Last Train to Regina
In 1989, the Canadian government mandated huge cuts in the federal budget. The stage was set for the loss of trans-Canada passenger rail service to many Canadian towns and cities, a rail service that was fundamental to the settlement of western Canada. Subsequently, in January 1990, Benoit Bouchard, Minister of State for Transport in Canada, abandoned the passenger rail service running through Regina and Calgary, along with many rail services across Canada.
In August 1989, I had to make a business trip to Regina from Calgary, so I decided I would take the opportunity to make my last trip by rail out of Calgary. I also decided to stay in the old bastion of CPR service in Regina, the Hotel Saskatchewan. My two business associates thought I was a little crazy at the time. They chose to travel by airplane and stay in a new hotel with all the mod cons, however, in the end, I think I had a much more memorable and one might even say romantic trip, without stretching the term romantic too far.
Travel on the train in Canada was not a new thing for me. When I was around ten years old, I took a few trips with my brother from Calgary to Banff in order to spend a day with Mom and Dad who were at a conference there for a couple of weeks. I also made two trips to the west coast when I was a teenager. In those days, the train travelled through some of the most spectacular mountainous country in the dark of night, which was a waste.
When I was at the University of Alberta in the ‘60s I played on the Golden Bears Senior Volleyball team. In those days the team always travelled by train if the trip was within a day’s travel from Edmonton. This meant trips on CPR’s Dayliners to Lethbridge and Calgary, and the CNR’s trans-Canada train, the Super Continental, to Saskatoon.
When I graduated from University, I won an Athlone Fellowship to work and study in England. In England, the common transportation mode was the train, so I duly received a one-way ticket, coach class (that is spelled e c o n o m y) to Montreal. Most of that very long trip was enjoyable, but the hours and hours of travel through the forests of Ontario were boring with nothing to see except two walls of evergreen trees broken up every once and a while by a remote lake.
In the late 1980’s, I took a few trips on the train to business meetings in Red Deer, but the most memorable trips on the line north out of Calgary were the day trips with my sons to Didsbury. We would leave Calgary on the morning Dayliner, northbound for Edmonton, get off at Didsbury and have lunch, then catch the southbound Dayliner back into Calgary.
With all this in the past, in August of 1989 I booked what was to be my last trip on a train in western Canada. I spared no expense and booked a roomette, even though I would not be sleeping on the train overnight. The standard roomettes were comfortable for one person with all the amenities that one could want, but those amenities were provided in a very compact way.
On the day I travelled, the train was ready for boarding at 1 pm even though the departure wasn’t until about 3:30 pm. I wanted to get as much exposure to the train as I could, so, at noon, I took a briefcase full of my work as well as my portable computer and headed off for the Via Rail station in the basement of the Calgary Tower. The so-called station in 1989 was a far cry from the Calgary station of the ‘60s. That older station was more representative of the golden era of train travel in Canada. It had a single, open hall with a floor of stone on which rested well worn, dark wood benches under the umbrella of a vaulted ceiling. This formed the central part of the station. Around the periphery were ticket wickets with shelves of ticket slots surrounding ageing but knowledgable ticket agents. Off to one side was a large open port in the wall with a metal covered shelf on which one placed luggage to be checked. For some reason I always found the baggage man at the window to be an unhappy person and rather curt with his communication. I don’t remember a friendly conversation with a baggage man.
I went through the check-in process and made my way to my sleeping car. I settled into the seat in the roomette with a small table in front of me, pulled out my computer and notes, and got to work.
The train pulled out of the station a little late. We routed our way slowly at yard speed through the Alyth Yards in Calgary and then climbed out of the Bow River valley and on to the prairies east of the city. Finally, as we left the city limits, the engineer opened up the throttle. The clatter of the wheels gave notice of our increasing speed and I found I couldn’t keep focussed on my work. I was constantly drawn to look at the scenes passing my window and to soak up the ambiance on the train. I finally gave up, put away my computer and notes, and took in everything I could, remembering that this would be the last time I would be traveling on a train on this part of the trans-Canada rail system.
I held off going to the dining car for supper until about 7pm. I wanted to be sitting at my table in the dining car with a picture-window view of the prairies as the colours that come with sunset spread across the grasslands.
The entry into Medicine Hat on the train gives you a chance to see the South Saskatchewan River valley as you crest the edge and ramp down from the prairies to the valley floor. After crossing the river the train slowed and stopped at the old station in the town. There was a lot of action on the platform as some people boarded and others got off. There was a mixture of greetings and farewells, all done on an open platform unencumbered with the security of today’s transportation hubs. As I waited out the stop at the station, I looked out the window to the south and found myself staring at the Assiniboia Hotel on Railway Avenue. My mind drifted back in time.
This was the hotel where we used to stay in the ‘50s as a family when we were travelling from Calgary to our old home town, Regina, for visits. In those days, there was no highway directly between Calgary and Medicine Hat. The driving route was through Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and then onto Swift Current, Moose Jaw and finally, Regina. Medicine Hat was just the right distance from Calgary for one day’s travel.
I am a light sleeper now and I was then. In the early hours of the morning, I would wake up and quietly open the curtains to look out at the CPR yard while Mom and Dad continued sleeping. The local shunting engine, still run by steam at that time, would be working up and down the tracks connecting box cars to make up a train that would be picked up by a larger road engine for transportation east or west. Even now, I can close my eyes and visualise the engines with smoke plumes from their stacks and steam streaming out of their pistons. The engineers didn’t use their whistles, but the chuffing sounds of the engines and the crunching noise as cars were coupled together was enough to keep me wide awake.
When Mom and Dad finally got up and ready to go, we would go downstairs to the hotel coffee shop located in the basement. Breakfast was the last highlight of the day for me, because Dad was a marathon driver and once on the highway at Medicine Hat he kept going until we reached Regina. Those were long, boring hours for this kid.
There was one person in that hotel that I will not forget. She was a waitress in the restaurant and was there every time we stayed, over a period of about four years. She always made a fuss over me and remembered what I liked for breakfast. I’m sure she remembered what Mom and Dad liked as well, but to take care to remember me was something special, I thought.
The train pulled out of Medicine Hat a little late, because we had to wait for a west bound freight train to pass. The dining car porter came through the car calling out the last sitting for supper, so I headed to the dining car. For my meal, I chose a roast beef dinner. It came with all the normal side dishes including baked potato, broccoli, salad and a classic Yorkshire pudding. It was delicious. Of course I had some red wine to help it go down in style.
Because I had timed my supper in the last sitting there were not many people in the dining car. That was a little disappointing as I ended up eating at a table by myself. On a train, meal time usually presents an opportunity to meet others. On my train trips both in Canada and Europe I’ve been exposed to many people’s stories, home town histories, and differing cultures during conversations in the dining car. I enjoyed all of those chance meetings.
With supper finished and darkness creeping over the land outside the train, I decided to go back to my roomette and lie down for a rest so I found the porter and asked him to make up my bed. I laid on it for a bit, scanning the land for farms and towns as we rolled across the Saskatchewan prairies and soon drifted off, lulled to sleep by the sound and motion of the train.
I was rousted from my sleep as the train shuddered to its stop at Swift Current. I glanced out, saw there wasn’t much going on, so closed the blind and tried to get back to sleep. This time, as the train eased its way out of Swift Current and got up to speed again, the noise of the wheels on the rails and the gentle rolling of the coach didn’t lull me to sleep. After trying to get to sleep for about twenty minutes I gave up and thrust open the blind in frustration. My eyes opened wide as the prairie sky presented me with one of the highlights of the trip. The Northern Lights were bursting and dancing in the sky for as far as I could see. Shimmering and shaking, they put on a show for at least the next half hour. I laid back on the bed, which is right at window height in the roomette, and stared at the sky until, finally, I fell asleep again.
“We will be in Regina in fifteen minutes,” the porter announced outside my door. I dragged myself out of bed, shook off the cob webs of a deep sleep and gathered up my luggage. Out the window I could see the lights of Regina approaching.
I walked into the Regina station at about 11:45, only a few minutes later than our scheduled time. The station was alive with relatives and friends coming to pick up the new arrivals. I found it nostalgic arriving at the station in Regina, because it was still the CPR station of old, not the nouveau architecture of the completely rebuilt station in Calgary.
A four block taxi ride took me to the Hotel Saskatchewan, the other part of my planned trip into history. The hotel building is a classic structure of the prairies. Built in 1927 by the CPR, it represents the prosperity and promise of future growth that existed in Regina in those early years. The hotel was a modern design for the time, built with Manitoba tyndall stone as well as brick on the outside. The building was lavishly appointed on the inside, featuring vaulted ceilings, marble thresholds, walls decorated with wood panelling and extravagant carpeting throughout.
When I arrived at the hotel that year, I found it to be well-worn, but it still had class. I paid what I would in one of the new hotels for an ordinary room, but here I had the use of a large, two room suite. As I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of my earlier nap on the train, my mind wandered back to 1949 when I was six years old and walking around in the hotel with my Dad. We were living in Regina and, as the president of the Saskatchewan Dental Association, Dad was hosting the provincial dental conference at the hotel. As I walked the corridors in 1990, that experience with my Dad somehow didn’t seem that long ago. The very room I was in could have easily been one of the entertainment rooms at the conference. The bathroom had the same old pedestal sink and the high, creaking old oak door was the original. Thankfully, the bed was very modern and once I fell asleep I was out until the morning alarm.
That was the trip. I conducted the business necessary and then had a very boring flight back to Calgary. A few months later, the service through Calgary and Regina was removed by VIA.
Today, in the new millennium, none of what I experienced on the trip is possible. The station in Regina has been turned into a casino, the hotel has been purchased by a US hotel chain and the passenger service no longer exists. If it did, I would get a few of my grandkids together and give them the experience of Canadian travel on the train.