Day 4: Riding the Rails to Climate Change Bootcamp with Al Gore

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This is Day 3 of my series “In Search of Al Gore: A Climate Pilgrimage.”

Getting connected in Sioux Lookout

6:30 p.m. CST: There was a story in the paper today about UK kids having panic attacks when they lose a signal for their cell phones. I feel their pain.

The Canadian travels nearly 2,000 kilometres from Winnipeg to Toronto, and once you leave the suburb of Transcona, that’s pretty much it for phone service till you get to Capreol, just north of Sudbury. That would be 24 hours of down time, even if we were running on time (and we’re not).

Now, I know someone from the Bell system will want to write and advise that THEY have service in some of the tiny railway stops along this route, but I don’t have a Bell phone. At the moment, functionally, I have no phone at all.

But I have optimism and a laptop, which I figure is all that you need in the 21st century. Notwithstanding the dour looks I get from the VIA porters, I stride out, hardware in hand, onto the streets of Sioux Lookout, a tough looking pulp industry town of about 3,100 people – in search of an internet cafe.

The falafel joint, which is the first restaurant I see, is a bust. The crowd suggests that the food must be good, but the word “WiFi” draws blank stares from the men behind the counter. But just as I am stepping back onto the street, some 18-year-old with his hat on backwards says, “Hey man, just down the street is a coffee shop called Roy Lane. You can use your computer there.”

You gotta love Canadians.

Oddly enough, the girl behind the counter at the funky (but empty) coffee joint looks just as blankly when I ask her if I need a password to get access to the wireless. I’m not sure if she’s saying, “We don’t have wireless,” or “What’s wireless?” But the implication is clearly negative.

Still, the signal is strong and access is free. I download my email, check one messages quickl and then hustle back to the train with five minutes to spare.

Five and only five. Not nearly enough time to run back the three blocks when I realize that I have 20 new emails and all of them read: “This message has not been fully downloaded from the server. Would you like to mark it for download?”

Boy, if I knew who to call – and if I had cell service – somebody would get an earful.

We’re three hours late

Wednesday, April 2, 6:30 a.m.: The charming dining car attendant, who looks like the youngest VIA Rail employee in the country (I think her name is Hayley), says that we’re three hours late. That might explain why I slept so well: the train was sitting, quiet and still, for half the night.

This speaks again to whether VIA is offering a passenger rail service – which suggests a practical form or transportation – or a quaint and dated tourist experience. If this was really seriously considered as a transportation service, you would think that the passenger trains would get preference – that freight cars would idle on the sidings while we whizzed past to our ultimate destination.

That’s not how it works. While freight can’t complain about delays, apparently the people who “pay the freight” are plenty impatient and VIA’s lengthy delays suggest that those freight merchants have more influence than the scheduling clerks in the passenger network.

In fairness, the infrastructural challenges here are huge. With government picking up the whole cost of Canada’s generally robust highway network, it has become more and more difficult for train companies to compete. (Trains would be cheap and plentiful if government laid and maintained all the track.) And of the companies currently in the rail game, CN especially seems ill-inclined to spend money on equipment and maintenance, much less on track expansion. The CN derailment record is a concern from coast to coast – and never more so than when you ride past the site of an old accident and see the crushed cars and battered containers left like so much litter by the side of the track. It’s not a confidence booster.

I don’t know how many 767s you could buy – or how long you could afford to run them – for the cost of a second track from Toronto to Vancouver. And that’s what you would need to make this kind of service even a little bit more practical: a through line that would cut travel time, probably by 40 per cent, and make it possible to keep to a schedule.

But we know that there are other costs to running those passenger jets – steep social costs that are being externalized into the atmosphere. A return to rail may not be a practical Canadian dream, but really, it probably wasn’t practical the first time, either.

The land that winter never forgets

7:30 a.m. EST: Among the bad old jokes about Canadian weather, one of the classics dismisses Northern Ontario summers as “two weeks of bad skating.” Maybe not, this year; frosty seems to have dug in for the long term.

The snow along the tracks is stacked high on either side, the lakes are frozen, the birch trees are barren, even the spruce, while technically “green,” seem to have a tenuous hold on that colour.

There is an indecorous look to the architecture that seems to match the hard conditions. In a style that seems equally common in the windblown prairie towns of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the few houses along this line tend to be square and simple, buttoned down against the elements. Sprawling decks and patios are in short supply. People who go outside in this part of the country do so with a sense of purpose. It’s not a place for sitting around.

It’s all quite beautiful from the train – the morning sun glistening on the snow and shining yellow and orange in the trees, the air itself sparkling with a clarity that can only be achieved with a humidity level of zero per cent.

But when I get out for a short walk in Hornepayne, I am reminded why I live on the West Coast. It’s minus 20. In Vancouver, they’re complaining because the cherry blossoms are late, and here, it’s minus 20. At this rate, there might yet be good skating in August. In fact, it might take that long to get the snow cleared off the ice.

A Death in the Family

8:00 p.m. EST: Actually, what I am really talking about is the death OF a family. We`re coming to Toronto, where we are destined to break up this new gang of mine.

You know how it goes on trips like this: you meet a crowd of interesting people; you get thrust together for several days running, with little else as a conversation starter than `Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?” and soon, you`re passing as friends.

Now we`ll disperse and, likely as not, I`ll never see any of them every again. There`s the Chinese Macdonald`s Czar from Hong Kong, the neuro-physiology professor from Spain (by way of Montreal and Simon Fraser University), the workplace health and safety consultant from Lucerne and the guy from Osaka who used up his entire English vocabulary in the first five minutes of the first conversation and has been stonily silent ever since. There`s the ex-CBC comptroller from Wolfe Island near Kingston, and the retired high school teacher from Stratford. And there`s the Newfoundlanders who moving from Yellowknife back “home“ to Toronto. It`s just your usual crowd of official and honorary Canadians.

And that`s what would bring you back to train travel, quicker than anything. There is, at this more measured pace, an opportunity to actually make a connection with people. And there seem to be a self-selecting group of people who are predisposed to making a connection – a circumstance and a social cross-section that I have never encountered in an airport.

It is, once again, not especially practical. We`re still two-and-a-half hours late (which isn`t bad when you take it as a percentage of a 75-hour trip, but which isn`t good either). And tomorrow, I have to juggle meetings and train times before resuming the trip to Montreal. But for the most part, it has been a bon voyage.

Day 1: The Via Experience, Planting a Goodbye Kiss, Kitchen Crimes and Great Bedding

Day 2: The Rockies, A Lesson in Physics and Oilberta

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