Riding the Rails: In Praise of Trains

Despite changes over the years, train travel still holds great appeal.

A love letter to train travel

In the springtime of 1960, my late husband and I drove our young daughters to Wyoming, Ont., to see “all the little puffer-bellies” standing in a row. It was the end of a steam-engine era, and there was something unutterably sad about seeing all those iron horses being put out to pasture.

Once upon a time, train travel was something to be truly savoured. Eating in the dining car was a great experience—made so by tasty meals served on white linen tablecloths, complete with matching napkins, silver cutlery and fine dishware. All this has been replaced with a trolley containing soft drinks, chips, cooking and coffee that is barely drinkable.

When my children were young, I used to read to them all the time. I recall one favourite—about the little engine that could. On my last trip, I imagined the train wheels chugging to the chorus of, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” At the end of the book, those words change to “I knew I could,” but on this trip—my first in several years—it was only the former sentence that was echoing through my head as I lugged my heavy suitcase off the train upon reaching my destination.

I do have many fond memories of train tips, however. Sitting up in the dome car while going through the Canadian Rockies was a definite thrill, one I experienced a few times. I’m certain it remains so to this day. On long train trips, fellow passengers tend to bare their souls and confess things they would never ordinarily talk about. Perhaps that’s because you know they’ll never see you again.

Back in 1982, and newly widowed, I travelled solo from Sarnia to Calgary on Amtrak. I had a cozy roomette for the trip. Sleeping on a train is pleasant; the motion acts like a soporific and lulls you into dreamland. After sleeping all night, I recall asking someone what province we were in. The answer “Ontario” surprised me. You really get an idea of just how vast our country is when crossing it by rail. The scenery of northern Ontario had a healing effect—rugged rock, lush ferns, evergreens, chalk-white birches and ponds like black mirrors, where yellow water lilies floated. I recall a porter telling me that moose would come to stare when the old steam engines were passing by—almost as though answering a mating call. With the change to diesel engines, he added, they were no longer interested.

I must admit that the sound of a train whistle still holds a special appeal for me, as do trains themselves. When we first moved to Sarnia, we rented part of a house located almost directly across from the train station. That haunting call always made me feel like climbing aboard and taking off for faraway places with, as the old song goes, strange sounding names.

Despite the changes, I find myself agreeing with the sentiment of Edna St. Vincent Millay who, in 1921, wrote the following lines in her poem, Travel:

My heart is warm with the friends I make

And better friends I’ll not be knowing

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take

No matter where it’s going.

Next, check out these 10 picture-perfect moments on a train trip through the Canadian Rockies.

Originally Published in Our Canada