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Saturday
Jun022012

Sweet Carolin...ian

With my trek across Canada aboard VIA Rail's The Canadian fading into memory, I'm back on the home rails of Amtrak. This week I made a trip to Camp Lejeune, NC for work, and I decided to take the train. Camp Lejeune sits just outside of Jacksonville, NC, a typical military base town with the requisite fast food and hotel strips, short term apartments and mid-grade restaurants. While Jacksonville sits near active railroad tracks (some of which actually extend into the Camp itself), passenger service has been extinct from the region for decades. The closest that Amtrak trains come is probably Wilson, NC, but that's still a 90-minute to 2 hour drive away, and there are no car rental agencies left in Wilson. Rocky Mount represented the best place for me to rent a car, so that's where I got off of The Palmetto.

Amtrak's Palmetto, until about 8 years ago, ran from New York to Miami via Tampa and was called The Silver Palm. It was an overnight train and it ran with sleeping cars, a dining car, coaches, and a baggage car. Amtrak made the decision to cut that service back, however, and truncated the train's route to start and end in Savannah, GA, making it a day train. That meant the loss of the sleeping cars, which were replaced with Business Class and the dining car, which was replaced with a standard cafe car. I never was happy with the change in service (Florida lost a train that served cities that no other train reached), but in this case, it benefited me with an early departure from Baltimore and an early afternoon arrival in Rocky Mount.

I traveled via Business Class on the Palmetto, and the experience was pretty much identical to business class on any Amtrak train that runs in the Northeast Corridor. The seats are spaced further apart than in coach, each seat has a footrest, beverages are complimentary, and everyone gets a newspaper. Indeed, when I boarded in Baltimore, a USA Today was waiting for me on my seat, and the cafe attendant kept me well stocked with beverages whenever I walked back to his counter. The trip was uneventful, and on Amtrak, that's a good thing.

In Rocky Mount, the local Avis car rental office picked me up from the station, and I was on the road to Jacksonville within 20 minutes after completing some paperwork. Not all car rental agencies provide service to and from a train station, but I make it a point to take advantage of those that do. Some agencies even staff a desk in stations, like at an airport, which is a fantastic service that should be encouraged (stations that come to mind that offer this service are Stamford, Washington, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Flagstaff).

The reason for this blog entry wasn't to talk about my trip down on the Palmetto, but I have to mention that part of the trip to juxtapose it with the trip back north.

I returned my car to Avis in Rocky Mount this morning and headed to the train station to catch The Carolinian at 11:52 AM. The Carolinian, to the average rider, is indistinguishable from The Palmetto. It runs with the same equipment, and it travels the same route north of Rocky Mount. The service, however, IS different, especially if you are traveling via Business Class. The business class car is the same: widely spaced seats with footrest. But the perks are different, and that's a bad thing. There was no newspaper when I sat down. Instead, I had to go find one in the cafe car. The cafe does not hand out free drinks. Instead, the Business Class car is staffed by a dedicated attendant (which is a good thing). That attendant is in charge of assigning seats, providing newspapers, and handing out the free drinks. But the drinks only come approximately once every 2 hours, and don't dare ask for one in the meantime. Newspapers are available only if you seek one out, and odds are that I was the only one in my car who knew to ask.

Really, Amtrak needs some consistency. If Amtrak can't keep the Business Class experience consistent across two identical trains that serve the same ROUTE, imagine the discrepancies across the nation. Indeed, Business Class is completely different on the following services: Carolinian, Palmetto/Northeast Regional, Acela, Vermonter, Michigan Services, Hoosier State, San Joaquin/Capitol Corridor, Cascades, Pacific Surfliner. That's TEN different flavors of Business Class, and that doesn't even count the trains that lack Business Class at all, most notably the Long Distance services where you are forced to either go First Class Sleeper or coach.

That said, the Carolinian is running on-time so far, and at the end of the day, that's what matters most, at least today. But consistency in service offerings is a problem that Amtrak has suffered since its inception in 1971, and sadly, you need to be a pro to be really prepared on what to expect. It's just a darn shame that I had two completely different experiences with Business Class aboard two identical trains traveling the same exact route.

Sunday
May132012

Canada as seen from the train

I've crisscrossed the US by train, cumulatively speaking, about five times on all of the east-west routes that Amtrak has offered since 2003 (except for the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans: Lake Shore Limited, Three Rivers, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited). In fact, those journeys are often what I point to as what I find pleasurable in long distance train travel; the experience of seeing the country transform before your eyes at ground level. My experience on the Canadian was no different, which is to say that while it was what I expected, that meant that it was a thrilling experience.

Since I started heading east from Vancouver, the trip started off with a bang: The Canadian Rockies. I departed Vanouver's Pacific Central station at 8:30 PM PDT and when I awoke in the morning, the hills were already big and were getting bigger. At that point, the mountains were looming in the distance, and the immediate landscape was still grass-covered and lush with vegetation. It was a high desert landscape--very similar to what one sees on the California Zephyr just east of Ogden, UT when it detours through Wyoming, for the readers who can relate. By lunch, however, the land becomes much more aggressive: jagged sedimentary protrusions from the earth whose layers were once level with the ground are thrust into the sky at 45-70 degree angles. Vegetation begins to cling to rock faces like snow on the side of a car window; every so often you spot the aftermath of a rockslide where the green has been wiped away in consummate V's, exposing the dark gray rock underneath.

In the afternoon the protrusions become mountains, and the mountains become snow-capped monoliths, standing sentry at the gates to Jasper National Park. The most recognizable mountain on the route is probably Mount Robson, aka "The Monarch of the Canadian Rockies, " or "The Dome." Out here, the angles of landscape surrounding you border on the ridiculous: jagged corners at every turn, impossible slopes of snow around every bend. It's mid-May, but winter is still very much in charge up here; it's a good thing that I'm relaxing in a climate-controlled dome car on the train.

Later that afternoon, the trains squeals to a 1-hour stop in Jasper, Alberta where the crew will restock the train with water and supplies, and where the train will receive a wash-down and window cleaning (wouldn't you love to see that on Amtrak?). This small town is a junction on the railroad where one can also catch a 2-day VIA Rail train to Prince Rupert, BC by way of Prince George, BC (where an overnight hotel stay is required on your own dime). Jasper itself is a bustling, small town that hearkens back to towns of the old west: small streets lined with merchants, a post office, police station, pharmacy, and local townspeople eager to welcome you. Only, the merchants are mostly gift stores and boutiques, and most of the townspeople are tourists themselves; Jasper has found life in the late 20th and 21st centuries to center around world class skiing, hiking, and outdoor sports, and even a small bungalow can set you back $400,000-$500,000.

Once the train pulls out of Jasper, the mountains put on one last show, towering above the dome cars, snow blowing from the ragged peaks in concentric, flowing waves of white. And no sooner do you pass through the final tunnel on the border of Jasper National Park than does the landscape begin to immediately relax back, briefly, into rolling hills, and then flatness. FLAT. I sat there on Wednesday night in the glass-roofed sightseeing car looking miles into the distance across farmland. I'd turn around to look from where we came just 20 minutes prior and there they were: Mount Robson and her gang, looming across the skyline like titans out of Homer. Then I'd turn back around to face our direction of travel and look at NOTHING. Vast nothing. It was an experience of immediate visual extremes that I have yet to discover on American rails--perhaps it's out there, but it's not on a regular or semi-regular Amtrak route today.

The sun set on Wednesday night as the train traced the northern shore of Wabanum Lake and eased its way into Edmonton. The Rockies were behind us, and I feared the best part of the ride went with them. I was wrong.

Thursday was a wash--literally. The rain poured all day as we carved the landscape from Edmonton, through Saskatoon, to Winnipeg. You've heard of Canadian Prairies? This is where they are. FLAT. FARMS. COWS. GOATS. SHEEP. BISON. FLAT. This sort of landscape was immediately familiar to me: I'd seen this before on the Empire Builder through Montana and North Dakota, and when you look at a map, it's not hard to see why the landscape was similar: it's less than 3 hours' drive from the Empire Builder's route at certain spots. Wide swaths of prairie occasionally peppered with barren badlands was the story of the day. Big Sky Country as far as the eye can see. When you sit immersed in it for hours, there comes a point where you are hit with a silent shock of breathtaking beauty.

Friday was the last full day to spend on the train and I figured that we had pretty much seen it all. After all, we had soared from the towering Rockies and landed on the endless tracts of prairie. That pretty much covered the spectrum, right? When I woke up on Friday morning and looked out of the window, I got a hint of what the day would bring, but it didn't immediately register. Outside of the window was a small lake--or a big pond, depending on your perspective. Then we hit another lake surrounded by some trees. And then another.

By the time I had finished my banana-buttered pancakes, I knew what I had overlooked: Woods. Dark, dense wood. Forest so deep and towering that you'd expect Mr. Tumnus to bound out with a package under one arm. Friday was a private tour of some of the densest forest, spotted with countless (and I mean COUNTLESS) numbers of crystal clear, blue-as-the-sky lakes that I've ever seen. Minnesota may call itself the "Land of a Thousand Lakes," but Northern Ontario has the market on the "Land of a Million Lakes" motto. If you look at the territory on a map you'll see pits everywhere, like acne on some poor awkward teenager's face. But filling in the gaps between those lakes on the map, what you don't see is dense forest. At the beginning of the day it was all evergreen. Douglas Fir. Spruce. Hemlock. By the end of the day it was birch. The trees and underbrush were so dense you couldn't walk through straight on if you tried. You'd need a machete to carve a path out unless you found a deer or bear path.

And that brings us to the wildlife. One of the great things about the crew on the Canadian is that the engineers will keep an eye out for wildlife (deer, bald eagles, black bears, grizzlies) and will radio back to the onboard crew, who will in turn alert the passengers over the intercom. If you were looking at the train from the outside when one of those announcements was made, it would not surprise me to see the entire train lurch to one side as the people flocked to the windows, exclaiming, "did you see it! Right there! He was looking right at you!" For my part, I only caught two really good sightings: a bald eagle soaring majestically among the Rockies, and a shy black bear, shallow into the woods of Ontario, looking back at us with her brown snout over her shoulder with an unmistakable inner monologue of "are they gone yet?"

And that's how I spent most of my time aboard The Canadian while not eating delicacies in the dining car. I sat either in a dome or in the rear bullet-shaped observation car sipping martinis and gin & tonics, gazing eye to eye with a black bear, a bald eagle, and the elusive Mr. Tumnus somewhere in that wood.

Friday
May112012

Dining on The Canadian

As I mentioned in the previous post. the service onboard The Canadian is what really makes this train special. That level of service is most visible in the train's two full service dining cars, which, over the course of the trip, serve up four breakfasts and three lunches and dinners. Each car is staffed with no less than two chefs, a maitre'd, and at least four servers. Before every lunch and dinner, the maitre'd stands in the center of the car, welcomes you to the meal, gives you a quick update on where you are, what your next stop will be, and what today's specials are. This is unheard of on Amtrak, in my experience. When a table finishes its meal and leaves the car, the plates are immediately removed and the table is reset--even if the meal period is over. I was shocked to see this. On Amtrak, the table would probably not get cleared until the next meal time was approaching, and even if it was cleaned, they wouldn't reset it. Napkins are folded DIFFERENTLY for lunch and dinner. Runners are placed on the table for the dinner meal to dress the table up. Silverware is set correctly (no fork and knifes rolled up in napkins on this train). The food is served on real china with real restaurant-quality glassware (most Amtrak trains use plastic plates and cups). Tablecloths are actual cloth (Amtrak uses a thick, soft, disposable paper). The list just goes on; I covered the rest of the service experience in the previous post, so I'll jump directly to the food experience.

Breakfast is served on a first come, first served basis, and lasts from 6:30 AM to 8:30 AM (last call is usually around 8:15, but you can still show up until about 8:30). Even though the train arrives into its terminal stations of Toronto and Vancouver at 9:30 and 9:45 AM, respectively, breakfast is STILL served for the regular breakfast period. This practice is in stark contrast to Amtrak's Southwest Cheif, which arrives into Los Angeles around 9:30 AM, yet stops serving breakfast at 6:30 AM! Amtrak has always maintained that the curtailed breakfast time for the Southwest Chief is so the dining car crew can prepare for the morning arrival into the terminal. I've never really bought that excuse, and my experience on the Canadian this week convinced me that I was right--you don't need to close the diner early.

Lunch and dinner are both seated on a reservation basis, with two dining periods (occassionally three) per meal. You sign up for "first call" or "second call" for both lunch and dinner on any given day. First call's meal times are approximately 11:30 and 5:30 for lunch and dinner, respectively. Second call's meal times are approximately 12:30 and 7:30.

The food that I've had the pleasure of tasting this week has been fantastic.. On Amtrak, you're generally looking at the same menu across all of its Long Distance trains, with slight variations/nods to regional cuisine on a train-by-train basis. The food on Amtrak is surprisingly good for the most part. The quality took a dip in the mid 2000's when the railroad cut back on its food services budget, but it's recovered somewhat, albeit not completely.

The Canadian's food experience is, on the whole, better than Amtrak today, hands down. You could probably find a meal of equal quality on Amtrak's Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, or Auto Train if you get lucky, but VIA Rail has absolutely nailed it every day of this trip.

Each day's menu has been completely different from the previous day. Lunch changes every day. Dinner changes. Dessert selections are different every day. Even the salads are different every day (there are no salads-in-a-bag served on board The Canadian, and you will be hard pressed to find baskets with Newman's Own salad dressing packets on each table, as you would see on Amtrak), complemented with a special dressing each day. There are two soups for dinner, and one for lunch, and each soup is different for each meal, each day.

So not only does the food on the menu change with every day, but the quality of the food is very, very good. Last night I had roast rack of lamb, perfectly cooked to medium rare. Thursday evening I had a gigantic prime rib. The night before that was a pork tenderloin Thursday's lunch was an open faced lamburger. I have yet to eat one lackluster meal on this train. After four days on Amtrak, you'll start repeating menu items; I could travel back and forth on The Canadian for three weeks and still not have repeated one meal.

Dining on The Canadian isn't restricted just to the dining cars. There are four dome lounges on the train, each of which is staffed with a VIA Rail attendant who sells alcohol, soda, and various sundries. Drinks are served in actual glassware, and alcoholic drinks are served in appropriate glasses (martinis, tumblers, etc). Juices, water, tea, and coffee are provided as self-serve at no charge.

Three and a half days is a long time to spend on one train, and you inevitably pace yourself by looking forward to the next meal. Thankfully, the Canadian doesn't disappoint, so one finds oneself constantly planning for the next meal. That's a problem that I wish I had on Amtrak more frequently.

Thursday
May102012

Live from The Canadian

I wasn't really sure of what to expect when it came to VIA Rail's The Canadian. I had no idea what the service from the crew would be like, I didn't know if the train was liable to be heavily delayed, I didn't know what to expect in terms of scenery, I didn't know what the amenities would be, etc etc. My experience on long distance train travel is restricted to the USA, and even though The Canadian runs along rails that are at points no more than 150 miles north of Amtrak rails (Winnipeg, MB to Grand Forks, ND), we're still talking about train service in a new country.

I knew that The Canadian operated with 1950's era equipment that has been, for the most part, upgraded and modernized. I knew that The Canadian ran with at least one traditional dome car. I knew that VIA Rail's cuisine on the train was apparently a cut above what one finds on Amtrak. And I knew that the Canadian ran from Vancouver to Toronto and was one of Canada's two night-and-day running long haul trains.

Despite that knowledge, I wasn't prepared for the shock of riding the Canadian, especially as an American who has calibrated a benchmark of service expectations based on Amtrak. Frankly, The Canadian puts most Amtrak Long Distance trains to shame in every department, and puts EVERY Amtrak train to shame when it comes to onboard service.

When I boarded the train in Vancouver, the first thing that struck me was the sheer LENGTH of the train. The train was so long that VIA Rail actually staged it in the station in two segments. The front half of the train was on one track, and the rear half of the train was on the other track. After the coach passengers boarded the front section, the engines pulled that section up into the train yard and then backed down onto the rear section, which included the sleeping cars. Amtrak trains average between six and 14 cars in length and one or two engines. The Canadian, as assembled in Vancouver, numbered 19 cars plus three engines. This thing is a monster by US standards today. The train crew, having fully assembled the train, performed a break test and called the boarding signal for sleeping car passengers.

The rear of the train was capped with a rounded-end observation lounge, and as I walked up the platform, I spotted three OTHER dome lounges. The only trains I've ever been on with even one—much less four—domes have been luxury excursion trains in the US, and here I found myself about to board a regularly scheduled passenger train with FOUR of these domes in service. I met my sleeping car attendant, Joannie, at her station on the platform and climbed aboard to find my room.

While I knew that these were vintage cars, I had made the assumption that the floor plan would be similar to today's single level cars on Amtrak. I was wrong. These cars still sport the same floor plans that they have always had, including sleeping berths. If you're not familiar with a sleeping berth, I'll cover that topic in a future blog entry. But if you've seen Some Like It Hot, then you've seen a sleeping berth.

The room itself, a "Sleeper Plus" cabin, as VIA Rail calls it, most closely resembles the Deluxe Bedrooms found on Amtrak. The room has two beds, roughly twin-sized, which fold into the wall (Murphy bed-style) and raise into the ceiling. There is a closet, storage for suitcases, two fold-up chairs, a sink/vanity, and a restroom with a toilette. Frankly, if I had to identify one thing on this whole train which Amtrak beats, I'd probably point to the bedroom. While the room is sufficient, I think Amtrak probably has a better design in their Superliner and Viewliner Deluxe Bedrooms, especially when it comes to the vanity. The vanity in the Sleeper Plus is sorely in need of more countertop space, whereas Amtrak's recent redesigned Deluxe Bedroom vanities have a little more room (but still not much). Amtrak Deluxe Bedrooms also come with a shower in the restroom, whereas all sleeping car passengers on The Canadian must use common showers.

What the VIA Rail Sleeper Plus cabin lacks in vanity and restroom amenities, however, it makes up for in mattress comfort. The mattresses on board the Canadian are extremely comfortable, the pillows are large and soft, and the down comforters are incredibly warm and cozy. It really puts the Amtrak prison mattress, felt blanket, and airline pillows to shame, and it's going to be hard to go back.

This train has not one, but TWO dining cars in service, each with a Maitre' d, three waiters, and two chefs. The food is on par the best food I've ever had on a regular service train and it beats almost all of Amtrak's services. Again, I'll cover this more in detail in an upcoming post.

Between Vancouver and Edmonton, the Canadian carries a full length sightseeing car in addition to the four domes. The sightseeing car has a glass ceiling and walls and plush, comfortable seats that recline beyond 45 degrees. This is really the sort of car that Amtrak should be putting on all of its eastern longer-distance trains (Cardinal, Vermonter, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, Palmetto, Carolinian, Crescent, Silver Services all come to mind as ideal candidates). The car was obviously newer than any other car on the train, but it was no less luxurious, and it's where I spent the majority of my time on the first two days of the trip as the train wound its way through the Rockies.

The domes themselves serve as "activity cars" on The Canadian. Assorted board games are available in the lower level of the cars, and each car is staffed with an attendent who gives commentary on the scenery and hosts wine and beer tastings in the afternoons and evenings. Again, Amtrak has similar services (Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight, wine tastings on the Starlight and Empire Builder, etc), but they lack the service quality of VIA Rail's Canadian.

Speaking of service, that's what really sets The Canadian apart from other Amtrak long haul trains, when you get down to it. Yes, the equipment on The Canadian is fantastic, but the only reason it's put to good use is thanks to the crew on board. If you were to take this train's equipment and swap the VIA Rail crew for an Amtrak crew, the experience would drop by more than a few notches, as much as I hate to admit it. There are no surly waiters on this train. No one ever says "no" to a request. In point of fact, when a dining companion at lunch today asked the Maitre'd if he had a certain beer, the crew member actually went into another car to find it, as it wasn't something that the diner regularly stocked. Drinks are delivered promptly and refilled before you even get to the bottom. Menus are presented by handing them to you and not by placing them on the table in front of you. The wait staff check on you at least twice each meal and then check again when you're finished to see if you'd like another cup of coffee before you leave. I don't know what accounts for the marked difference in crew, but whatever it is, VIA is clearly doing something right in the onboard services category.

The Canadian is really in a class of its own. It may be the finest regularly scheduled train left in North America—an ode to what once was, and at what still is, at least for folks traveling between Vancouver and Toronto. Over the course of the next few days I'll post some more pictures and provide some more commentary on the sleeping quarters, the dining experience, notable stops along the way, and life aboard the train.

Monday
May072012

Ready...Set...

I flew into Seattle today to begin a weeklong trek across North America--mostly through Canada. I'll be making most of the trip on VIA Rail's Canadian, the thrice weekly train that plies the rails between Vancouver and Toronto via Jasper, Edmonton, and Winnipeg.
I am writing this aboard Amtrak's Cascade service as it speeds along the Puget Sound, just north of Seattle. The Olympic mountains are in the distance, shrouded with a haze that is illuminated by the sun in such a way that the horizon looks like jagged pieces of construction paper piled in layers.
Tomorrow is a day to see Vancouver, and the meat of the trip begins tomorrow night on The Canadian. More later, but here are some pictures for now.