ON THE HUDSON BAY RAIL LINE -- If people who do a lot of air travel are called "frequent flyers," what do you call people who love to travel by train?
Our table in the dining car of a Via Rail train, travelling the Hudson Bay Line to Churchill, mulled the question over for several minutes.
"Trackies," Jack Simpson said finally.
Trackies, indeed. Keep on trackin'.
The Free Press recently joined 40 other "trackies" on a Rail Travel Tours trip to see the beluga whales in Churchill. The biggest component of the trip time-wise was train travel, two nights there and two back, the way it has been since the rail line was built over uneven permafrost in 1929. People on the tour stayed in single or two-person cabins with foldout beds.
For some, it was a romantic notion to go back in time and travel by train. For others, such as Robert Ernstberger, it was simply love of rail travel. This was his eighth trip with Rail Travel Tours, run by lead trackie Daryl Adair, author of the excellent guide book to Canada's best-known rail routes, Canadian Rail Travel Guide.
Ernstberger is a bit of a rail warrior. He's 79 and suffered a stroke six years ago. Nevertheless, he managed just fine navigating the corridors of a moving train one passenger described as "like walking on a ship." Robert threw up his arms when asked why he loves train travel so much. "I don't know!" he exclaimed.
Another inveterate train traveller is the aforementioned Jack Simpson, who has travelled six times with Rail Travel Tours. He should get a discount for entertaining passengers. Some Jackisms from one supper in the Via Rail dining car:
1) Little has changed on trains since his father worked at the railway and Jack would get free passes to ride the rails, said Simpson. Except for one thing. "When you flush the toilet, you don't see the tracks anymore."
2) He and his late wife avoided watching The Simpsons TV show its first season because they shared the same last name. They finally decided to watch an episode the second season. It was the one where Bart brings home a dog that ends up chewing up the family's photo albums. "About a month earlier, I had brought home a dog that pulled out our photo albums from underneath the coffee table and chewed them up. We never watched the show again."
3) Jack was born in May (Taurus) in the Chinese Year of the Rooster. "My entire life has been a cock-and-bull story."
(You can't use that one anymore, Jack!)
All the passengers were retirees, and all were from Manitoba, which shocked tourist operators in Churchill, who are accustomed to international interest trumping local. Our contingent included people from Altamont, Arborg, Beausejour, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach, as well as Winnipeg.
Tour participants included some widows or widowers and other singles, but most were couples. One couldn't help but notice the grace built into those long-term relationships. There was little impatience between couples, not that patience is necessarily the ultimate litmus test of relationships.
It seems to me if you take a trip by train, you should keep a diary. You have plenty of time with your thoughts, after all. Here is a redacted sample from mine:
June 30, 1:20 p.m. On our way....3 p.m. So much standing water in the fields. 4 p.m. Veronique, our attendant, has chosen me as the "able-bodied person" in our car to be called upon to open emergency doors and stairways in case of a mishap. 4:35 p.m. Drowned crops. You have no idea how wet it has been west of the city. 5 p.m. The train shambles along half-speed this afternoon because at temperatures of 25 C or higher, there is risk of "sun kinks," a splitting of the steel rails. It's a safety rule. 9:10 p.m. Not sure when it was we passed through the Town of Roblin but someone rearranged the block letters on a mobile sign to say: FREE ASS FRIDAY IS BACK AT GESSO. (The lettering was corrected when we came back.)
11 p.m Lights out. 1:30 a.m. Lights on. OK, how do I use the toilet in my one-person cabin? The toilet is under the fold-out bed. The bed exactly fills the room. So I have to open the door, lift up the bed... OK, that wasn't so bad.
On the return trip, I secured a two-bed cabin, with a proper bathroom and bunk beds. It was more than comfortable but I missed my tomb-like single berth at first. Another appeal about the two-bed berths is the beds are width-wise on the train, so the train rocks you from head to toe, instead of side to side, and many people sleep better that way.
The tour was originally refused a dining-car chef. The federal government cut the chef position from many train routes two years ago. At the time, Ottawa said a chef would still be supplied for peak tourist travel, including the beluga season. That turned out to be not true at all and no chef was scheduled for our trip.
Adair of Rail Travel Tours made a side trip to Ottawa to argue his case. He got a special meeting with an aide to Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher, who oversees Via, and with an aide for the NDP's Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill. Two days before departure, Adair got word a chef would be supplied.
The chef made a tremendous difference and not just with excellent meals (at reasonable prices: $8 breakfasts and $12 suppers). The dining car became the hub of the train -- the place to dine and meet other passengers. For example, I met young German couple, Mike and Alina Hammerstaedt, who had just completed a 14-day canoe trip on the Hayes River that empties into Hudson Bay. I met climatologist Rick Bello, who has spent 32 years researching the melting permafrost in the Hudson Bay region. (I interviewed him for another story.)
Adair contends the federal government's decision to kill the chef position on Via trains is penny-wise, pound foolish. However, it's believed Adair has now at least set a precedent for tour groups of at least 40 people.
Train travel is the proverbial hotel on wheels. Or perhaps that should be Arthur Hailey's novel-turned-movie, Hotel on wheels. That is, passengers on a train aren't so much personalities as stories.
Case in point, Doreen Dodick, on her first touring vacation since her husband died six years ago. Dodick, 81, was the first female MLA in South Winnipeg and sat in the Pawley government. A small park in St. Vital is named in her honour.
Dodick and her husband took the train on their honeymoon 61 years ago. Now she was taking it again. "It brings a few memories back," Dodick said. She considered the trip to Churchill a success. The beluga whales were spectacular and she met many people. She also enjoyed seeing the countryside by train. We passed prairie, mixed forest, boreal forest, taiga, tundra -- and rampikes.
The latter were the charred trees from a forest fire near Gillam that we passed at around midnight on our way to Churchill. On our return trip, we saw kilometres and kilometres of scorched forest from the fire that had crossed the tracks after we passed three days earlier.
Walter Reimer of Steinbach, travelling with wife, Leah, said he might have been in too much of a hurry to enjoy train travel when younger. Not today. "Right now, I'm enjoying it immensely," he said. "You have time to talk, time to eat, time to walk the corridors. It's almost like a community."
Barry Konzelman, a former meteorologist who came in handy during the trip explaining Churchill's abrupt weather changes, travelled with partner, Maggie Katzeley. "Time isn't an issue on the train," he said. That's what he liked about it. "Getting there is half the fun. With airplanes, it is not."