After much deliberation and research, I’m taking the train to New Brunswick for the mini-tour this month. It’s a long train ride, twenty-four hours, but I’ve decided to splurge and get a single room for the overnight portion of the trip between Montréal and Moncton. I haven’t been on a sleeper car since I was a kid, so I’m sure it’ll be an adventure. Some people have expressed surprise that I’m not flying, given the time and distance. I find that, especially since 9/11, the cost, inconvenience and stress of flying has turned me even more against it.
There are many more train stations than airports in Canada so the chances of finding transportation to a less common destination are greater on the train. When flying to smaller centres in Canada, it’s difficult to do much comparison shopping on ticket prices because sometimes only one carrier flies to that destination. The train could’ve been considerably less expensive than flying if I’d been willing to sit in economy all night, but having done two twelve-hour train trips on tour last year (to Chicago and NYC), I know how uncomfortable that can get. The comfort of a single room makes the price of a train ticket about equal to that of a flight, so cost wasn’t a big deciding factor. But at least on the train I know that my ticket price is going toward travel, not toward airport and security taxes, which these days can add 25% to a plane ticket. I find airline ticket prices a bit deceptive and am pleased with the recent federal government announcement to enforce new regulations governing how airlines can quote prices.
Well, what about the time factor? Granted the actual flying time (roughly three hours) is considerably less than the overland route. But one also has to add the travel time to the airport (three-quarters of an hour to an hour), waiting and check-in time (airlines request two hours on domestic flights) and travel time from the airport at the other end (I have no idea). When flying, if one considers the actual time from home to final destination, it can double the travel time. On the train, I ride the subway to Union Station (about eighteen to twenty-two minutes), get on the train and go, so my overall travel time is little more than the time on the train itself.
I also find that when I reach my destination after a flight, I’m exhausted from dealing with the auditory and visual noise of the airport, the stresses of security checks, the engine drone, the questionable air quality on the plane and the thought that I’m suspended very far above the ground and that if anything goes wrong, I’m toast. And once I’m on the plane, there’s not much to see (clouds are fun, but they get a bit tedious after a while); there isn’t room to walk around and it’s generally not encouraged. The food is, well, uneven at best. Entertainment is limited to an odd and repetitive audio assortment or a commercial film, which inevitably I’ve either seen or studiously avoided. Sometimes I can sleep or read, but it depends on the amount of air turbulence and the impact of said turbulence on my occasionally delicate stomach.
By contrast, on the train there are fewer stresses to deal with. I can arrive at the station a comfortable time ahead of departure and board without having the change in my pocket accidentally set off a metal detector. There is a certain hustle and bustle to Union Station, but it’s nothing compared to Pearson Airport. Trains do have a drone of their own, but it’s the pleasantly rhythmical, purely mechanical, rather comforting drone of something solidly moving along the ground. I wish it was still possible to open train windows for fresh air, but at least you can catch a whiff at station stops along the way or between cars. I can watch the scenery or sometimes catch a glimpse of an episode unfolding in someone’s day as we speed by. I can even take photos from the window or the glass viewing dome. If I don’t want to stay in my room, I can wander the aisles and lounges. I may enjoy a pleasant dinner in the dining car (the chowder is apparently recommended on this trip). I can choose my own entertainment and read or write in the privacy of my room. And when I’m ready, I can bed down in a proper bed, knowing that the magic of travel will ensure that when I wake up, it will be far away from where I fell asleep.
Train travel provides a very different sort of connection between the journey and the traveller. The traveller remains connected to the earth for one thing, but there’s a very different consciousness about the distance, the terrain, the event of travel. I arrive with a sense of having seen where I’ve been, of really having travelled the distance and understood what changes the land has undergone to get there. Although there is a certain excitement getting off a plane hours later and finding the air, the light, the ambience radically different, it’s also a bit disorienting. The change is too sudden.
On a train, the travel becomes part of the adventure, while planes are just a sometimes necessary evil. I’m not afraid of flying, but I can’t say I enjoy it. I’ll fly if there’s no other option, for instance to get across a large body of water, but even then, if I could afford the time and money, I’d prefer to travel by ship. This may seem rather Victorian or Edwardian of me, but it’s so much more comfortable and enjoyable; I can take pleasure in the travel as well as the destination.
The federal government has recently announced changes for VIA rail, allowing it to grow (again) and become more competitive with airlines by adding high-speed trains on heavily travelled routes. I’ve seen an increase in the number of travellers resorting to the train. Ten years ago, it seemed to be mostly students and the budget-conscious; now I’m seeing businesspeople and government employees. And the trains are full! It’s a shame that so many rail lines across Canada have been abandoned, but it’s heartening to see that they’re regaining popularity and that travellers are giving them another chance.
©Catherine Jenkins 2003