Ab Sabourin's Last Trip
No tomorrow for the North Shore Budd.
"WHAT the heck are you doing here?"
"Well, Ab, having bailed coal for you on the 1057, and having worked the Royal Train together, I couldn't let you have your last trip without coming along."
Some 20 Bytown Railway Society members are on the last run of VIA train 171, the "North Shore Budd" from Montreal to Ottawa via Lachute over CP Rail, the only passenger service on the line. Date: Saturday, November 14, 1981. Engineer Ab Sabourin has chosen to take retirement at the same time.
Budd Car 6102, an RDC1 built for Canadian National in 1957 and later equipped with a snack bar (and reduced to 76 seats), has substituted at Windsor Station for 6128, a straight 89-seat RDC1 built for CP in 1953, which had hit a truck on its run in to Montreal on 170 that morning. Ab said, "He came right out of the fog at me. I set the brake and dove out into the passenger compartment. I nearly bought it on my last trip!"
Train time, 1755 hours, and the headlight fails! A "yellow hat" quickly ascertains that the breaker keeps tripping. He is not amused when someone suggests that he hold it all the way to Ottawa. Prompted by a Bytown suggestion, Ab decides to turn the Budd around the loop at Glen Yard. Much jubilation from the 20 faithful aboard, and much puzzlement from those trying to use the train as a means of getting from Point A to Point B . . . particularly the poor soul who is going only to Westmount, the first stop 2 miles out, and goes past twice before we actually manage the station! Much speculation as to whether this is the first revenue passenger train to use the loop.
The faithful jubilantly help turn the seats. On a regular train, they don't like you to do this.
Another problem becomes apparent. The working headlight is now at the front, but the engineer and his seat are at the back. It's solved by a quick-thinking white hat who organizes a ceremonial procession through the car. At the head is the original yellow hat, who performs no function other than to lead the way for the white hat, who proudly carries the august chair (throne). He is followed by two grimy yellow hats (hand maidens) bearing grimy carpets and then the conductor, with the engineer's bag, timetable (bible), and (holy) drinking water.
Finally Ab himself appears, to much cheering, bearing the throttle, direction, and brake handles (orb and sceptre). My mind drifts back to the time he temporarily became "Sir Albert" when, along with Rudy Lamothe, he ran the Royal Train with preserved CPR Pacific 1201.
Someone points out that we now have gone over the same piece of track three times.
"Pepin is tied to the rails. It's just to make sure we get him."
[He was the Minister of Transport responsible for all the VIA train-offs.]
Leaving Westmount, 30 minutes late, the conductor collects tickets.
"Do we pay extra for the runby?"
Turns out he'll be working the Marelan turn out of Montreal. "I'll be able to get home to bed every night."
A reporter from Le Droit is on the train.
"When was the first train over the line?"
She is most impressed with the name of the railway that constructed the line (Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa & Occidental) and that it was part of the original transcontinental main line, but she is disappointed that we are not going to stage a demonstration (they make good copy). She is upset when several of us give her hell for driving to Montreal to cover the story. She retreats armed with a lot of dumb information. What she writes may be newsworthy, but I'll bet she will not have told the story of the North Shore Budd. It may never be written, except in the hearts and minds of those whose lives of which it was an intimate part.
Our friend lan Walker is on hand to record our arrival at Lachute, where the agent also has chosen to take retirement. He had asked if he could buy the station clock he has wound for so many years. The CP said he could have it for $1400! Does nobody have a heart?
Most of the serious passengers have left the train by Lachute, and the journey takes on a more somber note. The impossible is happening. This really is the last one. I keep telling myself I won't be able to do this tomorrow, or ever again.
THERE is a heated argument about the demise of this train. The whole range of human emotions is present: anger, frustration, love, tenderness—all of it spiced with railfan humor. The only conclusion we come to about "Pepinomics" is that the passenger train is becoming deader than a dodo.
In his dark cab, Ab silently runs the last miles of his 37 years on the rails. The headlight pierces a thin beam through the swirling mist to illuminate the crossings, any one of which could mean peril or oblivion.
A woman takes her 4-year-old granddaughter between Calumet and Pointe-au-Chene for her first (and last?) ride on a train. The youngster is allowed to blow the whistle.
Appropriately, we hit a skunk.
Freight No. 86 is in the hole at Papineauville. A highball signals our ride into eternity. Elwood Sloan is on 86, but there's no radio banter tonight. At least with Ab retiring, this leaves one less to bid for the remaining jobs.
The conductor says good-bye to the lady caretaker at Thurso with an embrace.
One of the last regular passengers, an aging nun, gets off at Templeton. She has come this way every Saturday for years. She kisses the conductor good-bye ... on the cheek.
"That's the first time I've been kissed by a nun."
The Gatineau operator comes out to shake hands.
The old caretaker at the relatively new Hull station is waiting with his wife to shake hands with our conductor. The emotional scene is interrupted by the flashes from a photographer, who is joined by a reporter. They are disappointed that we haven't run amok or vandalized the Budd.
"At least they'll be able to tear the station down now."
"Yes, and there will be no need to repair the front window, which was broken several years ago."
Where are all those who protested the train-offs?
Was it just an excuse to use against the government? Would Mazanomics (Pepin's predecessor) have been any better than Pepinomics? Maybe we are all to blame. When was he last time you rode the North Shore Budd? If we had been there yesterday, maybe it would be there tomorrow.
Now there is no tomorrow.
WITH just the Bytown faithful left, the journey assumes the air of a wake.
Over the Prince of Wales Bridge. Tomorrow will be its first day in 100 years without scheduled passenger service. Through the Dows Lake Tunnel, across the Rideau River bridge, and up the grade to Ellwood. Will this be the last passenger train over the connection to the Ottawa passenger station?
The last two grade crossings near Riverside Hospital are safely negotiated. Ab breathes a sigh of relief and laughs.
"My last crossing. I've made it through 37 years and can finally relax."
But it's forced jocularity.
Yellow over red light—limited approach signal. Yellow light—restricting signal.
"That allows me to go as far as the next signal, but I don't have any more signals to worry about now."
I had expected a welcoming committee at the station. Instead, only Ab's family is present.
"Open that door and let me get the hell out of here."
Ab Sabourin turns his back on 37 years and is in the car park before we are.
Would it have been too much for somebody from CP Rail to have seen him at the end of his last trip to thank him for 37 of the best years of his life? I suppose a Pepinomist or a Mazanomist would reply,
"So we paid you for it, didn't we? In any case, if you didn't like it, you could have quit anytime."
The politicians don't really care; they're interested only in scoring points.
The media don't care; they only want sensational news.
VIA doesn't know enough to care.
An employer who offers to sell the agent "his" clock for $1400 doesn't care.
So who does care? Do we have no compassion?
So long, Ab. Best of luck.
WHAT doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul.
Trains, November 1985.