What did you want to do for a living when you were six years old? I wanted to be an engineer. And I’m not talking about a person who builds bridges or digs oil wells, I’m talking about a person who drives trains. I don’t know why, probably because trains were one of the few truly magical things in my small town. I mean, it was easy to hop in the car and go down the road to Edmonton. But, if you truly wanted to go someplace, you had to figure out someway to get on to one of those great mechanized beasts that roar through town. And with a train station just over the river, it seemed to be my portal to the world. How could I not want to be an engineer?
This has led to my lifelong fascination with railways. It’s not something I talk about often. It’s probably something that a lot of my friends don’t even know about. But I just love trains. Take an old steam locomotive and have it chug its way through a tunnel in the mountains. Take a sleek silver Via, and picture it traveling over the highest bridges, with majestic waterfalls below. I tell you, it is a beautiful site. This is a fascination I seem to have been re-living lately.
True, I am fascinated with trains, but I never had a train set. My brother had one when we were growing up, and my sister’s boyfriend got her one for Christmas. Weather the fact I never got one was a cruel twist of fate, or just typical middle child neglect, I’ll never know. The fact that I never got a train set when I was growing up always seems to peak its head when I visit the store Kites and Other Delights in West Edmonton Mall. It always seemed to be a railroader’s dream, with its wide array of track, tunnel molds, guides on how to build the models, and many expensive locomotives in a glass display case. I got home, this love of the iron road strong again in my veins, and I had a brainstorm. My sister is currently in Europe, and the train set her boyfriend got her for Christmas was lying boxed up in her room. Since she’s not using it right now, I took out of the box and set it up on a table in the basement. All I could manage on that table was a simple oval, but it was great. I could just sit there and watch it go round and round for hours.
The last time I had gotten this worked up over railroads was a year ago. I had gone with my family to Fort Edmonton Park, and there they have a working streetcar. It’s not that big of a leap to go from trains to streetcars. Both run on rails. They are both a wonderfully environmentally friendly way of getting around. If anything, the streetcar is the little brother of the railroad. But I digress. I was boarding the streetcar, and they had the little box set up where you put in your exact change. I, naturally, put in a couple of nickels (you don’t have to, your streetcar ticket is free with park admission). In return, the conductor gave me a ticket which told me all about the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. They are the historical society in charge of operating and maintaining the streetcars. Not only do they have four running on their line in the park, but in the summer they’ve got one running over the High Level Bridge. They made headlines recently when they put forth a proposal to build a new streetcar line in Edmonton’s river valley, from the park to Fox Drive. After some poking around online, I found their website, where it is revealed that not only do they have the four in Fort Edmonton and the one on the high Level Bridge, but they’ve also got three more fully operational ones, and are currently working on restoring about a dozen more. Just a great little society, dedicated to preserving a part of railway history.
Actually, not to take a depressing turn, but it seems that the whole concept of the railway seems to be becoming something of history. In Alberta, grain elevators are being torn down left and right. The town across the river lost its rail service about three years ago, as did just about every town in Alberta. I checked Via’s website. The only towns left in Alberta that still have rail service are Edmonton and Jasper. I often wonder why people don’t like trains. When it comes to hauling freight, the train is a lot more economical and environmentally friendly than trucks. And you have to admit, rail travel has always had a certain romanticism about it. So why do only two towns have rail service? It is still my dream to one day hop the train and voyage to parts unknown. How come no one else wants to?
But for the time being, I’d have my sister’s train set, right? Afraid not. I had the express line going when I had a derailment. The locomotive hurled itself of the tracks, over the side of the table, and on to the nice soft concrete floor. Hoping for the best, I picked up the locomotive and placed it back on the tracks. The motor made a sound like a defective power drill. I noticed that the front hitch had broken completely off, and the rear hitch was bent out of proportion. And, the whole locomotive sits on its chassis with a tilt to the right. Not a promising prospect. It looked like my railroad was done. So, I boxed it back up and hoped to high heaven that my sister would not notice. She probably will if and when she reads, but confession is good for the soul, right?
It seems as though there are cosmic forces at play for the demise of the railroad. It is like the whole world does not want to be six anymore. Should I grow up, or keep dreaming my dream? Many of the small things I loved about railroads have long since withered and gone. First, the caboose went. Why put one at the end of a train when you could put on a little sensor box that puts people out of work? When I was six, that town with rail service had a beautiful little train station. When I was eight, the train station was torn down and replaced with an ATCO trailer. Now, the ATCO trailer is gone. The entire world has grown up. Or have they? Even though it only has two stops in the province, the Via still runs. And there’s always organizations like the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, making sure that railways always have a place. So I don’t have to grow up. Every once in a while, I can hop on a train and go. Every once in a while, I can sit by the tracks and watch a train go by, reminding myself why I wanted to do that when I was six. Come back next week, and I’ll tell you what I wanted to do when I was 12.