Trains: locomotive location

OPINION

In hindsight, perhaps there should have been a lively community debate on where to park the trains

When considering the controversy surrounding the GO Train whistles that are a jarring start to the day for many Barrie residents, it might be worth taking a little trip down memory lane.
Back in the day when the city acquired the station and adjacent land from CN, when Janice Laking was mayor of this fair city, train whistles were already becoming a distant memory. And although the formations of a plan to bring them back had begun to take shape, with the purchase of the rail lands and the acquiring of the St. Paul’s property for the future, and present, station, it seemed clear the grand old station’s best days were well behind it.
It was not forever so. Trains have always been a part of Barrie’s history. They rolled right through the centre of town for decades, from the late 1800s, until one day they didn’t. The transcontinental passenger train, The Canadian, made regular stops at the Allandale station, collecting passengers heading west, or south and east. They stopped one day, due to rail cuts by the Mulroney government.
The Canadian still rolls across the country, but it goes up the other side of Lake Simcoe. And it doesn’t follow the storied path of the old CP southern route, the National Dream that connected the land from coast to coast with a ribbon of steel, an engineering marvel that tamed mountains on its way to the Pacific – and the inspiration to a particularly fine Gordon Lightfoot song.
I was aboard that train, twice: once, from Toronto to Banff, the other time all the way to Vancouver. What a marvelous way to experience the country. In those days, late 70s, it was little more than $200 to get a seat on the train. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but a hell of an adventure.
It took all of four or five days for the train to reach Vancouver, depending on delays. I recall spending hours someplace in northern Ontario as the old rolling stock was repaired. That’s the thing about trains – they take you places you’d never otherwise go. Certainly, not to that place somewhere in the north. There weren’t any roads nearby, or much of anything as far as I remember – just the train, a community of passengers, and the great Canadian wilderness.
I watched the country roll past from a spot between the cars, from one of those doors that open at the top. The dense forest of northern Ontario, the rolling expanse of the prairies, the approach of the Rockies, the majesty of the mountains, the winding Fraser, and, finally, the coast – all viewed from that doorway, or that seat, or, frequently, the domed observation car.
I ate cheap cheese sandwiches and drank cold beer, washed and shaved in a toilet at the end of the car. And I had an adventure I treasure to this day.
As said, The Canadian still rolls, but it takes the more northern CN route, up through Jasper and down into Vancouver. I’ve never been on that route, but I’ve been to Jasper, and although it’s a beautiful place, it’s more of a valley experience than the southern route, through Banff, where the mountains are so close you could almost touch them.
And I’m sure it costs more than $200, and I don’t know if you can stand between the cars – liability and all that, old boy.
I don’t know, but it seems like the adventure has gone out of train travel. These days it’s about commuting, and controversy over train whistles. It’s too bad so many people are so pissed off about the trains, and in hindsight, perhaps it could all have been avoided.
Sometime after the trains stopped coming to Barrie, the council of the day, led by Mayor Laking, had the foresight to plan for their eventual return, buying the station and land from CN, and, later, the St. Paul’s property. As I recall the plan then was to sell the station, develop the rail lands and build at St. Paul’s. There was even a move to build a convention centre on the rail lands, where the GO Trains now overnight.
The station was sold by the city to CHUM, then owner of the New VR, now A Channel, There was even some chatter about putting a theatre there.
That changed when the city reacquired the station, and the debate over what to do with it continued. Then, about four years ago, it was announced the trains were returning, following the ill-fated experience of the early 90s when so few Barrie residents got onboard that they soon departed.
The new station was built at St. Paul’s, and demand was enough to justify four trains in the morning, and four coming in the afternoon.
Residents irritated by the morning whistles may well ask why the trains couldn’t be parked down by the St. Paul’s station, instead of adjacent to the waterfront, a highly visible, and green, reminder of the return of the trains to Barrie. It’s a valid enough question. And they might also ask why the city has decided to add a second station to Allandale, but in reality, that decision has little to do with silencing the whistles.
Once it was decided to park the trains by the waterfront, and all the necessary improvements to accommodate them were done, the chances of getting them to move were slim to none, and slim left town on the morning train. The fact the trains are already there makes an Allandale station viable. If they were parked at St. Paul’s, there’d be no Allandale stop.
I don’t recall the question of where to park the trains being discussed all that much. In hindsight, it was a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t seem there is much that can be done about it now.
Remember when trains were about romance and adventure? Don’t you miss those days?

John Devine is editor of City Scene Barrie

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