Well, I did it – I rode the VIA Rail Canadian to Sioux Lookout, Ontario and back to Winnipeg.
It was a good trip and I’m glad I did it.
The trip wasn’t without its anxiety-inducing moments, due to late trains… read on. This will be a long post.
Waiting to Go
You may recall that my plan was to catch the eastbound Canadian (VIA 2) shortly before midnight at Winnipeg’s Union Station downtown, then catch the westbound Canadian (VIA 1) at 11:55 AM the next day in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.
On July 2 – Saturday – I decided that I would go for it and take a vacation day on Monday, July 4. That meant my schedule would (theoretically) be:
- July 3: 23:30 Depart Winnipeg
- July 4: 06:01 Arrive Sioux Lookout
- July 4: 11:55 Depart Sioux Lookout
- July 4: 19:30 Arrive Winnipeg
On July 3, I started watching the progress of the two Canadians on VIA’s online status page. VIA 2 was late and became progressively later throughout July 3, which made me very nervous indeed. VIA 1 was also late but only an hour late.
By about 9 PM on Sunday, I had to “fish or cut bait” (aka make a decision). At that point my connection time in Sioux Lookout had narrowed from 6 hours to 3 hours. I talked it over with my wife, and she put things in perspective. She said, “what’s the worst that could happen? You spend a couple of extra days in Sioux Lookout.” Love that woman.
Decision made, I arrived at Union Station just before midnight. There were about 30 people in the station waiting to board the Canadian. I paced around and took some photos of the station, inside and outside.
VIA 2 arrived at about 0030. After about 40 passengers disembarked at 0055, the train was serviced for about an hour. During this time, I wandered outside and saw an eastbound and a westbound CN train go by. At 0130 the attendant started forming people in two lines – sleeper class and economy class.
Get On the Train
The reason for the separation became clear when we got up to the platform level at 0140. The sleeper class passengers went toward the tail end of the train, while we economy class passengers were sent to the head end.
This Canadian was led by the usual two locomotives and one baggage car, with two coaches (8125 and 8129) and a Skyline (8501) behind that. We boarded between the two coaches and I went into the lead coach, VIA 8125.
We did not have assigned seating. An attendant told us to pick anywhere, as long as we single passengers sat in a “2 seater” area, to save the areas with two pairs of seats facing each other for groups.
After everyone boarded, a pair of attendants walked through and scanned tickets. They make a note of your destination and affix it to the car above your seat using a magnet.
I honestly didn’t remember which seat I chose, because I wasn’t there long. My picture says 15A!
I mentioned that I was getting off at Sioux Lookout and boarding the next westbound train, and I asked if he thought I would make the connection. He said that he would talk with the service manager.
As soon as he left, I went back two cars and went up into the dome at 0210, where I spent much of the eastbound trip. There was a couple near the back of the dome, but otherwise it was empty. Not much to see in the middle of the night, I guess!
I was surprised to see our locomotives roll past the train on the other station track. I initially thought they were being swapped out with other locomotives, but the same locomotives came back within 10 minutes and coupled back onto the head end. I have no idea why. The train power went off for 14 minutes until the engines were connected and began supplying head-end power (HEP).
Stop and Go
We finally started moving at 0247, or 3 hours 17 minutes late. You can see from the photos that it was raining outside – lightly but steadily – but I worked around that as much as I could.
I really enjoyed seeing the train crossing the Red River over the two track CN bridge. The lighting was terrible but I did the best that I could.
We rolled past the Terminals Cutoff and came to a halt short of Panet Road in Winnipeg at 0259. We sat there until 0411 (!) while a couple of CN trains passed by and lightning flashed in the distance. I grew more and more anxious as I saw my connection time diminishing… but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Eventually we started moving again, passing Beach Junction (the connection with CN’s Symington Yard) and then we stopped short of Transcona Yard at 0420. SIGH.
The wait there was shorter, a mere 10 minutes, and we rolled through the yard and finally reached the main line on the east side of the city. I was hopeful that we would make good time… until we took the siding at Dugald to meet another train at 0447. BIG SIGH.
At this point VIA 2 was showing 4h 55mm late on the web site, while VIA 1 was 38m late.
Clear Signals to Sioux Lookout
Once the westbound CN freight passed us at Dugald, we got the green signal and we were back on our way. We made good time through Anola and Vivian, rolling through the automated inspection portal at 0537. (You may want to refer to my page on the CN Redditt subdivision)
Nourse, Lewis, Elma, all passed by without any stops. We passed over the CP main line at Rennie at 0613 – an interesting experience – and soon it was clear we were entering the Canadian Shield. There was lots of exposed rock and many trees, and cellphone reception was nonexistent.
It’s really quite beautiful in the Canadian Shield. There are many lakes, a few bridges and even a few tunnels.
We stopped at a few places in the middle of nowhere to drop people off at cabins. It was interesting to see that the Canadian is still being used for local service along the line. The popular story is that VIA’s Toronto-Vancouver train is used by tourists only, but I observed first hand that it is also used for local service. I talked with a few people who got off at Sioux Lookout and were visiting relatives, including one fellow who was also traveling from Winnipeg to Sioux Lookout. At least he was staying a few days before returning to Winnipeg!
We rounded one final bend at Hudson at 1020 and crossed a steel railway bridge, and arrived in Sioux Lookout at 1045, 4.75 hours late… but still early enough to make a connection with an on-time VIA 1.
However, VIA 1 wasn’t on time.
Waiting in SL
Once the train was stopped in Sioux Lookout, everyone piled out. The service manager had already announced that they were stopping for about 15 minutes, so it was time to stretch legs and maybe have a smoke if you got ’em. I spent my time walking down the train, recording as many cars as I could see, before I went up to the head end to record their departure.
Everyone got back on the train – except me. The crew gave me a few odd looks, and then closed everything up… then opened a door again as someone came running up to the train in the nick of time!
Once the train left, I walked around Sioux Lookout, taking photos of the magnificent former train station and a few photos of the main street.
While I was there, the eastbound CN train that we passed ambled into town and stopped on the main line. Eventually a westbound train came in on the siding, and the eastbound departed.
For those who are interested, there wasn’t a single rail car or locomotive in the CN yard in Sioux Lookout. Several tracks of emptiness.
I tried to find something to eat in the town that was gluten friendly. There are two bakeries in the town but they didn’t have anything gluten free. I ended up just getting a drink at a gas station and snacking on the gluten free crackers I had with me. Always be prepared! In retrospect, I probably could have found something at the local Subway but I don’t really like Subway.
I was watching the progress of VIA 1 and VIA 2 on the VIA Rail mobile site, and eventually VIA 1 arrived at 1330.
There was a new crew waiting for the Canadian as it rolled past the station, led by “Love the Way” unit VIA 6445.
Once the train stopped and people got off, we were allowed to board. The same routine was followed – go to a coach seat and wait to get your ticket scanned. I relocated to the dome right away but this time I remembered I was in seat 14D.
Straight Shot Home
Compared to the stop-and-go of our Winnipeg departure, the return trip to Winnipeg was practically high speed rail!
We departed Sioux Lookout at 1400 (2 hours late) and faced green signals for almost the entire trip west to Winnipeg. I overheard the crew saying that we were following a freight train, but it didn’t impede our progress much as we stopped a few times to drop off or pick up people along the way.
We took the siding at Richan (mile 45.5) for a meet. Within 20 minutes we were back on the main line. At Quibell (mile 74.9) we ran through the siding but didn’t stop; several maintenance of way vehicles were working on the main line.
I didn’t take nearly as many photos on the way back, for a few reasons. 1) the dome windows were filthy; 2) I was tired; and 3) I had been over this territory already. It was nice to just sit there and enjoy the ride.
I had a little nap in the dome around 1430, since I hadn’t slept at all overnight.
I enjoyed taking in the rugged beauty around us. It was amazing how close some of the rock walls were to the train. The builders of this transcontinental line really did carve out just enough space for trains to roll through.
By 1935 we were passing Dugald’s grain elevator, almost 15 hours after I stopped here going east.
We had a very brief stop near the Terminals Cutoff, then rolled into Union Station. I put together a little video of the approach to the station.
We were in the station shed by 2005 and I was off the train by 2013 – less than 45 minutes late. We made up 75 minutes of time between Sioux Lookout and Winnipeg.
I was still smiling after all that traveling.
Here are a few of my observations.
- The crews were universally professional and mostly friendly.
- The ride east was smooth; the lead truck on the Skyline I was in on the way back was noisy. I wrote in my journal that it sounded like “popcorn popping”.
- The equipment was clean and well maintained. Both Canadians had one refurbished coach and one coach that hasn’t been refurbished yet.
- The onboard food was “okay” – takeout from the diner, since we weren’t allowed to go to the diner. More to come.
Would I recommend someone else do this? I would say, conditionally yes, provided they accept the risk of being stranded in Sioux Lookout. I chose SL for my layover point because it was a big enough town that it had amenities like restaurants, hotels (3) and so forth in case I was stranded there. It even has an airport, served by Bearskin Airlines, although a flight from YXL to YWG costs almost $1,000!
I have a few more things to say about this trip. I’ll share the details of the consists of the two trains, as much as I know, and the CN trains we met both ways. I want to share the food, especially from the perspective of someone who can’t consume gluten. More to come.