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.

18 hours in Toronto, ON

Toronto is my rest stop for less than twenty four hours. After arriving, I make a bee line for the TTC subway station that is adjacent to Union Station. Once again it is The Hospitality Club that has lead me to the door of Erika, yet another friendly and fantastically kind host who is able to give me free accomodation for the night. I arrive at during the unfolding of a particularly uncomfortable set of personal circumstances, but despite a very long day it's a real pleasure to be able to show up on her doorstep and have a really interesting and engaging conversation or two, before I collapse for the night on her air bed.

The next morning I offer Erika my sincere thanks and make my way back into town. I've got to get some wool for BMM from a small shop in Kensington Market, which I'm pleased to say I found by back tracking from my trip in January (and with a little help from Google Maps...)

I leave my luggage in Union Station, again for C$2.50 a piece... strange how certain stations charge for this service while others will happily guard items for free.

I use my three remaining hours to explore the markets just east of Union Station (well worth a visit, especially on the weekends) and then stop for a coffee in a friendly diner near-by. In the window is a poster which says "You can pay $5 for an Italian Coffee near-by or $1 for a coffee served by a man who looks Italian." I am happy to go for the second option. I plod up Yonge Street and find a branch of H&M which still has the decency to stock men's clothing. A few garments are dug out from the sale rail, and I find a new pair of trousers for the summer.

I head west to check a few small galleries and to see the new Sharp Centre for Design of the Ontario College of Art & Design (pictured) which actually came across better in the 'flesh' than I had expected. Designed by the British architect Will Alsop, it came in for a lot of criticism from those offended by the black and white tiled skin, multi-coloured legs and unusual spatial arrangement. 'Unusual spatial arrangement' meaning the way in which the whole thing is mounted six storeys above ground level, partly overhanging an existing building. I didn't like it when I first saw the images in the architectural press, but having actually walked around and underneath it and seen the rest of Toronto's architectural variety, I'm pleased to see a brave addition to the city's fabric.

I poke around, pick up some stationery from the adjacent art supplies store and check my watch. It's time to head back to Union Station to get my bags, and to get back on a train...

Train 2: Toronto

Train 2: into Toronto

I'm not the only one who is keen to get off. My English acquaintance decided earlier today to stay on board with her bike as far as Toronto to visit friends there. Her decision was made by the rain we were travelling through this morning. Now, of course, it's a sunny day, and as we pass through warm Parry Sound and Washago about half an hour behind schedule, she's regretting her choice. Card and number games are getting boring.

But there is hope on the horizon. The landscape has opened up into the hinterlands of Greater Toronto. We're running past highways and through suburban towns, picking up speed and rattling over more and more level crossings. I spy the first 'Go' train station, marking our arrival within the region served by Toronto's urban rail system. We are getting close. Soon we're racing under busy road bridges and through residential areas. The industrial units that are strung along the city's arterial routes begin to get denser and denser: more and more units are surrounded by fenced yards that cram old cars and shipping containers up against the tracks.

Our line suddenly descends into (or rather the land around us rises to form) what I think is the Don Valley. High rise apartment blocks gather close to the edges of this wooded valley, and I begin to recognise bridges that span the wide expanse above us, including one double deck bridge that carries a TTC subway line beneath the roadway. It's easy to spot because of the complex and vaguely elegant suicide guards that prevent anyone from jumping off this fifty metre high bridge. We're definitely back in the big smoke.

At one point we slow to allow a GO train to pass. Briefly our windows pass by, and tired Friday evening commuters exchange glances with tired trans-continental tourists. This ride from Winnipeg has not been particularly long, but I am feeling eager to get off the train because everyone else is: our entire train is reaching it's grand terminus. Some of my fellow passengers have been on this train since Tuesday night. I have re-packed my bags and I am wearing my coat, ready to jump off and descend into Toronto's underbelly to catch (ha!) another train to carry me the last few kilometres to a horizontal sleeping surface. What luxury...

The train line crosses industrial wasteland that is the process of being prepared for development. Toronto's massive rail marshalling yards are preparing for a new life, as condominiums and office developments lure developers and eager denizens to live and work in the core of the big city. A view opens up on our right, and suddenly I can see the silhouetted skyline of the city. A cluster of shining skyscrapers mark the culmination of mile upon mile of suburbs, while towering over them stands the unmistakable shape of Canada's most famous tall building - the CN Tower. I'm told that despite the altitude reached by the Petronas Towers, the CN can still lay claim to being the tallest free standing structure in the world.

Another 'Go' train causes us to pause just outside Union Station. Pushing my anxious face up against the window, I can see the dark train shed ahead of us, preceded by dozens of criss crossing tracks. We are so close, waiting on the threshold of our destination.

The train starts to edge forward, and we arrive.