The Service Manager | Conversations on the Train

The Canadian. Miles of cool, densely corrugated steel encasing sleeper, economy, dining and activity cars. It is gorgeous – If a train can be said to be gorgeous.

© Maurice Li Photography

Fabien, the Service Manager (and, I find out later, union rep), is in the back activity car playing his guitar in the moments he doesn’t have to appease anyone.

I look at the gold name badge that announces his role and ask, “What’s a service manager?”

“The person in charge of the safety and security of the passengers. I’m the guy who makes sure everything that’s supposed to be on board is here. The one who makes sure it’s all running right.”

“How long have you been doing it?”

He tunes his guitar.

“Since 1998. I started as a Red Cap in 1984 in Montreal, handling baggage. I transferred in the Western region in 1996.”

He’s French Canadian and I like the impact this has on the way he phrases things.

“Do you like it?”

He grins, “Yeah! It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Jobs are 8am – 4pm. Over here it’s well… you get on the train and the family, it’s your crew. We stay together, very close, and we go forward.”

He launches into a rendition of Puddle of Mudd’s Blurry. I’m not sure what the words other than ‘blurry’ and, ‘can you take it all the way… when you shove it in my face,’ are, so wait until he moves on to Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) before I join in. Then a static voice says something through his walkie talkie. He talks to it briefly, and I use the break to speak.

“What’s the best story from the time you’ve been working?”

“There is no best story, it’s all the best story.”

I give him a look.

“A story, a story… there are many. We meet lot’s of good people, I’ve met John Cleese, Sylvester Stallone, Sting – these are nice people, they love the train. And I’ve collected a lot of addresses from people I can go and visit when I retire.”

“That’s lovely.”

He grins again.

“The New Year’s Eve train is the most fun. We take away the tables and create a dancefloor and have the best champagne. In 2000 we were on the Y2K train, but with so many time changes nobody even cared what time it was.”

He sings a song in French before sipping his tea.

“I guess my story is music. I’ve always played music on the train. The head of the company came on board and liked what I was doing. We talked about it, and I was given the go-ahead to start a music programme. It gives access to musicians. Now we have them performing twice a day on board. We give them a bedroom and a meal in return. So yeah, that’s something that when I retire will be my legacy.”


Until 20th June, if you’re based in the UK, US or Canada, you could win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. For a chance to win, retweet the following message on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

We were hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. More about the trip can be found on the CTC blog. An upper berth is cheaper than a lower berth. If you book well in advance, a discounted fare upper berth costs around $400 (£250) for the Vancouver to Jasper leg of the trip. A lower berth costs around $475 (£300).

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Canadian Train Traveller | Conversations on the Train

There’s a group of fourteen of us from all over the world rolling out of Vancouver one late May evening.
The route goes all the way to Toronto and takes four days to complete. But we’re breaking it into three parts, stopping in Jasper and Winnipeg along the way. The first leg will take 18.5 hours.

©VIA Rail
©VIA Rail

The atmosphere on board is electric. Passengers are a mixture of people who’ve waited their whole lives to do the trip, and those who ride more regularly. The latter group include a few Amish Mennonites (white bonnets and bowl haircuts), families, and students.

We are travelling Sleeper Plus class, in seats that become berths behind grey curtains, reminiscent of the interiors of musician’s tour buses. I think of Janis Joplin, who travelled across Canada by train with the Grateful Dead on the Festival Express tour. She was as old as I am now at the time.

We have access to the panoramic viewing car, and a couple of us sit there after our bags are stowed. By now it is dark outside.

© Maurice Li Photography
© Maurice Li Photography

A VIA Rail guard comes round with plastic glasses for champagne and a tray of canapes. He pours the champagne into our glasses. The bubbles go straight to my head. A woman with grey hair in a white blazer and khaki trousers walks along the aisle. She asks if she can join us.

“Of course,” I say, gesturing for her to sit down.

She’s on her way to visit her son. She doesn’t go into great detail about this, but paints a portrait of herself an easy-going liberal vegan in a ‘that’s-all-you-need-to-know’ kind of way.

“I started travelling on the train when I was seventeen. In fact, I got married on the train when I was seventeen. Yep. And I got divorced by the time the train arrived.”

She’s also a teller of tall tales it would seem.

“How’d you get married on the train?” I ask.

“Well, I was travelling in economy around Christmas time, from Edmonton to Toronto. There was a lady on the train who was really sick. She had three kids and the kids were driving everybody crazy. She couldn’t really take care of them, she was just so sick. Me and a gentlemen got her kids, and the other kids in the carriage, and took over the activity car. So the parents could have some rest.”


“And later everyone starts saying this gentleman and I made a really cute couple. They buy us drinks because we’ve taken care of all these kids. The kids jump up and down and tell us to get married. So the gentleman makes a ring out of cigarette packet foil.”

I laugh.

“And he says,’On a ship the captain can marry people, a train can’t be so different.’

“So the VIA Rail guy in the bar car comes out and performs a ceremony for us. The lady with all the kids is my maid of honour. Another man, a single father, is my gentleman’s best man. Then afterwards, we’re given all these VIA Rail gifts. I still have my VIA Rail cards, my eye mask and washcloths. I wear the eye mask at night.”

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Well, I was seventeen then and I’m forty-nine now.”

I wonder how many people there are who have thirty year-old socks. I want to meet more of these people.

“Then what happened?”

“In the morning, just before we got to Toronto, I woke up and said, ‘what happened last night? What is this on my hand?!’ And he replied,

‘We got married!’

Then we got coffee and Baileys, even though it was 9am in the morning. We put it on a Chargex card, and made our ‘marriage’ null and void by the time we got to Toronto.”

“Did you see each other again?”


“And after that you continued travelling by train?”

“Yes. And by bus. I just like to be in control, you know. At least if I’m on a train I can get off at the next stop. Can’t really do that on a plane.”

“How often do you do it?”

“About four times a year. A lot of times I’ve gone economy, but I can’t sit in a chair for four days at a time anymore. I used to take the bus more, but something happened on the bus a few years back so I don’t do it anymore. I enjoyed taking all my food in a cloth bag. Apples… cheese. I even took a cheese knife.”

“I thought you were a vegan?”

“I cheat.”

Canadian Train Traveller.jpg
The Canadian Train Traveller

Our group was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. Read more on the CTC blog. An upper berth is cheaper than a lower berth. If you book well in advance, a discounted fare upper berth costs around $400 (£250) for the Vancouver to Jasper leg of the trip. A lower berth costs around $475 (£300). 

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Until 20th June, if you’re based in the UK, US or Canada, you have the chance to win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. Just retweet the following message on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

Sophie Collard on Google+

Explore Canada By Train

Saturday 18th May I’ll be going to explore Canada by train with the Canadian Tourism Commission and twelve other bloggers.

Via Rail

It’s all very exciting. The most exciting part is that a lot of the trip from Vancouver to Toronto will be by train. It’s a trip that you can book with my friends at International Rail and if we were doing it the usual way, would cost around £451. We are stopping off along the way at Jasper and Winnipeg. There will be videos, Instagram pictures and blogs along the way. I’ve made a pre-trip video:

This trip will be interesting from a blogging perspective too, as I’ll be trying to figure out what people who might want to go on the train themselves want to know. Do they want videos of the train journey? Interviews with people on the train? Links to where they can book? I should think so, but I’m about to find out.

You can follow the trip on here, on Twitter using the hashtag #ExploreCanada, on and on the tumblr

Sophie Collard on Google+