Wednesday, December 19, 2018

30 for 40 Bonus: A lifetime of Via Rail memories from Kingston platform

To cap off this series of Via memories, I reached out to one of the country's most prolific railway bloggers, Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure. He has graciously shared this excerpt from his fine collection of Via Rail books (four, count 'em, four in total). Please see the bottom of this post for more information on Eric's books and how you can get your hands on them. - Michael

To be trackside in the Corridor in VIA’s early era was a colourful cornucopia of sights and sounds. At the time, the continuation of operations from the CN into the VIA era provided many of the same sounds but some new sights. At Kingston, time spent on the platform revealed VIA blue & yellow making inroads into CN’s black & white scheme. Platform-filling consists prevailed, with baggage cars, meal service cars, coaches, club cars and even the occasional CN business car tagging along.

VIA Nos 1/55 smoked its way out of Kingston on May 7/84: 6775-6863-617-3229-108-5649-760-123-3228-Thompson Manor-Edgeley

Positioning oneself to see the approaching consists in review, inevitably ending up next to the locomotives, each consist could be viewed twice. Bell ringing, the train would be halted at the ‘pheeeep’ of the air whistle in the cab. Brakes squealed and running gear clunked and groaned. Locomotives would be brought to idle, coach Dutch doors opened, and stepboxes would be dropped onto the platform. Handrails wiped, suitcases and babies lifted from vestibule height to platform height by trainmen and conductors, baggage wrangled by the baggageman before returning to his wooden stool in the baggage car.

Rising and falling, MLW 251’s burbled continuously. GMDL 567’s had a drumming idle. Though serendipity sometimes prevailed providing solid MLW or GMDL locomotive consists, mixing together of both makers’ models was liberal. Some enginemen would roll down the window to converse with us ‘train buffs’ while other crews would busy themselves with various cab duties, or simply stare grimly ahead!

August 26/84: CN 4361-6632-602-5458-3217-5594-5487-5595-3202-Union Club

The highball from the conductor was soon followed by the ‘pheep pheep’ on the air whistle, often answered by a ‘barp barp’ of the air horn. A tug on the coupler. Bell ringing once more, smoke-belching MLW’s and the chant of transitioning GMDL’s rising to a crescendo, co-conspirators in a cacophony of sound and smoke sent skyward. Wheels banged on rail joints prior to the advent of continuous welded rail. Faces looking out - listless coach passengers, comfortable club car patrons, convivial comrades in the ‘bar car’. Prior to tinted glass, the panoply of passengers went past, continuing on their voyages. Soon it was just the last vestibule door, marker lamps and sometimes the hot breath of escaping steam as the train pulled away.

Thanks to Eric for sharing this almost poetic tribute to the early days of Via Rail. Most of you know that Eric has written four books about Via Rail, all of which are available through this blog, dubbed New Via Rail Book. To skip ahead to the order form, click here. When you get there, you have the option to pick among these four books:

Trackside with VIA: Research and Recollections
Trackside with VIA: Cross-Canada Compendium
Trackside with VIA: Cross-Canada Compendium Consist Companion
Trackside with VIA: The First 35 Years

I should also mention that Eric has also written Trains & Grain Volume I and II, which detail his time trackside with Canada's iconic grain trains. Those books are also available through the
Grains and Trains blog. I should also mention that shipping to anywhere in Canada is included in the prices. You can contact Eric directly at

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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

This week marks the third and final installment of my favourite Via Rail memories from my lifetimes either riding the train or standing trackside. You can read the first post here and the second post here. I would love to hear some of your favourite Via Rail memories out there as well.

21. In the early 1990s, my sister went away to university in Waterloo. As is the case with many students, the train becomes the primary source of transportation when your hometown is more than a few hours away. One of the benefits to my sister being away from school was that she often would arrive home for visits in an Amtrak train, which was an exotic site, even in a border town like Sarnia. The reason why she would often come home in an Amtrak consist was that Via and Amtrak still operated their Toronto-Chicago service, which would involve Amtrak trains operating between Sarnia and Toronto with Via Rail crews aboard. I was lucky enough to capture one of those trains shortly before Amtrak ditched its F40s in favour of its ubiquitous and impossibly ugly fleet of P40s and P42s.

22. Staying with Amtrak, I once had the pleasure of boarding one of those Amtrak trains with Via crew in Sarnia when I boarded a train for Kitchener to visit my sister for the weekend when she was away at school. Cooler still, the train I was riding featured Amtrak Superliners. This was only possible shortly after the new St. Clair River railway tunnel was completed beneath Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia. Up until that point, the old tunnel could not accommodate Superliners, autoracks or double stack container cars. Not many people can claim to have taken the Superliners from Sarnia. The international service between Chicago and Toronto was terminated in 2004.

23. Once in a while, you capture magic. I am by no means an expert at photography. And to be honest, I don’t often go trackside to capture Via Rail corridor trains these days, because I have so many shots of them already. But on this day after a snowfall, I captured this image near Cedarview Road that ranks among my favourite railway photos.

24. When I was young, my grandparents would sometimes travel to their hometowns in Eastern Quebec (Le Bic and Padoue) via the formerly branded Chaleur. One weekend they had a surprise for me. It was a full-size Via Rail Chaleur poster with a stunning image of a Via blue and yellow F unit pulling a string of silver Budd coaches across a bridge somewhere in Eastern Quebec. Sadly, that poster has been lost to time. Does anyone remember a time when you could buy Via Rail branded posters? Am I dating myself right now?

25. I remember passing endless hours playing with those LRC cardboard trains that you can still get on a Via Rail train. Whenever someone in my family rode the train, they would usually bring home a small cardboard train for me. I was happy to hear that Via Rail still gives those away on the train. A nice touch.

26. Perhaps my greatest Via Rail memory was when I had my one and only encounter with the legendary Canadian at Banff station. It was the summer of 1986 and the train had just staggered into the station, being led by a CP Rail SD40-2. Obviously, the F units pulling the train had run into trouble somewhere between Vancouver and Alberta. My family was visiting our extended family at the time and someone (I’m not sure who) convinced the CP Rail engineer to let my brother and I climb on board that mammoth machine. The engineer, Rick, was nice enough to show us the basics of the engine, including what he called “the robot,” which made no sense to me at the time. Somewhere in my family archives are photos of that encounter, including a shot of my brother and me on the walkway of the SD40-2. There is also a shot of the full consist. I have been bugging my siblings to search for them, but no one has been able to locate them. I once had copies of these photos but those images have long been lost. Sigh.

27. I’m trying to remember how I ended up getting this shot, which was taken somewhere near the Moodie Drive crossing. There’s nothing spectacular about this image, but I have always liked it for some reason and have ranked it among my favourite Via Rail shots.

28. Once in a while, you see something odd at Ottawa Station. I always love it when I catch something odd. This consist might be one of my all-time favourites. I love the weird rainbow consists.

29. Many people didn’t like the Canada 150 wraps, but I thought it made for a fun year trackside. This was the first time I captured a wrap.

30. I am dating myself again, but I remember being able to go to the “snack car” when I was aboard a Via Rail train between Sarnia and Quebec City. It was when my family went to Quebec City in the summer of 1983. To a young railfan, being able to get up and walk through a moving train was the pinnacle of adventure.

So those are the Via Rail memories, both distant and recent, that stand out to me. Although the company often finds itself the target of criticism and funding constraints, I think we should all be very proud of this service. I only hope that, one day, its political masters will build the railway back up to the national carrier it should be.

Stay tuned for a bonus Part IV of this series, featuring a guest blogger.

Monday, December 3, 2018

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

To honour Via Rail Canada’s 40th anniversary, I am sharing some of my favourite Via Rail memories from my numerous adventures along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Last week, I shared my first 10 memories. Here are ten more.

11. It’s been three years since I last took the train. The last time I was on a Via Rail train was in 2015 when I had to go to Montreal for an appointment. The reason this memory sticks out is that it was the first time I had been away from my young family (my oldest daughter was three at the time when my youngest was nine months). As much as I missed my family, it was such a peaceful day! That day afforded me many rail memories, which you can read about here and here.

12. This is not really my memory, per se, but a story that was related to me by someone who used to work as part of Via Rail’s staff at Union Station in Toronto. I won’t get into too many details, to protect the innocent, but this was the story that was told to me. My contact was part of a crew whose duties included loading baggage cars and helping people on the platform in the train shed. One day, a few employees were bringing a casket to a baggage car so it could be transported somewhere for a funeral or memorial service. For whatever reason, something went horribly wrong and the casket tumbled from the platform onto the tracks, body included, obviously. I can’t imagine how this would be explained to a supervisor. I also can’t imagine the process of fixing this situation.

13. In 2010, a few days after I married the love of my life, my wife and I boarded a train from Ottawa to Quebec City for our honeymoon. For years, I had been saving Air Miles with no particular end goal in mind. One of my main responsibilities in the lead-up to my wedding was the plan the honeymoon. In a stroke of genius, I redeemed all my Air Miles and brought Via Rail gift cards, which I then used to purchase two round-trip first class tickets to Quebec City.

14. Arriving at the Quebec City train station, both as a child and then as an adult on my honeymoon. This station is one of the best railway stations, period. You don’t forget your initial experiences in this place. It is a jewel.

15. One of my favourite stretches of track to travel is the (now) Goderich Exeter Railway line through St. Mary’s, Ontario. The first few times riding this stretch of railway still evoke fond memories. This town is still served by Via Rail. When you come into town on the Sarnia Bridge over the Thames River, you feel as though you have been transported back in time. The pastoral view evokes memories of a bygone era, when idyllic small towns owed their existence to the railway. Four daily trains still serve this town.

16. That time when I wanted to capture some dramatic winter railroading shots at Ottawa Station and I came away with these dramatic images, thanks to a wind storm.

17. When my second daughter came into the world, she didn’t like me all that much, which was not surprising. However, when my wife went to work and baby had to spend time with me, I decided that a car ride would calm her down. I was right. That began a few months of wonderful jaunts through the countryside in west Ottawa looking for photo opportunities along the Smiths Falls subdivision. This might be my favourite shot from that time.

18. When I started getting a little more adventurous with my railway photos, I came across this stretch of McKenna Casey Drive in Ottawa’s west end. I captured this shot of a Via Rail corridor train while a summer storm barrelled into town from the south.

19. My sister spent a summer working in Banff and I was lucky enough to be able to go visit her. She was nice enough to take me to Banff station, where I did some ridiculously cool railfanning, which you can read about here and here. Also, over the course of our adventures, we were able to check out the old Lake Louise passenger station, when it was still in service. We didn’t see any trains when we were there, but that station might be one of the best in Western Canada. It’s too bad the Canadian doesn’t call there anymore.

20. The first time I took my oldest daughter with me to the train station, in this case Fallowfield, her lasting memory of the experience was not at all what I expected. I sat her down trackside and tried to teach her a few things about rail safety. I took a short video and the engineer was nice enough to wave at Sarah and her foamer dad. But, my daughter was much more fascinated with a crow that was craning its neck sideways to drink out of a meager puddle in the parking lot. She still talks about it. Sigh. I guess the railfan gene might have skipped a generation.