The top photo in this story is used courtesy of Martin Cathreae.
Interviews with passengers who took Via’s Canadian, both before and after the July 2018 schedule changes, all produced a similar story of long waits for freight trains to pass.
Some are more accepting of it than others.
Jim Stokes and his wife, Shay Stokes, are from England and last fall their daughter was competing in an IRONMAN triathlon competition in Hawaii. The family decided to travel across Canada before taking the flight down under. The Stokes boarded the Canadian from Toronto on Sept. 29, 2018.
It wasn’t long before the train started pulling over for freights. Via Rail staff said they could not give a definite answer as to when they would arrive at their next destination, the Stokes said. They even started counting, to see how many freight cars rolled by.
Pat Shaw’s husband did the same.
“There were ones with 150 or 200 cars,” said Shaw, who moved from Canada to Australia and decided to take the Canadian in June 2018 as a trip of a lifetime.
“He couldn’t believe it. He kept counting and counting and they just kept coming.”
And they kept waiting and waiting.
By the time the couple got to Jasper, Alberta, it was the middle of the night.
The delay meant she missed seeing the Rocky Mountains that were supposed to be the highlight of the trip.
“That was one thing I really wanted to see,” she said. “I woke up at about two or three in the morning and I just lifted the blinds of the cabin and I could just see the magnificent mounts there. It was a fairly bright light so I sort of got a peek at it.”
The train arrived in Vancouver 13 hours behind schedule.
Jeremy Leung, 26, was one of the 4,000 young Canadians who jumped at the chance to get a Canada 150 youth pass in 2017 — it cost $150 for unlimited trips with Via nationwide and helped boost ridership for the year. Leung said this trip was unlike anything he’d experienced.
“It’s a beautiful trip, some of the views on the train you can’t get in a car. There are parts of the country that the train goes through that are mostly untouched and are so gorgeous.”
That said, Leung’s train ended up being 10 hours late between Jasper and Toronto.
“I mean, we bonded in the suffering,” Leung said with a laugh.
Another passenger travelling that summer, Tyler Honsinger, 21, said the train travel was the highlight of the experience. “The time I spent on the train was some of the best times of the entire trip.”
“It felt like a hostel — everyone on the train was around the same age. Everybody was doing the same thing and it made it so easy to strike up conversations. I made a ton of good friends along the way.”
However the optimistic young passengers wouldn’t recommend Via to everyone.
“It was really about the experience; I’ll emphasize that.” Said Evan Przesiecki, 23, a fellow traveller on the Canadian.
“When you travel on the Via Rail train across Canada, you’re not travelling because you’re in a rush.”
Przesiecki remembers countless delays on his five day journey from Vancouver to Ottawa. “You’ll find the train is just sitting idle for hours and hours.”
Because of this, Przesiecki would not choose Via if he had to be certain he would be on time. “I’m not going to take the train if I have to get to my friend’s wedding. But it’s a special way to see the country.”
On one of the legs of Przesiecki and Honsinger’s travels, the train was at a standstill for eight hours just 30 minutes away from the Edmonton train station.
Honsinger said he didn’t feel compelled to complain because he got the pass for such a good deal.
“Some people were certainly more frustrated than others. Oh yeah, and I understand it. If I was paying, like $600 to $1,000 I would be mad.”
Honsinger also managed to get the $150 pass, a great deal compared to the regular summer pass.
Leung agreed that they were not the demographic likely to complain about the delays, and he complimented Via’s attendants, who explained delays and said they would do their best to make up time after the long stops waiting for freight trains to go by. “They would chat with us and we would have good, frank conversations.”
But Leung agreed that Via isn’t a practical choice for commuting or travelling on a strict timeline.
“I haven’t gone back to Via since. There aren’t a variety of routes, and the routes I would take would be purely for the sightseeing,” Leung said.
These passengers say they are unsure of what would need to be done to improve Via’s service, but Leung knows he would be disappointed to see Via go.
“But it’s a very difficult situation. Even if there were no freight trains, it’s not a very fast system to go by,” Leung said.
Ayumi Okabe, a singer from Tokyo, Japan, experienced The Canadian for the first time in the fall of 2018. The trip involved gorgeous meals, conversations with travellers, and a fresh, new experience. She didn’t expect her train to fall hours behind schedule.
Okabe left from Vancouver on Sept. 18 and arrived in Toronto on Sept. 22. The en-route delays started when she arrived in Winnipeg, three and a half hours after the scheduled 7 p.m. arrival.
Okabe said she seldom experiences delays while travelling on Asian railways and was surprised to find her train having to wait.
While her train fell behind en route, Via’s archived records show with the new schedule it caught up near the end of the run and was heading into Toronto on time.