Saturday, November 24, 2018

30 for 40: A lifetime of Via Rail memories (Part I)

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.


Kevin from Windsor said...

Hey Michael, here's a VIA Rail memory for your blog. Last week of June 1982. VIA Rail journey from Windsor to Ottawa with my sister and cousin to attend another cousin's wedding. I was 16. We were to arrive in Toronto at 12:30pm with a 30 minute connection to catch the 1:00pm Turbo out of Toronto. What was supposed to be a momentary station stop in Brantford turned into a 30 minute delay while we waited for a light CN freight engine to clear the line. Soon as it passed us going west, we resumed our journey. As the CN mainline is double tracked, I never understood why we had to wait. No other trains passed us in either direction during our wait. And the conductor didn't bother to provide an explanation. However, they did notify the folks at Union Station that several of us were making a connection. Our 30 minute connection turned into a zero minute connection. We ran down the stairwell upon arriving in Toronto where a uniformed, female VIA Rail customer service official was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and pointed us to the stairwell that would lead us back up to our connecting train. We boarded the first open coach on the Turbo and grabbed the last three open seats. Riding the Turbo was on my bucket list, and I managed to do so within a few months of the last 2 being taken out of service. By 1982 there was only a single Turbo train in each direction, each afternoon between Toronto and Montreal, and vice-versa. There were pre-recorded announcements advising us not to walk around the train until after we made a station stop at Guildwood, in eastern Toronto. The Turbo was smooth and fast. Unfortunately, we had to disembark at Kingston to catch a motor coach for the balance of the trip to Ottawa. There were very few trains back then that made the connection from Toronto to Ottawa. It was a blistering hot day for eastern Ontario. A woman sitting near my on the bus was dying of thirst, or maybe it was her daughter. I had one of those Everfresh grape juice cups, the kind you used to be able to buy at a lunch counter or high school cafeteria, which I gave her. How's that for a memory?

Kevin from Windsor said...

Hey Michael, here's another VIA Rail memory for you. I don't remember the exact year. Late 80s or early 90s. Two friends and I took the train from Windsor to Toronto to see either Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. VIA was still using some really junky F units down here at that time. The train stopped on the mainline somewhere just east or just west of London. We were stopped for a long time. We were sitting in a coach close to the head end and watch out the window as the conductor grabbed a length of steel wire off an old farm fence alongside the tracks and took it up to the front of the locomotive. We couldn't see exactly what he was doing with it, but he stood there with the engineer and trainman and appeared to tie something on the front of the locomotive back together. A few minutes later, we were on our way. This was back when VIA was practicing extraordinary customer service. Coach passengers all received complimentary box lunches for a couple of years, and if the train was delayed for a certain length of time, you received a coupon for a substantial discount towards your next trip, which we did.

Anonymous said...

I took VIA from Sarnia to Montreal at 15 years old, with a friend. An adventure parents wouldn’t let kids do today. Our 2 aunts in Montreal promised to take us in for the week. 1989?
A young conductor was taking care of our coach, and it wasn’t full. He befriended us, sat with us, and after a while, offered to get us some beers. It was a great trip to Montreal! He was a cool guy, and my favourite memory on VIA. Seeing the country with a beer in hand, as a newly independent young man.

palpcaso said...

O/T but I was at the Leitrim Park and Ride today and it looks like work is beginning to extend the O-Train line south. All of the trees between the parking lot and the trail have been cut down, there are some excavators on the opposite side of Leitrim and there was what appeared to be a yellow wood chipper with a red wagon on the rails next to the NRC. Didn't get a great view as I was on the bus. Apologies for the O/T post but thought I would share.

Michael said...

Thanks for the Via memories, guys. Everyone has some great memories aboard the country's passenger carrier. And a great update on the long, long overdue extension of the Trillium Line.