Friday, May 24, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part II)

Taking the train across Ontario is a great experience, but it is also a long day, given that this isn't a pleasure ride through the Rockies or a eye-opening trek up to Churchill, Man. Taking the train through Ontario often means getting on in small town stations, at odd hours, changing trains at Union Station in Toronto and enduring the numerous delays when Via has to make way for CN freight trains. There's also the scenery, as I mentioned. Personally, I find the ride fascinating, but for some, I'm sure it's a bit of a bore.

When I was a university student at Carleton University in the late 1990s, I rode the train dozens of times between Ottawa and Sarnia in both directions. For someone who grew up fascinated by trains, I loved travelling by train. Sadly, I was not in the habit of taking photos at the time, but I have plenty of memories of those times spent travelling across Ontario. In the last post, I shared some memories and observations of the stops between Ottawa and Kingston. This time around, I'd like to continue heading west.

Via westbound corridor train meets an eastbound CN freight west of Kingston Station, July 2016 
Between Kingston and Toronto, depending on what corridor train you are on, the most likely stops you will notice are Napanee, Belleville, Cobourg, Port Hope, Oshawa and sometimes Guildwood (Scarborough). It depends on whether you are taking a train that is considered a milk run or an express. The express trains usually stop in Belleville, Cobourg and Oshawa. Selected trains can stop at any of the above mentioned towns.
In the 1990s, this was the part of the trip where I was usually immersed in reading, chatting with friends or writing. There is some impressive scenery between Kingston and Oshawa, particularly when the tracks edge close to Lake Ontario, like in the Clarington area, just east of Oshawa. The small town stations are nice, although some, like the original Grand Trunk stonework Port Hope station, are lightly used. Given that Via has recently reinstated some service in the busy Ontario-Quebec corridor, that means more trains for towns like Port Hope.
When I rode the train in the 1990s, Belleville station had yet to be completely transformed, so my memories of this stop are quite a contrast with what is there today. The new station is a modernists' dream and features a number of modern amenities, but I'm sure there are many people who think this place just doesn't have a classic railway station feel to it. For a town the size of Belleville, this is an impressive structure. I can't think of many towns this size that have such a large, modern station. It pays to be on the main line between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.


I have lots of memories of Union Station in Toronto, going back to 1983, when I rode a train from Sarnia, through Toronto, into Quebec City on a overnighter, back when Via still did that. Union Station was the place where I saw a complete CN passenger train under the sheds, not knowing then that it was a Via corridor consist that somehow had not been repainted in the blue and yellow yet. 

In the 1990s, I spent a good number of hours in the Union Station, after my train to Toronto finished its journey and I had to wait for the evening train into Sarnia. This usually meant finding some fast food option. Unlike today with all its renovations, the Union Station of the 1990s was not the same place. In fact, you could argue it was a little rough around the edges. 

Still, the feeling you get when you enter that great hall was the same then as it is now. Back in the 1990s, it was never lost on me that entering the hall was like entering the pages of history. How many stories include this hall? How many people have passed through here? Why did they pass through here? I would venture to guess my mother passed through this hall in the mid-1950s when she was arriving in Canada for the first time, en route to her eventual home in Windsor. Like I said, countless stories.

Back in the 1990s, the train sheds were dark and dismal, charred by decades of diesel smoke. In recent years, efforts were made to brighten this space with windows, as part of the station's renovations. It makes for a more welcoming experience in Toronto than when I used to get off trains in the 1990s. The image below shows you how dark the sheds were before the renovations, as two Via eastbound corridor trains approach the station before the retrofits.

I have many memories of sitting on my luggage in line near the gates, which are located below the great hall. Many times, lunch or dinner was a hot dog purchased outside the station at a cart on Front Street, across from the Royal York Hotel. 

I will mention this memory passed along to me by a Via Rail employee, but I will not name them in any way. This person told me that, when they were working on a crew that helped pack the baggage cars, there was an incident one day when a coffin was brought down to the platforms. This person told me that, for some reason, there was a miscommunication between the people coordinating the move of this coffin into the baggage car that resulted in the contents of the coffin tumbling to the tracks. You can imagine the scene. Obviously for the family of the deceased, this is horrible. Decades have passed since this happened and this person can now smile just a bit at this story, if only to shake their heads at the absolutely awful luck and bad form that resulted in this happening. It pays to work in brighter light, I guess.


I will deviate a bit from the 1990s theme to share one memory of my time at the Guelph railway station. In 2009-10, I had just been laid off from my job in the media in Kitchener and had moved back to Ottawa to work for the government. I was engaged at the time and my now wife was still living and working in Guelph. We used to visit each other every six weeks or so between the time she finished her job in Guelph and moved to Ottawa with me, after we were married. This was a period of about 18 months apart, while engaged. Not a great time, but a good test of our commitment.

Guelph has a historic railway station perched on a hill overlooking the city's chic downtown. At the time, the city's historic 6167 was displayed in the area, but has since been relocated to an area near the River Run Centre, just on the outside the downtown core.

The station itself is another of the original Grand Trunk stations and has served the city since 1911. The building was renovated in 2016-17, to help preserve its historic character. The station is used by Via as well as Metrolinx, which provides commuter service between Kitchener and Toronto daily. So, here's my story about this station (picture was sourced through Wikimedia Commons).

After a weekend with my then fiancee, I had to board a train back to Ottawa. I remember standing on the platform on a reasonably warm spring morning, not relishing the thought of returning to Ottawa and working at a thankless job in media relations in the government. The platform was fairly full, with about 20 or so people ready to board. The quiet was shattered by the angry yelling of someone in Italian. I know it was Italian because my mother's family is Italian. And, though Italian can sometimes seem like an angry language, this isn't the case. There's expressive Italian, which I remember well, and there's angry Italian, which was what this was. When this person emerged on the platform, it was clear he was suffering from some sort of mental health episode as he continued to yell at no one in particular. I mention this story because it's my clearest memory of this station. I don't share it to be funny or make light of what this person was experiencing. 


Having lived in Kitchener two years, I have more recent memories of my time at this station, which is located on Victoria Avenue just north of the city's downtown. Kitchener's station is another of the classically built heritage stations between Toronto and London, on the Guelph Subdivision. It has an annex to its east of the passenger side that was once used by the Goderich Exeter Railway, which once operated freight services in the city prior to CN taking over that business in recent years. I do remember taking an Amtrak Superliner into  Kitchener one weekend when I was in high school, to visit my sister at the University of Waterloo. That was a fun weekend and a good memory. On my trips to and from Ottawa, Kitchener was always an area of fascination with me, as the station is built among some vintage brick industrial buildings. Many of these buildings have been repurposed. That, combined with the nearby University of Waterloo health sciences buildings and technology incubator in the old Lang Tannery mean this area is changing. It was a little rough when I passed through in the 1990s.

There's also the relatively recent addition of the Metrolinx GO Train service to Kitchener, which means this station is much busier than it was when I passed through in the 1990s.

The final leg of the journey requires an extra post, as there are a number of small stations and vivid memories for me of this time spent on the rails. Once past Kitchener, I could always feel anticipation rising in me as I returned home to see my family. I will save those memories for another time.


Eric said...

Great 'then and now' comparisons, Michael. I always call the huge station at Belleville 'The Monster that Ate Belleville'. Notably, the good citizens rejected such a monstrosity. Granted, perhaps their town is slightly more touristy, and the station perhaps more central to Brockville's core.

Another major difference is the lack of ticket booths at Toronto Union now. So much is done online that standing in line to get your paper ticket is no longer necessary to board.

Thanks for wallowing in your nostalgic memories and enabling your readers to do so, too!

Kevin from Windsor said...

Looking at VIA’s latest online timetables, it appears that Port Hope, Napanee and Prescott are no longer served. Sad. ….. I was always fascinated seeing photos of the Grand Trunk stations across Ontario and Michigan that used the same cookie cutter design. One of them is preserved for the ages at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI.

Eric said...

Hi Kevin,

I haven't heard of VIA service ending for Napanee, Prescott and Port Hope. I do know that some trains stop at different stations than others. I can see three westbounds between Napanee and Toronto tomorrow, for instance. They are indeed of a neat design!
Eric Gagnon
Kingston, ON

Kevin from Windsor said...

If you look at their “Accessible Timetables” (ie: printable) on their website, those stations are not listed. I’ll try their website later and see if it will offer tickets from any of those stations.

Kevin from Windsor said...

I tried the VIA website, and yes you can buy tickets from Napanee and Port Hope. Strange why they wouldn’t list them in their timetable. Probably because they’d rather you didn’t. :( But you cannot buy a ticket from Prescott. Doesn’t show up when you type it into the search box.