“Mommy, I’m booored.”
My daughter’s wail comes like a whistle announcing the passenger train that heads down the tracks toward us. We’re standing on the platform in Smithers, B.C., waiting for the train to Prince Rupert, a trip of 350 kilometres by road that’s scheduled to take six hours by rail. It notoriously takes longer. We could be riding the rails until midnight.
It’s only 2 p.m.
If it weren’t for the Skeena train being declared an essential service in 1990, the route would have disappeared decades ago. The truncated passenger train that travels from Prince George to B.C.’s northwest coast three times a week is dwarfed by the freight trains that dominate these tracks. CN’s trains, loaded with coal and lumber destined for the port in Prince Rupert, get right-of-way, and VIA Rail makes frequent stops to let them pass, making the trip slow and unreliable.
Some fear passenger service here could disappear altogether, despite the train’s long and distinguished history in northern B.C.
In some ways, the lumbering nature of this locomotive is part of its charm. Stepping onto the train is like stepping into the past, to a time when being in transit was part of the experience, not just something to be endured. This slow form of travel is how northern B.C. was settled and the train slides past the remains of northwest canneries and small communities left isolated when roads bypassed them.
More than an essential service, train travel is a Canadian rite of passage. I did my first trip as a kid in 1983, travelling from Toronto to Calgary over three days. Nearly four decades later, boarding the train feels eerily familiar, and for good reason: the cars used on the Skeena route were built in 1954 and last updated in the early 1980s. VIA’s website describes them as some of the oldest in North America.
A dapper conductor (VIA calls them “service managers,” but I prefer the traditional nomenclature) in a dark overcoat and cap shows us to our seats, offers us a menu and directs us to the lounge. The last in the procession of four cars after the locomotive, baggage and seating cars, the lounge car particularly gives a sense of déjà vu.
Its narrow corridor takes me past the doors that once led to tiny sleeping compartments, which are now used as a makeshift office for the conductor. While the route used to be part of an overnight trip between Edmonton and the northwest coast, cutbacks in the 1990s meant the run was severed. Travellers from Edmonton and Jasper now have to change trains and spend a night in a hotel in Prince George.
Our train culminates in a semi-circle of mid-century-modern seating, and a curved, illuminated Plexiglas banister leads up a set of narrow stairs to the glassed-in dome car. The car still boasts its original art deco styling. I can almost imagine Humphrey Bogart kicking back here with a cigarette.
From Smithers, the route west is one of the most scenic in the country. Our train passes through pastures on the outskirts of town, rising high above the Bulkley River before making a brief stop in Hazelton, where both the Bulkley and the tracks join the Skeena River in its journey to the sea. At Gitsegukla, the train crosses the Skeena as it travels beneath the towering Coast Mountains.
Along the Skeena’s northern banks, we pass through communities like Dorreen. Once a thriving mining town with a school, general store and orchards that produced enough fruit to export to Terrace, Dorreen is one of a handful of communities left stranded when the highway was developed south of the Skeena. Today, it has roughly 10 properties and one full-time resident.
Jane Stevenson, a Smithers-based historian and author of The Railroader’s Wife, bought a cabin and moved here in 2003. Shortly after, her parents, who live in Kitimat, bought the one next door. They travel by train to meet at this remote outpost.
“If my dad had his choice, he’d be there full time,” Stevenson says. But while the isolation has its benefits, it also comes with its challenges. VIA keeps to-the-minute schedule updates on its website and buses passengers when the train can’t run — services that don’t help communities without cell coverage or road access. Once, when a derailment closed the tracks, her father spent three days waiting for the train.
“VIA used to be a literal lifeline,” Stevenson says. “If they didn’t see smoke from a chimney, they would stop and check in.”
She remembers a time when VIA was known as the “Queen of the Tracks” and freight trains would pull over to let it pass. When she bought her property, you could set your watch by its schedule — one resident, in fact, routinely did. But by about 2005, she began noticing a decline in the train’s punctuality.
That date coincides with the announcement that Prince Rupert’s port would undergo an expansion with the ship-to-rail Fairview Container Terminal, which began operation in 2007. Phase II of the project is currently underway and in May the Port of Prince Rupert announced a master plan that proposes to increase container traffic many times over in the coming years.
As travel on the Skeena train becomes increasingly slow and unpredictable, it’s no surprise that the number of riders has gradually declined from 18,631 passengers in 2013 to 15,956 passengers last year. Stevenson fears the decreasing numbers will be used to support a case for terminating the route altogether.
“Look what’s happened to other essential services,” she says. “Greyhound was an essential service and it went the way of the dodo bird.”
Stevenson attended public hearings before Greyhound closed its services in Western Canada last year. “I remember thinking it’s just a foreshadowing of what they’re going to do with VIA. They’re going to claim inefficiency, claim there isn’t enough money, and they’re just going to end it,” she says.
To make travel by VIA Rail more viable, she suggests putting rails back on smaller sidings that were abandoned when diesel engines allowed fewer stops for longer freight trains. They would allow VIA’s passenger trains to pull over more often and keep traffic moving.
“If CN was to build those mini-sidings, they would not only improve VIA’s efficiency, but their own efficiency,” she says. “I think there are things that VIA and CN can both do right now to improve passenger service and they’re choosing not to do it.”
CN owns the tracks between Jasper and Prince Rupert and shares the infrastructure through confidential agreements with VIA. It’s unknown how much VIA pays for use of the tracks, but one thing can be deduced: Canada’s largest railway company makes for a poor landlord.
“If VIA has to pay for (use of the tracks), CN should provide a reliable service by letting VIA’s trains go on the schedule that they’ve posted,” says Matthew Buchanan, president of Transport Action British Columbia.
He adds that under the Canada Transportation Act, CN is required by law to allow passenger trains through. “Until that actually gets enforced, I think CN figures they can just delay these trains at their will.”
He also points out that the Skeena train follows Highway 16, the stretch of road known as the Highway of Tears for its high incidence of missing and murdered women. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls noted the need for safe travel in remote areas in its June final report. It calls on the government to “provide safe transportation options, particularly in rural, remote and northern communities.”
It’s worth noting that all VIA’s routes experience some sort of financial shortfall. The difference is that in southern Ontario — the company’s busiest corridor with 4.5 million riders last year compared with 15,000 in northern B.C. — the expenses exceeded revenues by 30 per cent. On the Skeena route last year, operating costs were five times greater than revenues.
Out of all VIA’s mandatory routes, the Skeena train’s percentage shortfall is second only to the Winnipeg-Churchill line. Yet VIA insists there are no immediate plans to cancel the route.
“VIA Rail mandatory services are significantly subsidized by the federal government, which allows VIA to offer affordable fares on these regional routes,” said Marie-Anna Murat, VIA’s senior director of corporate communications. Indeed, the trip from Smithers to Prince Rupert costs about $70 for adults and $30 for children. “VIA Rail remains committed to serving communities in British Columbia. At the current moment, there are no plans to change services in the region.”
She added that thanks to federal-government funding, passenger train cars outside metropolitan areas might be getting a makeover. The company also announced plans in December for a new fleet valued at $989 million on its lines between Montreal and Windsor. The new bi-directional trains boast bike storage, wider seats, USB ports and high-speed internet, and they would run at up to 160 kilometres per hour, roughly twice the speed we’ve been averaging on our journey to the coast.
Leaving Terrace as night falls, the hush and gentle sway of the dome car lulls my daughter to sleep. Floor lighting is the only thing illuminating the glass dome, giving it the feel of a 1950s movie theatre as the train’s single headlight projects a display of cedar and spruce bows that rake the air as we pass.
The Skeena River is known to the local Gitxsan First Nation as the “River of Mists,” and fog settles into the valley. Cassiar Cannery and North Pacific Cannery, the former transformed into guesthouses and the latter now a museum, rise from the darkness as we roll past Port Edward, a blue-collar fishing community, and grind to a halt five minutes from our destination. Next to us, the container port is lit up like a Christmas tree.
For an hour we’re sidelined on the tracks, watching the towering cranes stack colourful shipping containers like Lego blocks. The conductor tells us we’re waiting on a train car to move and let us through. I’d like to think there’s a mad commotion of yelling, pointing and gear pulling happening in an effort to get this handful of weary travellers to our destination.
But it’s hard not to imagine that everyone is simply taking their coffee break.
Just as the cries of boredom begin in earnest, we begin to move, arriving at Prince Rupert just shy of two hours past our scheduled arrival.
By Skeena train standards, we’re practically early.