CAN THE TRAINS COME BACK?
Hardly anyone’s noticed yet, but one Canadian railroad is trying to turn its passenger service into the cushiest way to travel since sedan chairs. Can the CN succeed? Here’s one traveler’s diary of his three convivial — if sometimes boring — days spent rediscovering the parlor car, and quite a bit about Canada
ALMOST SINCE the advent of automobiles, and certainly since nearly everybody began using cars for short trips and airplanes for long ones, Canadian railroads — the thin ribbons of steel, remember, that stitched our country together — have been losing money on passenger services. Today, most North American railroads carry passengers because the government won't allow them not to: and Canadian National, which has four thousand miles of money-losing track that it would abandon if it could, used to be no exception. But about four years ago the CN management began wondering if they couldn't, after all, make a virtue out of necessity, and actually make money on the passengers that they have to carry. Under the inspiration of a glib, lifelong civil servant named Pierre Delagrave who has no preconceptions whatsoever about railroading, CN began applying modern merchandising techniques to the passenger business. The company introduced its pervasive new trade-mark (“toothpaste typography,” it’s been called by critics), dropped the word “Railway” from its name, and started chasing passengers in earnest. Fares were slashed dramatically last October, and equipment, schedules and services are being improved to keep the customers happy once they’ve been lured aboard.
I was one of those customers this spring. Í had occasion to travel from Vancouver to Toronto, and then on to Montreal. And, partly to see how CN was making out, and partly to refresh my memory about what Canada looks like from the ground, 1 decided to make my trip by rail.
The first thing 1 learned was that, although CN fares may be lower — they've been cut in
some cases by as much as fifty-eight percent — they're a lot harder to comprehend than they used to be. CN now has three kinds of tickets: blue ones for days when traffic has always been heavy — holiday weekends, for instance — red tickets for days when practically nobody travels by rail, and white tickets for the rest. Blue tickets, naturally, are the most expensive — or as CN puts it, reductions are the least. Tickets are cheaper still on white days; and on red days, the reductions are almost philanthropic. My ticket was for Easter Sunday, which was a blue day, and it cost me $88.50, including a roomette and my meals. If I'd left on a red day, I could have traveled for $80.50.
My train — or so I found myself thinking of it by the second morning of the trip — was the Super Continental, which left Vancouver at five in the afternoon. And as soon as I walked into the cavernous, CN-Great Northern station, I was forcibly re-introduced to the whole mystique of rail travel — the high ceilings, the noise, the milling crowds, the arboritetopped counters, the distinctive waiting-room smell that even C'N's progressive passenger-sales department hasn't been able to expunge. It’s a thoroughly nineteenth-century atmosphere, and not necessarily a disagreeable one. But Canadian railway stations, regrettably, are still the sort of places where it seems permissible to spit on the floor; and until the railroads can emulate the smooth sterility of, say, Winnipeg’s International Airport, the full extent of CN’s modernization campaign is bound to be lost on the traveling public.
Within five minutes, I was also re-introduced to another aspect of rail travel that I’d man-
aged to forget about; the rather unnerving fact that, on any train, there are dozens of uniformed men who know more about what you. the passenger, are supposed to be doing than you do yourself. When I showed my ticket to get out on the platform, the man in uniform asked me if I'd made my dining-car reservations. Well no, I said, I didn’t know I was supposed to. So he motioned me over to two other bluesuited men at a kiosk in the middle of the waiting room, who gave me a slip of paper that authorized me to eat supper that evening at half past seven. Then, and only then, was I permitted to board the train.
There’s a reason for this procedure, of course. When the CN people launched the red, white and blue plan, they decided to include meals in the price of sleeping-car tickets. This made the dining car such a popular place that they were forced to introduce a reservations system. Such innovations may make things easier for passengers, all right. But at the same time all the little rules that passengers can't possibly be expected to know about make it difficult to avoid feeling as though you'd blundered into somebody else's private club.
Aboard the train, I settled down in my roomette, a steel-lined cubbyhole about the size of a small suburban bathroom, which was to be my home for three days and three nights. It was clean, compact and comfortable, with its own toilet and wash basin, and a very appealing little control panel with switches to regulate the temperature, turn on the lights and the electric fan, and a button to summon the porter. I pressed the button out of curiosity, but nothing happened until an hour or so later, when the conductor came around to
punch my ticket and make another dining-car reservation, this time for the next day's meals.
I grew very fond of that roomette in the next few days. I learned how to swing the bed down from the wall and make it snap into position so that it filled the whole compartment. Then, for most of the day, 1 would lie there with the door shut, propped up by four generous pillows, reading a long and absorbing novel called Going Away, by Clancy Sigal. Sometimes 1 would put aside the book and look at the scenery; at other times, 1 would doze off for whole hours at a stretch. Occasionally I would press my transistor radio up against the window (the only place it would pick up a signal) and find out what Young Canada was listening to in Wainwright, Alberta, or Melville, Saskatchewan. That week it usually proved to be She Loves You, by the Beatles, or Navy Blue, by Diane Renay, a song about Diane's steady boy friend who joins the nay-ay-vee, the words to which I can now recite by heart. I slept soundly at night, and on awakening in the mornings I enjoyed lying there for a while, idly wondering what I was going to see when 1 pulled up the blind and looked out the window. These are unremarkable pleasures to dwell upon, but for me they constitute one of the best reasons for traveling by rail; if you are so disposed, you really can relax en route and, as the advertising slogan has it. Arrive Refreshed at your destination. Personally, I hadn't felt as languid for years as I did when 1 arrived in Montreal, and the feeling persisted for days. In an age when the whole procedure of traveling anywhere seems to be specifically designed to induce coronary thrombosis, the gentle pace of a rail journey is a virtue that
I for one haven't the least inclination to scorn.
For many people, however, a train journey is an exercise in excruciating boredom; they've got to be doing something all the time. It is on behalf of this restless majority that the CN has instituted some of its most popular, and visible, reforms — including, of all things, bingo, with ash trays and matchbooks as prizes. "When we introduced bingo,” says Delagrave. "people thought I was nuts. But now we get complaints because the games don't last longer.” Ordinarily, bingo is played from ten to eleven every evening. But there arc many other scheduled activities which make a CN lounge car resemble a Billy Butlin holiday camp. CN, which has a slogan for almost everything, calls this Playing the Miles Away. For the kiddies, there are coloring books and games of checkers, monopoly, parcheesi and snakes-and-ladders; and the diners have special children’s menus which fold into cardboard locomotives. For the grown-ups, there are magazines in black folders, the aforementioned bingo, and something called the Hospitality Hour, which consists of free morning coffee in the lounge car. It seems almost superfluous to add that there is also liquor. Yet I can report that, despite all the YMCA-style innovations, the most popular activity among many grownups is still Boozing the Miles Away.
The bar car, of course, has always been the convivial core of any transcontinental train. But in CN’s new lounge, fitted out with dim lights, swivel chairs and Eskimo prints, it somehow seems easier than formerly to get past the what-time-do-we-get-to-Saskatoon stage of conversations with fellow - passengers. Whenever I entered the bar car (mine, significantly,
was named the Bon Vivant) the patrons, morning or evening, always appeared to he in an advanced stage of hilarity: not drunk, you understand, but really enjoying themselves.
I learned a lot in that bar car. There was a nice couple from Yellowknife, NWT, who told me how the respectable families of that northern community apparently go into debt giving elaborate cocktail parties for each other. There was a young soldier who talked about the ridiculously low price of beer in the UN mess hall on the Gaza Strip, where he’d just completed a tour of duty — only three piastres, I think he said, which is about four cents. There was another soldier from Wainwright, Alberta, who meticulously reviewed the relative merits of the red-light districts of Copenhagen, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Amsterdam and London. A retired CN trainman — they get a lifetime pass on the railway along with their pension — told me he didn't approve of all the changes that were overtaking the railroad he’d served for forty-five years. “Too many efficiency experts coming through from Montreal, too much bull all around,” he said. “You can't run a railroad like that.” An engineer from Saskatoon told me of the wondrous benefits that would accrue to the province from completion of the South Saskatchewan dam project. A woman from Calgary wearing slacks and a Beatle sweatshirt told me about her grandson in St. Catharines. A hunch of airmen from Newfoundland taught me some new words to The Squid J ippin' Ground.
Finally, there was a young Van Doos captain from Quebec City who offered what I consider to he the definitive statement on separatism, biculturalism and all that. He was about twenty-five, wore a faint military mustache, was very smooth and intensely French. Naturally, we got talking about the Quebec thing: and since he was the only Quebecker in the car. the conversation soon widened into a dialogue between him on one
side and half a dozen Alberta airmen on the other. It went on a long time, growing progressively more amicable, until the Albertans were toasting the fleur-de-lis and the young captain was toasting the Union Jack. His final toast was memorable, and went something like this: “My friends, we arc all soldiers of Canada. But you arc English and I am French. If the final split that we all fear should ever come to pass, and if some day we should face each other as enemies across the Rideau Canal, let us lower our rifles and remember this night of friendship.” All this was delivered solemnly, and the room was silent as he concluded: “Because if you don’t lower your rifles, I'll have to run like hell!”
“You can’t run a railroad this way,” one trainman said. “Too many experts, too much bull”
It was a fine toast, and it broke up the bar car. It was also an extremely patriotic experience as was, indeed, almost everything that transpired in the bar car between Vancouver and Toronto. (The Toronto-Montreal run, by contrast, is as impersonal as an airline flight. The parlor car is full of men reading The Financial Post or staring out the windows, and they hardly ever talk to each other.) For me, this traditional method of Playing the Miles Away was one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip; 1 can't think of a better way to meet a more diverse assortment of Canadians.
But you can't spend all your train time alternating between the bar car and your roomette. You must also eat, and if necessary you can watch the scenery. Thanks to CN’s new complimentary-meals policy for sleeping-car passengers, neither activity costs much.
Complimentary or not, however, the diner certainly tries to look expensive. CN dining cars are one of the last bastions of the servant-oriented society of yesteryear, when the national wage structure was so rudimentary that it was still feasible to employ grown men to fill finger howls and whisk crumbs off tabletops. That era is gone forever in most places, but it still flourishes aboard the CN diner, almost as if Jim Fisk hadn't died in 1872. Each table is adazzle with pots, plates, bowls, salvers, salad trays and similar hardware, all of which must be brought to the table by someone, taken away by someone and — presumably — washed by someone else. When you order coffee, they don't merely bring you a cup of coffee; instead they bring you the cup and
saucer: a silver pot containing the coffee: a little dish to set the pot on: a silver cream pitcher and a silver sugar bowl full of envelopes emblazoned with the CN trademark. Vegetables aren't served on the plate along with everything else, but come in a little bowl of their own. And at the end of the meal, you are handed a small silver plate that used to be for presenting the cheque but now, in the era of complimentary meals, is used almost exclusively for leaving tips. CN has seven hundred of these tipping plates in its inventory, I learned; and I got the impression that they will continue to use them, obsolete though they may be, until all seven hundred wear out.
But for all the opulence of the table settings — and service that was really excellent — the actual food I ate was unremarkable. I can't remember anything about the first evening's meal, except that the main course was something that reminded me of boarding school. Most of the other meals were similarly unmemorable except for my final supper, which was really a pretty good steak, considering that it was cooked in a cramped, lurching, overheated kitchen at sixty-five miles per hour.
At that speed, which seemed to be maintained for much of the trip, it was possible to view the scenery with the reasonable expectation that it would change before too long. You miss the best part of the Rockies on the Super Continental, but CN has remedied the deficiency w'ith a new' transcontinental train, the Panorama, that claims to pass more mountains during daylight hours than the CPR's famous Canadian. After easing out of Vancouver, the last thing I noticed before nightfall was the distant tower of Westminster Abbey, a monastery perched on a hill near Mission, B.C. When I awoke next morning we were into Alberta, traveling through the tail-end of the Rockies. After that, of course, came the Prairies, days and nights of them. This is when scenerywatching begins to pall, and at one point I found myself standing for an hour at the rear window of the last car, watching the grain elevators as they zipped past the train and timing how many seconds it took before they disappeared on the horizon. What I liked best about scenery-watching was the split-second vignettes that occasionally flashed past my window: a
pretty woman in a lonely trackside cabin somewhere east of Edmonton, hanging out washing in what must have been bclow-zero weather; or the boy in gumboots standing beside the tracks in the middle of Saskatchewan, waving at the train and probably wishing he was traveling too.
After Winnipeg, the wide-open spaces begin to disappear and the towns gradually start bunching up. In the Muskoka district of Ontario, you can count several pleasant - looking communities during breakfast alone. And then the train reduces speed for a slow procession through several miles of biscuit factories, automobile graveyards. nineteenth - century distilleries, slum houses of blackened brick and tatty suburban streets. This is Toronto, seen from the tradesmen's entrance.
I took the final leg of my journey on i six-hour train that is jointly op-
erated by CN and the CPR between Toronto and Montreal. It's trains like these, operating a fast service between major cities, that CN thinks have the best chance of competing with automobile traffic. Outside Toronto, significantly, the railroad parallels Highway 401. which is currently being widened, at villainous expense, to accommodate even more cars. By the time they've finished with the Toronto end of 401, Delagrave likes to believe it will be time to start widening the
Montreal end of the road — and so on, ad infinitum, until people come to their senses. leave their cars at home and take the train instead. In preparation for this day, the Montreal-Toronto pool car is fitted out like a land-borne airliner, with reserved swivel chairs in the parlor car for firstclass passengers. Delagrave dreams of carrying the concept even further by installing conference rooms and secretarial service for businessmen. He's even considering replacing the tele-
phones that were taken off CN trains thirty years ago.
Personally, 1 hope the CN wins its gamble to stay in the passenger business. My own trip across the country was faster than by automobile ( by at least thirty-six hours, I estimate): cheaper than air (by S31.50, if I'd flown TC'A economy); a far more gregarious experience than either; and as restful as any form of land conveyance yet devised, including the eighteenth-century sedan chair. ★