Our cross-Ontario train trip with Via Rail
The expression "the wrong side of the tracks" surely wasn't coined in Canada. The sun is slowly setting as I make my way from Montreal to Toronto on Via Rail, bathing the track-side backyards in a rosy glow. I catch glimpses of everyday life, with flashes of swimming pools, swing sets, huge trees that must be hundreds of years old, and all kinds of gardens - big and small, wild and prim, wild tangles of tomatoes and obedient stalks of Swiss chard. Between it all are tantalizing glimpses of Lake Ontario, looking like the Atlantic Ocean, an endless swath of blue.
I spot an elderly man expertly reclining in an old-fashioned rocking chair that seems older than he is. He delivers a cheerful wave. He's content. Clearly train watching is a hobby of his, maybe even a calling. It's evident there's nothing he'd rather do than watch the world and the trains roll by. This is a Canada that many people might imagine no longer exists, but it does, and it thrives, thanks to Via Rail.
As a travel writer, I imagined that traveling by train would afford me the opportunity to increase my productive working time while on the road. I never expected to see my country in a whole new way. I was amazed at the variety of nature so close to the city limits, including ducks and herons outside Montreal and deer less than an hour from Toronto. The plants and trees are too numerous to count but most surprising of all were the endless waterways. In just a few hours I had lost track of the number of times the train crossed over or ran beside a river, brook, creek, or stream and I was reminded of the historic trade routes established along Canada's waterways, some of which Via Rail follows to this day.
While I had the opportunity to visit communities with newly renovated train stations, such as the one in London, Ontario, it was the older, vintage stations that I liked the best. The old fashioned station houses in the small towns and villages reminded me of a simpler, more humble time when the station was the absolute heart of the community. In every town, there would be a hotel across from the station. In Montreal and Toronto, landmark Fairmont properties invoked a sense of glamour and romance, while in smaller communities like Alexandra there were combined restaurants/bars/motels. No matter what the size, you could see a a circle of prosperity surround the rail station, illustrating the intrinsic relationship between train travel, hotels, hospitality, and community growth.
I have some first hand experience in appreciating the role the rail station plays in uniting a community. My grandfather was the station master of the long closed, long lost, Glencoe Station in rural Cape Breton Island. The job helped elevate him to a position of prominence within the community, launching him into even more visible roles like municipal councilor. I have faint childhood memories of listening to the train whistle as it rolled through our backfield, echoing like the distant, haunting call of the loon.
When history books talk about the significance of the Canadian railroad, they often focus on the completion of the transcontinental railway linking the western provinces to the rest of the country, but I think there's another, ongoing story to tell. A story about small towns, old buildings and grand hotels, and antique rocking chairs on backyard porches. There are dozens of reasons to take the train, from the practical to the economical, but more than anything you should take the train for the patriotic and the sentimental ones.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions. What's the most memorable way you've traveled?
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Thank you to Via Rail for facilitating our trip. Their hospitality did not affect my opinions or influence my review.