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By John C. Turner

    Having ridden VIA Rail to Toronto on several occasions throughout the years, I would always take note whenever the Northlander would pass outside the window. It was hard not to. With its flashy yellow, blue, and white livery and unique passenger equipment, it was a constant reminder that there was still something in North America other than government-run national rail conglomerations. There was a railroad. Granted, Ontario Northland's passenger trains are in fact government funded; step aboard one of their trains and instantly you feel like you're doing something that's against the tide, almost adventurous. It's that same sort of feeling you get when you eat at one of those hole-in-the wall restaurants that only the locals know about, or when you take the scenic country drive rather than the interstate and then learn that it's just as fast. I'm sure it must be the same way that passengers back in the heyday of rail travel must have felt when they opted to take the Erie Lackawanna or the Nickel Plate instead of one of the more illustrious New York Central or Pennsylvania Railroad namesakes just because they knew better. And so it was, that I too felt an air of exhilaration when I found myself stepping aboard the Northlander in Cochrane, Ontario one chilly morning bound for Toronto's Union Station. (For more information on what to do in both Cochrane and Toronto, please refer to Part II of Jack Turner's article: Journey To Mid-America and Ontario.)

    I had little more than settled into my seat when the train pulled away from the Cochrane Station right on time at 8 o'clock. I was well rested from my night at the Station Inn, which is also owned and operated by Ontario Northland, and thanks to its immediate proximity to the platform, I was not a step out of breath. By this time, having shown my ticket to the amiable conductor, I was ready to do a bit of exploring onboard. One of the first things I noticed was the collective age of the clientele, with the vast majority of passengers appearing to be in their 20's and 30's. It was a pleasing sight to see members of my own generation taking to the rail, and this was a trend that would continue throughout the day with travelers getting on in small towns and connecting with Ontario Northland bus service.

The Station Inn and the southbound Northlander at Cochrane

Southbound Northlander on Canada Day in Cochrane

Ontario Northland B-unit serves as a power generator

The Northlander prepares to depart Cochrane on
July 1, 2010

An Ontario Northland coach

The author is the first to board his coach
(Photo by Jack M. Turner)

    The passenger cars themselves were very spacious and well kept up. Like the majority of long distance coaches, the seats were wide and comfortable with plenty of leg room, leg rests, and an excellent reclining function. What was pleasantly surprising, however, were the large panoramic windows and the fact that each row had its own electrical outlet: a utility I greatly enjoyed, having brought my laptop. Each car had two restrooms; with one being larger and handicapped-accessible and the other being a little smaller, but interestingly enough, only accessible from the vestibule. I actually noted throughout the ride the intelligence of this, as it cut back on all the unwanted distraction in the main seating area that a bathroom inevitably causes.

    Meanwhile, dense forests, rolling hills, and glassy lakes painted a rugged Northern Ontario landscape outside, interspersed with enough towns and wildlife to keep it interesting. About 45 minutes after departing Matheson just a couple of minutes late, we rolled into the small town of Swastika right on time. Whenever I looked over current and historical Ontario Northland timetables, I always found that name to be an odd one. Onboard, however, I was informed by the conductor of its correct pronunciation (Swas-tE-kah opposed to swas-te-ka) and a little bit about its history. Despite having been christened near the turn of the 20th century for a nearby goldmine, the town name understandably caused a lot of controversy during the Second World War. In fact, the Ontario government would go as far as to put up highway signs declaring the town to be called "Winston" (in honor of Winston Churchill), even though the city petitioned that it had been named well before the outbreak of the conflict. Therefore, in order to maintain their identity, locals would sneak out at night and replace the signs with their own, thus preserving the name to this day. Other stops in the late morning included the towns of Englehart, New Liskeard, and Cobalt; the founding of all of which were directly tied with the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (the predecessor to the O.N.R.).

The depot at Swastika

A steam locomotive at Englehart

A lake south of Cobalt

    At about noon, the Northlander arrived at its next stop in the tourist village of Temagami. The perfect compliment to the surrounding mountains and streams, the railway station was hard to miss with its brightly red and white colored chateau architecture. Not too long after departing the hamlet, still just a couple of minutes late, the lounge car attendant came over the PA announcing that the snack car would be closed soon before the train arrived at North Bay. Seeing my opportunity, I headed one car back to get lunch and to take a couple of quick pictures. Passing through the seating area to the snack counter, there were several passengers enjoying themselves and watching the movie Avatar which they had announced earlier would be showing. Again, the staff proved to be friendly, as the lounge car attendant was very congenial and quick to answer my questions about the operation. She explained that the crew switched off in North Bay, and would return that day to Cochrane on the northbound train. Our Northlander meanwhile would take on a new crew and continue south to Toronto.

The station at Temagami
(Photo by Jack M. Turner)

View from the train at Temagami

The Northlander's lounge car

    Settling back into my seat, I had time to enjoy my roast beef sandwich before our train pulled into the city of North Bay right on time at 1:25 in the afternoon. North Bay has always been a railroad town. It was already long established as an interchange point between the respective Canadian Pacific and Canadian Northern (later Canadian National) mainlines linking Western Canada with Montreal and the East by the time the T&NO selected the city to be its southern terminus. Today, North Bay serves as not only the location where the Northlander switches over to Canadian National tracks, but also as the headquarters of the Ontario Northland Railway. Its excellent hunting, fishing, and beaches along Lake Nipissing remain a strong draw to tourists to the area. In fact, that draw is so strong that it almost cost one passenger their ride to Toronto as the train nearly left them behind when it departed as scheduled after a ten minute layover. Luckily, for this one particular lady, the crew was too kind to leave her behind and the train returned about a mile to the station to let her back aboard.

The author's train arrives at North Bay
(Photo by Jack M. Turner)

The station at North Bay

    Continuing on, we sped by our northbound sister train about 40 minutes outside North Bay and passed through the towns of South River, Huntsville, Bainbridge, and Gravenhurst without much event, all the while running approximately 20 minutes behind schedule. The scenery itself began to change as it slowly transitioned in the afternoon from the wooded mountains and hills of Northern Ontario to more of the farmlands of the south. At 4:49 in the afternoon we joined the Canadian National transcontinental mainline, also used by VIA Rail's Canadian, at Washago. We would follow this line the rest of the way into Toronto. After about an hour and a half, the city skyline became visible in the distance and the Northlander wound through the suburbs and parks as the tracks aligned for the final approach into Union Station. To my surprise, despite being slightly behind schedule most of the day (never more than 20 minutes), our train actually arrived in Toronto almost an hour early. Collecting my things, I thanked the crew before setting out towards the grandiose main hall of Toronto Union Station and across the street to our lodging for the night at the Royal York Hotel. Besides its wonderful amenities and elegantly decorated rooms, the Royal York is by far the most convenient place to stay for anyone arriving into Toronto by train, and for rail enthusiasts, its direct ties to the Canadian Pacific make it a must visit.

A peaceful scene near Huntsville

Another lake near Huntsville

The Toronto skyline as seen from the Royal York Hotel

Toronto skyline at night

The elegant lobby of the Royal York Hotel

    All in all, my trip aboard Ontario Northland's Northlander southbound from Cochrane surpassed all of my expectations. The crew was very friendly, the food was good, the passenger cars were comfortable, and the scenery was diverse and intriguing. For anyone interested in exploring a bit in the backwoods of Ontario, or simply interested in taking a pleasant rail trip, the Northlander is an excellent train to ride. The entire time you are aboard, it will give you a sense of adventure, all the while without ever leaving the comfort of modern convenience and old fashioned hospitality.  For information, visit the Ontario Northland web site  

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