They say travelling by train is the best way to see the country. It’s also a pretty good way to get deep vein thrombosis, if you travel economy class over long distances. And yet, I recommend it. If you’re worried about blood clots, eat garlic and wear compression socks.
As we have done a few times in years past, the kids and I went to visit family in Upper Canada when they had a week off school this March. The route that Via Rail calls The Ocean, running between Halifax and Montreal, takes 22 hours. (A different train runs between Montreal and Toronto.) The seats are considerably more comfortable than airplane seats, but still, even when you’re reclined you’re mostly upright, with your feet on the floor.
If you wanted to get a good night’s sleep, and if you had the bucks to spend, you could book a berth or a cabin. But that would kind of defeat the purpose. Better to stay up late and have the full experience. Get up and stretch your legs for a few minutes, go to the service car and get a beverage – either stimulant or relaxant, according to your preference – then do your best to get comfortable and watch the moonlight shining on the miles of fence posts and telephone poles, the scrubby woods and wetlands. (Boy, do we ever have a lot of wetlands!)
From the train you observe the country in long, slow takes, and its vastness sinks into you – but you also observe it in glimpses. You may be nearly hypnotized by the landscape gliding past monotonously, or you may doze off for an hour in the darkness, lulled by the barely detectable rocking motion, only to be awakened by a sudden human presence on the other side of the window, so close you could almost call out – someone waiting on a station platform or a small-town street corner in the middle of the night, or moving about in a brightly lit room in a house that backs onto the tracks, seemingly unconcerned for the proprieties of curtains or blinds. You have a second to wonder what that person’s life is like, then you pull away, moving into the darkness again.
Yes, on the train you are a voyeur. Along with the scenic views, you witness scenes of a different kind, and the overall effect provides a refreshing counterpoint to the postcard version of small-town Canada. Rolling through the outskirts, you are peeking out at the arse end of human habitation: the back doors where people huddle and smoke, the dumpsters and fire escapes, the exhaust fans and grease bins, the loading docks and the piles of pallets, the chain-link fences and the low-rent apartments. Further out, there are the warehouses and the brickyards, the bulk tanks and scrap heaps, the mossy backyard gardens, the crapped-out trampolines and swing sets, greenhouses made from old aluminum windows, the improvised chimneys and jerry-rigged satellite dishes. As a general rule, signs of affluence and pretention are scarce along the tracks. People are getting by, as you are going by.
In the cities, however, you see the signs and symbols of industrial triumph. While Toronto has that touchstone of 1970s vulgarity, the CN Tower, Montreal has its red neon “FARINE FIVE ROSES” sign, which dates from 1948. It originally read “FARINE OGILVIE FLOUR,” but the huge lettering was changed to “FARINE FIVE ROSES FLOUR” when the company that owned the mill acquired this prominent brand in 1954. The word “FLOUR” was removed in 1977, in accordance with Bill 101, Quebec’s language charter.
The train follows the river as far north as Mont-Joli – where there is a lovely old station with broad eves supported by heavy wooden brackets – before hooking towards New Brunswick. It’s a route determined by historical travel patterns, not the shortest distance between major centres. You’re reminded that the terms Upper and Lower Canada refer to locations in the watershed of the mighty St. Lawrence. In some places along the river you can see that the farmland is still arrayed in narrow strips – a legacy of the old French seigneurial system.
It seemed appropriate that the book I brought along for this trip was Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s outstanding new novel, which chronicles the lives and the descendants of two 17th century French engagés – indentured workers brought to New France, where they could earn a piece of land in exchange for three years of labour. It’s a 700-page opus, a galloping good tale with much to say about forestry, colonialism, and the fate of First Nations. When else would I have time to get even halfway through? (I am reminded of a professor I had who complained about having to fly overseas to deliver guest lectures, because earlier in her career such trips were made by ocean liner, giving her plenty of time to prepare. How civilized, having a week to read and reflect!)
Did I mention that the trip between Halifax and Montreal is 1,346 kilometres, with 26 stops? One of my favourites is Matapédia – partly because it triggers memories of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s album of the same name, and partly because there is another classic train station here (this one dating to 1903, built entirely of wood). Until a few years ago a train called the Chaleur ran from this station to Gaspé, but Via Rail suspended service, and the route’s future is now very much in doubt.
The Matapédia River empties into the Restigouche, and the Halifax-bound train follows the flow, heading for Chaleur Bay. Along the way there’s a big stack plume from the AV Cell pulp mill at Atholville, operated by the multinational Aditya Birla Group, producing cellulose for the viscose textile industry in Asia. This use of Canadian timber is such a strange thing to contemplate, it could occupy the mind for quite a few miles.
And there are quite a few miles to cover in northern New Brunswick. After a few stops along the south shore of the bay, it’s a straight shot between Bathurst and Miramichi, taking almost two hours. People living in this region are likely the ones who would be most affected if passenger rail service were discontinued. For many it’s not a holiday jaunt but a practical transportation link. Daily service on The Ocean has already been cut back to three trains per week, which makes it hard to schedule a return trip. Making the service less convenient seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy – or a deliberate strategy to create the illusion of reduced demand.
But there is demand. And once the aviation industry is made to pay the real costs of its sky-high environmental impacts, the economics of rail travel will be more favourable. All progressive nations have good passenger train service. Ours has been diminished, and now it needs upgrades. As it stands now, Via trains are frequently sidelined (literally) waiting for long CN trains to pass. Moving freight by rail is important too, so we need dedicated lines for moving people, especially on major routes.
There’s a lot of history behind our rail system, but it’s not a nostalgia trip. An ambitious, forward-looking rail project would be a good way to mark Canada 150, even as we acknowledge that this nationalistic anniversary celebration provides only a tiny window through which to glimpse our country. What’s the alternative? Whizzing along the Trans-Canada in a self-driving car? No thanks. DL