Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Riding the rails to Melville

Trains retain yesteryear's charms and the scenery never gets old

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MELVILLE -- Train travel has its own lovable idiosyncracies.

Like when you sit in the dome car and the rule is whoever sees wildlife shouts it out. No one needs prompting, and the sightings include coyotes, foxes, herds of deer, eagles. It's the railway way.

Or when Sammy at the snack bar pours your coffee while you're both being tossed to and fro and he doesn't spill a drop, and balances two creamers upside down on your coffee cup lid so they look like top hats and places a stir stick in between like a cane. It's the railway way.

And when you find yourself staring out the window for long periods of time, bumping along to the arrhythmic jostling of the train, and wonder why makers of those high-priced electronic massage chairs, with their multiple settings like rolling, kneading and air massage, don't include "random train shaking." It's the railway way.


About 30 travellers joined Rail Travel Tours on a recent off-season weekend train trip that was really a dry run for its fall colours tour. The two-day trip to Melville, Sask., and back, about six hours each way, included about 60 kilometres of scenic Assiniboine Valley where it meets the Qu'Appelle Valley.

"This is the prettiest stretch of train travel in Manitoba, in my opinion," Daryl Adair, owner of Rail Travel Tours, said of the trek through the Qu'Appelle Valley.

The CN Rail tracks parallel the Assiniboine Valley instead of just crossing valleys like highways do. That offers wonderful vistas. It was in the valleys that we saw wildlife.

The colours weren't out yet when we embarked -- not green, not even flood-water brown -- and there was still quite a bit of white on the ground. But it was train travel nonetheless.

Train travel is really travelling in a time warp. There are no babbling TVs in your face. The dining car still uses real linen tablecloths and napkins and silverware and real flowers on the table. The effect is a welcome retreat from modernity. If someone were to invent train travel today, you know everything would be plastic.

On trains, everything is in-house, including their own diagrams of how to operate the closet washrooms.

Railways have always had their own communication system. The evidence is the retired telegraph poles that strobe by your window. The tour guide at the Winnipeg Railway Museum, where our trip began (the trip was also a fundraiser, with a portion of proceeds going to the museum), maintained there are 41 poles to the mile. You can check it out yourself using the old mileage signs beside the tracks.

The lines on those poles initially carried telegraph signals and, later, voice communication from station to station and town to town. That's retired now in favour of microwave communication, but the poles are still upright for long stretches. They just make excellent perches for songbirds.

On the train, relations between passengers and staff, and even engineers, are casual. Staff aren't aloof and prim and formal like people in air travel. It's the railway way.

On train travel, you meet other passengers. "A lot of people haven't been on a train for a lot of years, and just want a weekend train trip," Adair said. Our group included:

-- Mike, whose first job was as pantry boy on trains at age 14. He made the salad, packed the ice cream in ice and salt, and washed glasses, he said.

-- Three high-spirited sisters who decided to take the trip on a lark because their uncle was once the "train master" in Melville. The sisters recalled visiting his luxurious two-and-a-half-storey house as children.

-- Donna Fossay, who took the train as a birthday present and a trial run to see if she'd like to take a longer trip by rail.

Adair is skilled at pointing out the arcane, from rail history to the origin of towns such as Spy Hill, which we passed. It got its name when a Sioux killed a Cree man they alleged was spying on them. They left the corpse on a hill as an example of what they did to intruders.

Evidence of Saskatchewan's potash industry are everywhere just across the border. The potash plants all have several large, flat-topped mountains of ash-coloured tailings beside them. The tailings used to be made into road salt, but that didn't work. One has to wonder when a lucrative potash discovery will ever be made in Manitoba.

The trip stops at Melville. Granted, Melville isn't a tourist mecca, but folks compensate with hospitality what they lack in Louvres, Acropolises and Lincoln Memorials. Which is not to say the hometown of former Major League Baseball great Terry Puhl of the Houston Astros isn't a big deal.

Melville's name comes from the late Charles Melville Hays, general manager of the Grand Trunk Railway. It was Hays who persuaded the Canadian government to help build this rail line, a second transcontinental line across Canada, ending at Prince Rupert, B.C. The rail line became the property of the Canadian National Railway after the financial ruin of Grand Trunk.

Hays died on the ill-fated Titanic 99 years ago. The town named itself after him, figuring his rail line would bring great prosperity. It didn't quite work out that way. Melville missed more growth due to questionable decisions by past local councils, said tour guide Jennifer Mann. The growth went to Yorkton instead. Today, Yorkton has about 20,000 people versus 5,000 in Melville.

The Melville stop included a tour of local sites such as the heritage museum in the former Luther Academy for Religious Learning. It's a large Prairie museum taking up two floors of the old school. Volunteers served homemade chili, chokecherry pie and fresh buns.

But the real attraction is the train experience.

The off-season trip with Rail Travel Tours was $525, with all meals and accommodations included. The fall colours tour costs $695 and runs four days from Thursday to Sunday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 D1

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