We joined the Vancouver – Toronto train in Saskatoon.
Planned departure time: 0832
Time we arrived at the station: 0730
Revised departure time when we arrived at the station? 1359
You had plans? Fuck you.
Revised departure time: 1406
Diligent would-be passengers start arriving at 0745
Revised departure time: 1407
The counter staff crack flippant jokes.
I ask whether there’ll be delays between here and Winnipeg too. “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: 1408
The station is Soviet, decrepit, bereft of facilities. “We’re going for an 80s thing here; there’s no wifi”.
The coffee machine is broken.
A neglected candy machine offers Chewz and Zingy Zaps to boost morale.
A banner says “Saskatoon is calling!”. My advice, in this early morning pre-caffeine state of mind? Don’t answer.
Revised departure time: 1409
Every passing minute adds another minute to the revised departure time and to the subsequent arrival time in Winnipeg, which has now moved from 8pm to 5am.
Every addition also adds to my suspicion that Saskatchewan is purgatory.
Revised departure time: 1415
I make camp-stove coffee outside the passenger station: 8km out of town, 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: 1407
We discuss what to do with the day.
Revised departure time: 1359
Are they deliberately shaving a few minutes off to make a 6 hour delay seem slightly less bad than a 6.25 hour one?
Revised departure time: 1418
The delay is at least an opportunity to check out downtown Saskatoon, which we didn’t think we’d have time to do.
We ride the dusty and potholed roads through outskirts (“has someone shelled these roads?”, Kristian asks). Debris and scrapyards gradually give way to tree-lined avenues.
The tourist information, library and riverside cycle path were closed, so we asked locals to point us in the direction of something interesting and headed that way.
We didn’t find anything, just a coffee shop on the one trendy stretch in town where we camped out for a couple of hours.
Back at the station later the revised departure time was 1330.
The train eventually left at 1639.
In the interim the jokes and wisecracks continued, but it became amusing rather than grating once we eased ourselves 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.
This wasn’t explained to us, but at this point we were at least allowed to board.
We overheard illuminating and fascinating things on board:
“There was a huge forest fire in B.C., a lot of trains are delayed”
“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”
“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 my favourite:
“It’s taken us 48 hours to get here from Vancouver”
If that last point is true, it’s taken the train half as long to get here as it’s taken us to cycle.
On board there is 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 gives full panoramic views of the prairies: a scenic taste of the more expensive classes in the carriages behind us.
There is a full moon blaring red ahead as I write this.
A glorious sunset just disappeared below the horizon behind.
We’ve clocked 140 miles in the 4 hours we’ve been on board, and the arrival time is getting pushed back and back and back.
If we continue this pace it will take a further 18 hours.
But it doesn’t feel so much like a problem anymore.