A steam engine from the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway's glory years.
By Tom Hawthorn
The train horn moans, a mournful honk echoing across the city.
It is heard twice a day, in the morning as the car pulls out of the station and again in the evening, as it returns from a roundtrip up island.
At my house, far from the station, the warning to vehicles and pedestrians acted as an alarm clock for the work day.
The reverberating groan instantly takes me back to my childhood. It is 1967, Centennial Year, and my family, not yet wealthy enough to afford a car of our own, will travel by train from Montreal to my Winnipeg birthplace to visit my grandmother.
For a boy, the grand concourse of Central Station is a bustle of hurly-burly excitement. Comics are purchased at the newsstand. A nickel bottle of Pepsi is added to our luggage. Then the family disappears down an escalator to the platforms hidden beneath the city.
One flight down, a waiting train seems to huff and puff like a waiting beast. Step onto a portable step and onto the train, climbing aboard for an unforgettable adventure. The miles pass, the clackety-clack of wheels against ties acting as a metronome, the rhythm of a long journey. We ate sandwiches over the long hours, saving our meagre funds for one special meal in the dining car.
At last the appointed hour arrives. We are seated at a table covered with a white cloth, an abundance of silverware arranged in an order unfamiliar to me. We feast. Just as the last bites are savoured, my younger sister finally succumbs to the constant rocking motion of the train and gets sick. My poor parents.
That experience did little to curb my appetite for riding the rails. I remember Rapidos and high-speed TurboTrains from my boyhood. I’ve snoozed in a berth on a sleeper car between Madrid and Lisbon, shared tamales with Mexican passengers on the way to Oaxaca, enjoyed the pleasures of a cappuccino before boarding a punctual train at the main terminal in Rome. In Havana, I explored a train graveyard in the shadow of the Capitolo, agreeing with the caretaker that someday his collection of junked engines and freight cars would make a fine outdoor museum.
Back east, trains remain a pleasurable way to travel, the better yet for avoiding airports with their interminable waits and uncountable indignities. two years ago, I made a leisurely journey from Toronto to Montreal, south along the Richelieu River and lake Champlain and the Hudson River to Grand Central Station in New York, before continuing along to the magnificent white granite Union Station at Washington, DC, whose grand concourse was once the largest room in the world.
Our own train station in Victoria is a more modest affair, a small brick building with a steep, shingled roof. It is at the eastern end of the Blue Bridge, the tracks blocked as they butt up against Store Street. It is literally the end of the line.
That rail was laid as part of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. On Aug. 13, 1886, the prime minister, John A. Macdonald, wielded a silver sledgehammer to drive home a gold spike completing the route between the two cities in the railway’s name. A cairn now marks the location, about 40 kilometres outside Victoria near Shawnigan Lake.
Some years ago, VIA took over passenger service on the line, running Rail Diesel Cars once a day from Victoria as far north as Courtenay, return. The scenic journey includes spectacular trestles. The route was called The Malahat.
For decades, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to ride that train. Wanted to take the kids. Wanted a special occasion (maybe the Island MusicFest in Courtenay). Then, in the space of a few days this spring, the rolling stock was taken out of service for repairs, the rail bridge leading to the Victoria station was ruled unsafe, and the 225-kilometres of track was declared to be in need of millions of dollars worth of repair. VIA declared the service to be indefinitely suspended. The train was replaced by a bus. I am bereft.
It’s unknown whether the groups lobbying for funds will be successful in this age of tight budgets. Many up-Island communities depend on the line for tourism. Some 40,000 passengers rode the Malahat last year. After 125 years, I may have missed my chance. A little bit about what makes Vancouver Island unique is slipping away, lost to neglect and indifference. Some mornings, I note the silence, a reminder that the only thing sadder than a lonesome whistle is its absence.