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+

Carl Arnheiter | Conversations on the Train | Part One

Carl Arnheiter

Carl Arnheiter

I wait for Carl Arnheiter at Russell Square tube station. I’m going to ride the underground train to Heathrow with him. He has short brown hair and looks a bit the sad clown. Probably because he’s hungover. Once through the barriers, he produces a Cornetto from somewhere and offers it to me. It’s 9.15am. I laugh.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer and a comedian. I write for an ad agency. I write comedy. It’s a very exciting life.”

“Why are you in London?”

“We came to London to do those two shows for  Fancy Meeting You Here (comedy tours of museums & galleries) – at your fun cultural institutions. My partner Dave and I thought it’d be good.”

“Your partner?”

“My partner in comedy… and in life,” Dave Hill.

“How long have you been doing Fancy Meeting You Here?” I ask.

“Two years in March.”


“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”

“How often?”

“Every six weeks, it’s been a really interesting show to do. I think the turn out was really great here.”

“Are you going to do it in other places too?”

“Yeah that’s the goal. I’d love to come back here. We want to do other museums in New York too – the Met is probably getting tired of us… I mean they tolerate us but… we’ve also organised to do show at a college back home in April. We’re writing that now.”

“How long does it take to put together?”

“Not long… I mean it helps if we can see the artwork beforehand. You can do a formulaic piece – but it’s really fun when you write site-specific stuff. And it’s great for comedians because they have to flex that muscle they have but don’t necessarily often get to flex.”

“How did you get into comedy?”

“I started doing improv – believe it or not because of the British Whose Line is it Anyway? My tastes have changed now, it’s too gamey for me, and I always…I always… I dunno that’s gonna sound terrible… but I always liked making people laugh. I realised I’d been doing it for a while but I didn’t have any direction with it. So I started doing shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. It’s an amazing theatre in the basement of a supermarket and you can go there and any show is five dollars and it’s guaranteed to be great. It’s been a launching ground for a lot of people. Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Zac Woods from the office… Amy founded it – you used to be able to catch Amy and Tina there when they had their show there. And I do a show called Inside Joke there, which is a talk show about the craft of comedy. All the greats have done shows there. It’s you and 140-150 other people for five dollars you might catch Mike Myers. So it’s a great place and that’s where I started.”

“How long ago was that?” I ask.

“I started improv in 2001. So I’ve gotten almost nowhere in ten years. Which is fine.”

“It’s not too bad though – I mean you get paid to do it?”

“Well we don’t get paid at the Upright Citizens Brigade – nobody does. But that’s not why we do it. I do get paid to go and do shows elsewhere but it’s not my sole source of income.”

“Where do you get your money then?”


“So before 2001 what were you doing?”

“I was a journalist. I was a music journalist among other journalists – I wrote features and reviews. Writing is such a whorish business, as you know, you just write for whoever is willing to pay you, and it felt like that for a long time – going from place to place writing.”

“Who did you write for?”

“I wrote for CMJ (College Music Journal) I was on staff at CMJ. There was a great magazine I wrote for here in the UK – a very small sort of underground thing called Thalamic Terrascope and I really loved them. But that was the great thing about being a music journalist – you could write for who you wanted to write for and you were writing for a like voice and a like mind which I really liked. Thalamic Terrascope really liked obscure 60s bands before those Nuggets Box Sets really took off. Thalamic Terrascope was running interviews with bands like The Mumps or in New York, there was this thing called The Big Take Over – written by this guy Jack Rabid, who was music obsessive. His apartment was like a record store it was incredible… The magazine is like 300 pages long and it comes out once a quarter. And in those 300 pages there’ll be like 1500 reviews and painfully extensive interviews with bands, in incredibly small print. It was great to write for those two magazines. It didn’t pay any money but it didn’t matter, because I was writing for who I wanted to write for and I was a part of what I thought were really great magazines. I learned how to do what I did from working with musicians. And that was the point of meeting people here, you know, really interesting people who I’d wanted to meet for a while.”

Kurt Vonnegut

“When I was a journalist I wrote some stuff for ABC news, when they did something called The Century Project. I wanted to sit down and chat with Kurt Vonnegut because I loved him. I had to call him. That was a weird experience – we were on the phone and I was like,

‘Er, I’m sorry Mr. Vonnegut, did I catch you at a bad time?’

And he says, ‘A little, but I’ll call you back at 9 O’clock tomorrow morning.’

Sure enough, right on the dot at 9 O’clock the next day he calls and says, ‘Hey Carl, this is Kurt Vonnegut…’

I lost my mind. He invited me over the next day and made me lunch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – and we sat in his living room and we talked about everything. He had stopped talking about his books by then, because he said everything there was to say about them had already been said. And that was a great relief.

So I had a regular conversation with Kurt Vonnegut about things Kurt Vonnegut wanted to talk about. We talked about World War II and being of German descent.

I said, ‘What was it like going back? To the Germans who had done these terrible things but were really your people,’

And… and he used to be a car salesman – Saabs I think, but they would explode, the engines would essentially melt to the body and Kurt had to sell these pieces of s***t. And I just remember those stories. He had this great laugh, infectious laugh with just a touch of emphasyma to it – and I just wanted to hear Kurt Vonnegut laugh. That was ‘99 before I even started doing comedy but even then I thought – I gotta get this guy to laugh. And I have the tapes from that conversation and he actually laughs a lot. That to me is a great memory. And then when I left – there was one flight of stairs up from the ground floor to the entry of his townhouse and I’d put on this suit because I thought it would be disrespectful not to. And there’s a great movie adaptation of his book Mother Night with Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell W. Junior, the last free American, and it’s an amazing book but the movie is really well done too – it’s by Keith Gordon and Bob Weide – Robert Weide – and there’s a scene where Howard Campbell freezes – he doesn’t know where to go – and he stops and he’s just standing amongst this crowd of people and it’s a beautiful shot, with people walking by in very slow motion, and he’s standing there for hours then Kurt Vonnegut comes into frame and they sort of lock eyes and then Kurt just turns around and walks away.

So I leave – and there’s another scene in the movie where we had the exact same exchange of dialogue – Kurt’s at the top of the stairs, I’m at the bottom of the stairs and I turn around to say goodbye and there are people weaving between us – he’s still at the top of the stairs with his little dog and he just raises his hand and says, ‘aufwiedersehen Mr. Arnheiter.’

And I just say, ‘Aufweidersehen, Mr. Vonnegut,’ as these people are passing by, and we’ve got this staircase between us and Kurt just turns around, walks inside and then his little dog runs inside and then he closes the door. And I must have stood there for a good five minutes just staring at the door thinking, ‘Oh my God we just had that Mother Night scene. It was incredible.’ And it was those moments, that although very few and far between, kept me really wanting to talk to interesting people.”

Carl’s website is:

Sophie Collard on Google+

Conversations on the Train: The Repatriation Officer

I‘m sitting next to a gentle man in his mid-forties who has friendly eyes and is balding.

The couple opposite ask me to guess what he does for a living. I take one look and think civil servant.

“Do you work for the government?” I say.

“Good guess,” he replies.

It turns out he’s actually an international repatriation officer. This doesn’t (just) mean organising corpses sent back to the UK when people die abroad. It’s more exciting.

I share my fears (from watching films like Midnight Express) about being put into a Thai Prison. I’ve seen the Drugs Will Result in the Death Penalty signs at Bangkok airport in the past, next to signs saying We ♥ Our King.

“So is it true if you get caught with anything someone may have planted on you you get put in prison forever in Thailand?” I ask.

“We brought back a guy in Thailand who was serving 46 years for possession of a small quantity of drugs… He’d been in for nine,” says the man.

“How did you get him out?”

“We applied for a King’s pardon.”

“A King’s pardon?”

“Yeah, the Thai King awards several pardons each year. We all turned up in suits to get this guy and he thought it was the end. He thought he was going to be killed. No idea what was going on.”

“Because he was traumatised?”

“Yes. He was offered a lot of counselling when he returned.”

I ask what other people he’s got out of which prisons in the past. He clearly reads ‘what high-profile cases have you dealt with?’ and changes tack.

“Okay, so did you know each EU country has to have its share of war criminals?” He says.

“I didn’t,” I reply.

“Well we brought back the guy from the ITCY.”

“The ITCY is?”

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We got the man responsible for the massacre of 8,000 people and brought him here.”

“And now he’s in a secure unit or something?” I ask.


“Gosh,” I say.

He smiles.

“And that Samantha Orabator, the one in Laos?”

“Oh, the pregnant one?” I look up, remembering.

“Yeah, we brought her back. You would’ve seen me on the telly with that one. And we brought her partner back in September.”

“How did you bring her back?”

“Transit, through Thailand, with two officers and a midwife – as it was late in the pregnancy.”

“Was she alright…was she terrified?”

“No, she was absolutely fine.”

“And how did she get out?”

“An agreement was made. Trouble is there’s no embassy in Laos so it all has to be done by  Australia. There’s an amazing woman,Kate, at the embassy, she’s the person you want to talk to if you’re stuck in a prison out in South East Asia. But the moral is: don’t do something wrong in Laos,” he smiles.

We talk for a bit longer before he takes out his wallet and opens it. Inside is what looks like a US police badge. He’s clearly enjoying my interest in his job and wants me to be excited. I am excited.

“Wow”, I say, “looks like the ones you see in films.”

“When we’re in the States we become federal agents,” he beams.

I laugh because anytime anyone says federal agents I think of Mulder and Skully. But I don’t tell him that.

“So how did you end up doing this job?” I ask.

“I was a missile escort on vehicles with the army. After that I went into sandstone ballast for six years… then got into the prison service. An opening came up – they wanted someone picked up in Cuba – I wrote a report and I got picked.”

He tells me there are ten people doing what he does and at any one time two to four of them will be out of the country.

“What name shall I give you, for the piece?” I ask.

He thinks for a moment then says, “Frank.”

“Frank,” I repeat.

“Yeah – like Frank Drebdin from Police Squad.”