Train travel is in my blood. When I look at all the security hoops of air travel, the current Air Canada customer service employees’ strike, and the high gasoline prices at the pumps, trains look better and better. As many of you have probably read in previous posts, my late father worked for CN Railways (then CNR) as a timekeeper. So, Mom, Dad and I rode the rails for free for our holidays. Back in those grey ages, trains had something else to draw me in – steam engines. I write in my memoir about encountering a steam engine during one of these trips to my grandfather’s farm:
No steam engines on this train to Guelph – it rolled along pulled by one of the new whippersnappers called a diesel locomotive. But I get my steam engine at Guelph. We’re waiting outside on the Guelph platform for our train to Palmerston. I’m showing Darlene all the tracks way out beyond the station behind us. I see activity between two trains parked on parallel tracks. One train puffs a little steam; the other seems at rest except for the dollies of huge mailbags wheeled from it to the little puffer. The now familiar PA voice broadcasts, “Train #34 for Toronto now boarding on platform 2, Train #174 for Hamilton on platform 3, and Train #… Then I hear it … a distant whoo-oo, whoo-oo that steadily grows louder and then chug-chug- whoo-oo as another train rounds the corner. I put Darlene to my left ear and my right hand over my right ear; my purse dangles by its strap from my right arm. Thick charcoal smoke whirls up and behind the chimney top of the massive black engine charging into the station. The smoke resembles a cloud of dark incense, but smells like soot mixed with tar. This engine leads like a big black God with a stern round face who commands respect and suddenly I feel back in church. When this God grinds to a halt, its mixed bag of followers – mail cars, baggage cars and passenger cars – stop. I remove my hand and doll from my ears and fight the urge to kneel down. Mom grabs my arm and leads me to another trainman standing by another of those steel square footstools.
(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, Chapter 7 – Riding the Rails with Dad, copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford. Darlene is/was one of my dolls.)
Of course, something else besides steam engines is missing from train travel today – all the routes to and stops at the small towns. Heck, many of the train station buildings are gone for good and for the small towns that still are on railway routes, the train station is like a tiny box, smaller than my living room. And these stops are often “flag stops,” i.e., the train doesn’t stop here unless someone gets off or on – and that information goes into the railway’s computer system, another change from coal and fire and water tanks along the way for those steam engines.
But some things about train travel remain – the more relaxed atmosphere inside and the scenery outside the window. Take the Canadian Rockies. An airplane-view in the sky shows small bumps below and a definite disconnect. Going through the Rockies by train puts you right there. And what about going through farmers’ fields on the Prairies and in southwestern Ontario? For those used to 21st century “essentials,” you can hook up to WiFi (or not) on trains; you can read, look out the window, talk to your seatmate, or snooze. And there is more room to put your bags – you can even bring them on board even though some railways limit the number. You aren’t patted down before getting on although signs in the larger railway stations do give security notices that you may need to open your bag for checking.
Then there are the old railway stations still left and open – from the huge Union Station in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to the smaller unique ones in Stratford and Kitchener, Ontario. Unfortunately if your are going to Grimsby and Strathroy, Ontario you get those box-stations.
So, like every summer vacation, I plan to take the train and enjoy despite one physical feature of them that remains – the narrow steel steps onto the train and the precarious and small steel footstool to hoist yourself and all your baggage onto the train.
Only Child Writes
and teaches Memoir Writing workshops
for the Toronto Public Library. Next one: June 15/11
Danforth/Coxwell Branch http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca