Michael Enright's Blog from the Train

Some thoughts about the journey...

From Ocean to Ocean, a diary of Sir Sanford Fleming's expedition though Canada in 1872:

1st July 1872 - Three friends met in Halifax and agreed to travel though the Dominion, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. All three have personal and business matters to arrange, requiring them to leave on different days and reach the Upper Provinces by different routes.

And here we are, 138 years on, retracing some of Fleming's steps on VIA Rail - train number 15, called The Ocean. You don't really get a sense of the vastness of this country, nor its rolling emptiness, until you cross it by train.

The train doesn't obliterate the land the way a jet does. You have to take in the country on the train's own terms - its rhythms, its tempos, its foibles. So we leave from Pier 21 in Halifax - the debarkation point for thousands of immigrants from pre-and post-war Europe coming to a vast empty, but welcoming land.

They came looking for a country in the first decade of a new millennium - 125 years after the last spike was hammered in, to complete ocean-to-ocean rail travel. By following the rails to Prince Rupert B.C. and by talking to people on the train and along the way, we might just learn a thing or two about the way we live now. The train is our mobile laboratory.

The other day walking to work, I waved at a passing freight. I got some strange looks from passersby. But I was raised to wave at trains. The train engineer didn't wave back this time, but often they do. It really doesn't matter if the train doesn't wave back.

Waving acknowledges the excitement and the romance and the power of the train.

But I always think of it as a kind of "Thank You". A kind of acknowledgment, I suppose, of the debt this country owes to the train. And the sad realization of what we have done to the idea of train service.

Friday February 26, 2010

Day 1

12:30 pm - The Ocean eases out of Halifax station in the south end of the city. There is no snow but there is a howling wind and a soul-searing horizontal rain. Trains leave big cities through the back door. They glide by the backs of things - factories, schools, houses. They take us behind the brave and gaudy fronts of things. My little room is comfortable and compact - about the size of a walk-in closet. There are a few places where you can get as close to your thoughts as a train compartment. This is my "monk's cell" for a couple of days.

3:30 pm - We are nearing Springhill, so naturally I think of the disaster at the Cumberland Mine, and I think of Anne Murray. Nova Scotia in February is dreary, dark and gray - Dr. Zhivago country. But I guess that is the same everywhere. The leafless land seems asleep. The country in winter looks tired.

5:10 pm - Moncton, New Brunswick. There was a time not long ago when Moncton was a thriving railway town with more than 3,800 people working for CN. Now it's down to fewer than a hundred. From dozens of trains, there are now only two a day - one going east, one west.

6:00 pm - Northern New Brunswick. As we pass through the forests, ice-burdened tree branches scrape the roof and windows of the speeding train. The conductor comes on the intercom and assures us there is no danger. Dark now. All I can see out the window is my own reflection. The gentle rocking of the train - its quiet hum, its occasional mournful horn - I am told will almost guarantee a good night sleep.

Saturday February 27, 2010

Day 2

6:05 a.m. - We have left New Brunswick and crossed the St. Lawrence at Charny. We are now in real winter country, this is Gilles Vigneault's Quebec. There is a lot more snow here than in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. It is piled high along the railway tracks and along the sleeping streets of the dark little towns.

Sleeping on a train is an acquired talent, one I've not yet mastered. The thrum of the engine, the constant clacking and bumping make it very hard to get deep sleep. I'm constantly waking up, turning over and falling asleep again. At one point I read my watch as five-thirty, but when I turn on the light it is actually one-thirty.

The train in the dead of night feels bathed in mystery and seems something of an intruder in the villages and lightless towns. After all, we haven't been formally invited. The woods feel much closer to the bedroom window.

At dawn, the sun finally manages to break through, the typical February/March - icy, glazed Canadian sun emitting neither heat nor light. With the heavy snow on the tracks, we're running about forty minutes late. Roch Carrier, he of the Hockey Sweater short story, climbs aboard the train. Of medium build, he has flashing blue eyes and flyaway white hair. Among all his other accomplishments, he is the only writer I'm aware of who is quoted on the back of the five-dollar bill. He grew up in a village called St. Justine, which had a church, a school, a skating rink, but no library. St. Justine now boasts the Roch Carrier Public Library.

After Montreal, we head into what the train people call "The Corridor". This is the busiest route between Montreal and Toronto. The train is full of tourists and business people and families with children starting an early March break.

Our train is running more slowly than usual because of the congestion of freight trains. Every time our train comes upon freight, we have to slow down or stop altogether till it passes. Dead freight is more important to CN than live passengers on VIA. One more symptom of the deliberate degradation of our rail system.

Crossing into Ontario, we run deep into United Empire Loyalist country. Deeply loyal. A mural on the wall of the Brockville train station depicts the long ago royal visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. My father always referred to the UELs who fled the American Revolution as "people who didn't know a good thing when they saw it." Though there are hardscrabble farms in Eastern Ontario, there is also money in the towns along the St. Lawrence. From the train window you can catch glimpses of grand old homes in Brockville.

At Kingston, Alia Hogben joins us. She is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Cheerful, eternally optimistic, she engages in a debate about Muslims, immigration, and the rights of women with great good humour and clarity. We talk about the Muslim experience in Canada.

The conductor announces that yes there will be another delay, arriving in Toronto about 40 minutes late and yes; it's caused my more freight train congestion. You really can't blame VIA. They truly cling to the dying idea of customer service. CN on the other hand, couldn't care less.

We have left the Atlantic and The Corridor on our cross-Canada exploration by train.

Tonight at ten we begin the long haul west to Winnipeg, 34 hours to get through Ontario.

Sunday February 28, 2010

Day 3

It will take a day and a half to get to the Manitoba border. Ontario must be at least the size of Germany. Once we clear Muskoka Cottage Country and get past Sudbury around five in the morning, we will be in timber country. Places with names like McKee's Camp, Felix, Ruel and Gogama. Some are pretty desolate. The houses are beaten down. Some show no sign of life. The train is the only sound as it slices through the snow-covered settlements. And when we pass Thunder Bay, we will have completed about half our journey to Prince Rupert.

In its heyday, in the 1990s, this train The Canadian would have as many as 14 or 15 sleeper cars. This year in summer it will have three. It is far more profitable for the rail companies to carry freight than people.

Near noon, the sun finally crashes through the cloud cover. There is an immediate change in the landscape. The snow banks are suddenly charged with white light that reflects he shadow of the passing train cars.

The food is excellent on The Canadian; the VIA chefs are very good at what they do. In fact one of them left the train service for a few weeks to be a chef at the Olympics.

There is no Wi-Fi on the train and until we reach Hornepayne in Northwest Ontario around three in the afternoon, there is no cell phone coverage. There is something comforting about being disconnected for a few days from the outside. No television, no Internet, no radio or e-mail. Just a few books and an iPod offering Bach and Art Tatum.

On airplanes, we rarely talk to strangers, our fellow passengers; the chat is perfunctory. But on a train because of the time and distance and close quarters, we talk to everybody. For example a lovely woman named Margaret who fled her home in Vancouver to get away from the Olympics. What finally did it was a pamphlet put out by the Vancouver Olympic Committee telling the locals how to behave. She spent the Olympics on the Island of St. Lucia and is going home - slowly and deliberately - on the train.

Speaking of the Olympics, All day, everybody has been wondering how we can learn the score of the Canada-U.S. hockey game. We could have used our cell phones at Hornepayne, but the game hadn't started yet.

Then at five to six Sunday night, Fabien, the train boss, announced that Sidney Crosby had scored in overtime to defeat the Americans. Cheers broke out in the bedrooms and along the corridors. Fabien said on the loudspeaker "Bravo Canada!"

At dinner tonight everybody seemed in an ebullient mood. The movie tonight is The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. I decide to pass. Tomorrow we begin our trek across the Prairies.

Monday March 1, 2010

Day Four

The sun is high and strong and so are Winnipegers.

In the coffee shops, the train station, hotel lobbies, all the talk is of Sidney Crosby, the remarkable goal and Canada's hockey and medal supremacy.Thins is Paul Henderson, Expo '67 and the Referendum victory rolled into one extravagant outburst of patriotic exuberance.

I walked from Union Station down to Portage and Main. This Monday morning it is business traffic as usual. But yesterday and last night, it was jammed with thousands of screaming hockey fans.

The other topic of conversation is the weather. Winter has been much warmer than usual, almost tee-shirt weather. There is hopeful talk of spring and this being Winnipeg, t o spring flooding.Must Winnipeg forever suffer an endless litany of bad weather jokes by Eastern comedians?

My train friend John called Winnipeg Canada's forgotten city. But, he adds, there is so much going on here you never have to go any place else.My younger smarter cousin Robert joins us and the train pulls out of the station, running past the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the dream of the late Izzy Asper.

Question: What kind of exhibits do you put in a museum of human rights?

Moving out of the city, west, the land is impossibly flat to the horizon. And it is so vast you can hardly pick out the horizon.Covered with snow, with the sun blazing overhead, wit the gently rolling train, the scene is hypnotic. Like staring into a fireplace or a fish tank.

Often the only break in the landscape is the familiar grain elevator. There used to be 1,700 of these things between Manitoba and Alberta. Now there are 50. The pace of life on board has become a familiar ritual. We are all pros at this transcontinental train business.

It seems to be traveling more slowly and the sun has made everybody a bit sleepy. The train itself is crawling across the land, stopping or slowing down behind the ubiquitous million dollar freight trains.

At five-thirty, we cross into Saskatchewan, home of John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas. How the same place could produce two such polar political opposites has always intrigued me.

I was hoping to stop at Regina, but the trains don't run through the provincial capital anymore. The railway station has been turned into a casino.

We do stop in Saskatoon but in the middle of the night.

Tuesday March 2, 2010

Day Five

Six-thirty in the morning.

A full moon seems about to touch down on the prairie. A soft glow coming up in the east, a gorgeous, empty early dawn. From the dome car you can see horizon to horizon; the land seems limitless.They don't call it the Big Sky country for nothing. Alberta exudes power, the natural kind that comes from the earth in the form of oil and gas and the power the land hold over the imagination.You can see from the landscape why Albertans feel different and feel their opportunities are without limit.
It is all here, oil, gas, ranching, the full bounty of the earth.

Yet to talk to Danielle Smith, who gets on the train at Edmonton, there is something very wrong with Alberta.

Ms. Smith is the leader of the Wild Rose Alliance Party, a populist political movement that hopes to topple the Conservative dynasty that has held power here for 40 years.Her major complaint is that the royalties paid to the oil and gas companies aren't large enough to keep the Alberta economy humming.She seems to be picking up support from disaffected Conservatives unhappy with Premier Ed Stelmach.

The light on the flatlands seems different somehow than in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, clearer somehow.

A couple of hours outside if Jasper, we start to see a slight rise in the land, gentle escarpments which will soon translate into the foothills of the Rockies themselves.
We pass through Hinton, site of a horrific train crash back in the eighties, when a passenger train collided with a freight that was parked where it shouldn't have been. More than 20 people were killed.

We travel through a short tunnel and emerge in Jasper National Park and the our first sight of the Rockies. To say they are breathtaking doesn't convey their beauty.
Because we are on the lee or dry side of the mountains there is hardly any snow. The mountain tops are tufted with lodge pole pine trees. And we catch the odd sight of mountain sheep. Some of them simply stand and stare at the train, indifferent as judges.

Jasper itself is a beautiful little town. Because it is inside a national park building restrictions are strictly enforced. No junk food restaurants; the one and only McDonald's opened and closed some time ago for lack of business.
It has a Need To Reside Law which means you can't own a piece of land or a house unless you live full-time in the town.

And yes there is a statue in the middle of town to Jasper the Bear, the cartoon character created for MacLean's Magazine in 1948 by James Simpkns.
In the afternoon, we travel to Maligne Canyon, a narrow gorge now all iced in.
We are guided by a man named Ben Gadd who knows this country intimately. He has been guiding park visitors for more than 30 years. He knows the name and history of every mountain in the range.

Our trip down and through the Maligne takes about two and a half hours.
We came across some ice climbers scrambling up a sheer ice face, at least 100 feet above the canyon floor. My stomach got dizzy watching them.

Tomorrow we board a much smaller train for the all day trip deeper into the Rockies to Prince George. Sometime tomorrow afternoon we will cross the Continental Divide and move into British Columbia.

Wednesday March 3, 2010

Day 5

Wednesday mid-afternoon. About an hour out of Jasper on our way to Prince George, the train suddenly lost power. We came to a full stop east of a town called Dunster.

Apparently the problem had something to do with the electrical system; whatever the cause, the engine had no pulling power.
The engine crew got on the phone to Montreal to talk to what they called a diesel doctor.

After a number of conversations with Montreal, Gerry the engineer pronounced "This engine is dead."

There were two options; to wait for another engine from Jasper or to call for a bus to pick us up. The bus seemed like the best idea.
Gerry the engineer said we would have to wait for an Eastbound freight train to gently push us back five miles to a siding to get us off the main line.
We waited for about three hours. Everybody was in a good mood in a school kid, giddy sort of way. Gilbert the service manager, plied us with coffee and train stories.

Finally the freight train arrived and pushed us to an open place near the highway so we wouldn't have to lug our bags more than a few hundred yards.
As we looked out the window we saw a bus drive along the highway, slow down and drive away. The crew unloaded the bags and line them up along the highway.
Half an hour later the bus returned; someone had told the driver to go to a nearby train station.

By now it was getting dark. We loaded the bags, headed west into British Columbia and arrived at Prince George four hours later.

One of our Tasmanians said it reminded him of trains in India.

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