Boarding and Leaving the Train

Boarding the train

The other day I watched people boarding a VIA Rail train. The Club Car passengers were given a newspaper and shown right through to their car. The coach passengers lined up in an orderly fashion. When the time came, their tickets were checked and they moved forward briskly to the train. They were shown to the correct car and assisted in boarding by a very helpful train crew. Everyone found a seat and the whole process was accomplished in a spirit of calm tranquillity. The only disconcerting part of the proceedings was when VIA switches from shore power leaving the clients in the dark for several minutes. However, this wouldn't be the first time that VIA passengers have been left in the dark.

Contrast this with some commuter trains in Britain. The passengers are lined up five deep on the platform before the train arrives. When it does, there is a surge forward and much elbowing to get into the train. It isn't exactly open warfare but watch those guys with the bowler hats. They seem to have the sharpest elbows and you will soon find out how they use a rolled umbrella.

Boarding a long distance train in France is a precise exercise. There is a diagram showing the plan of the train and the passenger must ascertain where his car is in advance. One is given a reservation ticket and requested to wait at the precise place on the platform. The train arrives and the correct door is precisely on the spot marked. There is very little time to get on. Certainly there isn't enough time to search for the correct car because station stops are so short.

One point of similarity between Canada, Britain and France is that everybody enters through the doors which have been thoughtfully provided for this purpose. Travelling in Italy a few years ago I found that this is not always the case. Long distance passengers travelled in pairs. One fought his way on to the train leaving his accomplice on the platform. The window would then be rolled down and the suitcases, boxes, baskets, chickens and the odd child would be thrown in through the window. The train was, by then, impossibly full so the accomplice was manhandled in through the window.

In Ecuador, things are a little different in that there is a shortage of rolling stock such that there is not enough room for everyone within the train. This problem is solved by allowing the overflow to ride on the roof. The ladders on the ends of the boxcars are provided for this purpose. The train crew moves along the top of the train to check tickets. Riding the roof can be a lot of fun provided that you look out for the odd low flying power cable which can make life difficult.

One should be careful about riding the roof. I heard the supposedly true story about the traveller on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway who was thrown off the train because he was travelling on the roof of a first class car with a third class ticket.

However, the most amazing method of entering a train I have ever witnessed was in China recently. We had a little time before the departure of our train at Wuhan so I was able to watch the boarding formalities of the previous train.

Soft class passengers were separated from hard class passengers. When the train was ready they were led out from the plush soft class waiting room to the soft class car. There were some arguments with the sleeping car attendants but, once in possession of the plastic token, the traveller took his appointed place in the train. With the soft class passengers taken care of an uneasy calm descended upon the scene. The lull before the storm.

But where were the hard class passengers? At first I couldn't see any. However, at one end of the platform there was a large enclosure like a cattle pen with a high iron rail fence. The gates were locked. From the other side came a babble of pent up human emotions. Making sure the platform was clear, a brave railway uniform unlocked the gate and the hard class travellers descended upon the unsuspecting train. Suddenly there was a great wave of wild-eyed humanity running at full speed down the platform. The swiftest would have the best choice of place in the train. Soon open warfare broke out in the fight to gain entry to the train. The train crew just stood back and let people fight it out. About half entered through the doors and the rest scrambled through the windows. People were carrying two baskets hanging from a yoke-like stick. At first glance this would seem to be a difficult way to do it but the stick was used as a sort of battering ram.

Tempers became frayed and the minor squabbles developed into full fledged fist fights. Eventually the train crew were able to regain control and with a struggle the doors were closed. As the train left many looking out were wiping the blood from their noses. Several managed to get in through the windows but had not found enough room for their entire bodies. It was interesting to see a train leaving a station with assorted legs and arms waving from the windows. Some didn't make the train at all. These were the more pugilistic who were more interested in fighting. The police eventually broke up the fights long after the train had left.

So next time you take the train to Montreal just remember how lucky you are even though it can be a little tame at times. You have an appointed seat and you don't even have to fight to get it.

And they don't even make you ride the roof!

Leaving the train

One of the more annoying aspects of train travel in Canada is the amount of time it takes to actually get off the train at the end of the journey. The train will glide to a smooth halt and everybody is up and standing in the aisle anxious to get off to find the last taxi. But there is a delay as the crew finally manage to get the doors open - and there are never enough doors. The crew exercise control over the passengers by dictating the number of doors to be opened and their location. It is even worse in the Club car where the stewards put the luggage on the ground first and then stand around hopefully.

Many years ago I was in charge of a busy suburban railway station on the outskirts of London. Every evening I would witness the antics of the returning commuters who were always in a hurry. The doors of the train could be opened from the inside and the train would enter the platform with every door open. As the train coasted to a halt the adventurous would throw themselves out and manage to stay upright by running hard. The upshot of this was that the train was half empty before it had even come to a halt.

This system worked well as long as you didn't get in the way of the flying commuters! One Christmas we had had a special train of parcels on the main platform just before the evening rush period. We had no option than to empty the baggage cars on to the platform. The result was that there was a ten foot mountain of mail along the platform with only a narrow walk way along the edge of the platform. The rush was interesting that evening! A train would arrive and the doors would be opened as usual. Out would dash the commuters but the look of intense concentration would soon change to one of horror as they saw the mountain of mail. Many had no option than to hit the mail and some finished up several feet in the air.

Come to think of it, although getting off a VIA train may be annoying at times, it is certainly better than finishing up atop a mountain of mail!

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, November 1990.

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