To paraphrase Canadian storyteller Stuart McLean, the Via Rail is mentioned in the Bible – while being about “all things that creep and creep”. It is true that there are faster ways to travel across the country.
And there are times – say, when one of several freight trains is pushed for an hour on a siding whose right-of-way is used by the same track via Via – when the idea of running becomes tempting. But it would defeat the purpose.
Despite regular, scathing talk about high-frequency rail in Canada, our nation’s trains are unfairly ignored at the edge of our national infrastructure. They are not a simple vehicle, but a neglected national symbol.
Unlike taking a passenger plane, anyone who chooses to go by train spends a memorable part of their life on it. As a result, speed is not the fundamental attraction of train travel. Instead, it’s your chance to catch up on long-stalled tasks, while letting the vastness of the country take hold of you.
For example, a 3,400-kilometer trip from Winnipeg to Halifax is enough to read all 900 pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”. By the time I reached Montreal and boarded the historic Ocean Line for Halifax, Ivan Karamazov was doing pretty much the same thing, leaving Skatoprigonievsk for Moscow: “The traveler was feeling troubled in his heart, but he was eagerly waiting for his He was looking around at the fields, the trees, a flock of wild swans flying high up in a cloudless sky. And suddenly he felt very happy.” I could relate.
Helping to lower the Montreal skyline, in front of its blocky façade were the glowing red letters of the Farin’ Five Rose Mill, which carved a trail of ghostly neon in the dark sky. As the ocean came out and over the St. Lawrence, the river began to flow fierce and dark in the warm evening air.
If one isn’t pressed for time, there’s little better than sitting in the comfort of your favorite chair at home, or very close, and looking out the window at a slowly but constantly changing scene.
Speed cannot reveal the line where city becomes suburb, and suburb country, and country city to country; Passing slowly, one can almost place one’s finger on those dividing lines. For one, had we shot out of Montreal, I would have missed, or mistaken for the grass, corn stalks growing between the rail ties at the Pointe-Saint-Charles rail yard, some grain seeds vibrating from the car. Crop grown from.
Train passengers are different from other passengers. Free from the rigors of security measures, they travel without any burden. As the lights dimmed, a sense of dew-like comfort fell over the cabin, with most evenings settling in with blankets and sleep masks.
With my book, and a packed lunch of puffed-wheat cakes and Polish candies, I felt well prepared for whatever might come; A train passenger requires little more than just sitting and watching. There is no need to worry, no turn to decide, no exit to miss.
This was not the sentiment shared by all that evening. Across the aisle, a fellow passenger sat in his seat, nervously hung a bag over his restless leg and tossed it like one could be a happy child. Clinging to the open bag was a toothbrush, a glue gun, a mint tin with a faded picture of hockey star Eric Lindros and a paint on it.
During the trip, he studied sporadically but intensively from a torn copy of the “Official YMCA Physical Fitness Handbook (Questions You Should Be Able to Answer About Your Good Health)”. It was comforting to know that in case I broke my glasses, or needed to flip an egg, or wanted advice on proper jumping-jack form, he was also very close.
In the morning, as the sea came out from the confines of the birch corridor, we riders strained to measure our surroundings. “I swear I saw a wild turkey,” said someone, and we all bowed our necks hoping to find the bird. The train is a phenomenon not only for the people inside but also for the people outside. People double-take, stare and snap pictures. Near the Quebec border, where the line follows the Matapedia River, impregnated fly fishermen, waist-deep in the water, halt their reeling to turn and wave.
Here, the bearded, fat steward drew our attention through the window. “We’re running a little late,” he said, his voice tinged with resignation. He told us that during the night we were turned ashore outside Rivire-du-Loup. and Rimouski. and Mont-Jolie. It was there, in the half light of dawn, I was shaken by a freight train that was blurring past, turning the window under the force of its motion.
By the time we reached Matapediya at 11 am, we were four hours behind our time. Of course we all knew it, but there was nothing to it. Regardless, more than a century later (the line’s first run was in 1904), the ocean is still ironing out some of the kinks, once you’re on, you’re on.
But it was a nice sight. We had entered New Brunswick’s woodlots and high, white church spires, and the railroad line was surrounded by goose and mulberry bushes. In Campbelton, darkness fell over the Sugarloaf Mountain Restigouche River. After a brief, refreshing stop in the cool salt air, we continued to embrace the Baie des Chalers, where bone-white driftwood lines the high water trail along the rocky beach.
When we arrived in Moncton (we were about to arrive in Halifax at the time), the disembarkation passengers suddenly seemed disoriented and tired, as if the proximity had defeated them. Those traveling to Halifax appear more refreshed: the longer the trip, the less the impact of delays. For all our trouble, we enjoyed a full chicken dinner as a complimentary, late hour offering of peace.
The mud fields of Fundy Basin gleamed in our second setting sun as we crossed into Nova Scotia, and two hours later, we entered the Halifax fox, as if afraid to wake it. Behind a gray veil of mist, the city was gray and quiet. As the ocean separated the cold Atlantic curtain, we were warm and happy from within.
Travelers are reminded to check public health restrictions that may affect their plans.