In the good old days, prior to 1987, passenger train users in Chapleau simply called or stopped by the Canadian Pacific Railway yard office, and asked, "When is the train coming in?"
Railway employees knew that "the train" was either Via Rail's Number 1 or Number 2, the daily passenger trains on the CPR's main transcontinental line. In earlier years of course, more trains were running, especially in the summer months.
Everyone in Chapleau who used passenger train service knew the yard office phone number, and the information would be forthcoming immediately from an employee on duty. It was a service the community took for granted since telephones were first installed in 1924 -- if you didn't have a phone, you simply stopped by the yard office.
Well, those were the good old days. Via Rail, which operated the passenger train service changed its policies. The train traveller was no longer able to contact the station for train information, and tickets were no longer available from the railway company office which became an added inconvenience to the travelling public.
For years, anyone wishing to travel from Chapleau by train simply went to the office to buy a ticket It was a service that the historic railway town took for granted. But, change was in the air, and by January 1990, Bobby Fortin, Mark Mizuguchi, Ray Brunette, Walter Telik and Shane Black were part of the last Chapleau crew on the Via Rail passenger train on the CPR main line. It was cancelled.
However, in 1987, let's assume it was 11:05 p.m. and you have received news that makes it imperative you are in Toronto the following day. Under the new service, you call Via Rail's toll free number to obtain a reservation. You would be advised that the Via Rail reservation office is closed from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. but if you want Toronto arrival times you are to call another toll free number.
It is now about eight hours before the train's scheduled arrival in Chapleau, never mind Toronto. If, on time, the train is somewhere around Thunder Bay, and any railroader would tell you that lot can happen before the train ever reaches Chapleau.
You decide to call the yard office for train information only to be advised that it no longer deals with Via Rail and the local Via Rail representative will be available at the station one hour before the train'a arrival. No longer will CPR provide information as Via Rail has its own employee.
This may sound like a simple matter, but in a railway community, this signified a change going back to the 1880s when CPR passenger service was first established. This policy change obviously affected train travellers in communities across Canada.
The CPR employee tells you that he/she is sorry but "we are no longer able to provide that information", and you are advised to call the Via Rail toll free number. A recording tells you the train is on time.
So, based on the information provided from the recording, you arrive at the station around 7 a.m. only to find that the Via agent is not there. No wonder as the train is about four hours late and the agent is not on duty until one hour before the train's arrival.
The Via agent does arrive one hour before the train's late arrival but you have been waiting all this time simply because a recording from a closed office told you the train was on time --- obviously it had been updated during the night.
When this change happened I was writing a general interest column for The Daily Press in Timmins from Chapleau. As an aside I started my career as a daily newspaper career as a reporter with the Timmins newspaper 52 years ago in 1964 on September 1.
I came across a copy of the column I wrote about the Change at Via recently and decided to share it as an example of declining service at a time when technology was evolving rapidly towards instant communications. Never mind the cancellation of passenger train service on the CPR line three years later.
While working on the column in 1987, I chatted with a CPR employee who commented: "Train service was not the greatest before they took the business away from CP Rail but did Via ever think of asking people for their opinion."
And although this person did not know it at the time, this comment kind of summed it all up: "I am truly beginning to believe that we do live in the back woods now without even an escape route to the cities by train. Yes, we all know that Via, our government run railway is very much in debt, but must Via cut costs by cutting service too".
In the past few years, there has been an effort by a group in Northeastern Ontario to have regular passenger train service re-introduced on the CPR main line, but so far, no success. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org