VIA Rail’s premier train, the Canadian, gets most of the press, and deservedly so, but there’s another VIA train that is almost always overlooked. The Skeena runs from Jasper in the Rocky Mountains to Prince Rupert, on the Pacific Ocean. There’s an overnight stop more or less halfway at Prince George, where everyone piles off the train and walks a few blocks to a small hotel.
My wife and I rode the Skeena five or six years ago. It was a small train: a locomotive, a baggage car, one coach, and the signature Park Car, the bullet-ended lounge car with an observation dome on a second level. That was it: a locomotive and three cars.
There were only five or six of us in first class, which meant there were always front row seats up in the dome. From that vantage point, and because it was such a small train, you almost had the feeling that you were looking over the engineer’s shoulder at the track up ahead.
At one of the stops, a tall, good-looking fiftyish man climbed up into the dome and asked the four of us how we were enjoying the ride. He handed me his card and I fumbled in my wallet and gave him one of mine. Turns out it was the engineer, Joe Naaykens, and since the Skeena was moving again, I suggested he should perhaps be up in the head end rather than schmoozing four passengers in the dome.
He laughed and said there was no problem because, in addition to the assistant engineer, there was also a dead-heading engineer up there.
And that’s when I noticed the polo shirt Joe was wearing. Over the breast pocket on the left side was an embroidered VIA RAIL logo, but on the right side, in both English and French, the embroidery read, “Locomotive Engineer.” As a lover of rail travel, I blurted out that I wanted an authentic VIA Rail engineers’ shirt.
Joe scowled at me. “You can’t have a shirt like this,” he said with mock indignation. “You’re not an engineer. Heck, you’re not even Canadian!”
He and I went back and forth with our mock argument a bit longer, but we had arrived at another stop and Joe left us to return to his duties up in the head end.
About ten days later—we were back home on Maui—a package arrived in the afternoon’s mail. It was from Joe Naaykens. And in it was the shirt.