What trains show us

What trains show us
by Elizabeth May, M.P.

When people were shocked Trump won the US election, I wasn’t as surprised as most.  And when people asked me why, I said it was the view out the train window.

When you fly across continents all you see is the sameness of the airports. The airports gleam. Travelling by air reveals nothing of the land in between.  Nothing touches the ground. But when you take the train, you see the life on the ground, as it is.

Last year I took Amtrak from Washington DC to Charleston, South Carolina where my grandfather was born.  The trip from Washington to Charleston is longer than it should be.  Driving is faster. Out the window, what you see is the decay of boarded up storefronts and train stations down at the heel.  You see a country with the wheels falling off.  Despite the occasional effort at local beautification, overwhelmingly there is a sense of quiet desperation.

None of the faces on that train, other than mine, were white. When you arrive, you are miles outside of town arriving in North Charleston. The station is surrounded by barbed wire – a miserable, unwelcoming landing point to one of the great architectural wonders of North America. In all of Canada and the U.S., for sheer beauty and history, Charleston is rivalled only by Quebec City.  In contrast, the train that arrives in Quebec City pulls into a small castle reflecting the beauty and heritage of the old city.

For my Christmas treat, I decided to take the train with my daughter and our new puppy from Vancouver to Toronto.  This was a selfish impulse.  It meant I had my daughter to myself for four whole days – December 23 leaving Vancouver to December 27th arriving in Toronto.  I try to take the train cross-country at least once a year.

Across Canada, the view is never dispiriting. Forest, wetland bog, Rocky Mountains, small town or big city, the view does not reflect hopelessness. The seasons change the view, the weather and lighting make even a familiar view totally new. No matter where you are, in whatever season, Canada offers a hopeful view.

VIA Rail and the Government of Canada do not really understand what rail travel means to this country.  VIA Rail management thinks The Canadian, trans-continental Vancouver to Toronto, and The Ocean, Montreal to Halifax – the two lines that reach from coast to coast – are serving only tourists. David Emerson’s report on transportation argued they should compete without subsidy.  But the train is part of our public infrastructure. It allows families more economical travel.

Take the train and see for yourself. There is a very defined class system on board. Those in coach are sleeping in their chairs. The chairs (Day-Nighters) are designed to go back and allow a decent sleep, if you can manage amidst the sleeping strangers around you. Unlike airlines, VIA gives discounts for families. Small children travel free, while older youth are half price, and seniors have discounted travel as well.  The trains go to the small towns beyond the large urban centres. Few in coach were travelling the whole length of the trip.  They were on shorter hauls – Edmonton to Saskatoon, Winnipeg to Sioux Lookout.

My daughter and I were in the next class up.  We had a bedroom with upper and lower bunks. VIA now sells those rooms only as inclusive of all meals, and the meals are excellent. More expensive are the deluxe Prestige rooms, with double beds that fold down as Murphy beds would, larger windows, flat screen TVs and a private bath with shower.

If you have a dog on board, you walk through all sleepers, dining cars, dome cars, and coach to reach baggage, the closest car to the engine. With all the trips to the baggage car to care for the puppy, I got to know a lot of the travellers in coach.

That is how I met Nancy.  She was about my age, a grandmother on the last leg of her round-trip from her home in Minnedosa, a very small town in rural Manitoba, to Vancouver. She had left her car parked in Rivers Manitoba, hours from Winnipeg.  We had fallen far behind schedule due to the perpetual problem that the freight company owns the tracks and controls the traffic signals.  Passenger rail is always sent to the sidings to allow freight to pass. As a blizzard raged, and we realized the Rivers stop would be closer to 10:30 pm than the 5:30 pm schedule. It was Christmas Day.  If her car – parked in the bitter cold for two weeks – would not start, what garage would be open?  She would be 55 km from home. And she mentioned, the only hotel in Rivers had recently closed. What would she do?

Fortunately, I know Rivers, Manitoba (Our Green Party whistle stop tours included rallies at 5:30 am in Rivers, and the Mayor came out to welcome me as the only federal party leader to ever hold a rally there!)  I suggested she would be safe to go to any home and ask for help.  She agreed that was what she would do.  When I reached Toronto, I got an email from Nancy.  Her car battery had indeed died.  A passer-by spotted her distress and called the local police.   A young constable showed up and gave her car a boost, but recommended she not drive by herself through the terrible storm.  He led her to the police department to leave her car parked there and then he did the most amazing thing.  On Christmas night, he drove her home. All the way – 55 km there and 55 km back at a slow pace through a fierce blizzard – Const. Max Tschuschba drove Nancy home.

And that is something that I doubt would happen at a dark train station in rural America. Out the train windows of Amtrak, you see things falling apart. And while we should never forget that poverty and racism exist in Canada and that we are far from perfect, the stuff that knits us together is within reach. Out the train windows of VIA, you see community.

Originally published by Island Tides newspaper. See http://www.islandtides.com/ for more breaking West Coast news, views and enterprise.