Sunday, October 30, 2011

Canada's VIA Rail makes a bad – No, strike that – makes a HORRIBLE decision.

Just over a year ago, I rode a twice-weekly train operated by Canada’s VIA Rail that runs almost 1100 miles due north from Winnipeg to the little town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. The reason for my journey was to see polar bears in the wild. These magnificent animals gather in the area around this time of year, waiting for the bay to freeze over. They spend the winters out on the ice catching seals, essentially their only source of food. (Yes, I took this photo of a 700 pound bear looking at a potential lunch ... me.)The two-night train ride was a wonderful experience. The scenery gradually changed from rich farmland to dense forests to semi-frozen tundra. And there was the eclectic mix of passengers I met three times a day over meals in the dining car. Many were like me, going to Churchill for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the polar bears, but most of us were from wildly different backgrounds.

One of the evening meals lasted more than two hours, much of that featuring a fascinating conversation between a Swiss man, living in Toronto and working in the freight forwarding business, and a grizzled farmer from Saskatchewan who raises vast quantities of grain and canola and peas, most of which is shipped to Asia by way of the deep water harbor up ahead of us in Churchill. The fourth tablemate was an extremely attractive Chinese woman who described herself as being “from Montreal, but sometimes Tallahassee.”
Others on the train, mostly traveling in the coaches, were locals -- many what the Canadians refer to as “First Nations people” -- heading for one of the 50 or 60 tiny villages strung out along the train’s route. Several of these folks, in fact, left the train in places without a single building anywhere in sight.

All this is by way of saying that meeting and getting to know all these different and interesting people over a good meal served by friendly staff in the VIA Rail dining car was a wonderful and rewarding experience … in fact and in retrospect, it was almost as rewarding in its own way as seeing those polar bears!

And that’s why I was so damn distressed to read that, in what is being called a cost-cutting move, VIA is laying off all the chefs on those dining cars and will henceforth be offering meals prepared in advance and heated in a microwave before being served. Once again the people wearing the green eyeshades have had their way. This move is short-sighted and will invariably lead to fewer passengers, as Amtrak executives will be more than happy to confirm from their own similar and unhappy experience with this very same issue.

Future tourists will have a disappointing experience in those VIA dining cars, but I really feel for all those local folks, many of whom make that 48-hour journey several times a year. For most of them, VIA Rail is it. There is no Door Number Two because there are no roads linking the major cities to the south with their little towns and villages. And flying is out of the question for either practical or financial reasons.

So bad call, VIA! Shame on the accountants who recommended it, on the executives who approved it, and a pox on the short-sighted, ignorant political ideologues who have been starving the railroad with less-than-bare-minimum subsidies for years, for they are the ones ultimately responsible.

All that said, would I opt for the train again instead of flying on a repeat trip to Churchill? Yes ... but I would remember my first trip and would hate the food.

And would I recommend that rail journey to anyone wanting to see those magnificent bears? Yes, again ... but I would tell them about my first trip and they would hate the food.

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