Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cyclostravaganza 2008: Shelburne to Toronto (to Gananoque) to Montreal

Short version: I decided to take the train home (as a passenger) to Montreal; my train decided to take a crash. Fortunately there were no fatalities, there were a few injuries but they seemed non-life-threatening, I was unharmed, and my bike was undamaged. My cycling trip thus concluded with a certain amount of drama.

Longer version:

I enjoyed a lovely rest day with A and S (and Z) just outside Shelburne. They quite spoiled me with food, drink, attention, and the like. I even managed to convince them to give me a tour of their garden.

At this point, I was ahead of schedule: I had had a fantastic tailwind one day the previous week; cold rain made me cut the next day short, but I was still ahead; and I forewent two rest/play days on Manitoulin Island and at Tobermory National Park. So I was debating whether to extend my trip a bit, and cycle from Toronto to Kingston. Partly I was having a hard time choosing what roads to take, partly I thought it would be nice to get home to Montreal and have a few days there before going back to work, but mostly I had been feeling tired and headachey all day long. So rather than court illness, I decided to take the train back to Montreal on Tuesday.

A few years ago, I'd cycled from Shelburne to Toronto, and felt no especial need to repeat that. My uncle A very kindly offered to drive me from Shelburne to Brampton/Bramalea where, outside of peak hours, I would be allowed to take my train aboard the GO Train (commuter train). Things seemed to work out very well for me: bikes are allowed on GO trains only if they arrive in Union Station after 9:30; there was a GO train that would arrive at 9:36; that would leave me plenty of time to pack my bike up in Union Station and catch the 11:35 VIA train to Toronto; in the worst-case scenario, if I missed the first GO train, there was another train an hour later which would still leave me enough time to catch my VIA train. So that is how I planned things.

On Monday evening, I booked my VIA ticket online. Because it was a last-minute booking, the economy-fare ticket wasn't that cheap. It was only a few dollars extra to travel first-class, plus there would be a fancy-shmancy lunch. So I went for that!

On Tuesday morning, I learned something that could have changed everything. My aunt had been serving me decaff! That's why I'd been feeling tired and headachey. Maybe I was fit enough to continue the bike adventure (or would have been fit enough, with adequate caffeination). Oh well, the die was cast, as I had already bought my train ticket.

Other than the decaff, everything else went smoothly Tuesday. A and I left on time; we had a nice ride from Shelburne, through rolling farmland, over the escarpment, and then into the GTA. We got to the GO station, I bought my ticket, and A helped me lug my bike and luggage to the platform. Carrying 50lbs of luggage is one thing when it's in 4 panniers and a rackpack, mounted to the bike; but you can't check that many separate bags onto the train, so I had a very large duffel bag to hold them all; carrying one 54-pound bag plus trying to move a bike is not fun; so I was very grateful to have a hand with this. Getting from the parking lot to the platform involved an underground crossing of the track; again it was time to be grateful, as there was an elevator to take us down, then a very clean tunnel, and another elevator to take us up. Three cheers for accessible infrastructure. Once I got to the platform, A bid me adieu.

Taking my bike on the GO train was pretty straightforward. Some of the train cars had no-bike pictograms by the doors, but soon I found a car with a door that didn't expressly forbid bikes. (Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory, right?) I hoisted my bike up the steps, muscled in my duffel bag, and that was it. There wasn't a special bike rack, just a designated area by the door where bikes were permitted. I sat down, held my bike to keep it from falling, and off we went to Union Station.

More elevators in Union Station made it easy for me to get from the GO train's platform into the station, thence to the VIA baggage check-in. A had removed my pedals the night before for me, and the rest of the bike-packing was easy: remove and turn the handlebars, remove the seat, and put it into the box. Voila, that's it. To make things better, VIA only charged me $21.00 with tax for the bike transportation, and that included the bike box. (By contrast. Greyhound had charged me about $70.00 to ship my bike from Montreal to Sudbury, plus their box cost extra.) I had to remove a few items from the giant duffel bag because my 54-pound bag was 4 pounds too heavy, so I just plucked out one pannier and checked it as a second bag. Ah, everything with VIA was so easy!

I had plenty of time before my departure, and I was in need of caffeine. Since my ticket was in first class - a treat I had never indulged in before - I was able to use VIA's Panorama Lounge. Free coffee, free beverages, free newspapers, comfy chairs! (I had been hoping for free snacks and a computer with free internet access, but I guess you can't have it all.)

Unlike the GO concourse, the VIA concourse involved taking escalators. I didn't mind because my bike and most of my luggage were checked in.

When I looked at my watch, it seemed like we left Union Station a few minutes early. Perhaps that was why before we had even left the Toronto yards, the train reversed back into the station to pick up a few passengers who had missed the train. One of the VIA crew members seemed annoyed because this apparently meant the train would be at least 10 minutes late arriving.

First-class was very nice, I must admit, with complimentary beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), snacks, and a very nice hot meal for lunch. I declined the seafood choice due to my allergies, and was having a hard time between the spicy Asian chicken option and the mushroom-beef option; I chose the latter since I so rarely eat beef at home. Dessert was a white chocolate mousse of sorts with cranberries. The red wine was pleasant but a bit sweet and plonky. Drinking the wine and the coffee was a bit of a challenge; about half of the coffee splashed out of the cup due to the lateral movements (which we could politely call "rocking") of the train. Fortunately the food and drinks were served on a tray with a placemat of sorts to catch the spills. The crew came by frequently to refill beverages to keep ahead of the splashing. Ahh, life in first class is good.

But you were wondering about the train crash, weren't you?

We were passing through Mallorytown (east of Kingston) when there was a jolt. Instinctively I braced myself against the seat in front of me. The train slowed down. I looked out my window and saw a huge dust cloud. That's when I realised that the jolt was from hitting something, and the dust was from dragging something or maybe from having derailed. The conductor announced that we were in an accident. It took some time to figure everything out, but we'd hit a truck.

It seems that the truck's trailer (possibly a low-clearance trailer) had become stuck on the train tracks. The tracks in Mallorytown are apparently higher than the road. The truck driver had enlisted another vehicle to help pull it off, without success. When they saw the train coming, apparently they loosened the chains (from the towing vehicle to the stuck vehicle), and tried to signal to the oncoming train. The train could not stop in time. Fortunately the truck-folk were not in their vehicles. It was also fortunate that they had undone the chains between the two trucks, or else we might have dragged along two trucks intead of just the one.

It could have been quite bad, but I guess we were fortunate. One of the engineers injured his foot and ankle, and some people were taken to the hospital from having been bumped around, but nothing seemed life-threatening (as far as I knew). I was completely unhurt; my car was at the very rear of the train so I was barely jolted. The baggage car derailed, and perhaps the engine car at the very front, but all of the passenger cars stayed on the tracks. Paramedics came to take those who needed or wanted to go to hospital; they entered via the train, but removed passengers to the side, and transported them on an ATV to the ambulances that must have been nearby.

The derailed baggage car near the front of the train precluded us moving forward. There was another VIA train that had stopped behind us; although we were on a double-track section of rail, the derailed baggage car blocked both rails, so it too was stuck. After a rather long wait, that train was first able to connect to ours to provide some electricity beyond our own train's emergency power (providing some intermittent and very welcome air conditioning while we were waiting to get going going), and then later, it towed our train's passenger cars to safety.

It remains that the baggage car derailed, so I was pretty worried about whether my bike had been damaged in the toss-about. I was very relieved when I claimed my bike the next day at Montreal Central Station and found out it was undamaged.

The worst thing for me really was the inconvenience - instead of arriving at 5:17pm, we were still waiting on the tracks at that time. Eventually that other train pulled us back to the previous station (Gananoque), where buses took us on to our final destinations, and I got into Montreal around 10:45pm.

I did feel bad for the couple from the UK on our train. They had flown to Toronto for their honeymoon the day before, and were just recovering from jetlag en route to Montreal. How about a train crash to welcome you to a new country?

(I think there is some irony in the fact that while some of my family members were worried about me, and while I had some unpleasant moments while cycling on the roads, the accident that I was involved in on this trip actually had nothing to do with cycling.)

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