Letter – Why do I do it?

Dear Brenda and Wawa-news readers:


Why do I do it?

Expend prodigious amounts of research time, travel to the North Shore and push for the preservation and resurrection of VIA Rail’s Canadian, that is.


Three good reasons:  past glories, present potential and people.


I grew up in a family of railroaders who embedded in me a deep respect for trains and train people.  The Canadian was the queen of this world.  She was the last classic streamliner created from scratch by the visionary Budd Company, sired in the image of her sisters, The Chessie, the Wabash Blue Bird, the Burlington Route’s snazzy Twin Zephyrs and the glittery California Zephyr.


I first saw The Canadian when I was four, on a snowy evening walk with my father in Bolton, Ontario.  Around the curve she flew and, in a flash, provided a living lesson in history, geography, technology and nationalism.  The catch-me-if-you-can snarl of the diesels, the shimmering stainless steel car flanks, the jade-tinted scenic domes, the up-and-down zigzag of sleeping car windows, the crimson flashes of roses bobbing in snifters on snowy dining car linen and – like an exclamation mark at the end of a perfect sentence – the illuminated portrait of that cheeky CPR beaver, grinning down from his perch on the tapered stern of the observation car.


As The Canadian pounded along on the first lap of her run to Vancouver, a four-year-old kid could dream of those towns and cities strung out along the main line to the Pacific.  Places that didn’t exist until the CPR spiked down its pioneering rails, spawned those communities, those farms and factories, and converted a patriotic notion into a transcontinental nation.


Later, The Canadian was a daily after-school event.  I raced by bike or electric trolley bus every afternoon to the West Toronto station, where CPR operator Clare Schoester had me perform “my duties.”  These were chalking up the arrival and departure boards in my draughtsman father’s handwriting and making the PA announcements.  Commanding either the inbound or outbound Canadian would be Mr. Schoester’s friend, locomotive engineer Norm Schroeder, who often smuggled me aboard for illicit cab rides.


Next came my pestering letters to CPR executives in Toronto and at headquarters in Montreal’s Windsor Station.  These produced invitations to meet with the bemused railroaders.  One of them was CPR President and Chairman Norris Roy “Buck” Crump, who bought The Canadian in 1953.  She would always be known to the CPR family as Buck’s Beauty.


The Canadian was Mr. Crump’s pride and joy and heartbreak.  As he told me, he misjudged the extent to which government would fund the competing air and highway systems, rendering The Canadian and all passenger trains hopelessly unprofitable.  But he still loved and watched over her, even if she eventually gushed embarrassing buckets of CPR red ink.


Just how closely Mr. Crump watched his train was explained to me by CPR (later VIA) dining car steward Joe Kratochvil, a good Fort William boy who hired on in 1945 and retired from the number one seniority position on The Canadian in 1984.  He often served Mr. Crump and was encouraged to report cutbacks affecting the train’s reputation as “the route of scenic grandeur and unsurpassed service.”  Any downgrading economies were quickly reversed after Mr. Crump learned of them.


Joe was the steward on the last leg of my first voyage on The Canadian in 1968, I rode with him on his last runs to and from Winnipeg, and he was briefly aboard for the last run over the CPR main line in 1990.  He bailed early because he couldn’t bear to watch “his train” die at the hands of the politicians.


That last departure eastbound from Thunder Bay was heartbreaking.  The protestors were there with their signs and candles, and as we prepared to take our leave, the soon-to-be-unemployed VIA stationmaster called out, “From the people of VIA Thunder Bay, thank you, good luck and farewell.”


To fight for The Canadian is to fight on behalf of those people.  The railroaders who love and pamper her.  The passengers from across Canada and around the world who have ridden and still ride aboard her gleaming cars.  The millions more who would if she were more affordable and returned to the North Shore.


All of this can and probably will be dismissed as sentimental fluff by Ottawa.  But governments come and governments go.  Like Ol’ Man River, the people and their beloved Canadian just keep rollin’ along.  That’s as it should be.  It’s why I fight to make sure it always will be.


Greg Gormick is a national rail analyst and government policy adviser based in Greater Toronto.  He currently serves as coordinator of the All Aboard St. Marys citizens’ committee in Southwestern Ontario.