Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Taking the V-Train


Nearly 20 years ago I took a trip by overnight train to New Carlisle on Quebec's Gaspé coast. We pulled in to Lévis about nine in the evening. The Chateau Frontenac gleamed from the cliffs across the river.

As we rolled past Rimouski, I crawled into the bed in my roomette. The moonlight was sparkling on the river outside the window. When I woke the train was running along the Baie de Chaleur.

In my memory it was a magical trip -- the beauty of the St. Lawrence River by night, the gentle rocking of the sleeping car, early morning coffee in the dining car looking out to sea.

I had to get to an early morning meeting in Toronto recently so I jumped at the chance to take the new Sunday night train from Dorval. I like VIA trains. I especially like the men and women who staff them. I was reminded of this as I climbed aboard at 11:58 p.m. But I'm afraid my overnight train ride to Toronto was a classic case of "you can't go home again."

My sleeping compartment was a step up from a berth and not quite the roomette of my memories. It was, I have to admit, an ingenious bit of engineering, fitting an armchair, a basin, a toilet and a single bed into a space about four feet square.

Add to that ventilation fans, reading lamps, water dispensers, a small trash can, and several other conveniences. The bed slid in and out of a kind of cubbyhole into which one extended one's feet to lie down.

It was comfortable enough, though it required that you do some serious thinking about the order in which you needed to accomplish your evening ablutions.

For example, there was no room for anything else once the bed was rolled into place. It covered toilet, chair, suitcases, shoes -- everything but the sink. The car was showing its age, although my compartment was scrupulously clean and all the lights, fans and faucets worked as they should.

I sat on my bed brushing my teeth as Cornwall's beautiful industrial park rolled by.

The Sunday night train takes about eight hours to cover track that it could run in five. Throughout the night, you awaken to realize you're stopped on a siding somewhere in Eastern Ontario. This is fine. After all, what would you do in Union Station if you arrived at five o'clock in the morning?

Breakfast was served in an observation car at the back of the train. First-class passengers noshed down on French toast and scrambled eggs somewhere else. We folks in coach had fresh fruit, croissants, and coffee -- not bad at all for economy class.

It wasn't the magical trip to the Gaspé of my memories, not by a long shot. But I arrived safe, sound, well rested, and on time in Hogtown the next morning.

I'm glad VIA Rail has been given nearly half a billion dollars by the federal government to upgrade its rolling stock and its services. They could do with some new sleeping cars. But I guess even ten times that amount couldn't do much to improve the scenery when you head upriver from Montreal instead of down.

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