I love traveling by train. The trip I do most often these days is the Ottawa-to-Toronto run, and nowadays I always travel business class on that route. When I do a shorter hop - say, Ottawa-Montreal or Ottawa-Kingston, I go regular economy class.

I became a regular train-traveler in the 1970s after beginning studies for my library degree in London, Ontario. Every couple of weeks, after my Friday morning of classes was over, I would head for the train station to buy my ticket (economy class in those days, as I was on a student budget). A two-hour trip to Toronto, a wait of a couple of hours, and a five-to-six-hour trip from Toronto to Ottawa. Yes, it took longer in those days, and the train was late even more often than it is nowadays, especially in the winter. There was also an overnight train on the Ottawa-Toronto route in those days, leaving around 11:30 PM and getting in the next morning.

In those days, you walked between cars, teetering precariously as you heaved open the door of the car you were about to go into or through. I was young and reasonably agile in those days but it must have been difficult for anyone who wasn't! They didn't bring any food around either (except in business class), and not every car had its own snack concession - you might have to walk two cars ahead or three cars behind. You could buy alcoholic drinks but you had to go to a special bar car for that - and if it happened to be a Sunday, you could only order alcohol if you also ordered a "two-course meal", which often consisted of peanuts and potato chips!

Back then, I didn't usually pre-order my ticket - I just showed up at the station and assumed I'd be able to get a ticket. Until one day, they were actually sold out of economy class and only had room in the "club car" (first class - what's now known as Via1 or business class) at a substantially higher price. Then as now, they provided a meal. Then, unlike now, they came around with coat hangers and hung up your outdoor clothing, returning it to you just before you were getting ready to disembark.

When I went back to London, leaving Ottawa Sunday on the late afternoon train, I relied on making a connection in Toronto. If the train was only a little late getting into Toronto, they would often hold the train. But one time, when it was seriously late, they couldn't do so without seriously inconveniencing a lot of passengers. So they put us up in a sleeper car at Toronto Union Station and gave us vouchers for a free breakfast at one of the station's restaurants. I got the first London-bound train in the morning, arriving in time for my first class of the day.

Train travel for me is more relaxing these days but it somehow feels much more self-contained and less interactive - at least with other passengers and real people. Almost everything you need is right there at your seat. People (myself included sometimes) sit at their seats and connect to the wi-fi and send and receive e-mails and watch videos and play games and are generally in their little air-tight cocoons.

And another sign of the changing times - VIA Destinations, that wonderful little in-train magazine, has put out its farewell issue - volume 11 no. 2, with a cover date of March-July 2014. I'm going to miss it.

One of these days I'd like to travel in the rest of Canada. Or do more international train travel. Maybe a famous route like the Orient Express? Much closer to home, is there any hope of some day reviving the steam train to Wakefield? So many places to see...
On June 5, 2012, I wrote about having been in the wrong place at the right time, also in regard to a trip to Toronto. I relived that sensation last week - although this time the tragedy occurred in Ottawa.

Last Monday, I took the 8:30 train to Toronto for my Ex Libris board meeting, which was on Tuesday. I stayed an extra day and night, returning to Ottawa on Thursday on the 4:20 PM train - which I selected deliberately as it normally is a non-stop trip from Toronto Union station to Fallowfield (ending at the main Ottawa station) and takes slightly less than four hours for the complete trip. This time, however, we were only able to go as far as Brockville by train and then had to board one of three buses - to Ottawa's main station, the Barrhaven (Fallowfield) station, or Dorval/Montreal. Which meant arriving over an hour late. If I'd waited till Friday to go home, I could have gone the entire way by train. And yet, if I'd gone two days later, it would have been so much worse.

News of the catastrophic bus-train collision that killed six people (and a number of others may still be hanging on by a thread) was all over the news on Wednesday - not just in Ottawa but also in Toronto, Niagara and no doubt elsewhere. Even the much-maligned Toronto mayor was making all the right noises, extending sympathies and offers of assistance (whatever that meant) to Ottawa and Ottawans. Of course, there were probably quite a lot of Torontonians on that train too! As a train passenger, I probably would not have been injured even if I'd taken the Wednesday train - physically, at least. The psychological and emotional turmoil, however, would have taken considerably longer to overcome! I do know people living in Barrhaven; I think I may even have met at least one of the people who died, though I certainly didn't know any of them well.

So where should we go from here? I'm not sure if we'll ever know quite what caused the crash. But additional safety measures could certainly be implemented. I think an overpass or underpass is definitely in order, although that obviously can't be built overnight. Meanwhile, I'm wondering what numbskull decided that trains mustn't blow their whistles at certain times of day - funny that the City can get exemptions to allow construction noise at Lansdowne Park at 3AM but trains aren't even allowed to blow their whistles in the suburbs of Ottawa during daylight hours!

Should the number 76 be retired? Although I have the utmost sympathy for the people involved in the disaster, I vote no on that one. The gesture would be at best symbolic. It's confusing enough when buses change their numbers without substantially changing their routes (as, for example, when the 71 became the 86 or the number 53 was used for a new route that was nothing like the old 53 route). And it's not like hockey or other sports players where a specific number corresponds to a particular person: there must have been dozens of people behind the wheel of the 76 over the years it's been in existence.

I still think that on balance, train travel is very safe. But that doesn't mean we should get too complacent, as this episode makes clear.



October 2017



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