Via Rail Canadian
In March this year - for the second time in two-and-a-half years - I took a trip to Canada and rode the cross-country VIA Rail train nicknamed The Canadianfrom Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station-to-Toronto’s Union Station. It is a fantastic journey that I readily recommend to people. The one-way trip takes three days (and nights), and is much more expensive than an airplane, which takes only about four-and-a-half hours to travel the same distance. But when you consider the time involved - about 75-hours - and the service provided - nine meals, on board showers, beds and linen - I think the price begins to look pretty good. If I were traveling cross-country by road, staying in motels and eating in restaurants, or camping, the cost and time involved would be similar. The entire trip across Canada, from Vancouveron the West Coast-to-Halifax on the East coast takes five days, and involves more than one train. The Vancouver-Toronto segment is a single train, The Canadian. Toronto-to-Montrealrequires a regular ‘Corridor’ train. Then the Eastern segment from Montrealis taken aboard a train nicknamed The Ocean. You can take the train from East-to-West, or from West-to-East. You can travel just one portion of the continental crossing - the eastern portion, or the western portion - and, you can make a one-way crossing, or round trip. It depends on your schedule, you pocket book, and your pleasure. Personally, I have taken the one-way Western portion of the trip twice now because I am coming from Japan, so usingVancouver as my starting point makes the best sense to me. Using the train on the return trip to the West coast from my hometown in Ontario risks missing my flight to Japanbecause of possible (likely) train delays.
Passenger train service in Canada is provided by VIA Rail, a semi-governmental company. There are two major train corporations - Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) - but they both abandoned the passenger train service decades ago because there was no profit in it, or not enough profit. These days, VIA Rail rents use of both CN and CP tracks. Maybe it rents the rails by time, by distance traveled, or some kind of flat rate arrangement. In any event, it means that if a VIA Rail train and a CN or CP freight train come one another the passenger trains almost always have to pull off onto a siding and wait. The freight trains have the priority because the tracks belong to them, and because freight is where the money is. Unfortunately, this means that the passenger service schedule is not always accurate. Lateness is not uncommon.
My first ride on this train was in the summer time, two years ago. Predictably, the summertime fares are much more expensive than the springtime fares. The train is much longer in the summer time, as well, stretching to 27-cars requiring three locomotives. The train in March, by contrast, had only 9-cars - but still three locomotives. Also, I feel that the mood of the summer time train is more festive, what with the warmer weather, greater number and variety of passengers and all. Vancouverwas cold and gray when I was there and it dampened the mood that I expected.
I was not surprised to find that most of the passengers were elderly, retired Americans, making their grand retirement trip as part of a group tour. It was curious how they never failed to wear name cards boldly announcing their names, and the company organizing their tour: Bob: Sun Tours. Like that. Well, it’s a way of meeting many different and occasionally interesting people from places that I only know as names on a map - people that I would never likely meet otherwise. I think many of these people went up the North American Pacific coast from Los Angeles, or San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver, to Juno, Alaska and there changed to the Rocky Mountain passenger train that goes through the Alaska, Yukon Territory, and British Columbia interiors, joining The Canadian in Jasper, Alberta. It sounds like a hell of a trip to me. Also, I think that many of these sojourners were making use of North American train passes that allow them unlimited use of Mexican, American and Canadian trains within a certain time limit - say, 45-days.
We enjoyed good, clear weather for the duration of the trip. This meant clear skies to see the snow-capped Canadian Rocky Mountains. Emma loved the snow. East of the Rockies, across the Great Plainsand into Ontario, snow was on the ground and lakes and rivers were frozen over. At the few places we could disembark for a while - Jasper, Albertaearly on the second day and Capreol, northern Ontario late on the third and final day - Emma found nearby snow banks to play in. The clear sky made it easier to spot wildlife, which we did in spades after Jasper: herds of elk and mountain goats sunning themselves on mountain slopes, and many herds of wild deer grazing in farm land adjacent to the train tracks; a few bald eagles easily identifiable by their shape and coloring; and even an owl in my hometown in broad daylight. When we arrived in my hometown there was still snow on the ground from a heavy snowfall the week before, and light flurries were still falling. In the first three days there more snow fell than fell in Tokyo saw all winter long, making Emma very happy. That changed quickly as temperatures rose, rain fell, and what snow and ice there were disappeared. But I think what we had contributed to a parcel that will make this trip practically the trip of a lifetime for my daughter.
I was truly fascinated, and more than a little disturbed by the gross lack of comprehension among other passengers about Emma and me. I learned of it through overheard gossip. So, I was equally fascinated and disturbed that people were gossiping about us. People saw us together on the train, so they knew that we were together. They could hear that Emma did not speak English, and they could hear that I spoke to her almost exclusively in English. After dinner one evening, Emma and I walked into a darkened observation car and sat down. A group of four adults were in there talking in a group. One of them, a woman doing the talking, was an American passenger that Emma and I had briefly spoken to earlier in the day, when she had stopped to chat with another American passenger in a seat adjacent to ours. I heard the woman talk to her friends about a Japanese girl on the train and a middle aged man, ad I thought, “Wow! There is another Japanese girl on the train. We should look for her so Emma can have someone to talk to.” I listened some more and quickly realizing that she was talking about us. And some of the things she was saying - speculating - I could hardly believe! And she apparently did not notice/did not know that Emma and I were right there in the observation car with her, sitting only a few feet away. Like I said, it was dark, and we entered unnoticed.
Some of the confusion went like this: our exact relationship was in question. Was I the girl’s father? A biological father or an adoptive father? Or, was the girl a child, or just a juvenile-looking adult Asian female? In other words, were we father-and-daughter, or lovers?
It got to be disturbing and I didn’t want to hear more. But we were sitting behind her, and would have to pass by her to exit the car. So what to do? First, we sank down in our seats, trying to be unobtrusive while I considered it. We could sit there until this group was finished gossiping, and then leave freely. But that could take hours. That’s what people do on the train after dinner. They either retire to their various sleeping arrangements, or else they hang out in the observation car staring at the starry sky through the
glass-domed ceiling. Or, we could bravely stand up and stomp out first to announce our presence, and second to show our disdain for their gossip. Or, third, we could introduce ourselves and talk to them.
My intention was to do the second: make our presence and my anger known. But it didn’t turn out that way. We had no choice but to walk right past the group to leave the car, and just as we came even with them, sitting by the short flight of steps that lead into/out of the observation level I couldn’t help myself but to stop and address them, without introduction:
“This is my 11-year-old daughter, Emma. We livein Japan, and I am taking her to visit my family in Ontario.” All of it information that was none of their concern.
There, I thought. In just two sentences I should be able to clear up a lot of misunderstanding and put an end to all this gossip. That broke the ice, of course, and we ended up sitting with their group and chatting for another 45-minutes. For the rest of the trip after that we remained quite chummy with each other, like we had forged a link of camaraderie. At that moment I thought that I liked them and they were not so despicable after all. Later on, though, I revised that estimate and decided that, yes indeed, they actually were despicable. Gossiping about Emma and me did not stop, and I heard more come back at me later:
“We don’t understand how you can teach English in Japan without speaking Japanese.”
“You don’t, do you?”
(Obviously, “we” meant people who continued reviewing their perceptions of me/us behind our backs. I was fascinated by the psychological and anthropological aspects to the realization - not to mention the sheer, obnoxious cheek of it - but angry over the political aspects of it.)
Trains in Canadaare different in many respects from what they are in Japan. To begin with, even though Canada is an officially metric nation, and has been for almost thirty years, the trains still operate using the old Imperial, or English units of measurement. So, tracks are measured in miles, speed limits in miles per hour, etc. Next, the only electric powered trains, or “densha,” that I know of in Canada are the subway trains in the greater metropolitan areas in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.” All other trains - for example, the passenger train we were on and the freight trains we passed - are diesel powered “kisha.” Japan has some diesel trains, but almost all trains without exception, passenger and freight, are electric powered vehicles. Next, long distance passenger trains in Japanare the famous bullet trains, or “shinkansen” which were inaugurated in 1964 as part of the Tokyo Olympics transportation infrastructure. Shinkansen trains travel around 260 km/h - not as fast as the super-modern French TGV trains, but still a benchmark and model of high-speed transportation. The VIA Rail trains by comparison are like elderly people shuffling along with their walkers, at an almost leisurely average 80 km/h. In fact, one of the hostesses on the Canadiantold me that 110 km/h is the fastest possible speed (and 33-cars - over half a mile - the maximum legally permitted length). The width of the passenger cars is much greater than what I am used to on Japanese commuter trains. It would have to be in order to accommodate bedrooms, berths, showers and toilets, etc. But I don’t know if this means that the overall gauge of the Canadian tracks is wider. I imagine that it must be. Finally, one of the great comforts of the Canadian was the surprising smoothness of the ride. Due to all the movies I have - especially the black-and-white classic movie “Some Like it Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, plus Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon impersonating two women and traveling with an all-girl orchestra on a sleeper train to Miami - I expected the train to be noisy with the“clickety-clack-clickety-clack” rumble of steel wheels passing over 90-foot long rails joined by fishplates. Not so, however. As I said, the ride was smooth - smoother than a bus ride. It was explained to me that the reason is because almost all train rails in Canada now are “ribbon rails,” which are quarter-mile-long continuous rails that obviate the clanky noise of old fashioned train travel. The noisiest part of the journey was when the wheels of the train were passing over sidings and junctions.
Meals were included in our ticket price, and the dining car - just a few meters from our berths in the very next car - served us a copious abundance. They fed us so much that Emma and I decided to skip our lunches and eat only breakfast and dinner. By lunchtime we could still taste breakfast in our mouths. The rest of the time we spent in the double-decker observation car at the rear of the train gazing out at the sow-capped mountains, then the frozen prairies, and then the snow-covered wooded wilderness of northern Ontario. We found northern Ontario to be the most trying and dull part of the journey. Ontario is so large that it alone is almost half the three-day trip, and it is just endless hour after hour of forests and lakes, and tiny lumber towns a thousand miles from civilization. I like small towns. I often imagine that if we return to live and work in Canada - in Ontario - then I would purposefully choose a small town like Owen Sound or Penetanguishene or Midland, Gravenhurst or Tobrmory, or Haliburton. After living in the midst of the cement and steel monster of Tokyo I fantasize about open space, greenery, water and rocks. We always fantasize about what we don’t have.