The Train Ride Home and Train Travel Tips

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
Trip End Nov 18, 2006

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Monday, November 20, 2006

The train ride back to Winnipeg was very different from the ride up. Now we had 9 friends to hang out with. Four of us were in coach (Me, Julie, Katherine, and Wally). Annette, Charlotte, Marilyn, Deborah, Jan, Tom, and Morgan all had berths. Katherine was really half-coach and half-berthed because Tom and Jan had 3 beds in their little suite and let Katherine sleep there, but she spent the day in coach.

Since the train didn't leave until 8:30 pm, we didn't do much together that first evening. Some of us got together for meals during the following day, or we hung out in the dining car. At 5 pm, we were told there was a party in the "hospitality suite," which was Tom and Jan's cabin.

Imagine 11 people crammed into a space about the size of four phone booths. Several of us had sneaked booze aboard the train (strictly forbidden). There were appetizers. There were ribald jokes, lots of laughter, and many camera flashes as Annette, Deborah, and Marilyn tried to document the event for those unfortunate enough to have taken the plane home instead of the train.

Then the conductor came to the door. He was a straight-backed fellow, with a big, gray, handlebar mustache. We were busted!

Even though he knew what was going on, he pretended not to. He made sure he didn't step inside the suite so he couldn't see any evidence of wrong-doing. He was just there to let us know there was room in the dining car for all of us if we'd like to eat. Of course we weren't that hungry anymore, given that we'd been chowing down on cheese, crackers, crab dip, apples, and nuts for the last hour, but we went out anyway.

The conductors (or whatever they were, I don't actually know the correct terminology) also served meals. We got the one who'd summoned us to dinner. It turned out that he was a really funny guy, with a very dry sense of humor. Somehow we'd decided that he was going to throw Marilyn or Deborah (or maybe Marilyn and Deborah) off the train for being troublemakers. He'd neither confirm nor deny this rumor, but had a scary twinkle in his eye.

Another night went by, curled up into tiny balls on the train seats. We were to arrive in Winnipeg at 8:15 am. Our plane was leaving at 12:45 pm. It had seemed like plenty of time when I set up the reservations, but then Deborah told us that the trains were notoriously late getting into Winnipeg and that we might miss our flight. Then Wally asked if we'd booked through the airline or through a third-party like Expedia. I told him I'd used Priceline. He tutted. If you book through the airline and miss your flight, they'll put you on another plane. If you book through one of those web ticketing places, they may not. Since he was on the same flight we were and had booked through Expedia, he was expecting to have to buy a whole new ticket to get home to Hartford.

So, first thing I did when I got up that morning was run to the dining car and ask when we were due in. 11:20: 3 hours late. I calculated. If we could get onto a cab immediately--and fearing that we would be late, I'd made sure we didn't check our bags--we could maybe, just maybe, make it to the airport in time, provided that there were no lines at the ticket counter or customs, or security. And that there was a cab at the train station when we arrived.

We went through all our options. If the airline wouldn't put us on a different flight, we could just pay through the nose for another one. We could rent a car and drive back. Wait-wasn't Morgan driving back? Morgan lives about an hour and a half from Minneapolis. I told Julie to go talk to him about the possibility of being our Plan B if we missed our flight. He was cool with that. For a little consideration, he'd even take us all the way home.

So, we had plans in place, but I was still nervous. I'd finished the novel I was reading (The Secret Life of Bees, a very good book) the previous night and had nothing to do except continue to talk over our options with whomever would listen. It turns out one of the other passengers was. She suggested we talk to the conductors about our dilemma. Maybe they could call a taxi for us so one would be waiting.

I approached handlebar-mustache and asked him if there were normally taxis at the station because me, Julie, and Wally were worried we'd miss our flight. He thought for a moment and then said that they could call a taxi for us, and let us off the train early and we'd be at the airport before the train even pulled into the station. I made sure he meant the train would be stopping before he let us off. None of this slow down and jump stuff. He barely cracked a smile. He didn't want me to get my hopes up. The whole plan depended on the engineer's consent and getting a taxi to be waiting there. No taxi, no exit. I told him he would finally get his chance to throw us off the train.

When we told Katherine about our plan, she asked to join in. She and Wally had checked baggage, and the conductor took their receipts and retrieved their bags for them. Then we waited to hear if everything had been arranged. And we waited. And we waited. It was about 10:30 when the conductor finally came over and told us they'd be stopping in about 15 minutes. If no taxi were there, they'd wait a couple of minutes, but they couldn't let us off if it didn't show up.

The 11 of us said our goodbyes and those of us being thrown from train got our stuff together. The train slowed and Wally said he could see the taxi way off in the distance. We'd made it!

So the rest of the story, hopping off the train, the taxi ride, going through customs, isn't very exciting. In the airport, waiting in by our gate, were Mora and Deidre, two of the Learning Vacation group who had flown back to Winnipeg. They'd had a little vacation and were now taking the flight to Denver, which left from our gate later in the day. Then, just a couple of minutes before boarding began, Tom and Jan showed up! They, too, were on the Denver flight. So we actually hadn't needed to be let off the train early. I'm still glad we were because I would have been a nervous wreck otherwise.

I can't help but be amazed at how much trouble the guys on the train went to to make sure that our group didn't miss its flights. I cannot imagine that happening in America, though it probably does in smaller, more rural areas. Still, those guys went way beyond the normal expectations and I am extremely grateful to them.

1) The train leaves on time, but always arrives late. Book your connections with that in mind. When arriving late in Churchill, your hotel or tour group will already know that the train is late because it is the only train and it only comes three days a week. You won't need to call them and warn them.
2) The train is warm. You don't need a blanket if you have a coat or jacket to drape over yourself. Coach doesn't provide pillows, so bring your own.
3) If you are in coach, try snagging a whole row of seats for yourself, even if you are traveling with another person. Sleeping across two seats is much more comfortable than sleeping sitting up in one.
4) They do have water taps in the train, but the water doesn't taste very good. Bring bottled water.
5) You can buy snacks, soft drinks, and coffee for most of the day and evening in the dining car. They also serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unless you are really strapped for cash, you don't need to bring food with you. They accept Canadian cash, American cash, or credit cards.
6) The lights in coach never go out. They dim around 9 pm, but if you have trouble sleeping because of light, you'll want to bring something to cover your eyes.
7) You definitely want ear plugs if you are in coach or are just in a berth, not a suite. A lot of people snore.
8) The bathroom faucets are designed so you can't drink from them. I think the water wasn't potable at one time. Bring bottled water in to brush your teeth.
9) There is a bar on the train, so you can buy alcohol, but you are not allowed to bring it on board. If they catch you with it, they'll take it away from you.
10) There is a shower in the berths area. Coach people probably aren't supposed to use it, but I know people who did.
11) They usually only set 16 to 24 seats in the dining car. They will seat strangers at the same table to make the best use of space.
12) There are no storage lockers in either the Winnipeg or Churchill train stations. If you get in early, ask the counter people if they'll watch your bags for you.
13) The seats in coach can swing around to face the seats behind. There is a foot lever you press, and then swing the seats toward the window to get them to turn.
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