The Ontario Northland is going mighty fast for a funeral barge, 65 mph past ribbons of sumacs that are coming on vermillion, that eye-blasting, keening, it’s-almost-Thanksgiving Ontario scenery.
Conductor Brian Irwin isn’t studying the sumacs. No.
The railroad lifer is in thought, formulating a message that will sum up his views of the decision by the McGuinty government to divest itself of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, including the shutting down of the Northlander, erasing, oh, 110 years of history as of Friday. Poof.
So there’s Irwin, swaying to the thrumble of the train, and here’s his thought: “We’re kinda partial to a fence at the French River there.”
You see where he’s going. Us versus them. When you’re taking one of your last runs, might as well unload on the sorry South-North relationship in this province. The betrayal. Words do not suffice.
“It is personal — this whole thing is personal,” he says. “We’ve never had a friend at the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. Why there is such a hate on for the ONR is beyond me. Why the hell are we under Northern Development and Mines anyway? We’re a transportation company!”
We’re on the Tuesday run, charging north to Cochrane, past the postcard prettiness of the train stations at Temagami and Cobalt, recalling the boom days of silver mining and the too-often-forgotten truth that the resources of the north built the paper corridor we know as Bay Street.
Says Irwin plainly: “They want this train off and they don’t give a s—t.”
Lots of people do. Give a s—, that is. Frank Sprenger is one, and it takes a moment to register the fact that having heard the news of the Northlander’s planned demise, Sprenger travelled from his home town of Kerken, Germany, to ride this rail.
Sprenger had been sitting by himself in the café car until a chatty group descended, colonizing as train travellers do, instant camaraderie, ordering up every can of Budweiser in the place until the Bud ran dry and the clatter of red and white cans was swept from the table causing Sprenger to remark, smiling his small smile, that he would love to buy everyone a “real” beer, meaning a German beer. There is no real beer. But there is a stock of Canadian. Excellent!
Leaning into the window of what we will now call the bar car, Sprenger unloads his encyclopedic knowledge of trains, his admiration for the scenery in the Mississippi Delta, his remembrances of a Kodachromatic early morning trip westbound out of Denver or his third-class trans-Siberian adventure aboard BAM, the Russian Baikal-Amur Mainline. You can see a great deal from a train. He wonders: how do you pronounce Kapuskasing?
“I try to finish as many of the railway lines that are possible,” Sprenger says, meaning that when a line is being shut, he gets on it. Don Kennedy sidles up for a chat, sliding across the Naugahyde banquette, and the talk turns political, to the agreed view that for passenger rail to work, governments must subsidize. “It’s an attitude,” Sprenger says. “In North America, the attitude is, trains don’t count.” In most Western European countries, by contrast, “They’re trying to get people off the roads.”
Don Kennedy, with his sterling silver lariat and cowboy boots and that steer’s head for a belt buckle — Kennedy runs about 100 head of beef cattle on Arran Lake — fills Sprenger in on the future, meaning what the government calls “enhanced” bus service. “But the thing is, I simply wouldn’t come,” says the train buff, sounding almost hurt by the suggestion that he would consider taking a bus, for God’s sake.
No one on the train likes the word “buff.” Nor does Sprenger see himself as a “track basher,” apparently a British term for notching up rail routes. A passenger can learn a lot on a train. A “pendrol” is a curvaceous clip that serves the same purpose as a rail spike. If you want to get rid of ground hogs, try bubble gum. Makes their stomachs blow up. Kennedy says only Dubble Bubble works. Hudson Bay: fresh water or salt? Is it true that different rail gauges slowed Hitler’s march into Russia?
Brian Irwin counts the passenger tickets from a table in the café/bar car. There are 91 passengers going north. “Nooooobody takes the train,” Irwin says, shaking his head, stretching the sarcasm for a long beat, laughing at the thought that enhanced bus service, as susceptible to highway-clogging as cars, is the government’s proffered solution.
Look, no one’s suggesting the numbers are great. “We understand the status quo isn’t working,” says Brian Kelly, spokesperson for the unionized workers, largely Steelworkers (conductors, engineers) and the CAW (service trades). In the fiscal year ended March 31, the ONTC, which includes rail freight, real estate (the inn at the Cochrane train station), the Ontera telecommunications system and the Cochrane to Moosonee Polar Bear Express, recorded a $10.8-million loss on revenues of $160 million, though an $18.5-million pension expense was incurred in the same year.
The government has pegged the per passenger subsidy on the Northlander at $400. Well who makes money in passenger rail?
“Well,” says Clive Dorland, a chartered accountant who lives and works in Cochrane, a precise figure in a grey pullover, his hands steepled before him, “the government subsidizes other things. This doesn’t seem rational.”
Dorland is taking one last trip, for nostalgia’s sake. His grandfather moved to Cochrane in the ’40s as a CA. His father, too, was an accountant. He says his great-grandfather was a car man for the ONR.
If you grew up in Cochrane and attended Queen’s University, it was, it’s easy to believe, a whole lot of fun to take the overnight train to Union Station and then, fresh as daylight, continue on to Kingston. People could go about their business in town, says Dorland — medical business, business business. Everyone agrees the night train was fantastic, till it was pulled from service more than a decade ago.
Let your mind head the other way, to the university student headed home to Cochrane for the holidays, not imprisoned on a bus, but free roaming. There was guitar-playing and singing and chatter and beer. “It means a lot,” Dorland says about train travel. “You get a connection to it.”
Tina Crundwell is running the food concession on this day, wearing a Northlander golf shirt with the branded words “Connecting the north” stitched on the arm band. On Wednesday morning, Crundwell was being cheery and optimistic, hoping for a stay of execution. That’s her personality — the optimist. Should the train be axed she expected an immediate impact come Thanksgiving, especially students. “There’s going to be people left behind everywhere,” she predicts.
Clive Dorland was resigned: “It’s just one more thing that’s going that’s not going to come back.”
When Donny Warren, engineer, climbed into his driver’s seat on Tuesday, he hadn’t completely given up on the Northlander. Not 100 per cent.
Warren had the driver’s window on the locomotive open wide — air conditioning — waiting for the all clear to pull out of Quaker siding. Warren had pulled the Northlander into Quaker to clear the track for a long run of freight heading south from Capreol, and that was going to put the Northlander behind schedule. Freight takes precedence on the line.
The old General Motors-built locomotive has to be 30 years young if she’s a day. Maybe 40. Train lovers can tell a two-stroke engine from a four-stroke just by taking a listen. The four-strokes have a “bark” to them, says Scott Hartley, who freelances for Trains magazine and has joined the Northlander odyssey. These babies are two-stroke.
Wayne Sykes is Donny Warren’s co-engineer on this day. Explaining the job of the engineer, he says it’s as much about memorization as anything. “Memorizing from here to Cochrane. Every curve, every crossing, every up and down.”
Back in ’83, or maybe ’84, Sykes was driving freight, heading north, just outside Latchford, when he came upon a washout. “I was coming around a curve and I could see a rail there but you could tell there was a hole underneath it. I said, ‘There’s no bridge here,’ and I just couldn’t do anything and down we went.”
There’s stress on the job. Car drivers who try to shoot the crossing to beat the train. Suicide missions — drivers who wait by the crossing for that precise moment when the train will hit. Then there was that little boy on the bridge near Huntsville.
There’s a pageant of images you wouldn’t want to have to bed down with at night.
Warren is taking us to full speed, trying to recall when and why the regulation on top speed was reduced from 70 mph to 65. Comes up empty. What happens when he hits a moose? The moose loses. One year when he was driving freight, Warren hit five moose in a single month. Speaking of freight, Warren brought the last ore train out of the Adams mine. That was more than a decade ago now. The ore trains coming off marked the beginning of what Warren called the downward spiral.
Wayne Sykes has taken one of the seats situated just over from the driver’s throne, from which Donny Warren can blow that plaintive horn as much as he pleases.
“It’s a beautiful sound,” Sykes says.
He has his eyes steady forward, where the steel rails curve into the bush. “Gravenhurst to Cochrane is all dark territory,” he notes. He means there are no more three-way lights north of Gravenhurst, but the comment lands heavily, an end note.
Back at the passenger end, the odyssey continues, a thrown together group of travellers. Don Kennedy is heating his barn with solar and importing rare chickens and telling tales of adolescent pranks. He has his mind on Dalton McGuinty: “I can’t understand it. He’s shooting himself in the foot for a trivial amount of money.”
McGuinty’s $190-million giveaway to cancel a power plant has set tongues wagging.
Frank Sprenger wouldn’t know about that. He just gently implies that we are somehow backward here in these parts, that we don’t get trains. Can he describe the aural pleasure he gets from railroading? “You simply have to listen,” he says quite matter-of-factly, as if to say how-can-you-be-such-an-idiot?
Well, there hasn’t been much of that. Listening, that is.
Wednesday morning, Cochrane, Ont. A scrim of light haloes the clouds that hang above the station. The return trip to Toronto plays host to some of the same cast of characters. Brian Irwin. Wayne Sykes. Brian Kelly hops on the train at North Bay and speed-talks about the uphill battle faced by the unions, directing a heavy load of animus toward Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci.
“The train is done,” Brian Irwin said flatly.
And yet, as of late Friday, as the last Northlander made its final run toward Union Station, Brian Kelly would not admit defeat. “This fight isn’t over,” he said. “You’ve pissed the north off, Mr. Bartolucci. The divide between the north and south is now greater than it’s ever been.”