Days 36–39, August 30th–September 2nd: Alaric’s favourite ever train journey!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working out the figure to Edmonton)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252 (eek!)

Toronto to Edmonton! My favourite ever train ride!

Alaric's train route

The train route!

I actually had to leave the train just when the landscape started getting interesting, so it wasn’t really the views that made it my favourite ride. Though they were still cool: when I woke up on Day 37, I could almost have woken up in Finland. Everything was forests and lakes. Only the forests and lakes were a little bit more fairy-taley than in Finland; and the occasional cabins by the lakes a little bit less. Then it seemed more to be forests and marshes. When I woke up on Day 38, we were coming into Winnipeg; and after that you got these prairies with huge fields and huger skies; and when I stretched my legs in Saskatoon that night, there were lots of stars, and the first properly cool air I’ve felt since leaving Iceland.

But really the great thing about the ride is that it was like finding myself in an Agatha Christie novel. (Or, at least, since I’ve never read any, a TV adaptation of one.) The rolling stock’s newer, but the dynamic is the same: a train ride that lasts for days; people you get to know bit by bit as you find yourself sitting next to them or sharing tables in the restaurant car; and a sort of general setup that to me is straight out of the 1930s. The train’s, like, fifteen coaches long or something, but the economy class bit is just four or so, including a restaurant and a kind of hanging out coach, and on my ride there were lots of empty seats, so it doesn’t take long at least to be on nodding terms with everyone. (Or, for that matter, to start guessing which one is the world-famous detective, and who’s going to get bumped off first.) And in Britain, you get conductors, right; but here you have guards. I mean, they don’t call them that (in fact, when I overhear them on their walkie-talkies, they call them ‘revenue personnel’). But they don’t check your ticket: they wake you up when it’s your stop; or let you into the guard’s van (there’s a guard’s van!) if you need to get something from your luggage (which probably takes the form of four capacious trunks); or they say ‘All aboard!’ when the train’s finished taking on water and it’s time to leave the forest hamlet where you’ve been stretching your legs. I found myself saying things like, ‘I’ll just ask the guard’; and the Canadians looked at me funny because they say, I dunno, ‘the train guy’ or whatever; but I did a double-take too because the last time I talked about a guard on a train was in about 1934.

Train! In Foleyet. Population: 216. Schools: 2 (one English, one French).

And the guards all have proper Canadian accents. Not the Amercian kind, but the sort of deep, placid-but-chipper, polite-but-nonchalant-but-firm way of talking that makes you know you’re in safe hands. And it’s not just for passengers, they talk to each other that way too. My seat is near the guard’s seat in my coach, so you hear the chat on their walkie-talkies, as they complain chipperly-but-firmly up and down this fifteen-carriage monster about the freight trains holding them up, or try to work out why the power’s gone down, or haggle over who gets dinner when. And when they’re chatting to each other, you hear them slew from English into French and back again, which is fun.

I wasn’t planning to eat in the restaurant car, but decided it was too good an opportunity to meet people to miss. And it’s not a bad deal. AND I ate a PICKEREL! Now that’s a word I haven’t used since, like, the SEVENTEETH century! Well, that’s not true of course, because the Pickerel was (and I can only imagine remains) Magdalene College’s local pub, but I didn’t know anyone else was still using the word. So yeah, had to have one of those. Not that anyone has yet been able satisfactorily to explain to me what it is. (Possible synonymys include jackfish and wall-eyed fish, but that hasn’t got me very far.) To the best of my understanding, the pickerel remains some kind of seventeenth-century pike.

And yeah, spending three days on a train without much to look at, I’ve got a lot of work done, but also met a lot of interesting people. Top scorers are probably:

  • The bile-filled old couple sitting in front of me from Winnipeg, who pause from sniping at each other only for the husband to sulk and for the wife to complain loudly to the air, asking why we’re going so slowly/why the train is whistling so often/why the lights have gone off. I am reduced maliciously to pretending I think she really wants answers and providing them in my best helpful-but-firm-but-chipper voice.
  • The affable Winnipeg student coming back from visiting her folks in New Brunswick, who commiserated me in the boarding queue about the weird and/or drunk Canadian-Welsh guy who talked at me for half an hour in Toronto station. Her charm is tempered by an insistence on repeating everything I say back to me in a bad English accent, making the first half of the journey feel like being locked in an echo chamber with Austin Powers.
  • The Afghan lady in the seat behind me: born 1969, married 1982, emigrates to Pakistan 1990, emigrates to Canada 1997, doesn’t get on with her husband’s new wife and so is moving, heavy-hearted, to Vancouver. The Winnipeg student is good at talking to her, and we learn a few words of Farsi.
  • The Polish-Canadian schoolteacher across the dinner table; she’s on her way from her summer holiday to a course in Winnipeg, before term starts and she climbs aboard some five-seat-aircraft to go back out towards the Arctic Circle, to her school on a reservation. Nuff said!

And then it turns out that if you’re a musician, you can get a free ticket if you promise to play three gigs for each leg of your journey! Two axemen join us at Winnipeg. They seriously do not sing loud enough to be playing on a moving train: I should send them to Helsinki to attend the Johnny Badapple school of busking. But they were good folks and the gig was fun. Twenty-odd random travellers squashed together in a room in the hanging-out coach listening to songs about love and polar bears.

It’s been a long time since I was on a night-train quiet enough that I’ve had two seats to myself. The passenger-load here isn’t going to do my carbon footprint any favours, but it’s good to curl up across two seats, and go to sleep feeling the continent rolling by beneath me.


About alarichall
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2 Responses to Days 36–39, August 30th–September 2nd: Alaric’s favourite ever train journey!

  1. Sounds fantastic. So glad this trip went better than the Toronto/Chicago leg! (By the way, if you work out a good way to deal with the N American English accent imitator, please pass it on.)

  2. Wow, what a journey on the Occident Express! Such fun. We’ll definitely have to try it one day. Best of Luck in BC and don’t forget to venture into the Stanley Park in Vancouver – those red cedars, it has such a wild feeling about it numerous visitors notwithstanding.

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