Sunday, July 11, 2010

VIA (July, 1997)

I love trains and train travel, as I've discussed before in this blog.

The pictures in this post were taken on the VIA Rail Ocean train, which runs between Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montréal, Québec. These pictures were taken on my second train trip along that route (the same summer I graduated from high school!), and I travelled with Lucas on both of those trips. The first train trip was epic, and I think I'll tell the story here since I don't have any photos to show from that experience.

Above: A pillow by the window in a "lower berth", VIA Rail Ocean train.

The trip usually takes about 20 hours, with 26 (potential) stops along the way (many are by request only). The train travels roughly north-west from Halifax to Amherst, and into New Brunswick via Sackville and Moncton. It works its way up to Chaleur Bay and passes through Bathurst and Campbelltown before heading into Québec at Matapédia, turning south-west at Mont-Joli and following the St. Laurent all the way to Montréal. The reason the train travels so far north is so that it can connect with another VIA train that goes up into the Gaspé Peninsula (Parc National de la Gaspésie).

Below: Photographing from the back window of the train, in the caboose lounge. The lounge was only accessible once we had upgraded our tickets.

The VIA Ocean to Montréal had been the first real train trip I'd taken--during the previous winter, when I'd been to visit a high-school friend in Toronto. That turned out to be a trip and a half for a variety of reasons, among them being my illness--I'd has a pretty serious 'flu shortly before I was scheduled to leave, and the doctor was warning my mother that it might not be best for me to travel at all. I remember I was adamant, and I'm sure I was insufferable about it, too--a good strategy for a teenager, since it makes one's guardians glad to see one leave the house (and in this case, the province).

The trip was during March Break of my last year in high school. Unfortunately, what happened is that we managed to get caught in what may well have been the biggest snowstorm of that winter. The train's regular schedule takes it through an afternoon and overnight, and I remember how slowly that night passed. The further north we progressed, the worse the snow was and the more the train was bogged down with mechanical problems. I had been living in Canada for under three years at that point, and I think this was my first experience of extreme Maritime weather--it made an impression.

During the night the train stopped often, far more often than usually necessary--and a number of times for what seemed like (and actually was) hours. At the time it was hard to figure out what was going on from our position, though the conductors were very helpful and informative. We were told later that the train had had to stop twice to have the engine replaced, due to ice caking on the electronics. While the snow that covered the tracks could be pushed out of the way by the plough on the front of the train, it was the ice and snow driven directly into the engine by the wind that created the real problems. The snowbanks at the sides of the track grew ever-higher as we travelled north towards the border of Québec and New Brunswick.

Above: a picture taken from the "observation deck" in the caboose, from the landscape this looks like somewhere near the Bay of Fundy.

At that time there were fewer people taking the long-distance trains, and even if your ticket was economy class you could usually pay an extra fee in cash and upgrade to a berth overnight (if berths were not sold out). Because I was still evidently unwell, we were given some priority and able to upgrade so that we had (the equivalent of) a bed in the train. I remember that as I lay there, I could see nothing from the window but the pale streaks of snowflakes flitting by as they were lit up periodically by the yellow-orange station lights and the white-grey streetlamps of the sleeping towns. There was a lot of darkness, muffled darkness made somehow tamer by the submission of the landscape to snow.

When morning came, the snow had left a magical white wasteland that magnified the early view of the fields of riverside Québec that had opened up around us overnight, the new landscape now sliding by smoothly, the lights of distant houses gradually blinking off as the sun rose. Signs were now in French, something I had only glimpsed briefly several years before on a family drive through from Ontario to Nova Scotia. I experienced for the first time the feeling of living in a small country that somehow lay within another, vaster one. In New Zealand, which I knew better, I felt the opposite way--so much variation within such a small space, rolling by within a period of a few hours' travel, a thousand tiny landscapes. In Canada, the land continues on in great swathes of sameness, often beautiful sameness but still (to my eyes) a great series of homogeneities.

Below: crossing the river at Miramichi, New Brunswick. I love the darkness at the edges of this picture.

Even upon reaching Montréal after about 12 hours' delay, I had another train to catch--on to Toronto, a further 6 hours to downtown's Union Station. I remember how considerate the VIA staff were in allowing passengers to use their cell phones; I had been able to call my friend and keep her updated about my progress later in the trip, so that she and her father were waiting for me when I arrived in Toronto at around midnight the day after I'd left.

Below: inside the caboose lounge, looking up towards with observation deck. I like the many small clocks set to display different times in various cities around the world.

In the end, the complicating events of the first trip gave us the means to travel again to Montréal in July of 1997. VIA Rail, as well as providing the best possible service under the circumstances, also supplied us with an amount of credit that covered most of the fare for a return trip. We decided that since the trip came practically free, we'd go for only a single day (not even wasting money on accommodation!). The train schedule worked well, since we'd be arriving at 8am and leaving around 8pm.

That trip--pictured here--went much more smoothly, which was fortunate for us given the time constraints. We spent a really enjoyable day in Montréal, and the train left on schedule for Halifax that evening. I have this memory of buying my Minolta SLR camera on that trip--the previous camera was a Pentax that was actually stolen from me while I was at school--but then I'm not sure how I would have ended up shooting these pictures. I can't think of any other time when I could have bought it, though (I know I bought it in Montréal, at CamTec Photo I think), so it's possible that I borrowed one for the first part of the trip.

Above: Montréal's downtown, seen in the early morning from a rail bridge spanning the St. Laurent river. I love this moment, the feeling of the bridge ties clacking under my feet and the big river below and the first sight of the city, with a whole exciting day ahead to explore: every time I visit I feel the same sense of exhilaration.

Obviously the Great Snow Storm of '07 didn't put me off further train travel (I also travelled shortly after the Great Ice Storm of '08, a year later). I've made the Ocean trip a number of times since then, though not for a long time now--my last trip was in 2000, from Montréal to Halifax and back. These days I tend to stick to the Toronto-Montréal train that runs along the Québec City-Windsor eastern "Corridor". I still hope for another train trip to the East Coast at some point.


  1. This is a very beautiful piece, Melonie. Such vivid descriptions.

  2. Glad to hear being down w/ the flu & a huge snowstorm didn't put you off train travel! Lovely shots, especially how you framed the lounge w/ its multi-city clocks. Thanks for sharing.

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