Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mr Schaub's Wild Ride

With apologies to the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows (where you can read about Mr Toad’s wild ride), let me tell you about yesterday’s adventure getting from Seattle to The Canadian, Via’s premier train from Vancouver to Toronto.

Staying with friends overnight in Seattle, I met over breakfast with members of a forming group in Hillman City (a southside Seattle neighborhood) that might be interested in hosting a weekend of my facilitation training in the Pacific Northwest. Fiona and Luz, the training coordinators, drove up from Portland the day before so that they could be in on the conversations. After some productive dialog (and a few phone calls) we scattered to do various errands, reconvening just in time to take me to King Street Station to catch my 1:45 pm Amtrak bus to Vancouver BC.

I had a harbinger of what was to come when we discovered that my host had left his backpack in the front seat of Fiona's car and had inadvertently retained the spare set of car keys. Uh oh. When we sorted all that out partway to the train station we promptly executed a u-turn and headed back to where our host had been dropped off. Once we got all paraphernalia to its rightful owners we restarted for the train station suddenly much tighter for time.

We had to navigate about 15 minutes of Seattle traffic in 20 minutes. Happily, Fiona (and GPS) got the job done and we pulled up to the bus just in time to load and go. Whew. While that was tighter than I like, we made it. As the bus pulled out I thought that everything would be more straight forward from that point onward, but I was wrong.

Less than 30 miles north of Seattle the bus started overheating and the driver pulled over. After some fooling around in the fuse box and some back and forth with the dispatcher for Cantrail (the company hired by Amtrak to run this service) it was determined that we were dead in the water and needed a relief vehicle.

Finally, about 4 pm we transferred people and luggage (there were 13 passengers) to a van operated by some local US company that was about half the size of the original bus and headed north again. Although we’d lost about two hours to this misadventure (all the more galling in that I overheard the bus driver complain that he’d warned Cantrail maintenance folks of overheating problems with that bus before and they hadn’t fixed it), I still had plenty of time to get to Vancouver (perhaps 2.5 hours of driving time away, plus customs) to catch my train east at 8:30 pm.

This second leg went without a hitch, taking us to the last rest stop on I-5 before the Canadian border, where we transferred again, this time to another Cantrail jitney.

When we approached customs at first I thought we were lucky: the line going into the US was backed up for a quarter mile while the line to enter Canada was blissfully short. Whew. Unfortunately, our driver made a mistake at customs which required us to return to the US and try a second time (something about letting the US officials know we were leaving before asking the Canadians for permission to let us enter—I never understood the exact problem; only that it meant we had to go through twice. Worst of all, it meant we had to go through the US line and that ate 45 minutes.

While the Canadian custom officials moved as through quickly, by the time everyone and her luggage was reloaded it was 7:48 pm and the driver (Renzo) told me it took 45 minutes to get from the border to the Canadian Pacific Station. Uh oh. Aware that I was being squeezed, Renzo leaned on gas, and off we raced.

Knowing it was going to be close, I started thinking about how to handle it if I missed the train. First of all, I needed to work through feelings of frustration and impotence. The Cantrail bus ride from Seattle was scheduled to take only 3.5 hours and was supposed to deliver me to the Canadian Pacific depot at 5:15, more than three hours before my departure. But all of the time cushion had been lost because of a mechanical breakdown of Cantrail equipment, compounded by Renzo's mishandling customs. If I missed the train I was going to ask Cantrail to cover my hotel costs in Vancouver, and perhaps more. I had a number of choices about how to proceed:

—The next train east wouldn’t leave until Sunday (The Canadian only runs three times per week). Should I wait in Vancouver for two days and catch that, accepting that there would be two less days at La Cité in Quebec?

—Should I fly east and bag the train ride (could I get Cantrail to cover my plane ticket)?

—Would Via honor my ticket for Sunday after I missed the Friday evening departure (never mind that it wasn't my fault; it wasn’t Via’s fault either).

—Should I drop back down to Seattle and take Amtrak east? That way I could still arrive at La Cité Tuesday evening.

—Maybe this was a sign that I shouldn't be going to Quebec. I was already missing Susan; maybe I should just take the Empire Builder home.

We pulled in front of the Canadian Pacific Station at 8:29 pm, Renzo and I grabbed my bags and raced inside… only to be told by the security guard that the train had just pulled out. Ugh. We could literally see the red light on the back of the last car as it picked up speed leaving the yard. We had just missed it.

Having already prepared myself for this possible outcome I sadly asked Renzo for the Cantrail phone number and the name of the supervisor to speak with. As he gave these to me, the security guard (who had seen this happen before) offered that I might still be able to catch the train by taking a taxi to the next stop: Mission BC, about an hour away. He was pretty sure that the taxi could beat the train. I immediately decided to jump on this chance, but no sooner had I committed to that than Renzo said he’d take me there himself. Bully for Renzo! The goddess only knew what a taxi would cost.

He knew that Cantrail had culpability for why I missed the train and he wanted to make it right. Notably, he didn’t call his dispatcher to let Cantrail know what he was doing until he was 3/4 of the way to Mission. This was a moral decision, not necessarily a business decision (though Renzo’s action totally changed my view of the situation; I was now seeing Cantrail as the hero rather than as the devil—you gotta like a company who’s employees literally go the extra mile).

So we quickly unloaded the other passengers and their luggage from the jitney and off we went on a mission to Mission. Renzo asked his GPS to direct him to the Mission train station and we got there at 9:45 pm. The Canadian wasn’t due until 10:05 so it looked like we were golden. But were we in the right spot? We couldn’t find any signage to support the supposition that Via stopped there; it looked more like a commuter stop. Renzo asked people walking in the area but no one could confirm that Via stopped there, a bad sign. Finally, he called Via. Fortunately, their office was still staffed at that late hour and they were all to give us the physical address of the train station, which turned out to be a mile away and was not a station at all. It was just a wide spot in the road next to the Fraser River. But there was a modest sign identifying it as the Mission Via stop. We got there eight minutes before the train was due. Whew.

Then we looked at the schedule. In the fine print it indicated that the train would only stop at Mission if Via had been notified at least 40 minutes ahead of time that there was business there. Uh oh. Frantically, Renzo (who stayed with me to make sure I actually boarded the train; he didn’t want me to be stranded in the middle of nowhere) called Via again to ask that the train stop at Mission. It turns out that there was a passenger getting off at Mission and thus the train was going to stop anyway. Otherwise we would have depended on our ability to flag down the engineer with waving arms. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Free breathing restored! (Renzo's last call also confirmed that the train was running about 10 minutes late and would be there shortly.) So we spent the last few minutes smiling.

One final bit of bemusement occurred when Renzo told me I was looking for the train in the wrong direction; he assure me that it would come from the right and I had been looking left. Although I pride myself on having a good sense of direction it was pitch black outside (no stars; no moon) and I was in an unfamiliar place, so I deferred to Renzo. Then the train pulled up on our left. Hah!

After boarding, my only remaining concern was whether my ticket would still be valid. In the US, Amtrak will automatically cancel out a ticket if you do not board the train at your reserved place for embarkation. Trying to board one stop later (as I was doing) might necessitate buying a whole new ticket, which represented hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, Louise, my car attendant, wasn’t having any of that bureaucratic nonsense. She was pleased to see me catch the train (there was plenty of room on board) and of course my ticket was still good. The last of my anxiety melted away.

In the end I did not get the chance to enjoy the historic, refurbished Canadian Pacific depot. I did not get to enjoy a leisurely dinner in downtown Vancouver before my departure. I did not get to buy a book or two for the four days of train travel ahead. I did not get to exchange US currency for Canadian. But I did get on board the train I had been looking forward to riding, ad that was the bottom line.

So I ultimately got what I wanted, just not at all in the way I anticipated getting it. So much for planning.

1 comment:

Roger said...

Which is why I prefer to drive. More control, and often just as much or more stress.