak’s Superliner cars, the VIA sleepers have a community shower that has been carved out of a compartment.

Both the Amtrak and VIA shower areas are about the same size and you need to take your belongings with you. It felt good showering in both. The water was nice and warm.

It was mostly cloudy, which was fine with me because the scenery featured a lot of trees and some hills. It was not all that exciting to look at it. I stayed in my roomette until about 7 a.m.

Each day aboard the Canadian featured a distinct region of Canada. The first day had seen us traverse the Canadian Rockies. The second day was devoted to the prairies. The third day would travel through the forests of the Canadian Shield.

On this day I was looking forward to seeing grain elevators and flat, open land. I had seen photographs of this territory.

It didn’t take long to spot my first grain elevator. Many of them were of the tall box-shaped variety, coming to a point similar to a milk carton.

I also noticed that many grain elevators had been abandoned and/or had their tracks removed. During one of my meals I met a woman whose husband is a farmer in Saskatchewan. She explained that many grain elevators have been forced out of business by mega facilities. Some are still used for storage.

The dining car did not serve a traditional breakfast today. Instead, the plan was to serve brunch between 9:30 a.m. and noon. A continental breakfast would be available in the dining car.

I made the assumption that the dining car continental breakfast would be similar to what was laid out every morning in the Park car, so I went back there to get a croissant, fruit and orange juice. I ate it in the dome section of the Kokanee Park.

The clouds were starting to break up and by early afternoon it was mostly sunny. I spent a lot of time in the Kokanee Park and in the dome sections.

I photographed every grain elevator that I could spot. Given the flat land and good forward view that wasn’t difficult.

I had brunch with the couple I had met in the Vancouver station on Sunday. Their last name was Young and they pointed with excitement upon seeing a grain elevator in a town named “Young.” Most of the grain elevators had a location name even if the location was nothing more than a wide spot in the road.

I ordered the crab Benedict, which came with slices of an orange and watermelon. I had a pleasant conversation with the Youngs.

Most of those I met on the Canadian were either from Canada, New Zealand or Australia. Meeting people from other countries was part of the enjoyment of the experience.

As typically happens when eating on a train, your tablemates ask where you are from. When I said I was from Cleveland, Ohio, they would ask how I got to Canada.

When I said I rode Amtrak to Seattle and then to Vancouver they would inevitably ask how Amtrak compared with VIA. A few of my table companions had ridden Amtrak, but most had not.

My standard answer was to say that they had a number of similarities, particularly having to fight all the time for their political lives. I also made it a point to talk about those comfortable mattresses and comforters on VIA that were superior to what Amtrak offered.

I sometimes talked about how the equipment on the Canadian was older than what Amtrak used. One of the nice things about the streamliner era sleepers is that they have more storage space and headroom than a Superliner roomette.

An Amtrak Viewliner roomette has about as much headroom as a streamliner era roomette, but the storage space for luggage is over the hallway and it can be a challenge to maneuver luggage in and out of there. In my VIA sleeper, my suitcase fit beneath my seat. I liked that.

The most noticeable difference between Amtrak and VIA that I mentioned occurred in the dining cars.

VIA dining cars on the Canadian have movable chairs whereas Amtrak opts for booths. Someone once said that is because Amtrak doesn’t want chairs flying around in the event of a derailment at speed. Maybe so, but booths also might be less expensive to install and maintain.

VIA serves meals on china that is placed on linen tablecloths, and uses silverware and glassware. Each meal comes with its own menu with the dinner menu placed inside of a leather folder.

At dinner, a runner is placed on each table and you get a full complement of silverware. Only at breakfast were paper napkins used.

I’ve had many good and even some great meals on Amtrak over the years. The best French toast I ever had, for example, was served aboard the City of New Orleans.

But Amtrak meal service can be inconsistent and every so often political pressure forces cutbacks that result in suffering service quality and a lack of diversity of offerings. I had seen that on the Empire Builder on the way out.

I never had a bad meal aboard the Canadian. I would rate every meal I had as good with most of them very good to excellent. Dining was one of the highlights of my trip aboard the Canadian.

I did notice one quirk about dining aboard VIA. None of the menus had prices.

Most passengers aboard the Canadian are traveling in sleepers and the fare includes meals. Like on Amtrak, you pay extra if you want beer or wine with dinner.

But I also noticed that virtually no one left a tip after eating. Early in my trip I asked some of my tablemates about that but didn’t get a straight answer as to whether tipping was expected or even practiced.

Maybe this would be like a cruise ship in which you present your server with a tip at the end of your journey. But I didn’t see anyone do that.

The only tips that I saw people leave were left by some patrons who had paid for their alcoholic beverages. And even then people didn’t always leave tips.

One of my tablemates said he had never tipped on VIA and didn’t know anything about it. I did ask one of the service attendants about tipping.

He was somewhat helpful, saying that if I wanted to leave a tip that that money would “stay on that car.” That suggested that the crew would share it.

I chose to adhere to the adage of “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” I didn’t leave a tip after most meals but did make it a point to leave one after dinner because I ordered beer or wine.

Speaking of alcoholic beverages, I seldom saw anyone enjoying one of those in the Park Car. There was a small bar next to the lounge under the dome section. But rarely did it seem to be patronized.

This begs the question of whether many of those who ride the Canadian are teetotalers. They didn’t tip and they didn’t imbibe much. Maybe it’s an age thing because the crowd aboard the Canadian on my trip was decidedly middle aged to older.

That also seemed to be another difference between riding on VIA and riding on Amtrak. Perhaps on the VIA corridor trains the ridership more closely resembles the ridership aboard Amtrak with a diverse mixture of young and old.

I’ve also never spent much time in an Amtrak lounge car without seeing people buying alcoholic beverages.

My dinner companions that night included a couple from British Columbia and the woman I mentioned earlier whose husband farms in Saskatchewan. She said she grew up in Toronto and her moving westward sounded like the basic plot of the 1960s television comedy Green Acres.

The husband of the BC couple said he was from Dalton, Ohio, which is about 50 or so miles from where I live.

He had also lived in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he had met his wife, and Alpena, Michigan. He said he financed large equipment for a living. They had been in British Columbia for many years and considered themselves Canadians.

The dinner menu changed every day, but I never did see the halibut that I had read about in a magazine story about the Canadian.

Instead, I ordered salmon. It came with mashed potatoes and roasted broccoli and red peppers. Rather than get soup, I went for the salad. I also opted for beer rather than wine.

ll of the beer and wine served aboard was, of course, Canadian. No Busch or Miller products here.

I’m fine with that as I don’t drink those at home, either. Desert was a slice of cheesecake with fruit topping (berries) AND a slice of chocolate cake.

It would be our last meal with this particular crew. When we arrived in Winnipeg later that night, all of them would go off duty and a new crew got aboard. The train would also be restocked. Yes, the dome windows were washed.

After dinner, I went up to one of the dome cars in anticipation of getting some good sunset photos. I was not disappointed and did well in capturing sunset over the Manitoba prairie.

We had a long layover in Winnipeg while the train was serviced. Most of the passengers who got off went into the station, but it being late there was little to do in town.

I understand that the layover for the westbound Canadian is even longer and passengers may purchase a sightseeing tour.

I never got off the platform. I walked up to front of the train and, despite it being dark, took some photos of the F40 locomotives with the city skyline behind them.

The images are a little soft, but I was still pleased with how they turned out. I suppose a serious photographer would have brought along a tripod.

I generally was never hassled when making photographs of the train during the service stops. But as I took a photograph of a guy working the baggage car he said something about how I shouldn’t be wandering around.

I was done getting the photos I wanted, so I walked back to my sleeping car and spent the rest of the time in my roomette. I watched the lights of Winnipeg recede into the darkness before going to bed.

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