The reflection of a gold earring

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, May 10, 2010

You’re hearing a great deal of debate these days over the hard choice to be made between high speed trains some years from now, versus higher-speed trains (and more of them) in the here and now. We can’t have all of both because money doesn’t grow on trees. I’ve been traveling in Ontario and Quebec lately, and notice that VIA Rail Canada has made its decision.
Canada’s version of our Northeast Corridor is the 333-mile Montreal-to-Toronto Kingston Subdivision. The capital city of Ottawa is reached from both directions via the Kingston Sub, too. So what you really have are three sets of passenger trains: Montreal-Toronto, Montreal-Ottawa and Toronto-Ottawa, all sharing a 100-mph double-track route with Canadian National freight trains. From this you get a train density of roughly 40 trains, 24 passenger and 16 freight.
The Canadian Parliament, like the U.S. Congress with Amtrak, has a habit of starving VIA Rail for years and then throwing bags of money at it. The latest bag was a biggie: $923 million for capital improvements, particularly on the Kingston Sub. The choice for how to use that money was to raise speeds or to add tracks and other infrastructure to allow more VIA Rail trains at the present speeds.
VIA chose more trains. Its research suggests that added frequencies draw a disproportionate number of passengers. Regularity makes the choice of taking a train easier. So VIA is paying CN for a third main track at five locations, for additional crossovers, for island platforms between the tracks at four of the larger stations and for “running tracks” at three stations close to Montreal, to permit switching by local freight trains without impeding VIA trains. Once all this is done, perhaps in 2011, look for a flock of additional VIA trains on this corridor.
VIA is making the right decision. Jim McClellan and I boarded the last departure for Montreal from Toronto late one afternoon last week. Three-car train 68, composed of mid-1950s Budd cars, makes all the stops to Montreal, but we are in no hurry for this trip to end — it’s that pleasant. A 100-mph speed is a milestone that no U.S. passenger train outside the Northeast Corridor has attained, and ride quality is close to perfection. VIA Rail has a fine service to sell. Now it needs to offer more of it.
There are probably more business-class than coach passengers on train 68 this night. Business class on VIA Rail is not cheap, but for my nonrefundable C$102, I enjoy a comfortable seat, a before-dinner drink, a dinner of braised beef with vegetables, and wine to go with it. I hope that someone from Amtrak marketing reads this and gets the hint. VIA Rail puts to shame what you get with a business-class ticket on Northeast Direct and other short-distance U.S. trains.
Oh yes, the title of this piece. We detrain at Dorval, Que., on the outskirts of Montreal. A westbound CN freight trundles by on another track as our train waits out its departure time. Standing beside our F40PH-2 locomotive, I glance up at the cab in time to see in the light from a lamppost the swish of a gold earring, a blond ponytail and a red t-shirt. McClellan looks up, too, and grabs this image as train 68 begins to move. Viva our engineer! — Fred W. Frailey

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