Taking the train to Winnipeg

Or, my farcical journey on the Canadian railways

Kristian and I bought two train tickets from Saskatoon to Winnipeg. We were skipping some of the Prairies to give us more time in Atlantic Canada, later on in our ride.

The train’s planned departure time was 08:32.

We arrived at the station at 07:30, to see a revised departure time of 15:39 on the information boards.

We stood dumbstruck. A seven hour delay was pretty special.

The revised departure time changed: 14:06

Other diligent would-be passengers started arriving around 07:45

The revised departure time changed again: 14:07

The counter staff cracked flippant jokes when I asked about the delay, and whether we should expect more on the way to Winnipeg. “Oh yeah. They’ve started construction on the bridge just past here which is the mainline, that’s gonna cause problems” — accompanied by hearty laughter.

Revised departure time: 14:08

Saskatoon station was soviet, decrepit, and bereft of facilities. The staff provided more helpful intel: “we’re going for an ‘80s thing here, there’s no WiFi”.

The coffee machine was broken. A neglected candy machine offered sun-bleached Chewz and Zingy Zaps to boost morale. They looked as if they’d also been there since the ‘80s.

A tourism banner said “Saskatoon is calling!”. My inclination, in that early-morning, delayed, pre-caffeinated state of mind, was not to answer.

Revised departure time: 14:09

Every passing minute added another to the revised departure time, and to the subsequent arrival time to Winnipeg which had moved from 8pm to 5am.

Not just an inconvenience for us, but for the family we were booked to stay with and who had kept their evening clear to meet us at the other end.

Revised departure time: 14:15

I made camp-stove morale coffee outside the passenger station, where this farce was unfolding. It was 5 miles outside the city, at the end of a long dusty road: an afterthought at the boundary of a sprawling yard of freight trains and cargo.

Revised departure time: 14:07

We discussed what to do with the day.

Revised departure time: 13:59

Were they deliberately shaving a few minutes off to make a 6 hour delay seem slightly less bad than 6 hours 30 minutes?

Revised departure time: 14:28

Nope.


The delay at least afforded us the opportunity to check out downtown Saskatoon, which we didn’t think we’d have time to do. We dumped our bags at the luggage check (one facility that was, mercifully, operational), then rode the dusty and potholed roads through the city outskirts.

“Has someone shelled these roads?”, asked Kristian.

Debris and scrapyards eventually gave way to tree-lined avenues. In Saskatoon proper the tourist information and library were closed, making it hard to find out about what the city offered. The riverside cycle path was closed, too: the one thing that looked immediately diverting and enjoyable. We asked locals to recommend something interesting — it took several attempts to find someone who could think of anything — and headed in the direction they pointed.

We couldn’t find the thing they’d told us about, whose identity has since slipped my mind. Instead we found a coffee shop on the one trendy street, and camped out for a couple of hours until it was time to head back to the station.

The revised departure time when we got back was 13:30; the train eventually departed at 16:39.

In the interim the jokes and wisecracks continued, but they became amusing rather than grating once I eased myself into the mood and relished the opportunity to participate in a real life farce. Again: every passing minute added another minute to the revised departure time.

When the train rolled into the station all the passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief; when it rolled straight back out again, confusion immediately returned.

20 minutes later it rolled in again, backwards.

None of this was explained to us, but at this point we were at least allowed on board, where we heard damning, illuminating, and fascinating things.

Damning:

  • “VIA Rail have to rent use of the rails from the cargo company, so we have to wait for all the freight trains to pass before we can go.”
  • “Large sections of the track are in disrepair because they’re owned by American companies who don’t want to fix them.”

Illuminating:

  • “There was a huge forest fire in B.C., a lot of trains are especially delayed.”
  • “They don’t give a shit about us out West — if you go East there’s WiFi on the trains, they have new cars, and they run on time.”
  • “There are no refunds for delays regardless how long they are.”

And fascinating:

  • “It’s taken us 48 hours to get here from Vancouver.”

If that last point was true, it had taken the train half as many hours to get here as it had taken us on the saddle. Truly astounding.

On board there was food, alcohol, and a convivial atmosphere. A band set up in the dining car and played ad hoc folk. The glass observation dome in coach class gave full panoramic views of the prairies: a scenic taste of the more expensive classes in the carriages behind us. There was a full moon blaring red ahead of us; a glorious sunset disappeared below the horizon behind.

The arrival time continued to get pushed back and back and back. At one point I did back-of-the-napkin calculations on our pace and figured the journey would take 18 hours longer than planned.

But it had stopped feeling so much like a problem.