This weekend, I was in Jasper AB giving a speech. I had a couple of days back home in Vancouver before heading back out again on the circuit, so I chose to take the Via Rail train from Jasper to Vancouver. Here’s a review of the trip.
AT THE STATION
I didn’t have any paper tickets (this IS 2011, after all) — I only had a confirmation number. The station is charming, but it’s not particularly clear where you go to “check in.” The only booth that was open read “Tickets” (which, at least to me, implied that they SOLD tickets there). I stood in line and, indeed, that was the right line. They weren’t able to pull my reservation up by my last name (um, huh?) but were able to with the confirmation number. That seemed odd. I mean, how many “Maffin”s do they have in their system?
BOARDING THE TRAIN
The process of getting on the train is a bit of a clusterfuck. Everyone stands around outside in a pen, then a nice man yells: “Okay, if you’re economy class go right; if you’re sleeper class go left.” (Then, he repeats it in Canada’s other official language: Louder-for-the-Old-People.) And they open the gates. And I mean that literally. It’s one big gate and everyone en masse pours out of it. Don’t get me wrong, people are well behaved and all, but I guess I was expecting people to go by car number or something? There wasn’t even a snooty gate agent checking my ID. (Now that I think of it, I haven’t ONCE been asked for my ID yet. I guess there’s not a lot of business crashing trains into skyscrapers.)
My car was second to the end. These are long trains. It took me five minutes to walk to the end. The train left at 2:30 p.m., more or less on time. It’s scheduled to pull into Vancouver about 9:45 a.m. the next day, but we were about an hour early.
THERE’S WI-FI OR 3G, RIGHT?
It’s very, very spotty. And if you’re with Rogers or Fido, it’s non-existent except for Kamloops (that’s about eight hours after you leave). If you’re with Telus or Bell, you get these small windows of about ten minutes each every 90 minutes or so as you pass through little townships. I’m not on either network, so I can’t vouch for data ability or speed. They may be analog networks for all I know. So basically, be sure you sync up all your devices before you leave. I wish I’d have printed out a Fido wireless coverage map so I wasn’t guessing when I’d come into range. There is no wi-fi, obviously. There is, for the record, two AC outlets.
DID YOU MISS THE WIRELESS DATA ACCESS?
I suppose it was probably a good thing that there wasn’t any wireless. I got some writing done for my Professional Speaking Tips newsletter, and I use the Interwebz too much as it is. But, that said, I do wish it were an option. A satellite link distributed train-wide via wifi would have been great. It’s funny, you don’t know how much your computer as a whole just assumes you’re connected. There’s no help in applications, for one thing, if you’re offline. Crazy.
WHAT’S THE LITTLE CABIN LIKE?
I booked a private one-bedroom cabin. It’s totally cute any tiny. But it’s really all the space you need — and designed very efficiently. It’s literally as small as they could make it and still give you a daytime sitting bench, a toilet (a second smaller bench acts as the cover), your own sink (with a little plastic thing that sits over it to act as a shelf, and the bed pulls down like a Murphy Bed. It was obvious that Swedes were somehow behind the design. There was a curtain that you could pin back or zip together so nobody could see in, and there was a thick door you could close and lock as well. (Each car has its own attendant. Mine was a very nice young woman. It looked like a kind of summer job that they all just stuck around for after the summer. There is an “Attendant Call” button in my cabin, but I’m too Canadian to want to bug her. I mean, what if she’s on a break?)
SOUNDS A LITTLE DARK AND STUFFY
Actually, it’s neither. Remember, you have a huge window, and three big lights: One in the ceiling, one above the mirror on a wall up high, and one mounted by the bed which you can make dim like a reading light or bright like a regular light. The window itself doesn’t open, but you have a knob that lets outside air pump through AND a small fan you can turn on and off. I was totally comfortable the whole way. (That said, if you want to make your cabin totally pitch dark, you can — even in the day. Your big door is air-tight and you have a thick blackout blind that totally covers the window.)
WAIT, THERE’S NO SHOWER?
There is. A shared one in every car. It’s a little change room in front then a shower. You get it to yourself — you lock the door behind you. There was plenty of hot water and to get the water you push a button which then autostops after about 45 seconds, so you have to keep pushing it. I actually thought it was a smart way to conserve water and prevent floods. They supply each cabin with two bathtowels, a couple of handtowels and a facecloth, a bar of soap and shampoo. I brought my own shampoo because, well, I’m a bit of a bath/shower princess.
SO THAT’S IT? YOUR ROOM, THE DINING CAR, AND A SHOWER?
No, at the very back of the train (one car away from where I was) there was a fun little lounge car. (Well, as much “fun” as watching chain-smoking grannies behind plexiglass playing Bridge can be.) There’s seating that faces each other, they put coffee out, and when you first leave the station, they serve complimentary champagne (in the Sleeper/Business class). In the same car, you climb up stairs (like on a 747 plane) and now you’re in a dome with about 40 other seats and you can see ALL around you. Windows top, left, right, and ahead. It’s pretty nice.
THE VIEW MUST BE AMAZING.
The scenery is, of course, spectacular. You slow down a couple of times to give you a better view and photo of some huge falls. The kind that look like they were designed by some huge theme park. This one waterfall in particular had so much water charging through it and it must have been 300 feet high. It was like a mini Niagara Falls. I mean, where do they get all the water for that? They must have to pipe it in or something.
IS IT BUMPY?
Ever been on a commuter rail train? It’s like that, but slower. So yeah, you’ll stumble around a bit on your way down the very small corridors, but you never feel like you’ll get knocked off your feet or anything. No sudden stops, at least on our route. The hallways outside the sleeper cars are impossibly thin. You can pass another person if you both suck in your gut and apologize in advance for any inappropriate brushes on the way past.
IS IT LOUD?
Well, it is a rumbling train you’re on, so there’s that noise. But I actually love that sound. I’m sure some genius has made a “Fall Asleep to the Continental” CD and sells it for $20 somewhere. But as for between cabins, it’s remarkably quiet. I was worried that, given there’s a little toilet in every room, I’d be hearing all manner of disturbing sounds but no. The only toilet-related noise I ever heard was whenever the person next to me flushed. Never heard any other cabins’ toilets (and I was right across from two cabins). They also give you earplugs if you want them for sleeping.
SO, YOU ALL HAVE TO EAT TOGETHER, RIGHT?
There are a couple of sittings of dinner and you need to stand in a line at the station to reserve which seating you wanted. The two dinner servings at at 5:00 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. They serve it “train seating,” which is a polite way of saying “We’re going to make you sit down and have small talk with strangers for your entire meal!”
In Via Rail’s defence, this is part of the selling point for a whole lot of their customers (I seemed to be the youngest by about 20 years). The dining car looks like a small, elegant restaurant — white linens, servers, wine, etc.
I picked the latter serving but, as you might be able to judge from my bad attitude regarding strangers, I asked for the dinner to be brought to my little room. (I admit, I’m a little anti-social when I travel. It comes with having to make small-talk and being “on” as part of my regular job I guess.)
HOW WAS THE FOOD?
My dinner came on a plate with tin foil covering it. The soup I selected never arrived, but who cares. I picked stuffed chicken and scalloped potatoes. And it was, um, satisfactory. There was nothing wrong with it but it certainly didn’t taste or look like the promised photos on the web site and brochures. It kind of looked like something I’d cook, then eat in front of the TV. Which, with my laptop replacing my TV, I basically did. I bought a little food in town before leaving, so I had some chips, powered, and Mr. Noodle available for my usual midnight carb cravings.
I was actually really, really impressed with the bed! The mattress was quite comfortable — thick and firm and there was a fluffy duvet-like cover. It even had the corner tucked down like they do at hotels. The only drawback to the bed is that, when down, it covers the toilet. So you either have to use the common bathroom (not a big deal) or raise your bed. Side note: It’s a little unnerving taking a leak standing in front of a huge window in the middle of the day. I mean, only the deer saw me, but it was still eerie. There were a couple of times we passed slowly by level crossings — the kind where bells ring, a bar comes down, and little kids stand and wave. I thanked Chronos, the god of good timing, that a field trip to the train didn’t coincide with my requirement to get rid of those four coffees I had earlier.
WAS IT BUSY?
Not at all. I saw more than a few cabins empty. It felt like a healthy number of people, but not completely full.
OKAY, HOW MUCH DID IT COST
It cost about $800 I think for a one-way ticket from Jasper to Vancouver, all taxes in. But remember, that’s for my own room with a door and private toilet. And in business class, where you get access to special cars (like the lounge car and the dining car) that people in economy can’t even get to. I booked it as a non-refundable fare (Air Canada would have called it a Tango Plus, if you speak that language). A fully refundable ticket was going to be about $1200 (a “Latitude” ticket).
WHAT DIDN’T YOU LIKE ABOUT IT?
It’s hard to complain about taking the train. Getting from Jasper to home OTHER than the train was a 4.5 hour bumpy and loud shuttle bus, followed by 90 minutes in your average inhumane airport, then a 90 minute flight, then a 20 minute cab ride. The train might take longer, but it feels way more human.
The whole checking-in and boarding process was a little unnecessarily vague. It could be easily fixed with a couple of signs over the desk. There wasn’t a single sign reading “Check-In,” for instance.
The dinner, obviously, didn’t match my expectation. They really sold it as a gourmet experience. Then again, I did ask them to put it on a plate and bring it to me in my room, so I probably was last on the chef’s ticket list.
Overall, though, it was an entirely positive experience. If I had a trip to Toronto and had a few days extra to get there, I absolutely would take the train. I guess I’d have to leave the safety of my cabin, though, and make new friends. I hear that’s what the normal people do.
And that’s my review for the Via Rail train trip from Jasper to Vancouver.