We’ll be ridin’ CN busses
Editor’s note: The following article, written by Independent columnist Ray Guy, appeared in the Oct. 6, 1967 edition of The Evening Telegram. The story, about the end of the passenger rail service in Newfoundland, won Guy the National Newspaper award for the best feature story in Canada in 1967. The story was reprinted in Independent newspaper in November, 2004. Photo by Paul Daly.
“What? By train!” asked the surprised CN ticket agent when I phoned for reservations.
“Right,” said I. “St. John’s to Port aux Basques. And return the next day. No, I’m not travelling on a pass.”
No shame to the poor man. Well he might marvel. The CN still gets some passengers undertaking the 547-mile trek but one asking for a double dose with no time off for a rest cure between must be a rarity.
Even the Royal Commission on Transportation has declined an invitation by the railway unions to try it just ONE way. The Telegram rushed me in where royal commissions fear to tread.
And, as I said to myself frequently between Gravol (“for the prevention of nausea and vomiting”) tablets and complimentary CN meals during the course of the 1, 094-mile experience: “What a hell of a way to make a living.”
The railway wants to do away with the 86-year-old train passenger service and speed travellers back and forth by bus. Strenuously opposed are the railway unions and the St. John’s city council which fear loss of jobs and business, and Joseph O’Keefe, MP for St. John’s East.
Railway employees are circulating “save the train
petitions. Opposition Leader Gerry Ottenheimer
says no changes should be made until the public
has been polled.
Here is my straw vote on it for Gerry and this
advise to the venerable members of the Royal
Commission: Stick to your guns, chaps, and
don’t risk the trip.
Come on with the busses. Train travel in Newfound-
land is a tedious, grueling, outmoded, slow and
painful way to get about. Planes, cars, busses,
motorcycles or roller skates must be better. Crawling
across on your hands and knees can’t be too much worse.
SECOND CLASS FOR NEWFOUNDLANDERS
The island’s railway had “second class” built into it from the start. A bill passed by the government in 1881 stated that “the railway intended to be constructed shall not be what is deemed in England or the United States, a first class railway.”
Donald Gordon, former president of CNR, implied shortly before his resignation that Newfoundland sill could not afford better than second class.
It would take at least $150 000 000 he said, to straighten out our crooked little railway and move the rails one foot, two and half inches further apart.
Newfoundland’s rails are now a substandard three feet, six inches wide — the only narrow gauge line of its length left in North America.
Our rail cars and diesel engines have to be especially made and are the same size as those in use in some of the small banana-belt countries of South America.
Still, says Mr. Gordon, the narrow gauge is not to be sneezed at. With the $179 million in improvements made since Confederation there is now no reason to convert to standard gauge and “wisecracks about the Newfie Bullet are no longer warranted.”
On the other hand, railway union leader Esau Thoms says CN has become sloppy about its passenger service. More people would go “the way of the worry-free” if the cars and service were spruced up.
Whatever the cause, CN’s train passenger service is going down grade with the throttle open. For the first six months of this year CN carried 43,585 people. In 1965, for the same period, they had 83 744.
Gordon D. McMillan, CN’s area manager, said recently: “The public is abandoning the rail passenger service — not us.”
Perhaps the public shouldn’t be faulted too much on this account.
AWAY WE GO ON THE BULLET
So away we go. If forced, or for some weird reason you want to travel across the island by train, you must present yourself at the old stone terminal Water Street West not later than 11:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.
The first thing that may strike you (apart from porters burdened down with baggage) is that the inside of the station has been REDONE in CN modern.
Light paneling, fluorescent lights, new drink machines, pay lockers for parcels and electric blue jackets for the lads behind the counters.
Once outside on the train platform, however, you will soon find that the railway is still attached to its traditional colors — Nazi green and chopped liver.
And there, panting to be off, stands your conveyance. Identical in size to those chugging through the Honduras jungle, it consists of a 1,200 hp narrow gauge diesel towing a couple of mail cars, four “day coaches,” a diner and five “sleepers.”
At the outset, let me admit, that I cheated. I had a sleeper … $23, meals included. I chickened out of the supreme test — jogging across the island in a “day coach.”
People do. Those who can’t afford a sleeper or who are travelling by train for the first time and aren’t aware of the terrors involved.
A stroll through a “day coach” at 2 a.m. is an unforgettable sight. The Black Death has struck. Twisted bodies sprawled in fantastic shapes. Mouths agape. Hideous snores and groans.
Bottles rolling from side to side as on a derelict vessel. Frightened children crying. Limp arms and legs flopping in the aisles as the train jiggles and jolts through the night.
A degrading experience for those forced to travel on Newfoundland’s second-class transportation system designed for second-class citizens.
There are two things which prove impossible in a CN “day coach” — sleeping and raising a window.
Only twice in my life have I succeeded in wrenching open a CN window and in one of these cases it later crunched down on my elbow.
Sleeping more than 10 minutes at a stretch in a day coach is equivalent of swimming Cabot Strait in a suit of armor. The seats are so cunningly designed that writhe and twist as you will, some part of your frame will come in contact with bare metal or wood or glass.
The Bullet averages at least one “killer lurch” every 10 minutes. You either stay alert or risk getting your face smashed against the windowsill.
Could the solution be a sleeper? Since the westbound leaves near midnight, CN beds you down as soon as you step aboard.
Sleepers and day coaches alike, however, have the same type of ventilation system. Sleeper windows will rise a few inches — to reveal another sooty pane containing a small strip of dirt-clogged screen.
More air could pass through a mosquito’s nostril. No. The CN method is to pump all cars full of fumes, smoke and grime in downtown St. John’s and hermetically seal them.
The characteristic smell on the CN is of coal smoke and stale urine. The coal smoke is, as has been explained, pumped aboard and locked in at St. John’s.
The latter fragrance is emitted mainly by the washrooms. So incredible was the stench in the Bishop’s Falls (sleepers are named after prominent stops along the railway) water closet I was led to investigate others. They were all alike. The men’s, anyway.
Situated over the pertinent fixture in the men’s convenience is a card quoting the Canada Criminal code on spitting and gambling in public places.
I would lay a two-to-one bet that no one can take deep breaths in a CN train washroom and still remain standing. You take a deep breath outside, hold it as long as possible, and when that gives out, risk pinching little breaths and shallow gasps.
From time to time a porter circulated through Bishop’s Falls sleeping car dispensing a few quick squirts of Florient air deodorant then bashfully hiding the can under his jacket.
He was like the fly spitting in the ocean.
ALL FOR THE SAKE OF BEER
And so to bed. All is quiet in Bishop’s Falls sleeper, the tranquility broken only be the rhythm of the wheels — whackety wack, whackety whack, smash, bang, lurch — and the rending screech of rusty metal rubbing together where the cars are coupled.
Soon the air is rent by an internal commotion which revolved around a flurry of enthusiastic oaths delivered with a Scottish accent.
Heads pop out, top and bottom, from behind the chopped liver curtains. The grand old Scottish curses are redoubled.
Eventually the racket dies down, mystified faces withdraw behind the curtained walls. Peace reigns once more. Whackety wack, whackety whack, smash, bang, lurch.
Then at 2:30 a.m., “up she goes” again. This time the Scotsman far surpasses his previous efforts. The lights are turned on. The porter is summoned. The fragrant air turns blue. There are threaths and curses and angry words which take at least 20 minutes to subside.
Only next morning are the details revealed. In every CN cat there is at least one drunk.
Those who would deplore this custom have obviously never travelled across the island by train cold sober. Just as the invention of ether relieved untold suffering in the operating room so does alcohol have its place on the CN.
Our drunk had taken a case of beer into his top bunk and supped away as the Bullet jogged merrily through the night.
In the berth below lay one half of a Scottish couple, now resident in Toronto, and returning from a holiday in quaint, hospitable Newfoundland.
The first row started when the chap in the upper dozed off and spilled a bottle of beer on the tourist in the lower.
The second fraces, half hour later, occurred when the jolly traveller in No. 3 upper became nauseous, leaned out, and spewed all over the occupant of No.3 lower.
In came the porter, wrested the remainder of the beer away from the bad boy and threatened to heave him off. At which he began to snore. He slept peacefully until dawn.
“Oh, it’s not been a bad holiday,” observed the Scottish tourist next day. “Just before leaving we went to a rrrestaurant forr a bite and a fight starrted. They locked the dooors and there we where in the midst.”
“Aparrut from that and you bloddy idjot lost night we had a verra nice time. Aye, we plon tae ccom back next sooomer. We lairned this time how tae save a few dollarrs along the way.”
For all that, his wife looked a bit washy and made frequent trips to the brake for the only fresh air available.
“Odd,” said he. “ She ganerruly hos a cast irron stoomik when travelling. Moost ha been thot bit of business lost night.”
Later, as we neared Port aux Basque, boozy Bill, still three parts, began pestering the porter for the return of his beer. Denied, he commenced tongue-banging and insulting the Scottish couple.
“Let’s gang up and heave the bastard through the porthole,” suggested a Bell Islander, fed up by now with this treatment of visitors to our shores.
At that the culprit scuttled off and was not seen again in Bishop’s Falls sleeper for the duration.
It all helps pass the time. So do meals.
ACTION GALORE IN THE DINER
There always seems to be a preponderance of elderly ladies in the dining car. They do a lot of sighing that the food and service is not what it used to be.
But the diner still seems to bring out the grande dame in them. Paper serviettes have replaced the white linen cloths, the silverware is getting a bit shabby, you still write out your own cheque (with a rather brusque reminder from the waiters not to put in the price) and after the grub is stowed away, an offer “would modom care for after dinner mints?”
Most of the items in the menu now cost $1.90 with soup, tea and dessert extra.
For this price I had five sausages of four and one-half inches in length, a scoop of mashed potato and 23 piece of green bean. Then 40 cents for a heaping tablespoon of rice pudding and 15 cents for a cup of tea.
If CN takes its air on at St. John’s it must get its supply of water from Port aux Basques.
Our western gateway has the dirtiest looking drinking water I’ve ever seen. Hotel guests there sometimes complain that the toilet wasn’t flushed after the last room occupant left. It was.
Fill a bathtub and you can’t see the plug at the bottom. In a glass it looks only a shade lighter than Guiness’ Stout.
If the railway insists on serving Port aux Basque water it might consider placing a small card with each carafe: “For our patrons we have provided the celebrated Eau de Port aux Basque certified by Dr. Schlezwig-Holstein of Heidelberg to be beneficial in the case of liver, kidney, stomach, and lung ailments.”
And charge extra for it. That’s what the Europeans do with their dirty water.
There’s action galore in the diner. As the train jogs along the dishes tend to wander around the table and with each jolt head for the edge.
I got a shot of hot tea up the nose just east on Millertown Junction while at the same time a man across the way poured Eau de Port aux Basque into the lap of a woman sitting opposite him.
Our menu covers depict scenes on mainland trains. Bright upholstery, woodgrain panelling, large windows, wide cars. They might as well sling a lead life ring to a drowning man as circulate that on Newfoundland trains. We’re second class, remember.
Back in the coach you get tired of watching the scenery joggle past. It is impossible even to read. After a few minutes one eyeball starts rolling independently of the other.
ALWAYS SOMEONE TO TALK TO
But one good thing about Newfoundland trains is that you need never be stuck for someone to talk to.
Black strangers come in and sit down and within five minutes have launched into the story of their lives from the cradle to the present — whether you want to hear it or not. Plus what you can gather by eavesdropping.
I soon learned that in Bishop’s Falls car there were the Scottish couple and two other mainland tourists, two sick people coming from St. John’s hospitals, three welfare cases, two relatives of railway workers travelling on passes and six youths and two girls going to the mainland for work
Sitting opposite me were an extremely distraught looking pair, mother and daughter.
“Oh my God, my God, my God,” the younger one would sigh profoundly. The mother, leafing through a “True Story” journal, also gave signs of distress.
It was soon disclosed that they were “On welfare,” that the younger had spent time in the orthopedic hospital, was now discharged and her mother had journeyed in to take her back home.
During her stay, the daughter had cultivated a boyfriend in the great city. I presumed her disconsolation was due to the parting.
There was talk of marriage at Christmas.
“I was talkin’ to ’en the other night, “said the mother. “’E got grade eleven, ’aven’t ’e? ’E can get a job on that. What do ’e want to go back to school for? Said ’e was afraid ’e wouldn’t pass. Said ’e had a lot of worry.”
“’E got a lot of worry!” snorted her offspring. “What the ’ell do ’e think I got! My God, my God, my God. My dear, you’ll never see me going to the h’alter by Christmas.
They had a small “picture in a minute” camera with which they would photograph each other from time to time. This diversion seemed to raise them out of the dumps a little.
Then they settled back to make rather cold-blooded plans aimed at ensuring the proposed Yuletide nuptials would come off.
“As soon as we get back you’ll write ’en a letter. Next week we’ll send ’en a parcel with a cake into it.”
The daughter had a four pound bag of toffees, which she generously passed round in the general area. After the fourth candy I declined and, by the way of a pleasantry, said “I must watch my figure.”
At this, my younger neighbor launched suddenly into a flurry of wails, groans and sobs. I was dumbfounded at this outburst.
“Save your tears, my dear,” said her mother over the top of “True Story”, “h’or you won’t ’ave none left for later.”
Upon closer scrutiny I discovered that the young one was definitely in what used to be called an “interesting condition.”
They gradually calmed down and took a few more pictures, which seemed to do them a world of good. My faux pas was apparently forgiven. We finished the toffee.
As they detrained at their destination I wished them good luck.
“Same to you, sir. Sniff. Sniff,” said the daughter.
“Come on. Urry up. My God. I’ll never h’undertake another trip like this. Com on. Knock off sniffin’. I ’lows if your father ’aven’t got nothin’ left from supper. I’ll knock his ’ed off.”
BOUND FOR TORONTO
Conversation drifted back through the rattles and squeaks from other parts of the car.
Two girls who had lately worked in a St. John’s tavern were on their way to Toronto seeking employment. They were got up in what they figured was the height of Toronto style.
One of the tourists, a woman who hailed from Toronto, was telling them about the wonders they must see in the big city. One of the young emigrants sat there bug-eyed while the other giggled nervously.
Toronto Tourist was obviously enjoying their reaction. “What? You’ve never ridden the subway? ‘Oh you’ll LIEE-k it.’ They go like CRAAAY-zy” Bug eyes Giggles.
Then in came a young man also bound for employment in Toronto. But he has been there before and in consequence assumed no slight swagger.
The two innocents abroad then heard another account of the golden metropolis and the Toronto Tourist had a little of the wind taken out of her sails. He promised to look out for them on the journey alone. Bug eyes relaxed a bit and Giggles wasn’t quite so nervous.
The trip to Port aux Basque took about 20 hours. We left St. John’s near midnight and jolted into the western terminal about 7:30 p.m. the next day. In 1898, it took 27 hours and 45 minutes.
As we staggered off the Bullet a friend of theirs, who had driven across in a car, greated the Scottish couple brightly.
“Well, here at last. We slept at home in bed and still got here before you.”
That was the kind of remark we could all do without. Those who took the train because they didn’t know better didn’t need to have it rubbed in.
Those who couldn’t afford to come any other way didn’t need to be reminded further that they were second-class citizens.
THE LONG TRIP BACK
The return trip began at 10 a.m. next day. More whackety whack, whackety whack, smash, bang, lurch and the screech of rusted metal. And the porter with his ineffective little squirts of Florient.
And the joggling limbs and rolling bottles and frightened children crying in the day coaches. It will take a day and a night to reach St. John’s
Away from dreary, rocky Port aux Basque, past the wide beaches and surf and rolling sand dunes of Cape Ray, up through the portals of the Long Range Mountains into Codroy Valley.
Who’s aboard this trip? A small crowd. Two elderly and former Newfoundlanders returning for a visit. A lively and silver haired woman who soon reveals that her father was a Spanish captain.
Six lads returning to the island from Toronto “for the winter” — unable to kick the inherited habit of summer work and winter rest begun centuries ago in the fishing boats.
A young mainlander who said he was a freelance photographer with a sudden impulse to come to Newfoundland and stay for a year.
Two sick people on welfare going to the hospital. Five people travelling on a railway pass. Seven girls going back to school.
One women, who was deaf and kept telling everyone how, because of her affliction, she missed her train in Montreal and had to wait two days for another.
But there is a mix-up in tickets and most of the interesting passengers get moved to another car, including the daughter of a Spanish captain and the young freelance photographer.
Sitting opposite me is the deaf woman who took off her shoes, rolled down her nylons and put her feet up. She is the loudest chewer of gum I have ever heard. Even above the whackety whack, whackety whack, smash, bang, lurch you can hear her top plate clicking and scrunching.
She came from her daughter in Ohio? Poor soul, I thought. She figured her daughter would take her in and keep her. But they couldn’t stand the way she chewed gum. So she was coming back to live out the rest of it alone.
Behind me are the elderly and former Newfoundlanders.
“Look mother, there they are. See them there. That’s Newfoundland to me,” says the man. Dammed if his voice doesn’t tremble a bit.
NOT LIFE ON THE MAINLAND
I think he is right. You don’t see them just like that on the mainland, even in Cape Breton. Scrubby, scrawny, pitiful, miserable spruce bushes growing on the cliffs by the sea.
Their roots are tangled around the rocks with death grip. You can’t pull them out. They are too tough to be broken off. They are too whippy to be sawed off. If you try to chop them with an ordinary axe, the axe will rebound and maim you. Only a razor edge will do it.
More Newfoundland than that boggy, fly-eating weirdo, the pitcher plant.
The train tows you past the untidy backsides of a string of small communities and large towns. Past lonely shacks scattered over the barrens with moose horns over the doors and children with no school out front.
It has been a good year for juniper, if nothing else. From one end of the island to the other they are green, fluffy, luxuriant — so vigorous they look like strange new species.
Up the Codroy Valley and Humber Valley where you get the feeling you are trespassing on the private domain of the paper companies. Their roads and signs and tractors and men are everywhere.
Through Corner Brook and Deer Lake which are Bowater’s and Lundrigan’s. Over the barren Gaff Topsails, which nobody wants expect the people in the shacks with the moose horns.
The CN in Newfoundland has not yet got around to installing the glass-roofed scenic dome cars they picture on the diner menus. A film of St. John’s soot and grime dims our windows — and you can’t get them up.
At Windsor a few more people come into the half-filled car. Among them is a teenager who is going to join the air force. He’ll be in for seven years.
No work in the mill, he says. There used to be a few jobs but the new machines finished that off. He hopes to play the trombone in the air force band and will miss home, especially shooting ducks in the fall.
All hands are tucked in again before we get to Gander. The deaf woman whose daughter in Ohio wouldn’t keep her, complains bitterly that the porter has put all the young girls in the lower berths while an old woman like her has to climb to an upper.
Whackey whack, whackety whack, smash, bang, lurch. The deaf woman in the top bunk is ringing for the porter. When nobody comes she tries to clamber down by herself, can’t, and crawls back. Next morning , she complains to everyone that she didn’t sleep a wink because the porters were laughing and carrying on “until all hours” with the younger girls in the lower berths. A lie.
Through the early morning fog we crawl into St. John’s, along the greasy Waterford River, past the chopped liver freights in the rail yards and the Nazi green day couches waiting on the siding,
Out into the familiar St. John’s air, which the CN has provided its passengers in stoppered cars for the whole journey.
The victims of the day coaches stumble off, numb, red eyed and bewildered into the arms of the aggressive men calling “taxi, taxi”.
Come on with the buses. It wont be the easiest way in the world to travel but compared with the trains it will be fairly comfortable and mercifully quick.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
Some things about trains I’ll be sorry to see go. For one thing the scenery isn’t all barrens and scrubby spruce — and you have lots of time to admire it.
At both ends of the railway at Cape Ray and Holywood there are stretches where the train all but takes to the water, travelling for miles along the beach. Sea- birds and waves create an inspiring panorama.
No more impressive entry into the island could be imagined than the gap through Table Mountain into the splendid Codroy Valley.
I like the way the railway skirts closely the rivers and lakes — George’s Lake, the Humber River, Deer Lake, the Exploits. It’s murder on timetables but as a scenic route it can’t be beat.
And some second thoughts on shacks. When is a shack not a shack? When it’s a summer shack.
Isolation and a certain crumbling at the edges are attractive features in a summer place. In these respects many of the buildings by the railway in remote places far surpass and the summer subdivision colonies by the highways with their white paling fences.
It would be comforting to think that all the remote shacks along the railway were summer places. But what of the children playing out front in late September? Still, they might commute to a regional school every day by helicopter for all I know.
Then there are the railway personnel who still manage to do their job and be courteous about it even under trying circumstances.
Sure the water looks dirty but the way the waiters can balance three plates on each arm as the dining car all but turns end over end takes your mind off it.
The elderly ladies miss their table linen but they still feel elegant when the waiter asks “Would Modom care for after dinner mints?”
And absolutely the best way to go home for Christmas is by train with the university crowd going cracked, the out of town shoppers burdened down, the holidaying workers opening their bottles a bit early, a guitar in every car and everyone exceedingly warm and merry and the snowy hills rollicking past.
The thing I’ll miss most about trains is the way they encourage people to talk. I’ll miss the people who do you the honour of telling you all their troubles and hopes starting within five minutes after they sit down.
But these people deserve better than second class.