Toronto to Ottawa in the Ice Storm

I found myself stranded at the airport in Toronto very late on the evening of Wednesday, 7 January. An ice storm had been raging in eastern Ontario and Quebec since Monday evening and there didn't seem to be any end in sight. I took a look at the long lines of stranded passengers in the airport, made a reservation at the Royal York Hotel and took a cab downtown. I got into my room around 00:30 early Thursday and decided that the train was the best way of getting me back to Ottawa. The VIA reservation office was closed but I fired up my lap top computer, logged on to the VIA home page, and made a reservation for the next train to Ottawa. I went to bed very late but secure in the knowledge that I had seat 13 in the club car to Ottawa on VIA train 40 leaving at 09:00 on Thursday morning.

I was able to get a good sleep and had plenty of time to walk to Union Station and pay for my ticket. We boarded the train in leisurely fashion and the train left Toronto on time. It was raining but there seemed nothing untoward. The club car crew were very pleasant and very soon I was enjoying a breakfast/brunch of scrambled eggs accompanied by drinks.

We made good time to Belleville and there was no sign at all of an ice storm. I wondered whether the media reports were exaggerated. By Napanee there was some ice to be seen and it was very heavy by the time we reached Kingston. The power was out in about 80 per cent of Kingston - and the freezing rain was now coming down in earnest.

As we left Kingston we experienced the first of many delays - a rule 564 order which required us to run at 15 miles per hour between signals. On the north side of the track some trees had been bodily uprooted and fallen down close to the track. After the slow running things picked up again and we ran pretty well to Gananoque.

Things began to get a lot worse. We were running on the north track and passed a passenger train and three freights, all stationary on the south track. At one point a tree came crashing down on the train as we passed. Luckily it only brushed us. After several stops to clear the track or clean switches we made it into Brockville. Brockville had no power at all and it was a bad sign to see the two engineers skate down the platform to huddle with the conductor. After a lengthy delay it was decided to terminate our train and return to Toronto. We were given the choice of leaving the train there or returning to Toronto. I didn't fancy my chances in Brockville even though arrangements had been made to open the Mental Hospital for stranded passengers!

I reasoned I was safe in the club car. I was warm and would stay that way as long as the locomotive had fuel. I was also curious to see how they were going to back the train all the way to Kingston and decided to stay in my seat. Toronto bound passengers joined us and added to the camaraderie among the passengers. A change of plan was then announced. We would try to get to Ottawa. A train would shortly be arriving from Smiths Falls and we would switch out of its way then proceed on our way. The Toronto bound passengers left us and skated back to the shelter of the station while the Ottawa passengers celebrated with a cocktail.

The journey between Brockville and Smiths Falls was marked by many stops to clear trees from the tracks and at one place we were quite close to a downed power cable. The club car crew announced, to a round of applause, that they had "found" dinner for us. The train would not be going beyond Ottawa and they would use the meals that had been put on board for the Montreal leg.

So it was that I found myself with a glass of white wine, eating sushi, Cornish game hen and a VIA trademark truffle, travelling slowly through a surreal landscape where every branch and blade of grass was encased in an inch of ice. What's more I was warm and safe!

We passed through a pitch dark Smiths Falls without stopping. Everyone was pleased to see the lights of Nepean indicating that our journey was nearing an end. We had to stop to clean switches at Federal and Wass but everyone was happy to be arriving. The conductor walked through our car and received a standing ovation from the passengers who well understood how hard he and the rest of the crew had worked to get us to our destination safely and in relative comfort. I didn't know it at the time but this was the last train into Ottawa for at least a week!

I wonder what happened to the very important person with a cellular phone who left us at Brockville to get a taxi to take him to Ottawa? I certainly would not have wanted to make that trip!

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline. February 1998.

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