Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aboard Via #78

Thursday night, I took the train back from Leamington (actually Chatham) to Toronto. I love travelling by train, and it's been a few years since I've had the chance to do so. The ride is a relatively short one: three hours and twenty-two minutes. Just enough time to get a sense of the state of rail travel in southwestern Ontario today.

6:30 p.m.
The station at Chatham hasn't changed in many years. The same two plants, philodendrons, that were there when I took the train as a student, still hang from rusty chains in the corners of the room. All beiges and greys (let's call them earth tones), the place could sure use a perk up. Upon entering, I step in something brown and sticky, and spend the next five minutes struggling mightily to wipe it off on the all-weather rug in front of the ticket desk.

6:45 p.m. The train eases its way into Chatham amid a rather heavy downpour. On shuffling aboard and making my way to my seat, I am approached by the cabin steward and informed that I will be his "door person" for the duration of the trip. I am often singled out of crowds this way. There must be something about my face that says, "Offer me responsibility."

So, to the front of the car we go, where I am taught how to open the door in the event that he is "incapacitated." I strain to pay attention, except at the point where he says that if there is a river or bridge outside the stopped (and presumably burning) train car, I should "try the door on the other side." Not exactly encouraging.

For the duration of the trip, my seat is marked by a small yellow sticker that says, simply, "door."

7:15 p.m. Apparently the train still stops at some of the smaller towns. At one called Glencoe, it pauses for about thirty seconds. One lady gets on, and another gets off.

8:00 p.m. London. Student central. The train car immediately takes on the feel of a dorm as the twenty somethings clamber aboard, open up their laptops, and get to work. In a nod to the modern era, Via has installed plugs at every seat with little signs above them that say "for computer only." I can easily see how people would be tempted to bring other things aboard and plug them in (a slow cooker for a family dinner perhaps? an electric razor?)

For the next hour, silence, save for the tapping of keys, reigns.

9:00 p.m. Aldershot. I don't even think Aldershot is a town, so much as a junction where passengers connect to the GO commuter rail system that spans the Greater Toronto Area. Whatever it is, the train largely empties here. With my seatmate now gone, I shuffle over to the window seat. One gets an entirely different perspective on cities from the window of a passing train. It really is like entering them through a sort of back door. Old, rusting cars, foundries, dumpsters, and the vandalized rear walls of shopping malls dominate the scene. (A writer in explore magazine a couple months back, writing about a cross-country trip on Amtrak, described such places as "ass end America.") In the distance, the twinkling lights of the "outer" side of the city shine. It feels something like being backstage at a laser light show.

10:20 p.m.
Toronto. My wife Amy waits on the platform as I emerge from the depths of Union Station. A forty-year-old sign carved in the wall says, helpfully, "to city," and guides me out into the light. I wonder if its carvers could envision the bustling metropolis that exists outside Union today.

We emerge into the fresh, damp air. The street is alive, and Torontonians, enjoying a rare warm fall evening, are packing the patios of the bars and restaurants along King Street. It is a bit of a shock after the dim silence of the train, but I am happy to be home.

And happy, too, that I have spent the last three hours relaxing, and not fighting the gridlock out on the highways.

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