Accidental Activist

Only on VIA

I have a warm spot for VIA Rail. I'm not sure why. Sure they're useless, but they're earnest. They're earnestly useless.

By Ben Bull
Published August 21, 2009

Screech, Click ... Clunk.

What was that?

Oh surely we hadn't...

I looked out of the window.

We had. We'd stopped.

Whose idea was it to take VIA? I wondered, as I shuffled down the aisle, looking for a rep. And how many times have we stopped now? Nine? Ten? Twice in the last hour at least.

"What's the hold-up?" I asked the snack bar guy, who was squinting into his coffee machine, scooping out the goop.

"Sounds like the bearings," he replied without looking up. "Terminal, I expect."

"Terminal?" I replied, slumping down at a table and peering up the track. "So what happens now?"

"Bus, probably."

"A bus?!"

I pulled out my emergency packet of Ginger snaps and watched as the snack guy continued un-glooping the machine. Gloop, plop, splat.

Out of the window a dozen or so VIA reps were milling along the track. One of them was standing and pointing at something - a door? A wheel? A bomb? His buddy was shaking his head and rocking back on his heels. Several others were tight roping their way along the adjacent rail, laughing and lighting up a smoke.

There seemed to be an ingrained slow motion like movement to each of their actions. Even the way they smoked - which I'd seem them do frequently, every time we stopped - was frozen in time. It was like watching a scene from the Matrix except with smoking and pointing instead of shooting and squinting.

One thing was for sure: Nobody seemed to be in a hurry to fix the problem.

I crunched my cookies - thank God for emergency ginger snaps - and waited, watching the slow-motion circus unfurl outside.

"Ha ha! Bonjour. Cigarette? Ah qui!"

Every so often I'd jerk my head to the right as the coffee machine cleansing continued unabated. Sloop, gloop, splat.

Ten minutes elapsed, then fifteen, then twenty.

What the hell is going on? I wondered. Why don't they make any announcements? Even a "pardon mes amis, we've no idea what's going on" would have been better than nothing.

Eventually a burly looking cap came striding through the car. "Ex-c-cuse me..." I stuttered, holding out an arm.

"This train eez out of action," he enunciated, brushing his way past. "Please take yer belongings and alight to de..."

Wait! What? Alight to de where?

Too late. He was gone.

Does he mean alight here? I wondered. But how can that be? We're in the middle of a forest!

"What did he say?" I shouted over to Snack Guy, who was now dolloping the gloop mountain from the counter into the bin - sclup-plop!

"You need to get off," he replied, again without looking up - doesn't anyone make eye contact here? - "Bus should be here in a couple of hours."

Ah...great. I stashed away my last cookie and got up to pack. We were still two hours away from our destination, I figured. How long will it take us by bus?

This was the first time I'd taken a long distance rail trip in Canada. I'd done Toronto to Montreal, Toronto to London and, of course, Toronto to Aldershot.

Aldershot had been my nearest station when I lived in Dundas. It was part of my commute. The train was often late, but I'd gotten used to it - even quite amused by it after a while. The late arrivals and single door entry became a sort of VIA quirk, a mostly harmless rail line trait which somehow added to the allure of the whole VIA Rail experience.

At least - when I wasn't in a rush.

But up until this point long hauls had never been an option: VIA is just so expensive.

I remember when I arrived in Toronto as a tourist, back in 1991. I had wanted to take the Rocky Mountain trek only to learn it would set me back about $500. These days the trip is nearer a grand. VIA trips ain't cheap.

This journey, Toronto to Halifax return, had set me back about $900. For that I had to make one change, in Montreal, after which I got my own coffin sized sleeper. The cost wasn't a problem this time though - my boss was paying.

"What the hell is going on?" asked an old lady, as a porter helped her down the steps.

"Nothing to worry about, Miss," replied the porter, tipping his cap. "The buses are on their way."

"Oh dear."

We wobbled our way over the tracks, 50 or so old folks, families and students, teetering through the trees and onto a muddy forecourt.

Where the hell are we?

Like most of the New Brunswick landscape I'd seen, there was nothing but grass and trees and a couple of aluminum clad houses scattered along an empty road. How will the buses know where to find us?

As we waited, harassed-looking VIA staff marched up and down attempting to herd us into groups. "Halifax people over here!" ordered one rep, "Truro here."

We would obediently pick up our bags and shuffle along to the designated area. 20 minutes later another cap would appear: "Halifax here, Truro here!"

And we'd shuffle off again.

When we finally boarded the buses it appeared that the herding hadn't worked. "So everybody here is for Halifax, right?" shouted the bus driver as we pulled onto the road.

"Er...no?"

Three hands went up, then four, then five.

"I'm going to Truro!" said someone at the back. "So are we! And us!"

The driver sighed. "Looks like we're making all the stops," he muttered as he rammed his foot on the gas.

Free chips and water bottles were passed around and the mood quickly lightened. Across the aisle conversations sprouted. "What about the weather, eh?" "Are you folks local?" "What brings you to Nova Scotia?"

It was all very pleasant, all very...Canadian. It reminded me of that Planes Trains and Automobiles scene where John Candy gets everybody singing. 'Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones!'

At some point a local trucker looking bloke named Lenny, pulled out a bootleg movie and attempted to insert into the DVD player. "Anybody for Dragonheart?"

"Sure!"

But there was a problem: The movie wouldn't play.

As we neared the crest of a steep hill I remember watching Lenny, the rep and the driver fiddling with the machine. The driver was leaning across the aisle, one hand on the wheel.

As we hit the top of the hill the road veered sharply to the right. The driver jumped back in his seat and threw the bus round the curve. The poor rep hurtled back onto his seat and Lenny...well, where was Lenny?

"Where'd he go?" said someone at the front.

"I don't know."

"Lenny!"

We scanned the front of the bus from our seats. Nothing.

Was the door open? Could he have...?

A movement at the front caught our eye. Lenny?

The driver looked towards the door. "You OK?"

"I'm alright!" A bedraggled looking Lenny crawled up from the bottom of the stairs, his fist in the air, baseball cap skewered to the side, glasses teetering on his nose.

"Hooray!" we cheered.

There was a smattering of applause which quickly gained momentum as the movie sputtered into life behind the trucker's matted up head.

"Hooray" again.

As I settled back to watch Dennis Quaid and Pete Postlethwaite I wondered if VIA ever worried about law suits and mass refunds at times like this. But then I watched Lenny, high fiving his way back to his seat and decided: Probably not.

The return trip wasn't quite so lighthearted. I was tired after two weeks of non-stop auditing and eager to get home. So I was none too pleased when we were herded off the train at Belleville.

What's happened now? I wondered.

"VIA regrets to announce that this train will not be continuing on to Toronto," said the driver.

Well, at least they've announced it this time. Better unpack those emergency cookies...but what's the excuse today? "There's a blockade up ahead."

Turns out native protesters had seen fit to block the tracks. Evidently here in Canada nobody thought to kick them off, so here we were, stuck again, on the bus.

Our bus didn't have any DVD shenanigans this time but somehow we had managed to make the same multi-stop mistake as before.

As I plugged in my iPod and stared at the train tracks we were supposed to be riding I thought back to my other VIA trips and realized that delays, excuses and "Only on VIA" type moments were par for the course.

There was that memorable London to Toronto end of day run. Some poor bloke had thrown himself onto the track. Except nobody told us this. For some reason, VIA didn't see fit to make any kind of announcement, leaving several cars full of weary commuters and tourists scratching their heads and baking in the heat for 40 minutes. When I went to the desk to complain the clerk berated me for being insensitive.

'I just wanted to know what was happening' I replied.

And there was the time I tried to book a ride back from Kingston. When I called the booking line to inquire about stowing my bike I was told, "You may have to remove the pedals and turn the handlebars. Check with the station."

"OK."

When I tried to get the number for the station there was nothing listed. So I called back. "Yes, you'll need to remove the pedals and turn the handlebars," instructed the rep.

"Well how do I do that?" I asked

"No idea," came the reply.

I spent an hour the next day looking for a bike shop. But it was a Sunday, and everything was closed. So I called again: "Can someone at the station help me remove the pedals?" I wondered.

"Probably not."

In the end I curled up into a ball and called my wife. "I got the bloke to ring the station," she explained, calling me back at the hotel. "He said you can load the bike as is."

"Aaaaaargggh!"

There was that work trip, from Montreal. Memorable because of my seat partner, 'Rick' from Hamilton. Rick went to great pains to explain to me how his wife gave him, ahem, sexual gratification, by placing a blanket over her head and, well, "moving as little as possible."

"People just thought I had a picnic on my lap," he said, beaming at the memory. "Tthey hurried past, never said a word."

"I bet..."

A couple of hours and a couple of beers later I noticed that Rick was covered in small burn marks, smooth little circles running up his arms. "How did you get those?" I asked.

"Tattoos," he replied, "I removed them all myself."

Rick explained how you can remove tattoos quickly and safely - with the back of a hot spoon. "You have to leave the spoon on for just the right amount of time," he said, "so as not to leave a mark."

"So what happened to your head?" I asked, pointing to the egg sized oval just above his right eye.

"I left the spoon on too long."

Another 'Only on VIA' type conversation came courtesy of a cheeky codger on his way back to Oshawa. He happily talked my wife and me through one of his typical work days, on the line at GM.

"I'd clock in around 8:00 then take my first break soon after," he explained with a smirk. "Then I'd go back for half an hour and take my mid-morning. I'd walk along the tracks for an hour listening to the birds...it was lovely. Then it would be lunch. After lunch I'd work for an hour and take a couple more breaks before home time. It was a great job."

And then there was my year and a half commute from Aldershot. Perpetual delays due to "a CN train blocking the rails", "ice on the bridge", or, more typically - no reason at all.

And the single door entry system which forced us 50 or so commuters to hurriedly decide where the train was going to stop and then guess which door was going to open so we could shuffle to the front of the line. After five minutes of huffing and shuffling - we'd be off. 20 minutes later we'd do it all again, in Oakville.

My Toronto/Halifax saga didn't end there. When I got to Montreal on my way back home, I attempted to get a partial refund for the New Brunswick breakdown fiasco.

"I'm not sure what our policy is for that," the ticket agent told me, after I'd waited 45 minutes in line. "Why don't you mail in your request?"

"Why don't you..."

Now now Ben...

After some, ahem, gentle haggling the agent eventually agreed to give me a credit, in exchange for my receipt. "But I need my old receipt," I explained. "I'm expensing the trip."

"Well that's too bad," replied the agent. "I need the receipt."

I explained as carefully and simply as I could that I wanted the refund for myself - as compensation for my inconvenience. I didn't want to pass it on to my boss. My boss wasn't paying me for my time in transit. But the agent didn't get it. Eventually he gave me a voucher.

"Just give this to the agent next time you book a trip," he explained, "and they'll deduct it from the price."

"OK, thanks."

When I got to Toronto after the Belleville switch-a-roo I sought out another cash back. "I'm not sure what our policy is for that," the ticket agent told me. "Why don't you mail in your request?"

"Why don't you...Aaaargh!"

20 minutes later I scored another voucher.

A few weeks later I presented them. They didn't work.

I have a warm spot for VIA Rail. I'm not sure why. Sure they're useless, but they're earnest. They're earnestly useless.

There's something very un-21st century about their workplace policies, spotty efficiency and casual approach to customer satisfaction. Why do they need one rep for every sleeping car? I wonder. And why do they stop so often?

And another question: Why do they never seem to make any announcements? And why does nobody ever complain?! And why do they speak so much French!

The level of comfort I experience with VIA is first rate. I loved the tiny sleeping compartments on my Halifax trip, and the impromptu chats with people young and old.

On my outbound leg to Halifax, I joined a 90 something year old man in his tiny compartment and listened to his life story. He'd worked for oil refineries all over the world and ended up at a research post in Mississauga.

"You want to know how to make a billion dollars?" he asked me, as the light trickled away outside.

"Sure!"

"Find a way to store energy."

"OK..."

I remember watching the old man's face as he bored his eyes into mine. I felt like he was trying to pass along his legacy, to urge me on in the quest. "Well, I don't know much about energy," I coughed, shuffling off to bed.

VIA is expensive, unreliable and it usually ends in tears. I have another trip booked for Labour day.

I can't wait.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By joe reader (anonymous) | Posted August 22, 2009 at 07:41:24

Great story. Very funny!

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By tcr (anonymous) | Posted August 23, 2009 at 01:26:13

Great story, haven't ever travelled with via before. Sounds like I won't be in a hurry to either, lol. Nice story about the auto worker. No wonder cars cost so much. Over 80g to work on a line plus full benefits. Why did I bother going to college I should have just gone to Ford.

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By VIABONjour (anonymous) | Posted August 24, 2009 at 09:49:14

They speak so much french because they are headquartered in Montreal. That's also why you have such major destinations as Jonquière and Senneterre nicely served, while Hamilton remains out of the loop.

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By BostonF (registered) - website | Posted August 24, 2009 at 23:34:05

VIA Rail Canada is an independent Crown corporation offering intercity passenger rail services in Canada. VIA Rail Canada operates 480 trains in eight Canadian provinces (exceptions are Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island) over a network of 14,000 kilometres (8,700 mi) of track spanning the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. VIA Rail carries approximately four million passengers annually. It sees the majority of its traffic between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City, Quebec on the Quebec City - Windsor Corridor commonly known as The Corridor. Virtually all VIA Rail trains operate on Canadian National trackage. It is headquartered at 3 Place Ville-Marie in Montreal, Quebec.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 02:32:04

Don't even get me started on what happens when they run out of beer in economy class. No, seriously don't get me started. I have to go to bed at some point.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 04, 2009 at 11:34:10

Go Transit isn't much better.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 04, 2009 at 12:41:07

You got that right. The reason I switched my commute to VIA (not cheap - an extra $5 each way) was because of how bad GO was.

How come Japan can run such an efficient train system and we can't? Even Britains' trains run on time these days!

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