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Hear that lonesome whistle blow
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.”
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
My heart is with Ms. Millay, but my head knows better. I have taken a train from Toronto to Halifax in the year 2014 and I’m here to report that the experience sucked.
It pains me to write that because I love passenger trains, but then I remember the glory days, when men wore fedoras and women sported perms and nobody would dream of swearing in public and trains offered an altogether cheap and delightful way to be transported from hither to yon. It was ‘transport’ in the magical sense. Trains offered hedonistic comfort along with delicious meals in dining cars with linen tablecloths and silverware that was actually silver.
That was then. In my Toronto-to-Halifax 2014 trip, the meals we ate had been pre-cooked in anonymous industrial kitchens, delivered to the train in Styrofoam containers with tinfoil tops, then heated and served on board. They tasted exactly like that.
The sleeping compartments? Clark Kent would be okay. He can change out of a business suit into his Superman costume in a phone booth — an asset for an overnight passenger train experience in 2014. Or you could be a dwarf. That would work too. If you are an average-sized human being you won’t believe what a passenger train offers for overnight accommodation. It makes a doll house look spacious and an airplane seat feel like a Barcalounger.
There is one bright light in the passenger train experience, circa 2014: the treatment you get from the staff. Via Rail personnel, from the dining car staff to the cabin stewards to the conductor, are saints.
They still offer fast, courteous and endearingly friendly attention just like the Good Old Days, but you get the impression they’re embarrassed by the threadbare trappings they’ve been reduced to.
What happened? Money. The boardroom boys realized they could make a lot more dough hauling freight than moving humans.
Years ago, when CN and CP were hived off, Via Rail was created to handle human cargo. But it was a joke. Freight rules. On Canadian tracks, freight trains always, always, have priority while passenger trains get shunted to sidings. Passengers get to look out the windows and watch as the freight trains, which get longer and longer every year, go rolling by.
Two years ago I took the train from Vancouver to Toronto. Now THAT is a trip worth taking. The food was prepared aboard, served with flair and unfailingly delicious, the scenery was spectacular, the service was extraordinary.
But gawd the ride was slow. Three, four — sometimes a half dozen times a day you would feel the train lurch, decelerate and slouch into a siding where we would sit and stew as yet another freight rocketed by. We got to Toronto a full twelve hours late.
Mind you, the food and the service and the sights were so splendid it was worth it — but still. It used to be so much better.
Those train whistles sound mournful for a reason.
Perhaps it’s just as well we seldom hear them anymore.
— Arthur Black lives on Saltspring Island. His column appears every Tuesday in The NEWS. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.