Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Triple Crown of Train Travel

Perhaps now enough time has passed since the January 15, 1990, Via Rail cuts to permit a look back at train travel in 1989 and keep emotions tempered.

Train travel was exciting... an adventure too! The way it once was... and perhaps should be. This image was on the cover of Via Rail's September 29, 1980 system timetable. This scene was captured in the former CN/GN passenger train station in Vancouver, BC.

The Montreal Gazette's Aislin has a genius for putting into illustration what words cannot adequately say. This 1989 illustration of course was referring to the Government's announced decision to cut Via Rail service on January 15, 1990.

While I have always considered myself a railfan and a sometimes dedicated train traveller, I did not even attempt to buy a ticket for a seat on any of what would prove to be the final run for many passenger trains. At that time I expected there would be too many media people probably making their first and only trip on a train and most likely being an annoyance to legitimate veteran train riders wanting to quietly say goodbye to their favourite trains.

As to which three trains would or should make up a triple crown of train travel in Canada can be debated, however during 1989 I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel on three of Via Rail's hand-me-down name trains inherited from CP Rail and CNR, and these trains are the three that I have nominated.

The Atlantic

The first rail adventure commenced on March 26. My wife and I were going the full distance from Montreal to Halifax on Via Rail's Atlantic which was formerly CP Rail's Atlantic Limited. In 1978, after Via Rail took over CP Rail's scant but surviving passenger services, the train was operated through to Halifax instead of terminating at Saint John.

While I had travelled between Montreal and Megantic on CP Rail's Atlantic Limited many times, I had never travelled the rails eastward from Megantic. I had always planned to do that but just never did. Procrastination should be considered the rail traveller's worst enemy. 1981 with almost no warning, Via Rail's Atlantic was discontinued, ending passenger train service between Montreal and Saint John over CP Rail. Cancellation also ended any hope of making another trip over the former Megantic Subdivision or the possibility of a first trip on the rails through northern Maine.

When aspiring politicians made election promises to restore the Montrea-Saint John train service, I cosidered it nothing more than worthless politilca babble. The records show, however, it was one promise that was actually kept. Via Rail's Atlantic was restored on June 01, 1985. Very few times in life come along when one is given the opportunity to correct a past mistake., and for me, making this rail trip east was to be one of those very rare occasions.

Our children stayed behind with my parents while Kie and I travelled alone to Halifax. A second honeymoon some may say. After all, the Atlantic, headed by a young FP40 paired up with an aging F unit, did rather resemble my wife and me. Our train was a lengthy thirteen car mix of former CNR and CPR equipment; a blue baggage car, three blue coaches, two daynighter cars, a stainless steel dining car, three blue E sleeping cars, two stainless steel sleeping cars completed by a stainless steel dome observation on the tail end. Our assigned bedroom was in sleeping car "Edmunston" the first of the three "E" sleepers. After quickly settling into our first class closet-sized accommodation, I retreated to the rear of the train to find a seat up in the dome. 

"E" sleeping car Elizabeth. These former CNR passenger cars (later Via Rail) built in 1954 by Pullman Standard were assigned the "E" designation because this entire group of 4-8-4 sleeping cars (4 sections, 8 roomettes, 4 double bedrooms) all had names beginning with the letter E.

At 18:30, almost to the second, the Atlantic gently eased out of Central Station, rumbled over rue St. Antoine and commenced its 1210 kilometer trek toward the ocean after which the train had been named.. Now more than 125 years old and modified several times during its life, even by today's standards Victoria Bridge is an impressive structure.

Later, clear of the bridge over Riviere Richelieu and with Mont St. Hilaire a distant view from the dome, I vacated my seat in the glass attic. For months Kie had been hinting that she wanted to eat out for dinner and I figured that St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, was probably far enough out. Dinner in the dining car had long been my favourite choice of restaurant. 

What would a train named the Atlantic and bound for Halifax have on the menu? Clam chowder and Digby scallops? 

Yes, that is exactly what was on the menu and the food was surprisingly good. Quite a few miles later I was enjoying a second or third cup of coffee when the train rumbled across the bridge above the St. Francis River, making its descent into Richmond, Quebec.

I was already back upstairs in the stainless steel caboose when the train pulled out of CN's Sherbrooke station and commenced the climb toward Lennoxville and connection with CP Rail. After the Atlantic had backed onto CP Rail's Sherbrooke Subdivision and the interlocking flickered from red to green, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Ahead were 66 miles of the former Megantic Subdivision and another three more subdivisions through to Saint John. Nearly thirteen years had elapsed sine my last trip over the Megantic Sub and I was about to fulfill an almost life long dream of travel over CP Rail's International of Maine Division.

Soon after the lights of Lennoxville had faded from view and fewer traces of civilization could be seen in the dark, the other passengers up in the dome quietly disappeared. A recent snowfall made visibility fairly good from the darkness of the dome. For most people though, I suppose watching the head end of the train disappear from view through curve after curve amidst two walls of trees in unfamiliar territory may lack appeal. There was no other place I would rather have been seated except maybe for a seat in the lead unit.

Racey, Johnville, Bulwer, Birchton, Cookshire, Ross, Bury, Long Swamp, Gould, Scotstown and Spruce. Now mostly former stations and former sidings obliterated by the passing of time, I could still name them from memory and point out their locations in spite of the dark and snow cover. Kie could only quietly endure; her ties to her past are far from Quebec's Eastern Townships.

The lead unit's horn sounded for the unsignalled road crossing a little west of mile board 16 and I was restless. Milan, Quebec, was ahead; that tiny town where all my previous journeys over this route had taken me to or from. Today, 1989, the station was gone, the siding was gone, my grandparents were gone, even their old house was gone. At mile board 15 the lead unit's horn wailed again, this time for the crossing in Milan, and within 30 seconds all was passed and out of sight. While the "Atlantic" would allow me a journey over the route of my past, the train could not return me to my past held dear. Time had forever severed all tangible links with my youth. Sadness? A little, but I am forever grateful for having been given those years.

A westbound freight was waiting in the siding at Nantes. That would be the only other sign of rail activity that I would see between Sherbrooke and Saint John. The descent from Nantes through Glen River (former siding) into Megantic was made a lively pace, the quickest since the train had departed from Sherbrooke, but nothing like the last westbound trip I made nearly thirteen years earlier; but that is another chapter.

The descendant of CP Rail's Train 42 coasted to a stop in Megantic and my long awaited rail journey over the former Megantic Subdivision was finished. Kie decided to retire for the night. This had been her first trip over these rails and I am certain she must have been wondering about my undiminished fascination with this mostly curved route through mostly nowhere. During the fifteen minute break I briefly ventured down from the dome to an open door and stepped down on to the station platform. Although the building was lighted, I saw no sign of life in the big red brick structure. Spring may have arrived in Montreal but winter still ruled Megantic. The midnight air was cold and fresh snow was deep. A few seconds was long enough to be satisfied and say I had been in Megantic again, and I retreated to the warmth inside the train.

ABS - Automatic Block Signal
Megantic to Boundary, the Quebec-Maine border, was the final major climb the eastbound Atlantic would encounter, an ascent to the highest elevation on the entire route between Montreal and Halifax. CP Rail's Moosehead Subdivision is ABS territory. Every signal approached displayed green and then flickered to red as the head end of the train entered the next block. 

At some time after the descent from Nantes and the climb out of Megantic, a bright, near-full moon had appeared above the trees. Visibility was exceptionally good. Alone in the dome I was thinking about staying up all night. Sleep won out and I too retired for the night as the train neared Jackman, Maine.

I was awake early and, after speedily washing and dressing, retreated to the dome of the Park car. Offering a similar overview of the equipment in front, a Park car is akin to a luxury caboose on the rear of a passenger train. Anyway, while I was awaiting early morning sunrise from upstairs in the glass attic, Train 12 coasted by the Danforth, Maine, station, a former Maine Central Railroad structure. Later at Vanceboro, Maine, the train made a brief pause to allow the United States Customs officers to leave the train. Afterward, the Atlantic trundled across the bridge over the St. Croix River and back in to Canada. While we remained on board the train we never officially left Canada.

Arriving almost on time at McAdam, New Brunswick, the Via Rail consist squealed to rest along side the famous huge stone structure that stands as a reminder of the golden age of railway passenger travel not so many decades ago. Joining Kie in the dining car, the two of us feasted on a hearty breakfast of pancakes, syrup, eggs and sausages, all of which was augmented by a bottomless cup of coffee. Following the mandatory  thirty minute rest in McAdam, the Atlantic charged eastward and within two miles, was rattling along atop the steel bands at or near the 65 miles per hour speed limit. An hour later and just east of Fredericton Junction, New Brunswick, the pace was more relaxed as an on time Atlantic twisted and turned through a continuous series of gentle curves. A little more than a century earlier the railway builders carved out this frugal but skewed route following the proverbial path of least resistance along the shores of the Saint John River and other waters. One notable highlight was an almost endless sweeping bend that cut through the community south of Grand Bay.

Canadian Atlantic Railway RS-23 8023. The CAR was a short-lived shortline-type railway operation established by CP Rail as a final effort to turn around the remaining money-losing Atlantic Region mileage. The experiment failed and the entire CP network east of Lennoxville, Quebec, was abandoned outright in January 1995. (Bob Heathorn photo)

Most of the tracks in the Saint John Yard were empty. The few rail cars present were empty intermodal flats patiently waiting for containers that would probably never arrive. All the major containerized ocean carriers had long since deserted Saint John for other ports. Motive power in single file was idle and I spotted RS-23 units in Canadian Atlantic Railway lettering. The entire rail yard appeared to be standing at attention for the morning appearance of the Atlantic. Lack of rail traffic was probably the true reason for no motion.

The finale was a stunning crossing of the Saint John River high above well-known Reversing Falls. This was immediately followed by a somewhat anti-climactic snail's pace descent of the steep grade terminating near Via Rail's Saint John passenger depot. An on time arrival concluded my journey over CP Rail's former International of Maine Division and the McAdam Subdivision. I was grateful to have been able to fulfill a life-long dream, one which could have very easily remained forever impossible.

"The Canadian"

During these years Kie has patiently listened to me recall numerous details about various journeys I made on CP Rail's Canadian. After the rumours about passenger train cuts finally became official news, I wanted to try to book space on Via Rail's Canadian to make a last trip over the fabled rails of the Van Horne route between Calgary and Vancouver. Also, I wanted my family to have one chance to see the mountains of western Canada from CP Rail's perspective.

Single, I had made the journey between Vancouver and Calgary in the mid 1970's on CP Rail's Canadian as often as I could, which was frequently. Employee passes made the trips no cost or low cost and I took every advantage of the pass privileges during the three years I lived in Vancouver. Unfortunately, looming changes in the Canadian Pacific organization left me with no doubt that my position was soon going to disappear. On good terms with my boss I ended my employment and returned to eastern Canada, grateful to have had those three years with Canadian Pacific in western Canada.

Oddly enough, while all coach space had been sold out through to the planned final run, some sleeping car space was available on the dates I was interested in. In fact, two complete sections were available in the same car, so all of us would be together. Conveniently, Air Canada had announced a seat sale for travel in late November and I had one week of vacation remaining which my employer was already pushing me to take. Travel arrangements went together perfectly.

Snow was already several feet deep in Banff, Alberta. During the Canadian's obligatory ten minute stop, some passengers were leaving the train but many more passengers were boarding and almost all were Japanese. Later walks through the train indeed confirmed that most of the sleeping car passengers were Japanese. Many appeared to be tired and bored; making for a quiet train because they shunned the dome cars as well as the dining facilities. Unfortunate though for Canada's visitors; the train was on time and the Canadian's entire ride down the "Big Hill" was made in daylight. Although grey and snowing, the descent from Stephen to Field was no less spectacular.

Circa 1980's: Via Rail's eastbound Train 1 at Ottertail Creek between Golden and Field BC. No snow on the ground in this particular photo but snow was abundant here in November 1989.

One memorable moment that comes to mind was early morning before dawn. Via Rail's Train 1 was proceeding along the upper Fraser Canyon. It may have been the wheels squealing against the rails through curves that awakened me but I cannot recall. I pushed the window blind up as far is it would go, propped up the pillows and lay back to watch the coming dawn. When the train curved left the head end was sometimes visible. Not too long later I heard rusting around in in the bunk above and then clicking on and off of the light switch. My daughter was in the upper berth and I was in the lower. After listening to a few more minutes of clunking interspersed with fiddling with the curtain zipper, it was obvious that Kimberly was not going to go back to sleep. Rather than have everyone awake early I had her come down and the two of us watched daybreak from the window of the lower berth.

Shortly afterward near Cisco, where CP and CN swap sides of the canyon, our train rumbled across the bridge over the Fraser River and immediately charged into a tunnel. Our side of the train now overlooked the river and North Bend was just ahead. I told Kimberly about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, about CPR's "Canadian" and why we were making this "last" trip. At times I would mention features we would soon see just ahead, and as we passed by them, she would keep asking, "How did you know, Daddy?"

Four Days Later

Via Rail's Canadian slowly rocked and groaned through switches, eventually squealing to an unhurried stop in Calgary, a surprising forty minutes early. Yes, I had turned my watch forward. Calgary was cold and clear and my 1284 miles of rail travel through the mountains were now history. My family rushed on ahead but I lingered behind and stood alone on the platform for a few moments. The brilliant afternoon sun was highlighting and reflecting off the features of the stainless steel features train. With a familiar hissing, clouds of steam were rising from beneath the cars. This is how I wanted to remeber "The Canadian" and I bade a final goodbye to an old friend.

The Cavalier

Our third trip was simply an impulse purchase... mine that was.

A final trip on the Via Rail's overnight trains 58 and 59 between Toronto and Montreal, had not even been wishfully thought about. When I went downtown to Union Station to pick up the tickets for our trip on the Canadian, out of curiosity I inquired if any sleeping car space was available on the "Cavalier" for almost Christmas Eve travel on Friday, December 22. Space was available!

October 1980: Kie inside our bedroom awaiting 59's departure
Without so much as pausing to think about it, I immediately booked the two available bedrooms and bought the tickets. I knew my children would be delighted because they had already resigned themselves to the fact that they would not be spending Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa. And I would be able to indulge in one more final journey on another soon to disappear train.

In 1988 my employer moved the head office from Montreal to Toronto. I was given the opportunity to follow and did so. Because our home in Roxboro did not sell quickly, I was compelled to travel back and forth between Montreal and Toronto on weekends during that summer. That long distance commuting reintroduced me to the Cavalier because Kie and I made a one way overnight trip on the Cavalier in October 1980.

Combing a night's rest with eight hours of worry-free travel on the Cavalier made more sense than seven or eight hourse of mindless, boring driving on Highway 401 while trying to stay out of the way of crazy truck drivers. The 23:35 departure Sunday night also allowed me more weekend hours at home.

Why Via Rail's Montreal-Toronto overnight train was permitted to travel into history on January 15, 1990, will never make sense. Before you make up your mind though, read on.

Although copied from Via Rail's September 29, 1980, system timetable, the Cavalier's schedule in 1989 was almost identical; departing both cities at 23:35 and arriving the next morning at 07:30.

The week before Christmas 1989 was bitterly cold in Toronto, even for former Montrealers. Temperatures at night were dipping down to -22C and that December 22nd evening was no exception. I had timed our departure from Etobicoke so that we would arrive at Union Station around 22:30, quickly check in, go right on to the train and settle into bed for the night.

So much for the best laid plans of...

We arrived at Union Station only to find crowds standing in almost endless queues. The extreme cold weather was wreaking havoc on Via Rail schedules and trains were departing late... very late. The "Northland" should have been gone long before we arrived but passengers had not even boarded. As for the Cavalier? The train's empty consist had not even been shoved into the station.

Via Rail employees did not seem to know when the train would be ready other than it would be some time... not too long... really... and definitely before Christmas. Impatient passengers were irritable, many of the numerous small children were fussing and all we could do was wait like everyone else. Sleeping car passengers were lucky though. With bedroom space already assigned we could seek out places to sit and wait out the delay. Pity the coach passengers who dared not move and lose their places in line.

The time was almost 00:30 when sleeping car passengers were finally permitted to board. Originally I had planned to make notes and record the names and numbers on the equipment in the train's consist. (train nut stuff) Reality dictated that my notebook would never leave my pocket. Late was understatement; outside very cold and my own children tired and cranky. Boarding the train was not the expected relief. Bunking down in the bedroom, with our winter coats on, was like spending the night in a refrigerator except colder. While steam and heat were supposedly passing through the pipes, we felt no evidence of that. Worse, plumbing was completely frozen and the toilets plugged with ice. Mercifully, sleep came early.

1980: $44.00 for a bedroom for 2 on the Cavalier
Around 02:00 I was awakened by noise outside. Pushing up the window shade to see where we were, I was surprised to discover that the train was still in Union Station; and it was still reefer cold in the passenger car. Sleepily I silently wondered, "Will anyone on board tonight really lament the demise of this train?"

In spite of the freezing cold I did not awaken again until daylight. The train was still late but had definitely made up some of the lost time. Around 07:30 I estimated that we were probably near the Ontario-Quebec boundary. Racing through Coteau within the next few minutes verified the accuracy of my estimate. On the floor outside the bedroom doors, plastic boxes containing our cold breakfasts had been left by seemingly invisible crew members. Maybe they had found a car that had heat. Our breakfast boxes must have been kept in a refrigerator to keep them from freezing. At least the fruit cups had no ice but no one wanted to eat. My wife and children were complaining about the freezing cold and I reassured them we would be in Dorval at 08:00. Lucky for me nothing else went wrong and we were all on the station platform within minutes of 08:00. Outside in the -24C at Dorval did not seem any colder than it had been on the train.

That trip was a facet of Canadian winter train travel that I had not experienced before and those memories of a frigid overnight spent in the Ice Box Express would remain with my wife and children.


October 1980: Car 5931 carrying pretty bride...and the markers.
On January 15, 1990, both the Canadian (on the CPR route) and the Cavalier followed steam and passed away into railway history. Of those three passenger trains, only the Atlantic partly survived the Via Rail system surgery. Service frequency for the Atlantic was reduced from daily departures in each direction to three days per week.

Will any of Canada's remaining passenger trains survive into the year 2000?

Should Canada's passenger trains survive into the next century?

While pondering these questions and trying to remain objective, the answers are not clear or simple.

If you love train travel in this country, then do not waste time just thinking about making that trip. Get going!

 (Written March 1993)

The Oddblock Station Agent

Monday, 21 July 2014

Future Railway Tycoon?

An interest in trains may start here but it won't necessarily end here.

A bit off the track... but that's okay... his heart's in the right place... at least according to Grandpa.

The Oddblock Station Agent 

Addendum: December 22, 2014

Cape Town, South Africa - riding on the steam train to Simon's Town.

All I want for Christmas is my...

Enthralled by the view... but not sure if that means the tracks or the mountain in the background.

Checking out the head end of the train... and that steaming tea kettle up front.

Santa Claus is here in South Africa??

Santa to Jonah: What do you want for Christmas?

Jonah to Santa: I want a train!

Speaking of tea kettles up front - can't get much closer to the action than this!

A look inside the cab of the steam locomotive.

Nearing the end of the trip

Kimberly and family are visiting South Africa for Christmas 2014. Instead of that proverbial souvenir T-shirt, Grandpa received these photos instead... and I'd rather have the photos.

Addendum: June 06, 2015

Of course the best way to see trains and rail cars is from a train. 

A little closer to home: empty autoracks waiting at the Ford plant in Oakville as seen from a GO train.

Addendum: July 31, 2015

Competition - certainly not something new with railways and this business of trains.

Audrey with her budding railway empire.

Audrey: Now if I can just get things back on track, then...

Addendum:October 04, 2016

Jonah was about to embark on his first every trip on Via Rail.

October 01, 2016, Jonah with Mom on Train 66 awaiting departure from Union Station.