First VIA Rail Train Ride Passes with Flying Colors

There will be plenty of discussion around the Canadian cities of Halifax and Montreal in the coming days, however I will need a few to get my feet under me. I’m in route back to the States from Montreal, landing in Philadelphia tonight to check out the newly opened Hotel Monaco – the first hotel to overlook the Liberty Bell. Then on Friday I hit the road again, flying across the country to Southern California for some camping, wining tasting, and a visit to the Alisal Guest Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley just outside of Santa Barbara. It will be a nice homecoming for me after living there for three years – it’s one of the most beautiful towns in America in my opinion.

We don’t do much train travel in the United States (aside from suburb to city commutes) – it’s just not often you hear of someone traveling by train for a reason other than work or necessity. I flew into Halifax last week and hopped on the VIA Rail Ocean Route, which ends in Montreal 1400km west.  Starting in November, all the trains will be equipped with a domed observation car. There are three classes to choose from, options for upgrading, sleeper cabins, one free on/off privilege, and “on-track” cultural educational programs. You can read about the logistics here – I want to talk about the actual feelings, the thoughts that made an impact on me.

As you’ll see below, the ride really made me feel like I had gone back in time. The mode of transit also proved to be unique in that it is the only type of long distance transportation that truly allows for socialization between travelers. You sit the entire time a car is in motion with people you already know. Planes and buses aren’t designed for people to walk around and interact. There are no common spaces for passengers to mingle, and there certainly are no dining or lounge carts. In those qualities, the train emerges as something that offers passengers a much different experience.

Taking photographs out the windows proved to be very difficult with glare, line of sight, and high speeds working against me, making it tough to capture the scene in high quality. I love my photos but I’m not a photographer and I won’t pretend to be. I’m a writer, so here’s my version of the photograph. An excerpt from my notebook – my thoughts as they occurred in the moment:

I’ve been on the train for about a half hour now, and it’s already the best ride of my life.

It’s a gray, overcast day in the sky, but below the cloud cover it looks like a box of large crayons went to town on the scenery (which I may have to consult as I attempt to come up with adjectives to describe the colors I’m seeing). It’s a 20-hour journey from Halifax to Montreal – which at first seemed like one hell of a haul – but now I’m sensing it’s going to breeze by, pass with flying colors.

At times we look out over bodies of water, the dark blue surface leading up to the green banks of land, the brown stumps rising up from it and leading the eye to the muted colors of the Canadian fall foliage. The colors aren’t as explosive as I saw at Hanging Lake, they’re more deep and hearty, if that makes any sense at all. The depth and trueness of the colors are there, but they don’t make you squint.

Fire orange, burnt orange, Fuji-apple red, crimson-tide red, plum-pit red, peach pink, banana-pepper yellow, smiley-face yellow, pear green, Granny-Smith green.  Some of the leaves are still just regular old dark green, still hanging in there. Then there are the tall pines that rise up over the top of a group of the colored trees. The beige of the grain and dried fields make all the other colors stand out that much more. Without it, would they be as impressive?

I’m in the lounge cart at the moment, seriously have a hard time keeping my eyes on the page here, seeing it all whiz by out of the corner of my eye. The colors are one thing, but my mind keeps drifting off, back to some other era. It’s romantic traveling by train – I feel like I’ve gone back in time. The 1920s, maybe. The chairs are all fire-engine red with chrome molding, most of them facing one another in a rather sociable setting. In a half hour we’ll go up to the dining car to have lunch, and just writing that sentence once again makes me feel like I’m in another age and time. I keep expecting to see a properly dressed porter come through the car – perhaps carrying a Pernod or something – but so far it’s only been VIA Rail employees – a blue-eyed French-Canadian woman, an Acadian woman with darker eyes, and a larger, friendly French gentlemen, among others.

I would never be able to relax like this on a plane or a bus. The logistics of it are not possible. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of space and setting. My laptop is on a table. I have a drink (red wine) next to it. My legs are stretched out. There are people at other tables around me, reading the paper, sipping coffee, staring out the window. Two guys over in the corner are talking about something in French, but they seem to be getting along. I don’t remember seeing them come on board together. People seem relaxed, very unlike an airplane. There’s no one in front of me jamming his seat back, no one pulling on the seat from behind as they get up to use the restroom. There are a few snack/drink windows throughout the cars. When I want something, I get up and get it. I know I keep coming back to this but I’m realizing it all for the first time.

Maybe it’s not the fastest or the sexiest, but why has the train completely fallen off the radar in the United States?

Photo courtesy of VIA Rail.
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