Via ads miss the romance

In an age when distances are measured in air miles, one might be considered a Luddite to travel by train.Except for the classic journey across the Prairies and over the Rockies (taken mostly by Americans and Germans these days), there is...

In an age when distances are measured in air miles, one might be considered a Luddite to travel by train.

Except for the classic journey across the Prairies and over the Rockies (taken mostly by Americans and Germans these days), there is little in contemporary Canadian train travel to capture the imagination.

In Europe, passenger travel by rail has recaptured the imagination by introducing the element of speed into the experience of getting from city to city.

As a recent show at Toronto’s Design Exchange has demonstrated, France’s tgv (Train ˆ Grande Vitesse) is designed like a projectile that has more in common with a Patriot missile than with anything you might see chugging along a railroad track.

And, of course, Japan has its famous bullet train, with an engine that recalls the nose of a Boeing 747.

Both of these examples are pragmatic responses to a need for speed.

Inter-urban travel in Europe and Japan is short enough that a train trip can actually compete with air travel for speed and convenience.

But for the Canadian business traveller, the idea of taking a four-hour train trip to a destination that could be reached in an hour by plane is ludicrous.

Even high-speed rail could not compete with the ease of air travel in this country.

So it is that our passenger trains continue to be tugged by diesel engines that look like they were designed by someone with a Meccano set.

Angular and boxy, their lines are governed more by the motors they house than by any sense of aerodynamics. They are muscular hulks whose brute function is to drag weight along a track rather than to glide effortlessly along ribbons of steel.

When coupled to their payloads, they appear to have been designed with no idea of what the rest of the train was going to look like.

The passenger coaches, on the other hand, seem to have been shaped with a feeling for movement.

When linked together, they appear seamless and sleek. Their outer surfaces are curved and their edges radiused to embrace the rush of oncoming air rather than to plow through it like a bulldozer.

The interior of the Via coach has also come a long way in recent years.

Seats have been redesigned for maximum comfort, and they have been upholstered in a color palette that is far less abrasive than that which may be found in some aircraft compartments.

The ride is surprisingly smooth, which indicates that the undercarriage has been redesigned to absorb shock and stabilize roll as the train hurtles forward.

It is even smooth enough to allow industrious writers to plunk away on their laptops.

It is, in fact, an altogether comfortable and relaxing experience to be seated on a Via coach speeding through the countryside, and if you haven’t already guessed it, that is exactly what we are doing at the moment.

Even on a trip between Toronto and Windsor, Ont., which traverses some of the flattest terrain this country has to offer, there is an abundance of things to see, things never witnessed from the driver’s seat of a car bolting down southern Ontario’s major freeway, Highway 401.

For one thing, the track is cut close to the terrain, and you have the sense of being enveloped by the countryside, rather than passing by it.

As you move through towns and villages, you feel as if you are in the backyards of the people who live there. And as you glide through the countryside, (are there really that many streams and rivers in southwestern Ontario?) the skin of the train seems to brush right up against the branches of the trees.

Most of all, you have the feeling you are actually covering distance in real time, with a sense of purpose and direction that you just don’t get in a passenger jet, which always seems as if it is standing completely still above the clouds.

If this sounds like a yearning for romance, it is.

If rail travel in Canada cannot keep up with the demands of the business traveller, it might as well make an appeal to the casual traveller or the tourist.

And not only to the foreign visitor, who has a wad of cash to burn on the transcontinental, but to the ordinary Canadian who is just going home for the weekend.

There is an opportunity here for a real P.T. Barnum sales pitch, but if you look at the way Via markets its product, you get no sense of the sheer pleasure of passenger rail travel.

The posters, ads and brochures are peopled by models with glued-on smiles, and the pasted-in panoramas make it obvious the interior shots were taken while the coach was in the station and not on the move.

This is one of the last great escapes from a world in which the time to enjoy one’s surroundings has all but evaporated.

Would that Via could romance the rails with the same panache as A.M. Cassandre did, so long ago, in his famous poster for the ‘ƒtoile du Nord.’

Then, air miles would be relegated to the back of cereal boxes where they belong.