The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

Rail-riding around Northern Ontario: The Algoma Central and the Ontario Northland Railway (July 2011).

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:19 am

Northern Ontario is served by two passenger train lines. Both operations, the Ontario Northland Railway, and the Algoma Central, are small, and operate eccentric fleets of second and third-hand equipment. Both run for hundreds of miles of boreal forest where roads don’t go, and few people live. This is not a trip that most railroad history buffs ever make–it’s expensive, making the connections between the lines is time consuming and chancy, the towns are small, the biting insects are many, and the hotels can be rustic. This July, my wife and I decided to give it a try.

Meg and I started out from our home on Sunday morning with a quick NJTransit train ride to Newark Airport. Our lightly-packed backpacks and duffels fit easily into the luggage rack on the upper level of a bi-level coach—amazing. Finding our way to Porter Airlines in terminal B about an hour early (despite being randomly selected for millimeter wave x-ray screening), we cooled our heels by playing Scrabble with each other on our smart phones, and watched people board the Air India flight at the next gate. Their flight was leaving late and many passengers were rolling in at the last minute.

Our Porter flight left 15 minutes late due to a late-arriving plane, and was delayed a half hour at the gate in Toronto—no one came to open the aircraft door. Once inside, we queued up behind a slow-moving mostly-Canadian line at customs (Canada’s agents are particularly comprehensive when it comes to collecting duties from homeward bound residents). After getting stamped, we retrieved our bags from the US carousel, and immediately carried them upstairs to the domestic flights luggage check-in for continuing to Sault Ste. Marie.

Despite the delays, we had about an hour and a half layover between flights, so we headed up to BeerBistro for a quick dinner–at the time we were concerned that we wouldn’t see any decent cooking for a week (a concern that later proved unjustified). Porter offers a free bus shuttle to Union Station from which we walked up to King St. The restaurant was slow and the chef was happy to put together a steak salad for us, which we washed down with some local microbrews. Dinner concluded, we were getting close to plane time, so we took a cab back—we went through security one more time and boarded our evening flight to Sault.

Our train riding part of the trip started out in Sault Ste. Marie. Until recently, only two airlines served the city and flights there were expensive (how about $500 for a one-way ticket). This spring, Porter broke the cartel by offering service to Toronto and some low introductory pricing. Our flight was the last one of the day into the smallish airport, and we chatted with the airport manager as we waited for our cab to arrive and he emptied change out of the parking lot gate. A 20-minute ride to the Quality Inn on Bay Street, took us to our bunk for the evening.

The following morning, we looked out our hotel window to watch the Algoma Central Railway’s Agawa Canyon train pull into the station across the street. With two F-40 engines at each end–one recently painted in ACRY red and gray, the other in the orange and gray livery of the former owner, the now-defunct Denver and Rio Grande Ski Tran. In between, four Hawker-Siddeley Tempo coaches (also from the former Ski Train and looking spiffy in their ACRY paint), one diner (a grizzled old California Zephyr veteran formerly named the “Silver Pheasant”) and a well-preserved 1953-vintage former Santa Fe 46-seat coach. I ran across the street to pick up our tickets.

With 58 passengers, and a crew of eight loaded safely aboard, the train left on-time at 8 am with rolling past the huge paper and steel mills on the west side of town. The Santa Fe coach we were on was clean and in impeccable shape, with a newly installed row of airplane-style LCD screens mounted over the center isle running a continuous show of still photos while a prerecorded announcement system pointed the sights as we passed. One of the attendants explained that there was a camera in the locomotive that would come on at some point, but this feature never appeared.

One of the highlights on this trip was wandering back to the diner after breakfast was served (Meg and I had gotten a free breakfast at the hotel and had already eaten). The food service was being operated by a local catering company, and they obliged us by putting together a couple of boxed lunches for us to eat in the afternoon after we transfer to the diner-less train to Hearst. At Agawa Canyon, the train layed over for an hour and a half layover before returning to Sault, and passengers can hike the canyon trails or walk around the park and picnic grounds. Meg and I took a short hike, but were soon in a cloud of no-see-ums, midges, smidges, and widges. “They prefer new blood”, joked one of the railroaders. After a few bloody bites, we retreated to the First Aid shack where we sat waiting for the Hearst train to arrive.

I didn’t know what to expect with this train—I had heard that this train was rustic. It turned out to be a pretty handsome, lead by another orange and gray Ski Train F-40 with it’s former decals stripped off, followed by two baggage cars, two immaculately clean former Santa Fe coaches, and a power car that once was a box car. Once aboard, we quickly settled into our seats, along with six other passengers who were making the transfer with us. The forty or so passengers waiting for us to board were an interesting-looking bunch: a dozen backwoods dirtbikers wearing matching black and red spandex biker outfits, gentlemen flyfishers heading off to remote fishing camps in carefully pressed Orvis shirts and vests, and some folks in their twenties off on camping trips. The baggage car in front of us carried an unusual assortment of ATVs, casket-sized ice chests, cardboard boxes tied up with rope and tape, two refrigerators in their original packaging, and lots of extra-large sized suitcases and duffelbags.

Ernie the conductor sat a few rows of seats in front of us, at a little desk. He split his time between talking to dispatchers and the locomotive engineer on his radio as he coordinated flag stops for passengers, arranged a delivery of perishable cargo to recipients in Oba, and assisted the baggage attendant unloading bulky cargo. He was my kind of conductor—friendly to the passengers, but strict about getting the baggage unloaded quickly and keeping the train on schedule. At one point as we passed Oba Lake, where a group of six passengers left us to meet their water taxi to their fishing resort, I stood on the vestibule steps deliberating whether to step off the train to get a picture of this of this exquisitely beautiful site. A second later, the train lurched into motion—with passengers and freight off, Ernie had given the go signal to the locomotive engineer from the baggage car. “I would have left you there”, he half-jokingly told me. A minute later, Ernie points out a cow moose basking in a trackside lake, he explained that when the flies are particularly bad, the moose will bathe to get some respite from the fly bites.

At Oba, Ernie dropped the time-sensitive package to a waiting pickup truck. On a side track, I spotted the eastbound ViaRail Canadian waiting there for us to pass. (The Algoma Central crosses ViaRail passenger train lines at both Oba and Franz—two remote places where there are no hotels and unreliable connections. These are connection points useful only to railroad employees.) North of Oba, we left the region of pristine mountain lakes, and the train picked up speed as we crossed bogs and boreal forest land on relatively straight track. Approaching Hearst from the south, the train containing only seven remaining passengers wandered past saw mills and dismal industrial plants, and creeped slowly into the yard past a pile of cut pine trunks 70 feet high and a half mile long next to a Tembec saw mill. Welcome to Hearst.

Hearst is a modern frontier town—it’s at the northern edge of where people in Canada usually live. Not many roads go north from here. It is on the economic frontier too: a blue-collar town populated with lumberjacks, hard rock miners, truck drivers, and lumber mill workers. There’s three motels in town and the two most popular ones, the Queen and the Companion, immediately adjoin the railroad yard. Ernie is staying overnight at the Companion and offers to assist an older railfan holding a return ticket on the next day’s train to cross the parking lot. Meg and I grab our bags and walk past the Companion to the Howard Johnson’s hotel one block away.

The Hojo looks desolate and completely empty. As we approach the front door in side the courtyard, a woman yells over in French to ask us if were the people with the reservations for the night, and then runs over to unlock the door for us. Inside, the hotel looks long abandoned. Now speaking English, the woman explains that the lumber mills were closed a little over a year ago with the housing crash in the US, and business has been terrible ever since. Many people have moved away from Hearst and lots of homes are empty in the surrounding neighborhood.

Walking through the dusty and dark hotel, she takes us to a room in the back “if you don’t like it, I’ll let you have another one”, she says. That’s okay. we’ll be out again at 4 am to catch the bus to Cochrane, I explain. The room was stuffy and damp, but the bed was clean and soft, with small wiry pillows. As soon as she left, we crawled immediately into bed to try to catch a few hours sleep.

Thwang, thwang, thwang—my iPhone shrieked as the alarm went off. I woke up and turned it off. I had slept a few hours, but not enough. Meg, too sensitive to lumpy pillows, scarcely slept. We showered, pulled on the same clothing we had worn the previous day, grabbed our bags and wandered three blocks down Front street to find the Ontario Northland “Northlander” bus waiting for us at the Esso station. We purchase two tickets and two cups of coffee at the same counter that people use to purchase gasoline. Dan, our driver as far as Driftwood, greets us along with about six other passengers. We sat next to him on the one-hour trip and enjoyed a chatty discussion of local economics. Like most Northern Ontarians under the age of 30, Dan is bilingual though he comes from an Anglophone family in Timmins. The big towns in Northern Ontario (Sudbury, Timmins, North Bay, Hearst, Cochrane and Sault Ste. Marie) have sizable French-speaking minority populations and there’s a lot of emphasis in school for mastering both English and French. Dan pointed out that the official school-taught Ontario French is closer to European French than the dialect spoken in Quebec, and he sometimes has trouble understanding Quebec travelers. As we drive, he makes a few flag stops along the road to pick up a few travelers and generally follow the route of the old train line. Up until the 1990s, this route was served by a train.

Dan gave me the updated story on the Victor Diamond Mine, about 50 miles northwest of Moosonee. This mine had been a speculative venture for DeBeers and the Ontario government in 2007, but they soon hit large deposits of high-quality diamonds, and mining had expanded at a rapid pace since then. So unusual was the diamond discovery, that the Victor mine was voted “mine of the year” in 2009 by the readers of Mining Magazine (you should have seen the centerfold photos). According to Dan, all the employees there received a 2-carat diamond as their Christmas bonus last year. Last winter, at great expense, an ice road was built between Moosonee and the mine to move equipment.  Moosonee is 98 miles away from the nearest intercity road, but most winters ice roads are constructed between the town, and the end of the gravel road at Otter Rapids, and the railroad runs year round.

Dan told a sad but fascinating story to us about how he got his job at the railroad the same time he had gotten married, and that his is wife’s wedding and engagement rings had been lost recently. He had spent weeks examining drains and digging through disposable diapers and household trash to no end.

In Driftwood we stop briefly at the old Ontario Northland train station and change to another, slightly older Northlander bus with a manual transmission. At 7:30 we roll into Cochrane in ample time for passengers to make a connection with the 8 am train to Toronto. Meg and I are pooped and debate for a few minutes weather or not we want to eat at the station coffee shop, or wait for the Moosonee train to pull in. I stack my bags in the corner, and go out on the platform to photo the Toronto train as it pulls out (an ONR GP-38 pulling three former 1960s-vintage GO coaches and a power car made out of an ancient Milwaukee Road F-7B). Looking east from the platform , I could spot the next train on our schedule—the Polar Bear Express, a more than slightly tatty mélange of flat cars, box cars and eight 1950s-era passenger coaches, being assembled for the trip northbound to Moosonee.

As the Polar Bear Express pulled into the station. I was surprised how long it was. At the lead were two GP-38s followed by a baggage car, two lightweight ex-Canadian National Railway coaches from the 1950s, a Pullman Great Dome car, another ex-CN coach (this one was refitted as a bar and entertainment car), an ex-CN dining car, two more CN-coaches, a 1960s-era former GO Transit Hawker Siddeley snack bar car, and a Hawker Siddeley coach. Immediately behind the coaches: another baggage car, an F-7B power car, three box cars and three flat cars for transporting autos.

Along with another 120 or so waiting passengers, we headed up the vestibule steps to our assigned seats. We were in coach two—our seat was facing in the direction of travel and the seats across from us were empty. We quickly stowed our baggage and settled in. As soon as out tickets were lifted, we headed to the diner for breakfast.

The diner was a flashback for me—it was a sister car to the Bras D’or Lake, a diner that ran for a few years on the Northern Central Railway in Pennsylvania, and one that I had spent some time working on getting the kitchen back into operation. Meg and I just sat there for about twenty minutes enjoying the attack of  déjà vu, trying to figure out if it was in fact the Bras D’or Lake. (After the trip was over I tracked down the location of the Bras D’or Lake to verify that is was somewhere else and this wasn’t the same car. It’s very unusual to have two diners so similar in construction, but it sometimes happens).

After our delectable breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage we headed immediately to the other highlight on this train—the Otter Rapids, a Pullman-built 1953 Great Dome, one of only ten built, for use on the Milwaukee road Hiawatha train. To say that Meg is merely fond of dome cars is a dramatic understatement. Meg has been known to spend consecutive days camped out in the dome car when riding on cross country trains. Budd, Pullman, short domes, long domes, you name it… the girl is a dome junkie. This is the first Great Dome we’ve ever ridden in. Other than the one order for the Milwaukee road, Pullman had no additional customers for these babies. After the Milwaukee road transferred their passenger operations to Amtrak, they served for a few years on the Canadian National, before being sold off to tourist lines and Alaska tour operators in the 1980s. Only about five or six remain in service in North America. Unlike Budd, Pullman mostly built their cars out of rust-prone CorTen steel, and keeping this car in service is a labor of love for the guys at the ONR car shop, and it’s probably the nicest looking and nicest kept car in their fleet.

Once in the dome, the miles just kind of melt into a ribbon of time and space. We quickly passed the Otter Rapids power plant, the end of road for automobiles heading north, after that only scrubby pine trees and powerlines could be seen. Out our windows jack pines and muskeg bogs whizzed by. In a couple of hours we heard the call that our train would soon be arriving at Moosonee—the end of the road for the railroad tracks, and only a few miles down the river from James Bay, the southernmost lobe of Hudson Bay.

It was in the high 40s, overcast with kind of a drizzly rain in Moosonee. Meg and I surveyed the town from the station—two dirt roads running in a L shape formed the downtown; a handful of commercial buildings including a hardware store with a rail siding, a small grocery store that was also the bank and coffee shop, and a few dissipated-looking bars and restaurants. No Service, on our Verizon phones. Meg and I were staying at a bed and breakfast out on an island in the river, and needed to walk down Main Street to get to water taxi piers. We wandered a little in the rain hoping that we could find a place to eat lunch before crossing over to our B&B—we had heard that there was only one place to eat on Moose Factory Island, and were a little afraid of it as it was run by Cree Indians, and the few internet reviews of the place seemed to indicate that it was idiosyncratic. There was a small hotel nearby, but the restaurant there wouldn’t open for a few hours—the small lobby was filled with toys and play pens for small children, and the atmosphere was steamy and smelled like a commercial kitchen. Behind us going in were two people we had seen on the train who were looking for a place to stay. I explained to them that there were only six inns between Moosonee and Moose Factory Island, maybe about 20 rooms total, and when I called around the previous week they all seemed to be booked up for tonight. I think they decided ride back to Cochrane on the evening train at that point.

Meg was hungry, tired and kind of disgusted—imagine a place where people don’t have good restaurants. With no recourse, we hauled our bags down to the water taxi dock and caught a ride to Moose Factory Island, a couple of miles across the river delta past an uninhabited sandbar. We’re close to James Bay, and the river runs salty and slow here. The water was choppy and the boat bounced as we went. The fare is $15 each direction per person, and we traveled with four other people who had come in by train who were returning home to Moose Factory. We arrived at the southern point of the island, the site of a small sanitarium that had been built in the 1950s to shelter tuberculosis patients. Lately, this building is the area hospital. The steam lines and power lines between the building run above ground and the building looks like something you’d find on a military base or maybe the moon. A row of about five minivan taxis are waiting for the boats to finish coming in. The arrival of the train every afternoon is the big deal of the day for the taxicabs and water taxi skippers, and we’re kind of at the tail end of the exodus. Our taxi driver has never heard of Mahekun’s Den, the bed and breakfast we’re staying at for the night. I don’t have an address for the place. Meg gives me one of those “oh, honey” looks and the taxi driver walks of to talk to a friend. In a minute, he tells me he knows where it is.

The bed and breakfast is very nice and cute as a button. In honor of our 20th wedding anniversary, Victor the innkeeper has left out a basket of fruit and condoms for us and put us in the honeymoon room. We freshen up with dry clothing, and Vic offers us a drive in his pickup truck to the Cree Nation Ecolodge for dinner. The cathedral-ceilinged dining room was built to recall the Cree tradition of multiple family groups living together in big long teepees in the wintertime and cooked and ate as a group. Paneled in native cedar, the 20-foot-high window wall on the west side offers a view of a cloudy sunset over the Moose River. Our dinner of roasted game hen and pan-fried pickerel, and mushroom soup with juniper berries demonstrates native American cooking concepts brought up to the presentation standards of a fine restaurant—it’s exotic and tasty too.  The restaurant seats about 60 people, and many of the people joining us tonight were people who rode up with us on the train, who were actually staying at the lodge, which has about a dozen hotel rooms.

After dinner, the weather has improved, and we walk back to the B&B down muddy roads. Completely exhausted, Meg retires immediately. I stay up for a bit to chat with Renelle, another guest who is an accountant doing work for an island business that is preparing for an audit. She’s originally from South Africa, and works for a firm in Timmins. Most area people consider Timmins the nearest big town, though it’s 7 hours away by train and auto and has a population of around 50 thousand people.  Victor the innkeeper joins into the conversation, he’s a Moose Factory island native who left the island after high school in the 1980s, did well in the music and television industry in Canada, and decided to move back home. Besides running his small inn, he’s a pastor at a church, and teaches at the island high school. I wished I wasn’t so tired, these are interesting people. After a spell I excuse myself and join Meg in the bedroom. The high bed is comfortable and Meg completely approves the soft, large pillows.

The following morning, Meg and I decide to sleep in and enjoy a relaxing breakfast in the common kitchen area. The inn is empty. Victor is upstairs with his family and Renelle has gone off to work. We look in the refrigerator and spot a big pot of clarified butter that Renelle made up for herself—with only one restaurant on the island, she had switched over to preparing her own meals. In the freezer, there are about a dozen plucked and carefully wrapped Canada geese. Victor is a Cree native and participates in the semi-annual goose hunting trips.

After breakfast, we dress and pack our bags. The train back to Cochrane isn’t until 5 pm, so we have some time to explore the island, so we head north on foot to St Thomas Church—a deteriorated white clap-board building that’s a few hundred years old. It was closed a few years ago when the island was flooded one spring and is still waiting for repairs. Slightly farther up the street we visit the historic site of the Hudson Bay Company Factory, it’s a 300 year-old wooden building where the “factor”, the animal pelt buyer for the company, lived. Moose Factory Island is the oldest English-speaking settlement in Ontario, and the island’s name dates back to the time when natives would come to this island to trade animal pelts for credit in the company retail store. The original Hudson Bay store was closed in the 1960s and demolished, a gasoline station and convenience store occupies the site. Dianna the operator of the small museum, is also teaches at the High School and has slowly been collecting memorabilia of the island to put on display. She expressed some disappointment that the Cree have only recently lost interest in traditional crafts such as glove and shoe making, and is concerned that westernization, including smoking, alcohol consumption and the high sucrose western diet is having a particularly injurious effect on the health of the Cree.  After getting a generous sample of local scuttlebutt, we head back to Vic’s to retrieve our bags, and to do the one-mile walk down a very muddy road to the water taxi dock.

We’re back at the train station about an hour and a half early, but already a lot of passengers have assembled. Many of those are people we spotted on the train up and at dinner at the Ecolodge. At this point, folks start to talk. The people staying at the Ecolodge complain about their $200 nights that featured boredom and hard beds. Surprisingly, dinner at their dining room was not included. The train today is completely sold out—more than 250 passengers aboard. There’s assigned seats on this train, so they know when the five coaches are sold out, but the railroad can make room for a few more by seating people in the dome car. Once aboard, we stow our bags behind our seats. Across from us, a couple from lower Ontario is seating, facing the in the wrong direction. They didn’t care much for their two-night stay on the island, and the poor seats are only adding insult to injury.

Assessing the situation—we make an executive decision and head immediately to the dining car as the train pulls out. We figured the conductor could find us there, and that the food supply would not last long given the train was overbooked. It was fortunate decision—we both received the delightful pickerel entrée with the first wave of orders from the kitchen—my compliments to the chef. After dinner we, slink off to the dome, and pretty much ride the entire return trip from there. Not the most interesting scenery, but a pretty good sunset as we pull into Cochrane.

Arriving at Cochrane around 9 pm, we head over to the hotel counter inside the station lobby. There’s 23 hotel rooms on the second floor and some afford a trainwatcher’s view of the station tracks. Having pre registered, the desk attendant quickly passes me the door cards, and we head up. Our room is New York City hotel room compact. The bathroom features a fiberglass shower bathtub insert and everything is either gray or pea green. Wow, this hotel must have been designed by someone who works for the railroad because it resembles a scaled-up version of a Pullman sleeping car bedroom. The two beds are soft and comfortable, and smell nice. Surprisingly, the maid had neglected to replenish the coffeepot. Meg and I put on our walking shoes and head out for a twilight walk around Cochrane.

Cochrane is tiny—two main streets and one of their two bars is closed. Ahead of us, we watch the unhappy couple from the train head off into the one open bar/restaurant. It’s the only place in town to get something to eat after 8 pm that doesn’t also sell gasoline. Cochrane surrounds a beautiful downtown lake, and many of the houses have porches that overlook it. On one porch, a group of about eight are sipping their beers enjoys the perfect evening around a fire pit. Back at the hotel, I chat briefly with the hotel clerk about the coffeepot, and she inspects my check-in documents as she hadn’t done it earlier. Meg and I head up for a restful nights sleep.

In the morn, we lounge around the hotel room until about 9 am. We wanted to give the two trains a chance to pull out before meeting up with the car rental clerk in the lobby. The clerk is a little late coming to work, but drives our car over from the rental shop a couple of blocks away. Today, we’re driving to Timmins—the most populated town along the ONRY right-of-way, and paradoxically, the one major town that doesn’t have passenger rail service—there’s a morning bus that connects Timmins passengers with the ONRY morning train to Toronto at Matheson. Driving south out of town, we track the railroad line and admire the strings of paper products boxcars, coil cars, and gondola cars on the sidings. The ONRY is doing pretty good. Making a right turn at Proquis (so named as it was in between Porcupine and Iriquois)  we head west from the main highway and pass pristine fishing lakes and three huge deep pit gold mines before arriving at Timmins.

Timmins is a blue collar city, and a proud, successful one. Since 1909, they’ve been digging for gold, and now that gold is over $1,500 an ounce, people are particularly excited and proud. There’s one historical center in town in celebrate their two most successful exports—gold, and Shania Twain.  From here, you put on a hard hat, a jump suit and an electric miner’s lamp and a guide (usually a retired mineworker) leads you down a mineshaft about 50 feet underground to see the original parts of the Hollinger Gold Mine. The tour is comprehensive: rock drilling and pneumatic bucket loading equipment are demonstrated along with a host of contemporary and historic mining techniques. There’s a few hundred feed of mine railroad which visitors get to ride on behind an electric locomotive. Easily one of the best industrial heritage tours I’ve ever been on. Rather than kick you out when the tour is over, you’re welcome to stay and pan for gold. Meg and I found a couple of flakes to bring home.

After our mine tour, we head off to a Francophone restaurant for a fish dinner and do a little grocery shopping before we drive back to Cochrane for the night. The rental car return is at the station and there’s a key drop in the lobby. That night, we sat trackside and watched the Polar Bear Express arrive.

Friday morning, we boarded the train to Toronto. As it was Canada day, and the ONRY doesn’t do assigned seat ticketing on their Toronto train, the railroad added an additional car to the otherwise three car trainset so they’d be covered in case of an overflow. The mileage going south between Cochrane and North Bay takes us by quaint turn of the century mining towns, lakes full of fishing boats and handsome cottages and lush greenery. I’m not getting the best impression of the crew in terms of friendliness and service. When I walked past the snack bar in the last car to take a look out the rear or the train, the attendant yelled at me that I wasn’t permitted to go there. (It was kind of obvious from the improvised seat back there, that it was her hangout when se took a break from the passengers. As there were no railroad-printed signs saying “do not enter”, I can only guess that she came up with that rule.) The conductor had pushed all of the Toronto passengers into a crowded car, and left the intermediate stops passengers a chance to spread out in a sparsely-populated second car. The third car was locked. All four cars were of the same vintage—1960s-era Hawker Siddeley former-GO coaches, a budget-minded product of Thunder Bay, Ontario from back before it was known as Thunder Bay. The car rattled quite a bit, and rode like an old commuter coach on a pair inside bearing, frame-equalized trucks.

At North Bay, the ONRY line makes it’s station stop at a modern intermodal station a few blocks out of town. About 40 people got off, and about 80 people joined us there. There was a complete change of crew too— the crew getting off will lay over for about an hour, catch the northbound train in the afternoon, and be home by nightfall. The new crew will ride through to Toronto where they’ll stay for the night before coming back the next day—except for Fridays; no passenger train run on the ONRY on Saturday, so they’ll come back on Sunday. The train makes a hard left turn a few hundred feet north of the car shop and goes east for about 100 feet to a connecting tract to the CN. Years ago, the train used to go straight, back when it stopped at the downtown union station where passengers could change trains for the CP running toward Sudbury. When the Canadian shifted to the CN, and abandoned North Bay, the interconnection with the regional bus service became more important, and the downtown station was abandoned.

On the CN, the speed picks up, the conductor is more businesslike and you can feel every ripple of the track through the seat. Like a rocket we tear through the Toronto exurbs making only a few station stops at former CN stations. At Washago, we pass the first VIA station—this is the junction point for the VIARail Canadian. A few miles later, and we’re into GO Rail’s commuter district.

Arriving at Toronto Union Station pretty much on time, we hustle upstairs, purchase a family day pass and ride the subway to our hotel for our final night of the trip—the Madison Manor Boutique Hotel.  We quickly deposited our bags and head out to find dinner only to find literally tens of thousands of people wandering around the theater district celebrating Canada day. Our first choice of restaurant is closed for the night, and our second one has recently permanently shut down. Cadging WiFi service from a nearby coffee shop, my smartphone directs us to a nearby restaurant that is filled with Phillies fans who came up from Pennsylvania to watch a ball game. The Blue Jays have lost, and there are no Canadians sitting in this restaurant. Potential patrons come in for a minute and quickly leave once they get the scene. Happy birthday, Canada.

That night, we try to catch a trolley back to the Madison, but they all slowly lumber by us without stopping, filled to overload by people coming back from a fireworks show on the lake. Undaunted we walk back to the hotel.

The next day, we catch a Spadina trolley down to Queen’s Quay, and a waterfront trolley back to the City Airport for the plane ride home. We’re back safe and sound by 5 pm. What a trip.

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