Canadian Railway Adventure – Day 2 Night (ramblings)

Day 2 night

I’ve settled back into the rhythm of the rails. Meeting and interacting with new people on a train is a skill, a habit, which one can learn, forget, remember, lose, and ease back into. But being in tune with a train is more than relations with other passengers, there is an aspect of having a relationship to the built machine itself.

The Canadian is much harder to figure out than the Amtrak train I took in september. The Amtrak train was a workhorse, which kept a tight schedule, and transported people effectively to where they wanted to go. People who ride amtrak are largely not rail buffs, and those who are remember the good old days when railroads like Milwaukee Road and Santa Fee offered passenger service unmatched by Amtrak’s effective, efficient, but not particularly special brand of travel. The Canadian, on the other hand, is as luxurious as it ever was. It’s as if a tourist firm put the old California Zephyr back into operation as a tourist train. Like a tourist train it meanders along, keeping a slow and easy schedule. Sometimes it does travel fast (it actually has a higher top speed than most Amtrak trains, at 90mph), but for the most part it seems to rumble along at about 50. I have trouble taking it seriously. Perhaps that’s just part of its essence – it’s not a serious train. It’s a vintage relic which runs only three times a week, it’s more expensive than flying, and it moves mostly not Canadians but tourists who fly here to take the train. This destination character of the train comes into focus when I compare this trip with the one I made in september. Whereas travelling across America via four Amtrak trains felt like an adventure, this feels like a laid back vacation. There is one train, I have one berth, I move back and forth from berth to diner to lounge car. I make numerous friends, people do get off and on, but the trip is easy and predictable. I have more space than I know what to do with – at night I have an entire Park car to myself.

I’ve read that the Canadian is the longest passenger rail service anywhere in the world, excluding the trans-syberian express. From what I’ve read in Paul Theroux about that train, it is almost unbearable – Russians who ride the train spend the entire time either drunk or sleeping. In contrast, this train covers miles with an unbelievable ease – there is so much space, so little rush. Just a rumbling along, a drink, the moon above.

I love this train, but I doubt it is the future. The emphasis on luxury, space, and lack of rush are wonderful for a bon vivant like myself, but are in conflict with the values of efficiency, speed, low-carbon. I can tell I love it though, for the same reason as I can say I love Vancouver but not Toronto – everything about it becomes a priori of concern to me, feels almost like an extension of my body. I want to ride this train again and again (when travel is necessary, at least).

These hours in the night are perhaps my most favourite. It is now two AM, and I have been alone in the Park car for two hours, mostly drunk on smuggled wine. The moon is mostly full and as I watch it overhead, through the ceiling of the Park’s dome, I think about time, and how we spend it. We spend time like money, we save it, divert it as a resource to those end which we think will bring the most benefit to us. But where is time out here, on the prairie, at night? Is it in the distance the train covers, in the clock on my computer screen? No, these are all only the counting of time. The counting of time is done by the measurers, the waiters, the planners. But at night, sometimes, it is possible to experience time without measuring it. This also occurs in night driving, especially if one is alone or one’s passengers are all asleep – driving takes on the peculiar quality of moving through space but not time (this never happens, however, if one is in any way concerned with the clock, with the time of arrival). It happens most often when one does not know where one is, specifically at least.

Aristotle said time is the measure of movement. What one can see at night, on the train or sometimes driving, is that time is not the measure of movement – it is rather the site in which movement can come to be measured. Time is not the train moving through time, it is the space within which the train can move. Time is essentially eternity not because it is limitless or unchanging, but because the limits drawn in a measure of time presuppose an unlimited breadth from which they can be cut. Time, in other words, is unconditioned condition. There has to be time in order to have concern for time, but one does not need to have concern for time in order to have time. It is in these spaces of a lack of concern for counting that the hidden essence of time can be directly sighted.

Earlier when moving through the Chateaux car on my way to the dome, I noticed that I was not connected to the walls of the car. The car jumps up and down, and side to side, and I remain still. My connection to the car is contingent on surfaces which I apply forces to. If at any moment the surfaces of the car ceased to resist me, I would fall down to the tracks and be killed. However, this does not mean the tracks or even gravity are connected to me. I am connected to the earth through gravity in exactly the same way as the car through its floor and chairs – gravity like them is a force which exerts a resistance against me. I can feel this directly when I try to move against it, as in jumping. This line of thinking raises a difficult problem, however: if the car does not have a hold on me other than through its surfaces, and gravity does not have a hold on me other than through a force, experientially similar to a surface in that I experience it as a resistance, then what does have a hold on me. Where am I if I am not sitting in this car, moving on the earth?

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4 thoughts on “Canadian Railway Adventure – Day 2 Night (ramblings)

  1. Thanks for taking me vicariously on this journey.

    “The emphasis on luxury, space, and lack of rush are wonderful for a bon vivant like myself, but are in conflict with the values of efficiency, speed, low-carbon.”

    I am attracted to one day taking the journey that you are taking. Obviously plane travel is for those seeking efficiency and speed (although not low carbon).

    Who have you found takes this journey?

    How much of the time are you in conversation with others? and are these relationships ones you can maintain through the trip?

    Is there any opportunity to see a place when the train stops?

  2. “Who have you found takes this journey?”

    There are a number of railway enthusiasts. There are also a fair number of people who can’t fly for medical reasons (someone had an issue with blood clots, another was recovering from a skiing injury in which he had punctured his lung). Many people do seem to use the train to commute, but not people taking the entire journey – instead people travelling between Edmonton and Winnipeg, or Northern Ontario and Toronto. I did meet a number of people who were convinced that the train was the best way to travel – but none of these people were traveling more than about 2 days.

    I didn’t meet anyone else who was traveling the train for anything like environmental reasons.

    “How much of the time are you in conversation with others? and are these relationships ones you can maintain through the trip?”

    Lots. As often as I want really. There are many people interested in talking. Yes these relationships maintain through the trip. However, I didn’t get anyone’s facebook or email. The train becomes a kind of community, which is quite strong by the 4th day. But I think it would be hubris to try to extend it beyond the trip.

    “Is there any opportunity to see a place when the train stops?”

    Some. In Jasper, an hour and a half is enough to wander through the town. Edmonton no – the station is out of town, it’s a short stop, and it’s at midnight. Saskatoon no – the station is nowhere near the town. Winnipeg – absolutely yes. A 3 hour stop, right downtown, close to culture (I went to a blues bar with some friends. A group of people from the train all went to the bar at the hotel Fort Geary, and they seemed to have a good time). Sioux lookout, the stop is short but the town is small and you can get a sense of the town just from walking the main street.

  3. You mention that there is lots of opportunity to have conversations with other. As often as you want. As someone who enjoys conversations with others during travel, this sounds wonderful.

    Do you think train travel is the means of travel which provides the most opportunity to meet other people?

    What do you think the future of passenger train travel in Canada is?

    Did you tell your fellow passengers that train travel may create fewer carbon emissions than plane travel? If so , were they aware of it? What was their response if they were not previously aware?

  4. “Do you think train travel is the means of travel which provides the most opportunity to meet other people?”

    I’m not sure about most. Pirsig seemed to meet a lot of people traveling by motorcycle. I’m sure traveling by bicycle affords many opportunities to meet people as well. But for long-distance travel, I think the train easily beats flying or driving. I think it beats the bus as well, although obviously Milan would be the current authority on this. I did listen to a “This American Life” program in which the reporter traveled cross country (I think America) several times, meeting people on the Greyhound.

    “What do you think the future of passenger train travel in Canada is?”

    If left up to the free market, and if the funding of Via is not substantially increased, I imagine it will remain the same, or slightly improve. The president of Via has recently made comments to the effect that passenger rail must become a much larger part of Canadian travel. However, without state subsidy to lower fares, this seems unlikely.

    With the railways privatized, and freight trains having priority, the trains will never run on time. Or, they will run on time only with the absurdly padded schedules (the Canadian had its schedule extended by 12 hours, and we still arrived 6 hours late).

    Nationalization is the right solution. The railways should be put back under state control, expanded – both for passenger rail and freight. Local infrastructure should be restored. This is all rational hedging against the future high cost of road truck travel.

    “Did you tell your fellow passengers that train travel may create fewer carbon emissions than plane travel? If so , were they aware of it? What was their response if they were not previously aware?”

    I think everyone was aware. The general opinion is that personal decisions, like whether to fly or whether to drive a hybrid, are of little importance to the big picture – whether climate change is mitigated will be a result of large scale political change.

    I did meet many people, however, who think train travel should be made more affordable and accessible.

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