Via Rail Canada’s 40th anniversary had me thinking back to all my memorable moments on the train. Like many others, many of my experiences on the train are tied to family trips and travelling between my hometown in Southern Ontario and university in Ottawa. I encourage anyone else out there to maybe share a few Via memories of your own. As much as people complain about our national passenger railway, I think the railway deserves a great deal of praise for continuing to provide an excellent service despite being at the mercy of its various political masters over the years. So, without further ado, here is the first installment of my 30 Via 40 memories. Let’s start with the first 10 memories, in random order.
1. My first ride aboard Via Rail was when my family took a short trip from Sarnia to London because my father had some appointment in downtown London. I was very young but I have a vague recollection that we were in an old Via Rail blue and yellow coach on a sunny morning. I also remember getting off the train at the old London station and getting into a yellow taxi cab for the first time in my young life. For a kid from a town of 6,000, seeing a “big” city and travelling on a train was about as much excitement as I could handle. This trip was very likely circa 1983-84.
2. I am lucky that I was able to catch the tail end of Via’s rainbow years, when there were was a variety of equipment in use. I recall the first time I saw a Via Rail train in the wild, as it were. The train was an all-blue consist, with an old F unit on point. We were stopped at the Bloomfield Road level crossing in Chatham, as we were making our way to Windsor to visit my grandparents. The train was heading east toward London. I don’t know why this moment sticks out in my mind, but it could not have been any later than 1983. Even to this day, my favourite piece of railway motive power is any F unit. I guess for me, they would hold the same fascination that steam holds for older generations.
3. In 1983 (this time, I know it was 1983), my family was taking the train from Sarnia all the way to Quebec City on the train for a family vacation. I have a number of memories from that time, including sleeping on the seats of an old blue and yellow coach as the train made its way overnight into Quebec. There can’t be a much more Canadian experience than this. My mom told me I fell asleep for six hours on one of those seats. I could never do that today.
4. During that same trip, I remember my brother and I walking the platforms as we were getting on to our train at Toronto’s Union Station. We spotted an old CN black-and-white consist on the platform. At the time, I had never seen any passenger equipment in anything but the familiar Via Rail blue and yellow. It would be years before I realized that Via hadn’t always just been around. The sight of those old CN black and white coaches made me a little bit jealous. I wanted to be on board that train, I told my brother. I was intensely curious.
5. Skipping ahead many years, I remember bringing my now departed dog Tessie to the Fallowfield train station in 2011, to pick up my wife who was returning home from a conference in Toronto. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter and my dog had never been apart from her, which was a bit traumatic for the dog, since my wife works from home. Well, I thought it would be a nice surprise for my wife, but it turns out that the sound and thunder of the approaching train scared my dog (a small schnauzer) half to death. But, all was well, when my wife emerged from the train and my dog saw her favourite person in the world.
6. One time on my way home from university in Ottawa, there was a great deal of commotion behind my seat. I turned around to see a flurry of well-wishers shaking hands with Walter Gretzky, who was heading home as well.
7. In 1998, I was aboard one of the very last Via Rail trains to make it into Ottawa before the ice storm essentially shut down everything in Eastern Ontario and West Quebec.
8. In October 1996, I took the train home for Thanksgiving weekend, after being away at university for the first time in my life. I arrived at Sarnia station pretty late after a long day in transit. My brother was on the station platform waiting for me. I remember him jumping up to see where I was. It’s always good to have that type of homecoming.
9. The first time I had one of those “Where am I?” moments was on one of my first trips aboard a Via Rail train to Ottawa. The train stopped at Ganonoque Station. I looked around and essentially saw nothing. Anyone who has travelled in this area knows this station is in a pretty isolated location. That was when I wondered what kind of one-horse town Ganonoque was. Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Ganononque is actually a really cool little town along the water. You just wouldn’t know it from the station.
10. I am going to date myself here, but I remember when you could still smoke on a train. As part of my family’s trip to Montreal (again, this was early 1980s), half of our LRC car was designated as smoking. I remember a very animated group at the opposite end of our car carrying on a lively conversation in French. My mom and dad were not impressed. It was only later that I discovered that the group was actually telling a bunch of dirty jokes.