THERE is nothing quite like riding the rails. I had been told this my entire life, but I discovered its truth on the night train to Saskatoon.
It seemed a good way to see Canada's west and, by traveling coach rather than first class, to meet some regular Canadians and find out what was on their minds. I ponder this while waiting in Winnipeg's lovely domed train station an hour prior to the train's posted 6:15 p.m. departure time.
I am still pondering this when the train arrives more than two hours late. Along with several score of other passengers, a Monitor photographer and I climb aboard and plop into our seats as the engine and 11 cars, including two dome cars, a dining car, a baggage car, and several sleeping and coach cars glide slowly away from Winnipeg.
Half an hour later, I am just pulling out my notepad when the lights in car 103 are turned off.
Thinking it will be only minutes before everyone is asleep, I hop up to look for people to interview. I shouldn't have worried: A train, unlike a street corner or an office, is chock-full of people who want to tell a stranger their story at any hour of day or night. It is a fishbowl, a microcosm where - unlike a plane or bus - people move from car to car and seem to know a little bit about everybody else's business.
``I'm a newspaper reporter,'' I begin, whispering to the conductor because I thought others would be sleeping in the darkened car. ``I'd like to talk with you about what it's like to work on a train.''
The conductor politely agrees to talk after midnight, when he was less in demand. Quickly, I learn the key fact of train travel: No conversation is private.
``Did I hear you say you're a reporter?'' queries an older woman with twinkling eyes. She's wearing a navy sweater, polyester slacks, and Nike cross-trainers. ``I'm Elizabeth Rutchinski. I'm the one who caused all the ruckus at the Liberals' convention.''
Indeed, Ms. Rutchinski has a newspaper clipping that mentions her stiff objections at the national convention of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's federal Liberal Party.
Rutchinski is a professional figure skating judge who is heading to Saskatoon to give a clinic. But what is most on her mind this night is her concern that Canada's railroads will soon be consolidated at the expense of small communities like hers in Capreol, Ontario.
``Have you noticed how packed the train is?'' she asks. ``I can't imagine why they're thinking about cutting back to one train a week [from three]. The railroad made Canada come together in the first place.''
On a roll, Rutchinski elaborates: ``It may be cheaper to fly,'' she says. ``But you don't get the same experience. I love traveling across Canada by train. You can see the elk and the contour of the hills in Alberta. I never cease to be thrilled when we cross the Rockies.''
IT is well after midnight before Rutchinski turns in. But although snoring can be heard in the coach section, many passengers are still up and about. I stop to eat a sandwich and chips from the snack bar, thinking wistfully of the chef-prepared meals served earlier in the dining car.
Just before midnight, I encounter Heather Cessford, a young pastry chef from Quebec on her way to visit friends in Houston, British Columbia. She, too, is awake and alert in the brightly lit dome car, despite having been on the train for almost two days.
``People said I was crazy to do this,'' she says, rolling her eyes. ``But I've always wanted to travel across the country by train.''
Someone ahead of us shouts down the stairwell to a passing conductor, asking when the train will arrive in Brandon, Manitoba. ``Don't ask me about time,'' he says, obviously frustrated by the delays. ``I don't have any conception of time.''
Pulling on and off sidings, the train has entered a time warp that is beginning to seem more and more like the Twilight Zone. I look at my watch and find us ever further behind schedule.
It is early morning, yet the other denizens of the dome car are wide awake, too, playing cards on the lower deck or chatting softly on the upper. Others simply listen to the conversations that the dome amplifies.
``Say, are you a reporter?'' asks Priscilla Drake, sitting beside her husband, Dalton; both they and most in the dome car are now fully aware of the details of Ms. Cessford's journey and my occupation. ``We love trains,'' she offers, her husband nodding in agreement. ``You'd be amazed how lovely the people are. Oh, there are a few bad apples, but not many.''
This pair of night owls from Baton Rouge, La., has been crisscrossing Canada and the United States by rail for three weeks, barely leaving the train. They had been to Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; all the way to Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay; and were headed back to Vancouver.
``People get on a train and they'll talk to perfect strangers about things they wouldn't talk about with their best friend,'' Mrs. Drake says. ``It's a camaraderie you don't get on a plane, and certainly not on a bus.''
I return to my seat in the darkened coach car as the train begins to slow until it stops at Melville, Saskatchewan. In the blackness, I can see figures sitting in cars, having waited possibly for hours at the whistle-stop, emerging stiffly to gather up loved ones and take them home.
The locomotive's low drone rises to a higher pitch as we pull away from the tiny town. The train will not stop there for another two days, and only then at the same ridiculous hour.
The dawn is just beginning to illuminate Saskatchewan's expanse when I find Ernest (Ernie) Appler, the chief conductor, filling out his logbook in the deserted dining car.
A railroad veteran of 43 years who began working when trains were pulled by steam locomotives, Mr. Appler has held every job on a train except that of engineer. He rides herd over nine stewards and an assistant conductor.
The biggest recent change in rail travel, he says, is the addition of showers in the sleeping cars in the past three or four years.
``Years ago, we had barbers on board,'' Appler recalls. ``But the people haven't changed. You get characters. I still enjoy it. I like the people.''
Just then, assistant conductor Ken Shorney comes by, stopping to stare out the large window, taking in the details of plowed fields, barns, and grain elevators now outlined against the rising sun. The train that was to have arrived in Saskatoon at 1:55 a.m. will arrive more than three hours late.
The two men communicate in shorthand snatches their displeasure at the delay. Shorney glances over at Appler, ``Sun's coming up. Ain't that a shame.''
``Yeah, terrible,'' Appler says.