*One of the conditions of making Canada a nation “a mari usque ad mare” was the building of a coast to coast railway. It is referred to as The National Dream – a dream to unite the country. A National Myth is more like it; as more than one cynic has observed including it’s first General Manager, the Canadian Pacific rail was built “to make money for it’s shareholders nothing else under the sun.”
Things are a little quiet on the blog front at the moment as between work, changing living arrangements and travelling home to Charlottetown to be with my family for Canada Day time has been like a 70’s starlet’s bathing suit – a bit on the skimpy side. On Wednesday evening I was ensconced in seat 10C on a VIA Rail train headed for the Maritimes and watching the landscape of the South Shore speed by. On the 1,119 km (695 miles) journey between Montreal and Amherst, Nova Scotia I got to see – if I wasn’t fitfully dozing – 18 stations including the fabled Ste Hyacinthe and, in Canadian Government circles at least, the much maligned Miramichi. Unfortunately there was nothing available in sleeper class so I made the scheduled 18 hour journey in a semi-upright position much like on a trans-Atlantic flight – only it took almost as long as going from Toronto to Beijing. And the chances of me actually sleeping were slim – even when I’ve had a sleeper I’ve yet to get a full night’s rest on any train journey. Unlike some of my friends the gentle rocking of the train and sound of wheel on rail has no lulling effect on me.
“Why Will? Why?” asked my friend Jim. Well long story short (oh would you please?) the flights did not look good for standby, the price for a confirmed seat was going to be close to the Quebec deficit, and I had a pile of points on VIA Rail that I hadn’t used up. If I wanted to be home for Canada Day it was the most logical choice. And possibly illogical at the same time as Laurent had to drive over from Charlottetown to pick me up – 90 minutes each way.
Looking at what now passes for train service in Canada you have to stop and wonder that the railway ever was a “National Dream”. Where once there was a system of rail lines that crisscrossed the country taking you to almost any city you could name (yes even Charlottetown!!) there is now a bare bones schedule that serves only a small portion of the population. The Ocean – the train to the Maritimes from Montreal – only operates three days a week; it is not possible to reserve a seat on any leg of the twenty-two hour journey. The explanation I was given was that with so many stops is was too complex to make it workable – which left me wondering how the Italians, not known for their organization, accomplish it? The dining car is only available to Sleeper class passengers and over three meal periods the option for Economy passengers is a limited (and relatively expensive) menu at a small canteen counter. And because the tracks are owned by Canadian Pacific Railway passenger trains have to wait on sidings to allow freight trains to pass as they have priority right of way. On this particular trip being sidetracked (literally) added two hours to the journey.
However on the plus side, the VIA service people at the Gare Centrale in Montreal are phenomenal – courteous, and helpful – particularly to us old folks. And for the first time in my life I took advantage of the offer of pre-boarding for people of advanced age – damn it I’m of advanced age and feeling more advanced as the days go on. And if I hadn’t felt of advanced years before the trip began I certainly was by the time the charming – but sadly abandoned – station at Amherst came into sight.
Fortunately for my return later today – the airlines and weather willing – I will be back in Ottawa in approximately 90 minutes. And I won’t request pre-boarding or special assistance.