Seeing the Rocky Mountains from the comfort of a cross-country train car was on the bucket list of Malcolm and Cheryl Mackenzie, visitors from Dorset, England. Since they’ve both retired, they figured, why not do it in February? What could go wrong?
But instead of rolling merrily along through the snow-capped peaks of Alberta and onward to British Columbia, the Mackenzies found themselves fidgeting with the WiFi in Winnipeg’s downtown Via Rail station Friday afternoon, trying to salvage their dream trip.
It’s not where they expected to spend Valentine's Day but like thousands of would-be train passengers across the country planning to ride the rails this week, the Mackenzies were forced to make an unplanned stop on their way to their final destination in Vancouver.
Railways were blocked this week by protests in support of Wet'suwet'en Nation's opposition to the Coastal Gaslink pipeline and the RCMP's enforcement of an injunction in northern B.C. The blockades led CN Rail to temporarily shut its operations, leaving Via passengers temporarily stranded at stations throughout the country as actions continue.
"VIA Rail has no other option but to cancel all of its services on the (CN) network, effective immediately and until further notice," an official release sent out Thursday said. With the exception of the Sudbury-White River route, operated by Canadian Pacific Rail, and the Churchill-The Pas route, operated by Hudson Bay Railway, Via trains have ground to a halt.
Protests stemming from the unceded Wet'suwet'en territory — where the pipeline is slated to be built — have included Winnipeg youth occupying Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal's St. Boniface office to voice their opposition to the pipeline and RCMP actions, and several hundred demonstrators shutting some of the city's busiest intersections, including Portage and Main on Feb. 10.
In the RM of Headingley, demonstrators set up a blockade and stopped freight traffic earlier this week before abandoning the site Thursday. Similar demonstrations have happened near rail lines across the country.
This was the situation that greeted the Mackenzies' arrival Thursday night in Winnipeg, a place they had only planned on passing through, possibly while sleeping, never leaving their train car.
The couple spent the night in their sleeper car, and were assured by Via their fares would be refunded and other travel accommodations would be arranged in lieu of the scheduled train trips.
Around 1 p.m. Friday, the Mackenzies were trying to co-ordinate a flight to Vancouver Friday night or Saturday morning, but still had some time to kill. They planned to check out the Manitoba Museum.
"The idea of a really long train journey is something we'd both really wanted," said Malcolm. "We decided it would be a little more picturesque."
A few minutes later, the couple zipped up their coats, walked out of the station and were greeted by the howling winds of Main Street. It was not quite as picturesque as the Rockies, but it would have to do for now.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.