Riding the Skeena

For years I have travelled all over the world riding trains. The 1990 VIA Rail cuts forcibly reminded me that I had not been on many of the trains in Canada. Two years ago, Michael Iveson (BUS Treasurer) and I rode all the Maritime lines, including the Dominion Atlantic Railway and the Sydney line. Now that is impossible. Last year, we rode the train between Winnipeg and Churchill - a superb experience which is still possible.
This year we decided to ride the "Skeena" (VIA trains 5 and 6). This train is a tri-weekly service between Jasper, Alberta, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

It was not easy to ride this train. First of all when my travel agent called VIA to ask for accommodation on the train leaving Jasper on November 1, she was told that the train did not run that day - even though the current timetable expressly said that it did. After several phone calls, VIA finally agreed that it did run. It should be noted that a passenger who tried to ride from Prince George to Terrace was given the same mis-information. Something is obviously wrong with VLA's computer or reservation staff!

The second difficulty to riding the train is just in getting to Jasper. The westbound "Canadian" is considered a connection but is not easy. First of all, VIA No. 1 leaves Edmonton at eight in the morning which would have meant flying from Ottawa the previous day. Secondly, there is a seven hour wait in Jasper.

The timetable mentions a connecting bus from Edmonton to Jasper with a departure that allowed a morning flight from Ottawa to Edmonton and a shorter wait in Jasper; however, VIA would not offer any information about this bus. In frustration, I called Greyhound directly and received great satisfaction, including information on where the bus terminal is located in Edmonton.

Westward Ho!

November 1 turned out to be excellent flying weather out of Ottawa, but miserable foggy conditions in Toronto through which the direct Ottawa to Edmonton flight had to go. As a result, the flight was almost half an hour late leaving Toronto. Pretty scary with the short connections we had in Edmonton and Jasper. Fortunately the pilot was able to make up time and we arrived in Edmonton early. An excellent local bus service whisked us from the airport to the bus station with no problem. We were even able to take a quick sightseeing tour of the VIA station while waiting.

The bus turned out to be the through schedule from Edmonton to Vancouver. Although it had extra luxuries such as a VCR and monitors throughout, it was the scenery and the passengers on it that made the trip bearable. The rest stop at Edson was further enhanced by the fact that the bus pulled up beside a pickup loaded with the head and legs of a young moose. We never did find out what happened to the rest of him.

The steak and chicken supper at the restaurant across the street from the station in Jasper was not only tasty but also was cheap compared to Ottawa prices. However, the temperature was dropping and the short journey across the street left me shivering uncontrollably.

Aboard the "Skeena"

It was a treat to get into the sleeping car which was quite different. It was a former New York Central full roomette car which had had a third of the roomettes removed in favour of a small baggage section. There were two other guests besides Michael and I, both of whom were riding on long-service CN passes.

The "Skeena" at Prince Rupert, B.C., on November 2, 1991. Bringing up the rear is a former New York Central 24-roomette sleepers converted by CN to a combination baggage/14-roomette.
On the shoreline is the Kwinista Station Railway Museum - next to the station is ex-CP S-3 switcher 6579 with former CN auxiliary diner 64035 and a wooden box car. Photo by Michael Iveson.

It was interesting to learn that the "baggageman" on the "Skeena" was actually a VIA engine service person. For each CN division, there is also a VIA conductor. The on-board VIA staff consists of a service supervisor and a sleeping car attendant. Both double as steward and waiter in the dining car. The on-board staff made the entire trip from Jasper to Prince Rupert. Although they called Vancouver home, most of their layovers were in Prince Rupert where they maintained an apartment. Our outbound steward flew back to Vancouver from Prince Rupert. Crew scheduling must be very complicated now for VIA. Our waiter spoke of knowing all the Greyhound bus drivers in the west as he travelled around to catch his next assignment.

I awoke on November 2 near Williams Lake to find that it was starting to snow. The snow became ever heavier as we passed through Smithers. The scenery west of Smithers is supposedly beautiful with high mountains and glaciers. The snow obscured all this on the westbound trip and darkness prevented sightings while travelling east. Still the area around the Buckley Canyon siding is still spectacular as viewed from the dome.

I should mention the rest of the consist. Our trains in both directions consisted of F40PH-2 6442, a steam generator car, a coach, a "Skyline" dome car with bar and dining area, and the sleeping/baggage car mentioned previously. I spent most of my trip in the dome car - that is, when I wasn't eating.
The weather cleared just east of Prince Rupert and I was stunned by the beauty of the Skeena River Valley. Just a few kilometres outside of Prince Rupert, we got spectacular views of the sun on the offshore islands.

Western hospitality

The crew recommended the Crest Hotel right next to the train station. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Even more interesting was the fact that it was the hotel's thirtieth anniversary. In typical western hospitality, we were even invited to share in the celebration.

On the Sunday, November 3, Prince Rupert had about 30 millimetres of rain. We walked over to Seal Cove on the old railway right-of-way which is now a linear park. Really beautiful in spite of the constant downpour. We stopped for lunch and I was surprised to notice that my hands were covered in red. It turned out that my coat was so wet that the dye had run. I now have red pants, a red sports coat, a red shirt and even red underwear. I'd heard that Prince Rupert had powerful rains, but never dreamed they would be that powerful.

We checked out the railway museum and the caboose stored near the "Museum for Northern British Columbia".   The rolling stock has suffered from the weather, but the station building, I which is the actual museum, is being superbly maintained.  The remainder of the Sunday was spent indoors trying to dry out.

The Monday turned out to be a beautiful day. This allowed us to explore the entire downtown CN yards including a picturesque little wye (used to turn the Skeena) which heads up a blind canyon. Ridley Island, where the coal and grain trains terminate, is about ten kilometres out of town. We got good views of the yards and access routes there from our slow-moving passenger train.

F40PH-2 6405 on VIA's westbound 'Skeena' holds the main while sister 6442 takes the siding on the Skeea Subdivision on a snowy November 4 1991. Photo by Michael Iveson.
Homeward bound

The route between Prince Rupert and Prince George is very busy. It is now fully signalled with CTC and 100-car (100-ton variety) sidings. We followed an empty coal train eastbound for several hours which gives some idea of the speed it was making. Based on the radio chatter, there was another empty following virtually on our block. The conductor between Prince Rupert and Smithers was a young woman with several service stripes. She was very pro-passenger and was obviously well-liked by all the crews.

Immediately after dinner (a special VIA chicken with mushrooms and bacon), I found myself falling asleep. I awoke at McBride, British Columbia, and went up to the dome to enjoy the YellowHead (Tete Jaune) pass. I was amazed at a huge junction at Taverna. The ever-obliging crew explained that this was the result of a westbound grade reduction project completed about five years ago. The project was briefly described in one of the Branchlines of that era but I had forgotten about its existence.

Red Pass Junction was almost unrecognizable from my last visit there in 1975. First of all, all the beautiful old buildings are gone. Secondly, the "Prince Rupert" line looks more like the main line what with the changes brought about because of Taverna.

Long connection

It was snowing heavily in Jasper as we tried all manner of things to keep entertained while enduring the seven hour connection between the "Skeena" and the eastbound "Canadian" which would take us back to Edmonton. We visited the east of the yards and watched a parade of eastbound freights. We stayed there until the scanner revealed the crews were concerned about our presence and we were also wondering whether the nearby elk were going to remain friendly.

More time was spent sitting in a coffee shop at the west end of the yards watching switching moves. It was after all -15 degrees. Visits to an historic church and the downtown shops took up another hour. Finally we were reduced to hanging around the station as the westbound "Canadian" arrived. It takes the "Skeena" set down to Vancouver for servicing. This day, the "Canadian" was an all-electric set. As a result, the "Skeena" set had to be drained since it would be hauled down out-of-service as the steam generator had to be recycled back to Prince Rupert. It turned out that this unusual situation was caused by a diesel fire in one of the Vancouver steam generators.

Finally, the eastbound "Canadian" came in. An understanding conductor allowed us to get on even before the cleaners could do their job. This day, the "Canadian" was an all-electric refurbished set. It was our first experience with this luxury. We were impressed with the interior of the coach although some rotter had stolen the model train which was supposed to adorn the decorative divider which used to divide smoking and non-smoking.

This night, there was even entertainment as a young man who claimed to be a psychologist from Ottawa became rude, first of all, to a waiter and then to the conductor. The RCMP were called and he was left at the station at Evanaburg along with his luggage and bicycle. Apparently he could travel east on the next "Canadian" after he sobered up.

Arrival in Edmonton is most interesting. Edmonton used to have a loop passenger track similar to the one in Ottawa. Recently the track has been severed in the downtown area so that a new college may be built in the former CN yards. This necessitates the "Canadian" travelling through Calder Yard much to the enjoyment of us railfans. At East Junction, the train starts a long backup manoeuvre along the track which parallels the Edmonton Transit LRT. Finally, the train arrived at the VIA station under the tall CN tower. Typically, there were no taxis so we walked over to our hotel.

I'll skip over the entertainment scene in Edmonton which I probably overenjoyed. The next day, we rode the entire length of the LRT and gazed with wonderment at the high level bridge formerly used by CP. We even checked out the small trains at the famous West Edmonton Mall.

The return trip to Ottawa was uneventful except for a glitch in the computer which controlled the lights on our new Air Canada AirBus. We once again did not win a prize on either leg of the flight although a nearby passenger was going to be able to do the island trick as advertised on TV.

We sometimes forget just how interesting the transportation scene is right here in Canada. Michael and I are glad we took the opportunity to check out northern British Columbia. Hope you get the chance too.

In the earty-1980s, Canadian National F7Au units powered VIA Rail's 'Skeena'. The westbound 'Skeena', then operating as VIA No. 9, slips through Acheson, Alberta, on the Edson Subdivision, behind now-retired F7Au 9163. Photo by F.D. Shaw, R. Post - D. Shaw collection.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, January 1992, page 9.

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