Saturday, May 13, 2006

Train 64: the afternoon slump

I’m back at Union Station by 14.40. I just have to pick up my bags from the baggage desk, and then join the line of passengers that has begun to queue for train 64. This is one of the fastest trains between Toronto and Montréal, so on a Saturday afternoon it’s a popular choice for people heading home after a trip to Toronto or who are going home for the weekend. Unlike on the ‘Canadian’, most of the passengers seem to be regulars. They’re easy to spot, because they display the nonchalance of someone who knows they don’t need to take their ticket out yet, and who don’t have the bright-eyed confusion of younger backpackers or travellers like me.

Boarding begins about twenty minutes before departure. We climb the escalator to the track, and are directed to our coaches. This train operates with assigned seating. A surprising number of passengers ignore their assignment, and then get grumpy when successive passengers tell them that they’re in the wrong place.

We leave bang on time, and our train of five or six carriages slips smoothly out of the station shed. I like to be more precise, but to be honest, I’ve reached my afternoon slump. After a short night’s sleep, and the best part of a day on my feet exploring Toronto for the second time, I’ve hit the afternoon brick wall. I kick off my shoes, and as the train picks up speed I curl up and recline the seat. If Amtrak is strongest in the north-east corridor of the United States, then VIA Rail is at it’s best here in the corridor between southern Ontario and southern Québec. The trains are fast, frequent and very popular. Going from downtown to downtown, there is no reason to fly from Toronto to Ottawa or Montréal. The car I’m in dates from the seventies, when VIA commissioned a project to build a train that would be called the ‘LRC’, a (bilingual) name for a train that would be Light, Rapid and Comfortable, or Léger, Rapide, et Confortable.

We’ve not even left Toronto behind before we’re flying along the smooth track towards our intermediate stops of Oshawa, Belleville, Kingston, Cornwall and Dorval. Through the suburbs of Toronto, we pass through deep clouds of mist that have rolled in from Lake Ontario, which we briefly see off to our right before heading in land. Then it's not long until we're racing alongside highway 41. It's satisfying to be passing cars again, even those in the faster lanes of traffic. These trains operate at up to 160 km/h, and soon the cars' tilting mechanism is engaged to smooth our passage round corners, and to make sure that the coach attendant can pour coffee without sending it out of the cup...

Inside, there's less room than the older cars that have carried me across the country, but the seats are comfortable and it's a pleasant environment to pass an afternoon. Muted colours and refurbished materials hide the age of this car. For passengers ahead of us in VIA 1 class, there's highspeed wireless internet that keeps your laptop connected throughout the trip. At the moment it's a pay-per-use service, which seems pretty daft considering the premium first class passengers have already paid (fares start at C$139 one way from Toronto to Montréal). I would like to see VIA Rail expand the service to all corridor carriages, and at least offering it free to first class passengers and accessible for a supplement to Comfort class passengers. Most of the laptops in this train are being used by students, so restricting it to first class doesn't really take full advantage of the technology that is now available.

I chat briefly with a teenager who gets in Oshawa and travels as far as Kingston. She's taken this trip many times before, and I'm pleased to tell her that is compares very favourably with the European standards of rail travel that I'm used to.

Once again, the sun sets in the west, and another day on my trip comes to an end. I drift in and out of sleep, and the train ride flies by. At just four and a half hours, this is one of the shortest trips of my entire tour, and to be honest it feels so short that I feel like I'm taking a local train.

Rain starts to fall against the window, and as the sky turns darker, we approach the border with Québec. I recognise the suburban rail stations of Montréal, and before I know it we're arriving at the airport connection station of Dorval, adjacent to Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport (or for the apolitical amognst you, Montréal Dorval Airport). Montréal approaches, and a one night layover in my adopted home beckons me. I've been travelling for just over three weeks, and I'm tired. I need a cold beer with friends, a hot shower (without friends), a long peaceful sleep in my own bed (with cats), and a heavy session down at the laundromat (with suds). The last part of my voyage is a roundtrip from Montréal to Halifax, and that starts tomorrow night.