Railroading North America

10/ Toronto

10-toro-union-station-102908-0055-bw1 DAY 10
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

After sprinting ahead by rail for a day or two, I am ready to take a day or two off.

On my Eurail jaunts on the European railroads years ago, I used to roll into a new city in the afternoon, spend a night in a hotel, do sights for a day or two, then catch a night train to another city sleeping on the train. The result would be several nights and several full days in each city.

It worked because there were lots of trains going everywhichway at all hours. That is not the case in Canada where some trains I will take run only 3 times a week.

Toronto has an extensive underground tunnel system called “PATH” packed with shops running for many blocks in all directions under the downtown. It’s like Minneapolis only underground and, if possible, colder.

Entrances to several metro stations, and the main Toronto train station itself are underground. I can go fifteen blocks in tunnels underground to Eaton Center, where an Apple Store is located. I can do almost all the housekeeping organizational tasks I need to do in shirtsleeves, underground and without freezing my ass off again

I ask for a map of the tunnel system from the front desk. I soon discover that while these tunnels may cross from one block to another, there is nothing but white space on the map. This worries me. Worse, I am ready to go, but I cannot find the entrance to the tunnels from the hotel.

I find a young woman who runs the business center and ask for help. I’d have never found the entrance to the tunnels on my own.

We talk. She is a native of Toronto. When she finds I am taking the train west, she says what other Canadians almost always say: “I’ve always wanted to go west.” She has traveled widely, but has seen little of her own country and has never ventured west of Toronto.
“What is out there,” she asks me. Ummm —

I ask her what people in Toronto call themselves. I have been doing this everywhere I go, and the answers amuse.

“Wow,” she thinks and says she has never been asked that question. “Toronto people? — no, that’s not very good — Torontan? Torontoian?”

“In Halifax they call themselves Halifaxagonians,” I volunteer.

“They’re not Halifaxers or Halifaxans?”

“No,” I said. “The ones I spoke to are Halifaxagonians.” I have actually verified this by asking several Halifaxagonians ands they all popped right back with the same answer.
The young woman seems likes this. “Okay! I am a Torontogonian,” she says.

“You are?” I said.

“Yes! From this day forward,” she replies. “I am a Torontogonian.” She practices it several times.


I still have forty dollars Canadian, but I am uneasy going further west without another $50. When I try to change money in the station, I am told I will get only $54 Canadian for my $50 American. I find a bank where I am offered $58 Canadian for my $50. Better than $54, but a far cry from the $62 I got a few days ago.

The exchange rate is bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, the clerk tells me. “An hour ago it was 6-cents higher. Twenty minutes ago it was 4-cents lower. Get back in line and wait and you might get a better rate in a few minutes,” she says. Or worse. I take the money.

I ask her why the Canadian dollar is called “the looney”. “I have no idea,” she says, curtly. “Why ask me?”

“I thought a Torontogonian might know,” I say, not impolitely.

She bristles. “What did you just call me?”

At the Apple Store I am buying a new battery for my MacBookPro. Mac batteries are supposed to be serviceable through 200 re-chargings. Mine as been recharged 330 times and has begun to twitch like it. I need backup.

Logan sells me a battery, and we lapse into talking about Nova Scotia and Halifax where he is from. “I’m a Halifaxagonian,” he says right on cue.

“Are you also Acadian?” I ask.


“Wait. How can you ‘almost’ be an Acadian?”

“My mother almost married an Acadian. My girlfriend’s father is an Acadian.”

“So your girlfriend is almost an Acadian, too?”

“Yes. … Almost.”

This doesn’t make sense, but neither of us can quite figure out why.

I want to book more reservations for the trip west. I am debating crossing from Vancouver to Seattle, flying to Los Angeles for a meeting, and then taking the train from Los Angeles to Chicago to Washington, DC.

The trouble is I really want to go from Seattle to Chicago across the northwest US. Finally, reluctantly, this is the trip I decide to make.

The trip to Los Angeles is out for now, although as will happen with this trip, itineraries have a way of making it back onto the schedule after being discarded. Flexibility and patience is the key on a trip like this — that and occasional soul-searching to ask myself “where do you really want to go?” There will be trade-offs, but there are trade-offs in everything.

Amtrak has counters in most if not all VIA Rail stations, but the clerk in the Toronto station is away when I arrive. I sit in the exact spot I am told to sit and wait patiently.

In a little while, two women show up and station themselves in the Amtrak counter line. I figure I’d better run them off. They also looking for the Amtrak clerk, and they are affable but not patient women. I lose interest until I hear them engaged in an animated argument with the very woman who manages VIA Rail’s Toronto station. How they got her out of her office and out into the middle of the station, I do not know, but there she was, and they were giving her a good going over.

VIA Rail only has one person trained on the Amtrak computer system, she is telling the women, and Amtrak computers are not compatible with VIA Rail. The one person trained on the Amtrak computer will be in later in the afternoon.

The women now grow livid. Why is there only one person trained on this computer? Why isn’t he here? Who is her supervisor? And more.

The argument has become my favorite kind of thing — spirited, nasty, and tinged with the growing possibility of violence. But the argument neither escalates nor becomes violent, nor even provides any further useful information. I lose interest. I have places to go and precious few hours left in Toronto.

I plip-plop off for the CN Tower next door and points north.

When I return there are two clerks at the Amtrak desk, not just one, and no sign of the women. One of the clerks is training the other. The two Amtrak clerks efficiently track down and complete my reservations.

Leaving I ask if either of the Amtrak clerks have seen two American women? The mention of ‘American women’ inspires concern. “No. Have you?” one clerk said nervously. He looks in one direction while the second looks in the other direction.

(Photograph: Entrance to the train platforms at Toronto Union Station, October 29, 2008)



  1. so why are all the pictures black and white?

    Comment by Bruce — November 23, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  2. Bruce…probably Word Press’ fault…

    Comment by Jeanie...your older sister — November 30, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  3. Damn. Only the second entry I have read and still good. I especially like the way you portray character and conflict with just a few pointed words. Congratulations. I am hooked. Sigh. Time to bookmark this page and come back later when I can take another break from work.

    Comment by Daniel Charles Thomas — March 25, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

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