There is something oddly comforting in the rhythmic rumble of a train lugging its tonnage over jointed track, its wailing whistle brazenly asserting right-of-way at crossings in the night, and the shrill of steel straining on a bend of protesting rail as it reaches a crescendo before the symphonic interlude dissipates soothingly into the distance.
I spent my first 23 years in Toronto, living in houses and attending schools a stone’s throw from railway lines. With parents assiduously preaching firm rules and inherent dangers, there was no confusion among their five children about the consequences of venturing near the tracks, or heaven forbid, the penalty for throwing a stone in their direction.
At about age four, a tricycle of mine went missing while we were living just south of the tracks on Greenwood Avenue. My Dad went on a local search and ran into a kid who said he had seen a local troublemaker carrying a bike fitting the description, towards the tracks. I remember being terror-stricken by a series of vaguely defined horrors awaiting my Dad as I watched him disappear over the crest of the hill in the direction of the forbidden grounds. A few minutes later, as I watched from the sidewalk with teary eyes riveted and imagination racing, he reappeared, head shaking angrily, but fully intact. To my amazement and relief, he had defied the odds and was returning safely down the hill from the tracks, red tricycle in hand.
An elementary schoolmate and Facebook friend of mine posted a picture of a train on a stretch of track that brought back a freight load of memories and a buffet of sensory recall. David Imrie and I had shared younger years at St. William School, just north of the railway line, on Jones Avenue. The long, narrow schoolyard ran adjacent to the tracks which were within clear view on the other side of a tall chain link fence.
My high school days were spent at Monarch Park Secondary School (now Collegiate) with the same relativity to the tracks a few kilometers east. The daily walk from our home on Rhodes Avenue would take us along a path just south of the tracks and under a rail bridge at Coxwell.
Living in close proximity to the tracks was not just about the sounds. Trains were part of the visual landscape. As kids there was the duty of counting the number of cars, and breaking down subsets by colour and type: engines; boxcars; flatbeds; car carriers, tankers, and passenger cars.
As we waited out unfathomable lengths of linked rolling stock, there was the near seismic vibration, starting at the feet, rippling through the core and reaching a teeth-chattering climax as we gazed with awe from a respectful distance. There was also the inevitable smorgasbord of smells and tastes as cargoes of livestock, produce, and acrid liquid stock blended with diesel and creosote, and swirled together with the dust, debris and vegetation the behemoth would stir up.
With a good part of life spent near the tracks, one seems to become somewhat immune to what may be considered the downsides. My daughter and her husband own a home in Dorchester that backs onto a busy CN Rail line just east of London. Though there is no shortage of freight and passenger train traffic to engage the senses, it rarely finds its way into my consciousness while visiting.
Perhaps the bigger irritant is the number of level crossings automobile and pedestrian traffic endure in some communities. Along with the obvious safety concerns, there is an inconvenience and frustration that is likely exacerbated by busy modern life schedules.
In London, with a population of about 370,000, the east-west rail lines effectively dissect the city and frequently cause rush hour chaos while lengthy freight trains lumber through town. Worse still, are the times when there can’t possibly be any more cars to come and the offending train adds insult to injury by grinding to a stop and inching back in the direction from which it’s just come.
While the places I’ve lived since coming to London came with a buffer of space between me and the tracks, some career and recreational pursuits allowed me to discover the mode of transportation and relive the sounds and sensations, from the inside.
My job involved a year and a half on the Via Rail train doing weekly runs from London to Toronto on the breakfast run each Monday morning, and returning each Friday in the comfort of the evening dinner car. Either direction, it was a great way to eliminate the uncertainties of traffic and weather.
The late Wayne Dawe – a business colleague and friend – had a wealth of experience on the Via Rail business run and provided timely advice on the finer aspects of wine glass replenishment. “If you’re a regular, you want to grease the staff early, and then periodically,” he explained. “A 10-spot now and then and you’ll get the big pours and repeat fillings.” It quickly became clear that Wayne was a shrewd business traveller.
With a couple hours of continuous travel, there were options for the Via Rail passenger. Some slept or chatted, some read books or the newspaper, and many were busy working on laptops or preoccupied with I-Pads. Among the most pleasant Via experiences I had were three longer trips from London to Montreal for New Years Eve holidays.
Other popular commuter train variations are the Go-Train and short commute subway options. These may have some consistencies with livestock cars referenced earlier – where humans are packed tightly into the square footage and desperate survival skills kick in.
In the three years I spent on the Oakville to Toronto Go-train run, I came to understand that certain passenger strategies existed. On boarding platforms, there are imperceptible markers at which regulars cluster in the cold and resolutely await the arrival of the scheduled train. In most every case, the train grinds to a halt with doors settling in precise alignment with the meticulously spaced series of human pods. On the odd occasion, it overshoots its target and a clamour of discontent and round of mild obscenities ripple among those at the front of the pack – having lost competitive advantage in the collapse of formation and ensuing rush to the new door location.
Riders burst in with eyes darting, but opportunities dissipate quickly in a grown-up version of musical chairs. Savvy seat-seekers understand vacancies are often found closest to the entrance on account of frantic candidates, preoccupied on the mid-zone, surging past them and being unable to recover against the grain. Heart rates and aggression levels usually subside as passengers settle and the train moves off towards the site of the next free-for-all.
The subway is a fast-paced commute where the objective is not so much finding a vacant seat as it is securing standing room with the least number of third party body parts inextricably fused against your own. There seems something fundamentally inappropriate about a level of commuter intimacy exceeding that of an average first date.
I discovered early in my time travelling down the University line from an apartment at St Clair – which itself backed onto a stretch of outdoor subway track – that there is an interesting phenomenon to observe on a subway commute. A surprisingly high percentage of people, seated or otherwise, give every indication of being sound asleep, in spite of frequent accelerations, screeching turns, and hard stops.
Perhaps its the soothing voice of the automated station stop announcer or the melodic chime warning of imminent door closures that maintains the tranquility and uninterrupted slumber. Then, as the train approaches a stop, the seemingly oblivious passenger’s eyes snap open, and with a mildly panicked shake of the head and a precautionary wipe of the mouth, they haul themselves to the nearest exit, mind the gap, and against all odds, exit successfully at their stop.
I suspect it is a long association with trains and tracks that leaves me with an appreciation and affinity for train travel that remains unmatched by any other mode.
And I suppose all those songs about trains probably don’t hurt either.