Day 1: Riding the Rails to Climate Change Bootcamp with Al Gore

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This is Day 1 of my series “In Search of Al Gore: A Climate Pilgrimage.”

The VIA Experience: 1974 redux

5:45 p.m. PST: When does age transition from being a liability to an asset? When does an old table become an antique; or an old car become a classic?

When the VIA Guest Service Directory crows about its 50-year-old “art deco-styled stainless steel rail cars,” you can’t help but ask the question. I took this train from Vancouver to North Bay in 1974 and I swear it was this train.

My “roomette” looks exactly as I remember it – except there’s a little aluminum panel screwed over the hole where the ashtray used to be. The space is six feet long and a little over three feet wide, which is kind of perfect. When I sit on the bench, I can rest my feet on the vinyl top that covers my private toilet – very comfy – and if the laptop gets too warm on my legs, I can bend over and use the loo as a desk.

When I get sleepy, the bed drops down over the whole space. It’s roomy enough for sleeping, but requires a certain amount of planning: if you wind up changing your mind at night, you pretty much have to go outside to do it. And if you have to go to the bathroom, you first have to remake your bed and put it away. I am going to stop drinking early.

Planting a goodbye kiss on the back side of a pretty city

6:10 p.m. PST: Vancouver has no competition on a day like today. It snowed yesterday, so the mountains are freshly dressed, and when the clouds parted this afternoon, the glistening peaks seemed to celebrate the final arrival of spring. It was beautiful.

But the dome car was full when I got there, and when I came back to my little cubicle, the purple mountains were lost behind the low-rise sheds and lumber piles.

As in most urban train corridors, the view is dominated by the backside of industrial buildings and by battered little houses that seem to wish they were further away. Every once in a while you break into an open spot – soft green patches along Burnaby Lake or crossing the Fraser River – and then it’s back to chain-link and pavement, back to neighbourhoods where hard people do real work.

The train creaks and jiggles across the odd level crossing. It slows and stops unaccountably (at least, I can’t account for it), and then it struggles forth again. Where airplanes always hasten their departures with a noisy thrust – and no backward glance – the train seems to be tearing itself away. (Maybe it knows that we’re heading for Toronto.) (Kidding, really.)

First meal: A return to the good old days

9:20 PST: I’ve never ridden the Orient Express – never witnessed a rolling murder on any line – but I can say without fear of argument that most train-centred crimes are committed in the kitchen.

I have had train meals in India, Indonesia and Thailand, in Australia and New Zealand, in England and Japan, and I have wondered in all of those places if someone was actually trying to make me sick. Food that bad doesn’t happen by accident.

But in 1990, VIA Rail set a new and suspicious standard. I can’t remember a single meal (at least not one that VIA prepared), but I remember the lack of choice and the abundance of grease. There was, on that occasion, no formal dining car. There was no dome car, either, robbing sightseers of one of the great pleasures of this trip. There was only a surly contingent of VIA employees offering an unconvincing series of excuses – and urging all passengers to take their complaints up with the government of the day.

It turns out there was a reason. When I asked VIA’s corporate communicator, Catherine Kaloutsky for statistics comparing the number of train passengers in 1974, 1990 (the two years I had travelled this route) and 2007, she said, “As for 1990, that is not a good year to reflect on since that was the year that our services, network and workforce were slashed by 1/3 – a move by the government.”

Well, I am happy to report that something very positive has happened in the meantime. The dining car is back – along with the policy of seating passengers together, regardless of how many empty tables may be free. You immediately find yourself in conversation with strangers (tonight it was the Hong Kong businessman who MacDonald’s hired to spread the MacEmpire in China; he’s at 900 restaurants and counting).

And, all in all, the food was excellent: fish chowder, a simple green salad, salmon, mixed vegetables and gnocchi and a chocolate cake that I declined until I saw my table mate scraping the last bits of his off the plate. It’s a promising sign on the first day of a three-day trip.

Kitchen crimes: Take II

9:45 PST: In defence of VIA circa 1990, I must admit that the most serious culinary crime committed during that trip came by my own hand.

Having been warned about the food on the train, we had started the trip with our own choice of lunch: a bag of apples, a box of Triscuits and crockery jar of stilton cheese that we had brought back from Fortnum and Mason’s in England. The stilton was sublime – blue, gold and creamy, it was rich and aromatic, the best part of every day.

It was, perhaps, a risk to leave it out of the fridge for that length of time, but I figured anything that was already shot full of mould would probably stand safely for a couple of days, and it seemed, in any case, to get better with age.

I have mentioned already that the attendants were given to grouchiness and their belligerence grew worse as the trip dragged on. Even a change of crew in Winnipeg failed to improve the general mood. Finally, we arrived in Jasper, where the train stopped for a scheduled four-hour break. My wife Elizabeth and I went for a long walk in the brisk mountain air and came back to the train refreshed and famished. We boarded the train, returned to our cabin and threw open the door, letting loose and eye-watering stench.

It’s hard to believe that, immersed in the smell from the beginning of the trip, we had not noticed it getting worse. We actually gobbled down the last of the cheese (which was fabulous) and rinsed out the jar before the porter returned. I had hoped that he would take our apology more graciously, but apparently 1990 is not a good year to reflect on.

Great Bedding

10:50 PST: It seems to be the only new part of the roomette, but a worthy upgrade.

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