There are times when I feel very lucky to live in Entwistle. Entwistle, like a lot of small towns, has a railway running through it. In these days, the railway seems to be a dying mode of transportation. The grain elevators get torn down and the railway gets torn up soon after. If you’re lucky, the railway will be sold to a short line operator, who’ll keep it running for the locals. But a fate like that will never befall Entwistle. For you see, Entwistle’s railway is the CN main line. It’s the main artery from the wheat fields of Western Canada to the Pacific coast. It’s the second main line that was built, earning it a place in the history books. When you hear people talk about the main line, well, that’s it right there! Slicing through Entwistle!
As you can imagine, I’ve seen quite a few trains pull through town in my lifetime. And it always seems to be the same fare. A stark CN locomotive, in its bleak black, white, and red colour scheme. Following that will be the standard rolling stock: grain cars, box cars, flat cars, cars carrying cars, and all until the unceremonious end. I still miss cabooses, but that’s a rant for another day. It’s always the same, causing me to crave something different. And that’s why my heart always skips a beat when the Via comes barrelling through.
There’s no doubt that passenger rail service is on a steady decline in Canada. Via hardly services anywhere anymore. This is why I’m lucky to live on the main line. The Via still comes rocketing through town, carrying tourists who’ve arrived in Edmonton on a rail excursion through the Rocky Mountains and out to the west coast. It is the only Via that runs through western Canada anymore, and it slices right through my hometown.
The Via always seemed so fanciful when I was kid. Via ran shorter trains back then, and they were faster, too. The colour scheme was blue and gold back then, and their locomotives even boasted a different-sounding air horn. You’d hear that distinctive horn, then this blue rocket would streak through town, and then disappear over the horizon. I always longed to be on that train as it disappeared down the horizon, and I only ever got to do it once.
I’m a grown man, now, but I still long to see the Via come sailing through town. And, as I am a grown man, I have modern technology that can help make it happen.
The Via used to stop in Entwistle’s neighbouring town of Evansburg. Service stopped about 10 years ago, but Via’s schedule, freely available on their website, still lists when the Via should be stopping in Evansburg. From there, all I have to do is subtract a couple of minute, and I have a reasonable estimation of when she should be coming through Entwistle. With this data in hand, I was ready to do some trainspotting.
I’ve got my usual spot all staked out here in Entwistle. There’s a tunnel under the railway and highway that takes you to the part of town known as “the other side of the tracks.” That’s what a rough-and-tumble town Entwistle is. There isn’t a wrong side of the tracks, just the other side. However, there is a bit of a neutral zone that exists between the railway and the highway. Once you cross the tracks into the neutral zone, you have a great vantage point that allows you to see all the way down the tracks. You can’t see up the tracks, though, due to a bend.
I had been trying all week, but having no luck. Despite having the Via Rail schedule, I was finding it to be greatly inaccurate. But, ever dauntless, on Saturday morning I set out to try again. I made it to my vantage point. According to the schedule, the west-bound Via should be rolling through at 10:10 AM. My watch said 10:05. I’d wait about 20 minutes, and then go home. I made myself comfortable, and began to wait.
In all my years of watching trains go by, I’ve picked up on certain signs to watch for that a train was coming close. There’s the obvious ones, like if you listen really, really carefully, you can hear the distant train whistles as it crosses nearby crossings. Listen even carefully, and you can hear the mighty diesel heartbeat of its locomotive. That one’s a bit unreliable in the Entwistle no man’s land though, as it can easily be confused for a big rig cruising down the highway. But my favourite sign of a nearby train has to be when the rails start singing.
I first noticed this in Japan, when I thought it was coming from the overhead power lines. But no, it was the rails themselves. As a train draws closer, the rails will begin to sing. It’s a high pitched sound, “ti-tew, ti-tew.” It sounds rather like a Star Wars laser gun. When you hear that sound, you know the train is damned close.
I stood by the tracks, straining my ears, trying to pick up on any of these signs. But I was hearing nothing. It was typical unusual Alberta weather. The sun was hot and driving the heat well beneath my skin, but a sign of dark clouds rolling in from the west let me know that rain was imminent. My watch said 10:25. The twenty minutes had passed. No Via. I stepped out of the no man’s land and began heading home.
But then, as I was halfway down the street, I heard a very faint, very distant train whistle. To the east. Something was coming west. I went through the map in my mind. The nearest railway crossing was probably 5 minutes out of town. Go home, or wait 5 more minutes? I turned around and sprinted back into no man’s land.
I renewed my post with a heightened anticipation. Something was coming from the east. I knew this now for certain. I sat and I waited. And waited. And waited. And then…the rails began to sing. My head jerked to the east and there, rounding the bend, was the golden front end of a Via locomotive.
I watched it as three big locomotives rolled past me. I shielded my ears from the rumble, and hoped that the engineer wouldn’t try to make me jump by blowing the horn. The locomotives soon passed by, and I was now watching the passenger cars. Those lovely, elongated, silver and blue passenger cars. I was close enough to read the names of the cars: the Edith Cavel, the Laurier, the Donaldson.
I was elated. I jumped for joy. I waved to the passengers. A few waved back. I may have even sung a few bars of Can’t Buy Me Love. The trains are longer now, but it still seemed to rocket through town and disappear beyond the horizon as before. But this time, as soon as the way was clear, I leapt onto the rails and waved to the end of the train. And then…she was gone.
I began the slow walk home. I was now in a very good mood. I knew that someday, very soon, I would once again be on the train as it disappeared beyond the horizon. And it’s something I’ll always be able to do, as long as the main line slices through Entwistle.