Stepping into Winnipeg’s Union Station is something I recommend for everyone at least once in their lives, especially if it is a “train night”. By “train night” I mean one of those times when train number 1 or number 2 is expected to stop. My Mom decided to take the train out to Vancouver to visit my brother and his family a couple of weeks ago, and now she was expected home on the “No 2”. I found out that the “No 2” travels from West to East, and the “No 1” travels from East to West. The train was running late out of Edmonton, and the question was when it would actually arrive in Winnipeg. The first thing that strikes you about Union station is the space to people ratio. You walk in through the front doors off of main street, and you’re instantly in the main rotunda. As far back as I can remember, this rotunda has left a huge impression me. It demands that you stop and look up and you feel like you’re in a special, almost holy place. I get the same feeling here as I had in Christopher Wren’s St. Pauls in London. At the same time as taking in this huge voluminous space, you also take in the sheer lack of people around. In one corner of the rotunda, there’s a tiny security desk manned by one person, and a closed coffee kiosk. Most of the station has been converted to office space now, but you still get the impression of what new arrivals must have felt as they detrained throughout the first half of the 20th century. You can almost feel the optimism and anticipation of new arrivals walking through this rotunda and out onto Winnipeg’s finest street at the time, Broadway.
But on this night, we are drawn to the back section of the station, where passengers of the “No. 2” will take the one escalator down from the platform into an almost catacomb like reception area. I remember as a kid coming here to marvel at a model railway display behind glass. Most of the time, the trains were not in operation, but once in a while you’d be lucky and there would be some old dude in an engineer’s cap behind the glass surrounded by fake moss and miniature bridges making the little trains actually run.
No more. Where the model train used to be has now been boarded up and probably turned into storage space.
My Mom had called from “somewhere between Rivers and Portage” and again from “Portage” to give updates on the train’s progress. The original 8:30 arrival time was bumped back to 9:05, and now that we were here at the station, bumped again to 9:25.
I was struck by the sheer lack of people waiting for the train. Besides Marla, Audrey and me, there were maybe six people who looked like they were expecting arrivals, and maybe six people waiting to get on the train. Those waiting for the train were mostly elderly and/or eccentric looking, probably a prerequisite for train travel in Canada these days. Those waiting for the train were in the “comfort lounge” which didn’t look any more comfortable than the regular seats in the rest of the waiting area. There didn’t appear to be any snacks or drinks for these people, and one “internet” station seemed out-of-order and the other one was being used by a staff person.
To say that you felt like you were “back in time” is a cliché, but it really applies here. There was no real security checks (you just needed to show your ticket). There was no x-ray machine, no full body scan, and no restrictions on what you could bring on board with you. I thought of this too late, as I could have asked my Mom to bring some “Granville Island Beer” home with her.
One train employee took a shine to Audrey, and there was something about him that bothered Marla and me. Something to do with his manner of speech, or maybe his clothes, or his general look, but he really felt like he was from the 1930’s or something, and for a crazy moment I thought we were the only ones who could see him and that we were actually interacting with a ghost. Marla and I didn’t talk about this until we had left the station much later, but the fact that we both had this thought at the same time is telling. I made a note to see if he interacted with any other passengers or staff. He didn’t. His comment “You come see me again, Audrey” still haunts me.
Since the train was running an hour late, the platform crew were lined up on a bench with nothing to do. A group of six men and two women, all geared up with parkas, vests and toques sat quietly until one of their walkie-talkies crackled “Train’s on the bridge!” and then everyone mobilized. Typical of VIA, there are no separate up and down escalators. Just one escalator that has to be switched over whether the train is loading or unloading. A minute or two later, the entire lower section of the station shook with the arrival of “No 2” above. A chime rang throughout the station, announcing to the six or so of us that “Train No. 2, The Canadian, is arriving from Vancouver, Jasper, Edmonton and Saskatoon“. Shortly after this, the Winnipeg passengers began appearing on the escalator. I counted only about 10 people who were making Winnipeg their final destination, my Mom being one of them. The 8:30 was only an hour late. Not a bad feat, considering that the train came all the way from Vancouver in February at a time when passenger service in this country takes a backseat to everything else that uses the rail-lines.
“Taking the train was the highlight of my trip”, she said as we waited a minute or so for her luggage to make its way from the baggage car into the station. “Did you know I had prime rib for supper tonight? AND a caesar salad.” “Did you know that they serve champagne and snacks in the dome car in the afternoon? And they weren’t stingy. The guy came around three times!”
Gathering up all her stuff, we made our way to the exit and the cold February night. I glanced back over my shoulder and sure enough, there was our train-man. Standing off to one corner in his old-fashioned coat and haircut, watching silently as we returned to 2011.