Train travel. Now that was a way to go. What a dignified way to get from place to place. You could get up and move around quite easily without stepping on anybody to get into the aisle and you could walk for half a mile from end to end. You didn’t get any thrombosis from train travel. You could have your own sleeper and spend the whole trip in there if you were feeling antisocial. It really did give you a chance to meet people either in the dining car or the dome car or the smoking car.
Now there was a concept – the smoking car. In those days, gentlemen smoked cigars and did it in the privacy of the smoking car. Away from the noise and hurly of women and children. Maybe with a glass of single malt, as well. Sigh.
But really. Meals were cooked on the spot by a crew of cooks and served on good china, silverware, and linen. I remember on the Empire Builder, the waiter sprinkled crumpled cheddar onto my piece of pie from a little silver bowl. And the names of the trains – the Empire Builder; the California Zephyr; the Coast Starlight; the flying Scotsman. And these trains really did fly along, in the age of steam. Big steam locomotives on the prairies could maintain 120 miles per hour. Diesel locomotives could still clip along at 90 or 100 mph.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that air travel cut seriously into train travel. Fuel was cheap so flights were cheap and the difference in time, hours instead of days, to cross the continent stopped the passenger trains. Train companies asked for, and got for a time, subsidies to operate passenger service but by the end of the 1970’s passenger traffic stopped except in the populated corridors like Montreal, Toronto, New York.
For a while, the technology stopped growing in North America. Yes, freight locomotives grew to 45,000 horsepower from 30,000 but we never went to high speed electric or continuous rail or concrete ties (only much later) like they did in Europe and Asia. High speed rail (300 kilometres per hour) was able to compete with airlines and now that fuel prices have soared, those countries that refused to let the passenger service go are once again being well served. We have that technology in Canada now. One of our iconic companies, Bombardier, along with its aerospace division, is building high speed trains for other countries. We don’t have the political will to do so.
In Canada, where the price for the western provinces to enter into confederation was a rail link to the east, the federal government has failed to maintain passenger service. Once passenger service was dropped to small communities, freight service as well was allowed to drop. It was, of course, a smooth move by rail companies. The resultant freight vacuum was taken over by trucking whose roads were then maintained at the expense of the taxpayer. To put the trans Canada rail in, the Canadian Pacific Railway was given every other section on which the rail line lay. In a final blow of blind bureaucracy, the rail companies WERE ALLOWED to pull up the rails, to be sold as scrap for 2 cents a pound, so that no one else could put a train on that line, yet they retained the land given for rail and are selling the real estate to this day.
I have to fly to the east three times this fall. How I yearn to be able to take a high speed train, eat food freshly cooked, snooze in my own bunk or sit in the dome car and watch my country slip by. Instead, I have to report three hours early, be patted and felt, sit with my long legs under my chin, BUY a crappy sandwich, and use a washroom where somebody has already peed all over the floor. Progress.