A sunset over an ice-covered lake, black firs in the background and telegraph wires in the foreground.

Outriders: Following the Line

Outriders, Uncategorized

The Canadian, the transcontinental passenger line in Canada, running from Toronto to Vancouver, is pausing for a break in Armstrong, Ontario. There are a few wooden huts and dirt tracks, small heaps of spring snow, and all around us acres of fir and birch. I’ve been travelling on this train for nearly 24 hours now, with 12 to go: it’s the slow way to get around.

Since we left downtown Toronto at 11pm last night, with pink lights shooting up and around the CN tower like it’s in rehearsal for a role in a cyberpunk dystopia, we’ve been surrounded by these trees: acres and acres of forest, occasionally breaking into a small  railway settlement, quarry, logging site, derelict coal tower, solar farm, ghost town, or huge, ice-covered lake. The sky is big and grey, giving us just a couple of hours of blue, yellow, pink and gold for sunset.

About the sky and the trees I keep wanting to say “endless”, but of course it’s not true. There’s an illusion of infinity in a train like this, it’s own world, literally operating in its own timezone, surrounded by trees, as if it’s a journey that will go on forever through a landscape that goes on forever. It’s the inverse of the fractal infinity of my digital diary, where I can’t see the edges and each day is infinitely expandable, so I keep adding more appointments far beyond my limited capacity. And, in some ways, it’s the false infinity that drives colonisation and resource extraction: there’s enough land for everyone, so we’ll keep taking it; there’s enough coal and enough atmosphere, so we’ll keep burning it. But there are people, there are limits, and the journey ends somewhere.

A 70s-style passenger dome on The Canadian: brown leather seats, a curved plexiglass roof, trees, telegraph poles and huts whooshing past outside.

A 70s-style passenger dome on The Canadian: brown leather seats, a curved plexiglass roof, trees, telegraph poles and huts whooshing past outside.

I’ve spent most of the day sitting in the dome at the end of the dozen-carriage train. There’s curved glass on either side and above, brown leather seats and bright steel fittings. Below, there’s a small bar that served fizzy wine for a “Bon Voyage Reception” this morning. This car has been in operation since 1956. I was rocked to sleep in my roomette last night, a bit of cunning 70s sleeper design, with a neat bunk that pulls down over the leather seat and heavy-lidded toilet, and a window looking out over the passing trees.

I love faded grandeur and always have, and this train is exemplary. It’s the last passenger line left running the route, and today there are only 70 people on board, most paying a premium to get the faded luxury treatment with personable concierges, prestige seats at the front of the dome, free muffins, wine on a tray, and so on. The crowd is a mix of tourists (older and wealthy in the sleepers at the back, young and roughing it in the economy seats at the front), both Canadian and international, train enthusiasts and former train employees, plus an anabaptist family whose purple and green dresses have a patterned cloth I’m quite envious of, though not of the cut and the fabric. The majority of the traffic (and profit) on this route is made by freight, and freight takes priority: every so often we pause to let a couple of miles of shipping containers shoot past. We left before midnight so as to stay ahead of the high priority freight that leaves Toronto: it’s behind us and ensuring we keep to time the entire route, because if we ever end up behind it we’ll be travelling at slow freight speeds all the way to Vancouver.

Hornepayne, Ontario: a logging town. Various signs read "Government Lane Rd", "Senior Citizens Sunshine Club" and "Special Meeting Apr. 20th 1pm 2017Water & Sewer & Budget Review". Telegraph poles, dirt road and bare trees, corrugated sheeting huts, clouds and blue in the sky.

Hornepayne, Ontario: a logging town. Various signs read “Government Lane Rd”, “Senior Citizens Sunshine Club” and “Special Meeting Apr. 20th 1pm 2017Water & Sewer & Budget Review”. Telegraph poles, dirt road and bare trees, corrugated sheeting huts, clouds and blue in the sky.

At one point the host tells us that this passenger line is mandated by the constitution: when British Columbia joined, it required that it always be serviced by a passenger line to the east coast, and that clause has never been written out, even in the age of air travel. (Its building was also something of a political power-grab and money-making scheme for those involved.) But even if that clause is now symbolic, it’s clear that it’s not just sentimentality that keeps this passenger line running and government-subsidised: it’s called the Canadian, and even faded, even no longer needing most of the ghosted railway settlements along the track, it’s still a necessary symbol of Canada’s history as a settler-colonial state. It’s also no coincidence that each carriage (Dollard, Elgin, Dawson…) is named after British and French government and military men from an age of Canadian expansion.

The host talks about the process of building the line carriage by carriage across the hard rock and icy bog of the Canadian Shield: the carriage advances a carriage-length, digs in and lays down track, then advances a carriage-length. Later, before planes, before cars, and before extensive roads, the trains are what allow people to travel distances across the country, what link communities together, and what, for a while, bring employment to the small settlements along the track. Now, though, it’s only freight that really needs the trains here: North America has gone over, while the oil lasts, to freeways and air travel. I’m reminded of Felix Gilman’s book The Half-Made World, a semi-fantastical account of North American colonisation, where the industrial gothic force of “The Line” extends itself across desert and mountain, governed by sentient Engines who build tracks ahead of them, expanding and bringing time, bureaucracy, industry, hierarchy and order.

So this train is something very different from the long-distance trains of Europe. I’m used to train travel being an ordinary way of getting about: setting up as commuter lines has renewed the meanings of the railway within the contemporary economy. The romance of miniature railways or the steam Jacobite, given a little extra life by Harry Potter fans, is a long way from what railways now mean. But colonial romance is what the Canadian seems to have left as a passenger service, and having the passenger service helps to maintain the image of coloniality as a romance rather than as a crime. In the otherworld of the train, we’re travelling in luxury across infinite space.

The sun’s set now, and I can only just make out the trees against the blue-black sky, so I’m going to pull down my bunk and be rocked back to sleep.

The derelict Hornpayne station on the right; an abandoned coal tower on the left; centre, the Canadian train curving on its tracks into the distance. Grey sky above, grey gravel and concrete below.

The derelict Hornpayne station on the right; an abandoned coal tower on the left; centre, the Canadian train curving on its tracks into the distance. Grey sky above, grey gravel and concrete below.

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