Friday, May 12, 2006

Seen from a train: man on a bike

Train 2: time begins to slow

Such is our progress throughout the morning that not only do we make up lost time, we actually reach Capreol ahead of schedule. VIA Rail make sure that their long distance trains enjoy padded timetables with plenty of time at servicing stops like this one to make sure that the trains can usually arrive close to on time.

The sun is shining down when train 2 disgorges several hundred passengers into the small town of Capreol. This little community must get an economic boost six times a week when the train stops here: people go down Main Street to buy snacks, newspapers and to drain the CIBC bank machine of its fresh banknotes. I turn the other way, however, and do my platform tour to the end of the train. Again, friendly VIA Rail crew greet me at every step, and I exchange a few words with the passengers I spoke to in Sioux Lookout. I turn on my heels, and re-join the crowd of coach passengers who have been into town during the thirty minute break. We make sure that a certain passenger hasn’t been tempted by any more complicated take out meals, and re-board for an on time departure at 12.55.

The rest of the day begins to drag. Much like the frustrations experienced by the smokers amongst us who can only cope by knowing exactly how long until the next smoke stop, everyone is now beginning to focus on our eight o’clock arrival in Toronto tonight. The last few hours start to slip by like whole days. Our track guides us smoothly through gentle curves, past shining lakes and through massive rock cuttings. Like the imprecise faux-landscape I constructed for my model railway as a child (using bits of rock, moss and twigs found in the garden) we’re passing through an extremely mixed scenery, of deciduous and coniferous trees, rocky outcrops, still lakes and brown wetlands.

As we come closer to the densely populated heart of southern Ontario, we start to slow through small villages and lakeside communities. The sign of the approaching metropolis is the gentrification of the countryside homes that we see. I spend most of the last few hours up in the dome car with the people I’ve met in coach class. Newspapers, books and su-doku puzzles are having less and less of a distracting effect. We attempt to occupy ourselves with other puzzles, and succeed in finding ninety-two words using only the letters in the word ‘planets’.

Yep, the day is dragging. But at least the sun is out.

Capreol: not your standard trucks

Note the extra set of metal wheels under the fronts of these CN maintenance trucks. Pull a lever in the cab, and your truck can go off road.. and onto rails. Ford should think of selling that as a standard option...

Train 2: don't forget to stop in Capreol

Train 2: the last breakfast

Before going to sleep I changed my watch forward one hour. We’re now on eastern time, and I am back in my native time zone. However, there are still many more kilometres to cover. I walk back to the restaurant car, having decided that for my last day on-board the Canadian, I should treat myself to the proper sit down breakfast just one more time. Outside, raindrops are falling horizontally against the windows of our carriage. I recall that the last time I was in Toronto it rained as well. I hope my second visit isn’t marred as well.

It’s a short walk back to the ‘Fairholme’ restaurant car, through our Skyline car and three sleepers. It appears that the first two are the ones that are running light with our train, because there are no signs of occupation on board. I get to the restaurant a little before 06.30, and find one table already partly occupied by some of the friendly faces from coach class. It seems I am not the only one up front who has decided it’s not worth eating a picnic breakfast today.

Each splashes out, and I go for fruit yoghurt followed by French toast. My dining companions are excited to be drinking real coffee again, not the slightly harsher liquid served from our take out counter. We talk about our journeys: one girl is going to a conference in MontrĂ©al, another is returning to Halifax at the end of a thirty day North America Rail Pass trip like me, and the third is an English student, touring Canada with her bicycle. She has yet to decide whether to get off the train in Parry Sound this evening to cycle and camp, or stay on board as far as Toronto and stay with friends: the weather is likely to decide for her. As the coffee flows, the conversation picks up energy. Much amusement is being derived throughout the car from the pair of loud Brits in our car (brothers it seems, both easily identifiable thanks to a identical wardrobes and goatee beards). They seem to be trying hard but failing to make friends with members of the opposite sex while on the train. Might have something to do with their opening line being “Hello. You’re pretty.” I carry a great deal of shame and embarrassment for Great Britain.

Our table is served today by a pair of young employees, who one reveals are on their first proper tour of duties. My order is fluffed to begin with, and I’m delivered pancakes instead of French toast, but since everyone on the table has had waiting experience and is about the same age as our servers, we are more than happy to wait. Strange how the older you get, the angrier people like to get with waiting staff. I’m more than happy to leave a tip for the friendly service.

Train 2: sunset over Ontario

Train 2: third and final night

I sink back into my book, and watch the sun go down on northern Ontario. I’ve been warned before that while beautiful, this stretch will seem like the longest part of my trip. I am already glazing over as we pass forest after lake after forest after lake after forest etc. This thinly populated region is in the heart of the Canadian Shield, and it marks a period of the trip with few guaranteed stops.

I make myself another bagel (“ooo… salami and cheese, no there’s a combination I’ve not had before”) and head back to the lounge car to read some of the newspapers that have accumulated there. I start talking with the man who nearly missed the train because of a choice between Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. He works in construction, and lives near Guelph, Ontario. We’re both very familiar with the business of building houses, only he reminds me how little I know about the most reliable way of pouring concrete. We compare how our professions differ, and talk about life in Canada. Wherever I go in the world, I like to ask myself “How would it be to live here.” I’ve been doing this even more in Canada than I have elsewhere, and while it may add up on paper I’ve yet to be absolutely convinced. As he points out, the high tax economy is not the best for someone who works hard and puts in a lot of overtime. I later think to myself that it would be fairly easy to ease off on hard work and overtime, though, if pressed…

During our conversation I spy a beautiful sunset out of the opposite window. I run back to get my camera, and for once on this trip I don’t miss it. The obligatory appropriation of every beautiful sky or landscape continues.

I finish the day with a hot chocolate from the take out counter beneath the Skyline observation dome, and talk for a little while with two French girls, one from MontrĂ©al, the other from Lille in France. They’re desperate to speak English while on holiday, and I’m desperate to speak French before I forget everything I’ve learnt in the last six months. We come to a mutual compromise, and speak Franglais for the rest of the conversation. My eyes are getting heavy by 23.30, and I decide to go to bed.

Or rather, go back to my seat. I suspect that re-adapting to sleeping coach class will take some time.

Train 2: Sioux Lookout

We reach Sioux Lookout just before seven o’clock in the evening – incredibly we’ve made up almost forty-five minutes and are now just fifteen behind schedule. This is the next major stop for the ‘Canadian’ and there’s fifteen minutes for me to hop off the train and do a walk to the end of the carriages while the train is fuelled up. Some passengers have crossed over to Sioux Lookout’s main street to get food from the local stores or sandwiches from the town’s ‘Subway’ franchise. Our attendant explains that fifteen minutes means fifteen minutes, and they scamper off.

My walk to the end of the train takes significantly more effort and time than it did on the ‘Hudson Bay’ but it’s worth it for the exercise. Along the train at every open door stands a VIA Rail attendant, smartly dressed in a uniform with a small yellow step on the ground. Each says hello or asks how I am… these people do not miss a beat. Amtrak would do well to send some of their on-board crew for a railroad holiday in Canada to pick up some useful tips.

I reach the end of the train and talk to a couple who are going on to Halifax. They’re travelling in the luxurious ‘Silver & Blue’ class, and we chat standing next to the elegant streamlined Park car at the end of the train. We joke about how VIA Rail like to keep some distance between the cheap seats up front and the classy folk at the back. I make my excuses (namely that I’ve got a long walk back to my coach) and head back to the front of the train. Everyone, it seems, has re-boarded, and it’s just left to the coach attendant to stall the anxious locomotive driver as he yells “all aboard!” at an ever louder volume to the stragglers coming back from town. The steps are lifted up, the door is closed and the conductor calls ‘highball’ over the radio to the engineers, the signal that we’re safe to leave.

But as the train starts to roll, something is not right. The seat behind me is empty, and along with a girl across the aisle, we realise someone has been left behind. Just as we call down the carriage to the conductor, our missing passenger appears off to our left. Leaping like a startled hare, the man is flying across the dusty yard beside the track. His feet barely touch the ground, and when they do they send small puffs of dust up into the air. Moving like an Olympic athlete, he leaps over the sidings, leather coat flying out behind him, one arm in the air, the other holding onto a ‘Subway’ sandwich bag. Frantic radio calls are made, and the train is able to come to a halt within the station. A small cheer goes up as our nearly abandoned fellow passenger walks, breathless, down the aisle. It’s a beautiful moment.

We start up once more, and continue on our way. The army may teach you to never leave a man behind. But VIA Rail have timetabled slots along stretches of single track to keep to. So next time you use a smoking stop to go and buy a sandwich, be sure to avoid those pretentious ‘fresh’ sandwich bars where the server asks you more questions than you’d answer in a driving test.