Rolling from Jack London Square in Oakland, California through the night on Amtrak, look out at Portland, hop off Centralia, then from Provo to SLC on Watsatch Frontrunner train with a bit of poetry… then flying by Harbour Air seaplane from Victoria to Vancouver.
“First thing you learn is you always gotta wait”
— Lou Reed, Waiting for my Man, Velvet Underground
Usually when mentioning train travel in Canada you have to cue Gordon Lightfoot but as Canada has apparently forgotten that the iron road made the country and relegated train travel to a slim segment, I move my gaze to the south. While the rest of the civilized world may chuckle at the hype around the USA’s long overdue plan for high speed rail, I am just happy you can take a trip southwards on a train at all I don’t mind the slow rolling, but as Lou Reed explains, the waiting is a drag.With the impending Olympix invasion, February might be a good time to hop the rails and meet your Cascadian neighbours to the south. You may likely find you have more cultural similarities than our compatriots spread across 5-1/2 time zones. Get your passport ready cause I’ve got your route planned out for a proper visit – and each stop involves beer from Bellingham to Portand (or even Eugene).
Dual Train Action
The problem with the train isn’t speed – it’s timeliness and reliability – both of which hinder your ability for a successful and efficient diplomatic mission. Customs delays, mudslides derailments, waiting at sidings, labourious boarding check in, and a secondary immigration clearing mean you can’t rely on traveling by train for anything *important* but there is reason to hope and rejoice. The reason is there are now twotrains a day. Used to be one train with a bunch of “train buses” – which is Amtrak way of saying a fckin Trailways bus. I rode it many times with baffled tourists who dreamed of rolling the coast starlight gazing at the brilliant Puget Sound on, you know, a train – not a bus. Quite different indeed.
The second train was hard fought as the Canadian Customs held out for $10k for clearing each train. Seems at odds with encouraging a sustainable, tourism-based economy but I digress … Since about half of you are probably charting course to get outta town during this arts, sports culture consumer jamboree imminently approaching so I’ve plotted some ideas to where to go, and how to do it – you just hafta figure out how to get to Main St. station by 6 am, (which is of course, basically impossible if you live across a bridge or tunnel) so set your alarm for 5am and talk someone into driving you ~ a great way to start a trip indeed.
There are two trains and each has a different name and route, the Cascade goes from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon but only once a day but twice if from Seattle (confusing i know) while the Coast Starlight ventures all the way to LA but starts in Seattle and offers sleeping compartments to help you feel like a Euro-rail backpacker.
Since you aren’t driving, and will be waiting a lot (and likely be annoyed that the thrill peace and magic of riding rails is replaced by unfounded paranoia and obtuse security), let’s get your pints lined up.
Used to be we Canadians could brag without hindrance about our superior brews … until the mostly west-coast microbrew revolution. Now the Cascadia region is dotted with excellent breweries laden with culture and tasty pints – and i’ve found the finest.
Bellingham is no longer Smelligham as we called it on trips southwards in the glory days of toxic pulp mills. Now there are ample opportunities to spend a few hours well away from Bellis Fair mall starting at Boundary Bay Brewery. With a handy location in the Fairhaven area (the old town), this popular hangout is close to the train station and the Alaska ferry if you wanna head into the wild. The pub is top shelf with outdoor beer gardens, award winning brews, guest taps and hearty grub.
A wee stretch further south on your train roll is the valley village of Mt Vernon and Skagit River Brewery. Stop in for a variety platter including 2 stouts (one on nitro) and a barleywine. Last visit, I left with a pint glass decorated with their award winning Skuller’s IPA insignia.
Enjoying some sample beers with Kris and Francis at Skajit River Brew Pub in Mt. Vernon, Washington en route to Gnomedex. We riff about various styles of beers (barleywine, stouts, porters, IPAs etc) and try to be pleasant.
Everett is worth stopping in to catch a hockey game at their new rink (home of the WHL Silvertips) but not oozing with culture (that i’ve found anyhow – please correct me as needed). Of course, Seattle is next but you’ve already visited there right? If you find yourself stranded in the Emerald city – step away from the train station and go to the crazy Experience Music Project – the weird looking building next door to the Space Needle for rock n’ roll history adventure (and a beer inside). It’s easy to find a solid pint but some maximum pleasure, head to the neighbourhood of Ballard, find a bar, tell them you are from Canada and let the wild rumpus begin as they treat you like a foreigner from somewhere exotic. (Hint: Find a Hale’s Cream Ale).
If you happen into Tacoma, avoid the industrial aroma and instead visit the stellar glass art museum (Dale Chihuly is a local hero) and find a bar called The Swiss – from which you might never leave.
Washington’s capitol city (the town Time Magazine called the hippest in the west + High Times bestowed additional dubious accolades) is Olympia. The station is located way out of town (in Lacey) and not handy to get into downtown but worth the trip if you can hang for a while. With artesian acquifers wells producing perfect brew water, Oly is famous for beer. Now the tradition has migrated from mass production of swillable stubbies to organic Fishtale Ale. In their intrepid Fish Bowl pub, you’ll spot grey ponytails plotting Cascadian secession or just eating fish tacos or a ploughman’s platter.
Wander a couple blocks down to 4th and find the Eastside Club Tavern – a real life Mos Eisely cantina with 30+ micro handles and a sweet jukebox (say hi from Uncle Weed). Then step next door for frog leg lunch from Cajun chef Billy at A2 and wander down the street to browse the eclectic Last Word Books. Finish with live music at a handful of bars or an art house flick at Capitol theater for a perfect day out. Can’t stop? See the Go with the Flow movie instead.
The next wide spot south is Chehalis and Centralia, but which i can never figure out which is which – just check your map and make sure to stop at the new Dick’s Brewery. Sadly, Dick “Danger” Young rode his Harley to the big party in the sky in 2009 but leaves legacy of 20+ brews. My faves in order: 1) Belgain Double; 2) Danger Ale; 3) Irish Ale; 3) Cream Stout; 4) Workingman’s Brown. If you are feeling dangerous (which you are since you are riding the train), try ’em all to find your fave.
This old logging town is a fine place to end up your trip as there is a McMenamin’s old-timey hotel called the Olympic Club (wait! isn’t that name illegal somehow ;-)) where a bank robber holed up and you can too.
Continuing on? Good, just roll right past the older, but less shiny, (Fort) Vancouver as you’ll get confused and think you are home. Instead, cross the mighty Columbia and embark into fantasy land for beer aficionados (and enthusiasts of no sales tax), Portland.
Beside the neatest bar you’ve ever seen on every block, Portand has stellar street markets, great dim sum, more cool McMenamin’s retro-hotels (try the Kennedy School) and theaters (like the Baghdad). In fact, with great transit (light rail hurrah!), “exotic show lounges” and cannabis clubs, PDX feels more like Canada than Canada sometimes.
Not enough? The end of this line is Eugene – the spiritual home of hippies and athletes alike. I can’t talk about Eugene without a Grateful Dead concert flashback so I’ll spare us both before i begin rambling about that show with Little Feat and the blotter paper…
That’ll do ya – you’ve gone far enough. If not, repeat the visits on the way back up. Of course, you can’t get all of these into one trip so pick a few stations and make a long weekend (or play hooky while you “work from home”) to make the circuit count.
Load em up
While Amtrak soldiers on – buoyed by Obama’s fresh visions – Canada keeps doing it like they’ve done since the trains were new. I’ve rolled the fine style and liesurely pace of the Queen’s own VIA Rail in fancy “Silver and Blue” style with my sweetie through the Rocky Mountains – the views were stellar but my indoor observations do not bode well for the future as we musta been the only ones under 65 on the train (aside from a few young families).
All good though, there was a bar serving Caesars on-board (and we ended up partying with the train staff in a Jasper bar) – but for the cost of the ticket, seems like you could drive an RV to Newfoundland. How VIA ended up this expensive when most the trains were made in 1950s I don’t know. How do other countries manage? And not just Japan and Germany, Russia has trains too – I’ve seen them in Dr. Zhivago.
What’s missing from rail service on this continent isn’t speed, it’s the ability for spontaneous travel encouraging relaxation, reflection and conversation. Further, there is a public desire to reduce carbon emissions and contribute in some way to the greater good with a greener-ish footprint – but we all need a way to travel to see Grandma on the holidays without causing air-travel-like pollution (especially since we humans must self-regulate after Copenhagen’s implosion). I think more trains are part of the answer, but for now… I’m rolling on with what we got – even if the rest of the world chuckles. Are you coming along? Good, you can buy me a pint of Danger.
I was interviewed (and used loquacious quotes like “super lame”) for an article about train travel in the Vancouver Courier.
I am including my quotes and a few other snippets about my pet-rant – inadequate train travel between here and points south as well as the photo by Dan Toulguet so it doesn’t disappear into the internet tubes like my previous photo appearance in this local newspaper. By the way, if someone could pick me up a paper copy, i’d be very pleased.
Slow train coming
Robert Alstead takes a journey north by rail from California and wonders if Canada’s vanished passenger trains will once again carry us from coast to coast – Robert Alstead, Vancouver Courier
Published: Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Dave Olson, who works in marketing for Gastown web design company Raincity Studios, travels six or seven times a year by train, on business and pleasure. “I don’t care for jet travel because of the incredible hassle and huge eco-footprint,” says Olson. Like many, he would take the train more if he could. “I like the pace and not having to drive, I like the rhythm and the scenery you normally don’t see, the rail yards and seashores and forgotten neighbourhoods. I find the train-riding experience somehow charming, even poetic and certainly creativity stimulating,” he says.
However, he complains Amtrak’s evening train south is hardly convenient for trips to Olympia or Portland, seeing as travellers must make an overnight stopover in Seattle. The Amtrak Cascades is also infrequent and often booked up. Amtrak does offer several “train buses” which Olson has found “super lame” with long border waits. He’d rather take the car if there are no seats on the train, although it did mean a $124 parking bill and a chipped windshield on a recent three-day trip to Seattle. “I know we would’ve enjoyed some work or playing cards or meditating on the train,” he rues.
However, the Amtrak Cascades offers a good example of the difficulties faced in enhancing rail services.
For years, Amtrak has wanted to add a second roundtrip train between Eugene and Vancouver. However, congestion due to heavy freight movement on track this side of the border meant that a new siding needed to be added to allow trains to pass. For six years, Canadian and U.S. officials and railroad owners Burlington Northern Santa Fe had been unable to hammer out a deal over who should pay for the upgrade.
That means that a second Amtrak Cascades has been running only as far as Bellingham. Then in March of last year, spurred on by the onset of the 2010 Olympics, B.C. transportation minister Kevin Falcon announced that he was committing “up to $4.5 million” (reportedly 57 per cent of the upgrade cost) to build the siding.
In June last year, Premier Gordon Campbell marked the new service on the platform at King Street Station in Seattle by exchanging a large symbolic train ticket with Washington Governor Chris Gregoire in a photo op.
The siding was completed months ago. Amtrak is ready to go. But the service hit the buffers due to complications with the Canadian Border Services Agency, which reportedly wants $15,000 per day to clear the train.
Graham says the matter is in the hands of the B.C. government. A spokesperson for the province says it’s a federal government issue. Faith St. John, spokesperson for the CBSA, said she could not comment on the matter “because we are in discussions.” But she did say that “decisions to provide CBSA services at a new location or to expand current services take into account human resource requirements and the ability to provide security and service to the public.”
She could not say when the matter would be resolved.