DIARY: Looking for an old train and the Anne of Green Gables author’s house on Ontario’s Oak Ridges Moraine for an episode of Escapes with Nigel.
Arriving at Uxbridge’s historic “witches hat” railway station early one morning this past summer, we could already hear the big diesel locomotive thundering away in the yard. That was a relief.
York-Durham Heritage Railway president and engine driver Denis was taking me on a private tour of his domain, in preparation for filming another episode of my tv series, “Escapes with Nigel.” Firing up the big 1950s locomotive takes quite a while, for engine 1310 is a temperamental old beast. The evening before co-ordinator Rose, the only actual employee of the railway as all the rest are volunteers, had called with the bad news that our shoot might have to be cancelled. There were some problems with the engine and the volunteer engineers were working on it, but there was no guarantee it could be fixed.
So when we pulled into the yard, with the full complement of our video crew waiting, it was an excellent sign that the engine was running. Denis showed me around the cab and where the controls were located. Once we got going, he promised to let me drive the train.
Meanwhile, we had to get set up and record some bits and pieces before the real passengers arrive for their lunch in the dining car and journey towards Stouffville and back. Ron, the jolly ticket agent, showed us around the station and told us its history. In what used to be the luggage room, they’ve collected a goodly assortment of railroading impedimenta, from discarded rail spikes to authentic Canadian Pacific lanterns. It’s not quite a museum but there’s lots of labels so passengers can wander around on their own to enjoy the artifacts of a bye-gone era.
The fortunes of the Uxbridge railway line have had their ups and downs since the first tracks were laid in 1871 and finally abandoned in the early 1990s. More than 140 years ago the first passenger-carrying narrow-gauge railway in North America, The Toronto and Nipissing Railway, arrived in Uxbridge and for over a decade the town was the company’s headquarters. In the late 1880s the line was converted to standard gauge and eventually leased to The Grand Trunk Railway, which dominated transportation in Eastern Canada and the US. Grand Trunk built the distinctive station in 1904 and the line was transferred to Canadian National Railways in 1920. North of Uxbridge the line was abandoned about 20 years ago, but the dedicated volunteers of the York-Durham Heritage Railway re-opened the line south to Stouffville in 1996 and have made it a popular train ride ever since.
Engine 1310 was acquired from a US railroad after lengthy service across the eastern states and was now ready to pull the restored dining car, a baggage car and a caboose on a special trip to the junction at Goodwood. Some of the passengers were in wheel chairs, but they’d get a grand view of the scenery from the baggage car, where the doors would be left open.
Promptly at the appointed hour, the train left the station, and we were given our own carriage to conduct our interviews. We met up with Rose again, who gave us the lowdown on how people can buy individual fares for their regular Sunday trains, or book the whole train for a special group. Kids love the train ride especially, and kid-themed rides take place throughout the year. In December special Santa trains will be running. When Rose is not working at her part-time job co-ordinating bookings, she’s also a keen volunteer, and is responsible for painting the recently restored caboose. Our conversation is interrupted a few times by branches and brush alongside the track. Keeping the tracks clear is a constant operation and a paid crew is coming in a few days with bush clearing machinery that runs on the tracks to keep the undergrowth in check.
From our carriage we get a splendid view of the bucolic Ontario landscape and moraine country, only occasionally spoiled by huge gravel pits. We barely see a house, though we hear the horn announce our passing a remote crossings.
At Goodwood, while the train crew are getting ready for the return journey, I finally join Denis in the driver’s compartment. It was a tight fit with a second engineer, the cameraman and sound man, but somehow we all squeezed in. Rather tentatively, I asked Denis if I could blow the horn. Of course, he replied, at the crossing coming up, give it one long and two shorts. Even from inside the cab the haunting wail of the train horn is an iconic Canadian sound, quite different from the Euro-horn sound of British trains. Seconds after my first efforts met with approval, Denis cues me to blow the horn again. It’s a double crossing apparently. Since none of the crossings have gates, the YDHR sends out a flagman in advance to ensure traffic stops. Our second camera crew followed him around to capture the action from trackside. As well as the cacophony of horns, the warning bell rings constantly from half a mile or so before each crossing. This train certainly has all the bells and whistles.
Peering through the driver’s window, along the body of the giant engine, I realized that we were actually hanging outside the tracks, an unusual sensation going round corners when the tracks disappear from sight. That’s the reason for the second engineer, Denis points out, who is keeping a safety watch from the left hand seat. Coming down a long gradient, Denis is applying the brakes most of the way, but up the next slope he invites me to move the throttle up a notch. From notch two to three, then taking it up another notch until we were thundering along at an astounding 25 mile per hour. Can warp speed seven be far beyond?
Too soon, we are back in Uxbridge, and Denis and Ron co-ordinate over their radios to ensure a perfect line up with the platform. It’s been a grand adventure and a fine lunch besides.