From Prairies to Mountains: Loving the Canadian West!

My last blog post generated a tremendous amount of discussion on the CanModelTrains discussion group. I am clearly in the minority when it comes to my not-so-positive opinion on CN’s 1954 colours. Maybe I should stop referring to that scheme as “ick”… Click here to join the group and join the discussion!

Now where did I leave off? Oh yes! I was just about to leave Edmonton for some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen…

The Canadian on the Prairies

The Canadian curves past the grain elevator in Punnichy, Saskatchewan

After a week in Alberta I boarded #2 back to Winnipeg. Shortly after I woke up we pulled into Saskatoon and my friend Ray Reinhardt was there to meet me at the station. We had a good chat, and then I had several hours to enjoy the Prairies.

Some people love the mountains. Some people love the Canadian shield. My favourite part of the Super Continental Canadian route is the Prairies. What a majestic landscape. As we were cruising through the rolling fields and rivers of Saskatchewan, I thought: “I could easily live here.” And I’d have room for a 1/8 scale layout if I did! I was born in Montreal but my wife is a Prairie girl and Winnipeg is my second home. Once you’ve got that big sky in your blood, everywhere else just feels cramped and closed in.

Big Sky Country

Big Sky Country: the grain elevator at Raymore, Saskatchewan

Occasionally on the train I meet someone I know, and sure enough on #2 I ran into fellow modeller and CanModelTrains group member David Emmington. We had a great time talking trains in the Park Car dome but it meant that I didn’t get any work done that morning!

Jason Shron and David Emmington

Hanging out with David Emmington in the Park Car.
Wow – I have no neck in this photo. I look like a Sontaran!

I did get back to my room so I could space out get some work done on the trip. That is one of the wonderful things about taking The Canadian. You can be social, you can meet people and have a lively time, or you can spend some quiet time by yourself in your sleeper or coach.

Roomette 3, Drummond Manor

A quiet moment in Roomette 3, Drummond Manor

Upon arrival in Winnipeg I headed straight to the in-laws’ cottage in Gimli, the Icelandic capital of, er, everywhere that isn’t Iceland. And I was lucky enough to get attacked by Vikings:

Vikings in Gimli

Vikings invade Gimli for the Icelandic Festival

The next day I was back in Winnipeg for a – Shock! Horror! – flight to Regina. I hate flying. After spending a few days on a spacious transcontinental streamliner, the tiny plane was, um… very, very, very tiny.

Squished by Air Canada

Squished in a very squishy airplane

Shortly after that photo was taken we were informed that anyone more than five feet tall had to sit out on the wings. It was a rough flight.

My first stop in Regina was the Echo Valley Railway Guild, where a CN green (there’s that colour again!) GMD-1 leisurely ran a local freight past beautiful, scratchbuilt wooden structures and impressive forest scenery.

GMD-1 on the Echo Valley Railway Guild layout

No steam generator needed!
1900 hauls a local freight on the Echo Valley Railway Guild layout.
(That’s our Ultimate Canadian Gon, by the way!) 

The next stop was Jim Peers’s beautifully-finished layout, where 1900 was further put through its paces. Jim’s got a very large number of freight cars (don’t we all?) and we coupled up 1900 to a train of 24 cars. It pulled them effortlessly around the entire layout, which features numerous turnback curves and grades. We then tried 36 cars, and while the wheels slipped a bit it still pulled it off. Finally we tried 48 cars, and the 1900 told us where we could shove it. (Hint: the sun doesn’t shine there.)

The point is the GMD-1 model can pull FAR MORE CARS than the prototype! Seriously – ignore these test results. You should never run the GMD-1 by itself, as the prototype 1000s could barely pull four loaded cars up a 1% grade and they never ran alone – always in pairs, trios or even quartets. So even though your model can pull 36 cars around an entire layout, you still need to buy at least eight GMD-1 locomotives!

Crap. I think I just convinced people to buy fewer locomotives. Stupid model. I shouldn’t have put so much weight in it.

Jim Peers's model railroad

A city scene on Jim Peers’s layout

Jim has a great eye for detail, as you can see from the photo above. It’s hard to believe that’s HO scale! Joining me at Jim’s house were Gord Wilson (my generous host and tour guide while in Regina and a consummate gentleman) and Doug Hunter. Doug has been a huge help with the GMD-1 project because he has operated the darn things for about as long as I’ve been alive. He has forgotten more about the GMD-1 than most of us will ever know. That is why it was so awesome that he approved of the early samples, warts and all…

Doug Hunter and GMD-1

CN GMD-1 locomotive engineer Doug Hunter gives the model a thumbs up!

The busy day ended with a presentation at Redline Hobby in Regina to more than 20 Rapido customers. It was a great day and I must convey my sincerest thanks to Gord for taking the time to show me around and to his co-worker David Onodera for holding the fort while we were gone! Of course because David was on his own Redline had one of its busiest days ever…

Saskatoon VIA station

Saskatoon VIA station: nowhere near Saskatoon.
Photo by Ray Reinhardt. 

I drove to Saskatoon the next day and discovered that the quickest way to get to the VIA station is not to drive in a circle around the entire perimeter of the city. But that’s what I did because I didn’t have a map. Once I found the station, located on “The Bloomin’ Back of Beyond” Road, Ray Reinhardt was kind enough to give me a tour around town and we had a great time visiting local model railroad legend Bob Stonehouse before heading to Hobbyworld.

Hobbyworld in Saskatoon

The railroad people start to arrive at Hobbyworld.
The total turnout was about 20 guys (and a girl!).

In total I met more than 50 model railroaders in Saskatchewan, and everyone was warm and welcoming. After each presentation the discussions continued for well over an hour. It was definitely worth the trip and I will make sure that any future cross-Canada tours include this beautiful province.

Ware House Hobbies in Winnipeg

The crowd at Ware House Hobbies in Winnipeg. That’s CN engineer Mark Perry photographing Matt Tolton photographing the ugly green FP9A and F9B. 

I headed back to Winnipeg (this time I got to ride on the jet enclosure, rodeo style) and was greeted by a cacophony at Ware House Hobbies. Wow! There were almost 50 people there, and several guys were stuck in the vestibule because they couldn’t fit inside the store! People came from as far away as Vancouver, Calgary and Minneapolis to see the GMD-1 and F9B samples. (Of course that is the only reason they were in Winnipeg. Really.)

Jason and the Optivisor

I finally caved in…

At 38, I am younger than most model railroaders. The average age for model railroaders has been and always will be around 60 to 65. That being said, I have discovered that, like most of you, I can’t see the darn models I’m working on. I’ve been modelling seriously since I was 13 and I don’t ever recall having to lift off my glasses to see what the heck I was doing. Well… now I can’t see a doggone thing unless I remove my glasses and hold the model up to my nose. So I had no choice but to join my fellow fogeys and buy an Optivisor. I feel like I’ve just been allowed to join the Buffalo Lodge and the Optivisor is my secret handshake. Thanks for letting me in to the club!

Assiniboine Valley Railway Dalya, Isaac and Zaida (Grandpa) on the Assiniboine Valley Railway.

One of Winnipeg’s hidden gems is the Assiniboine Valley Railway. Located adjacent to Assiniboine Park in the south end, the AVR is a privately-run 1/8 scale railroad running through the extensive wooded property of Bill Taylor. A ride is just $2, and for $12 the four of us (my father in law, Dalya, Isaac – who was free – and I) got to ride twice, once behind a Hudson and once behind this sharp-looking F7. That kept us entertained for about an hour and a half, so the AVR is tremendous value.

We saw several deer close up en route, much to the delight of my kids. My father in law, Rael, has lived within five km of this railway since its inception and had no clue of its existence. He’s now singing its praises to all and sundry. Bill Taylor is the heart and soul of this operation and unfortunately he is quite ill. I have been assured that the AVR will continue in some form with or without his regular involvement, though things are on hold right now while he is in hospital. I extend my best wishes to Bill for a speedy recovery. Visit the AVR’s web site for more info.

GMD-1 1900 and GMD-1 1900GMD-1 1900 and GMD-1 1900

Our last stop before leaving Winnipeg was the Winnipeg Railway Museum, one of my favourite places in town. The WRM is home of the real GMD-1 #1900, which was instrumental in ensuring that our model’s dimensions and details were accurate. Some guy  on wrote on the forum: “whoever researched the shade of green on that GMD1 SCREWED UP big time.” Well, Trainorders guy – next time you are in Markham, I invite you to come to Rapido’s head office for a complimentary slice of humble pie…

The museum is located in Winnipeg’s Union Station, and I recommend it when you are passing through on The Canadian or when you are visiting Winnipeg. They have started work on a new, double-deck model railroad in a purpose-built room literally on top of the tracks! How’s that for getting close to the prototype?

I need to extend a special thanks to Morgan Turney and Suzanne Lemon, who together comprise a large chunk of Canada’s model railroad magazine industry. Morgan publishes Canadian Railway Modeller, and Suzanne edits Railfan Canada. Every time I am in Winnipeg they go out of their way to make me feel at home, including taking me Doctor Who and Star Trek shopping on Academy Road. Thanks, guys!

The Shrons board The Canadian

Boarding The Canadian in Winnipeg

The western Canada trip continued with our departure from Winnipeg on #1… my third trip across the Prairies by train in two weeks! There was a big Rapido advertisement on the CP tracks in Portage La Prairie, not that anyone but me noticed…

Portage La Prairie

Rapido takes over Portage La Prairie

Who would believe it? In 2013, a Rapido CP caboose (1970s prototype) and a Rapido “Ultimate Canadian Gondola” (1940s prototype, still in company service and still in black!) were side by side on CP’s mainline. The awesome thing is that I was there to notice it! 428273 is one of numerous examples of our gon still in company service to carry materials to and from work sites.

The Canadian, Portage La Prairie

In the Park Car, Portage La Prairie
Photo by Manny Jacob. 

This time, Manny didn’t even know I was on board! And here I am, Turbo shirt and all, in the Park Car dome as we rolled under the bridge. Thanks for the photo, Manny! You can order the Turbo shirt from, my horribly out-of-date personal web site. I plan to update it this fall.

Isaac on board Mackenzie Manor How cute is that? Isaac (with Dalya) in Compartment F aboard Mackenzie Manor

I’ve said it many times before – you gotta get your kids or grandkids on the train. They are never too young. This was Isaac’s first trip on The Canadian, and he took over the train! He walked from the Park Car to the Baggage Car and back again, exploring every inch. At only 19 months, he’s now a seasoned VIA traveller.

We prepared Isaac for the trip by showing him The Big Train Trip, a video about riding The Canadian from a kid’s perspective. So he was prepared for it, and he got so excited when he saw the train on the platform because he recognized it from the video. You can order The Big Train Trip from VIA’s souvenirs web site.

CN ES44DC 2307

CN ES44DC 2307 viewed from the Park Car

If you think you see a lot of trains standing beside a mainline for a few hours, try riding a transcontinental. Not only do you get to be ON the train itself, but you see a LOT of other trains. I caught this CN freight out the rear window of the Park Car on #1 – and it’s not a perspective you’re likely to catch from trackside!

VIA Panorama Car

VIA’s Panorama Car in the Rockies

We spent much of the ride from Edmonton to Jasper in VIA’s Panorama Car, a quasi-dome car added to the train for the ride through the mountains. I have sung the praises of this car before, so I won’t go on about it. But it really is a great environment for watching the mountains go by. It is much more spacious than the Skyline or Park Car domes and when it’s raining (as it was that morning), the view from the Panorama Car is far superior.

This is the route of the Super Continental, which carried an ex-Milwaukee Road “Sceneramic” dome car from 1964 to 1981. Riding the Panorama Car is very similar to riding the Sceneramic (except the AC doesn’t break down quite so often), so it’s a nice nod to the past. Even the upholstery is a similar colour!

The Canadian in Jasper

The Canadian in Jasper

Despite becoming a huge tourist destination, Jasper has not lost its railway roots. It is simply CN and VIA railfan heaven, and the trains play a very important role in the town. There are ads everywhere for jobs with CN!

The Skeena in Jasper

The Skeena awaits its departure in Jasper.

Sitting on the track behind us was the last pocket domeliner on the continent: the Skeena. Since 1996 this train has travelled on an all-daylight schedule between Jasper and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with an overnight stop in Prince George. It is the one VIA service I have never taken, but I have been told that the scenery on the route is spectacular. Perhaps I need to personally inspect the port in Prince Rupert when our model trains come off the ship. Yeah, that’s it – I’ll go to Prince Rupert on business. That’s right. That’s the ticket.

Thanks for continuing to share my journey across western Canada. In the next instalment we head further west, to Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean!