I grew up in Cote St pop over to this site. Luc, a Montreal neighbourhood surrounded on three sides by train tracks. I remember swinging in a small park at the end of my street, counting the train cars and singing their labels to the

rhythm of their clickety-clack.

(The first trains in England provoked anxiety due to their speed. Running at the unbelievable rate of 30 mph, they were thought to potentially damage the human body, which wasn’t built for that speed, obviously!)

The whistle of a train evokes something eerie, the ghosts of its travellers and legends of stopped time.

Trains always meant travel to me, more so than planes. I saved babysitting money for four years for a plane trip, but travelling by train was immediate and visible at ground level, easy escape to somewhere else. When I was fifteen, I went by train to Kenora where all the teens in my youth group met, travelling by train from the east and the west of Canada. Later, when I went to university, I saw my mother recede, small in the background, as I left home for good.

My parents had different associations with trains, more to do with cattle cars and concentration camps which they had experienced in their early teens. It only occurred to me as an adult how strange it was that this train-encircled area had developed postwar as a Jewish enclave. There must have been a lot of young parents sufficiently motivated by the affordable cost of housing to put up with being freaked out by the sound of trains.

And here I am, strangely, in love with trains and, being a writer of historical fiction, with time, which itself owes a debt to trains. Standardized time, on my mind as I lost an hour of sleep this weekend switching over to DST, was a consequence of train travel. Before the railroad, every town had its own time and its own clock. People travelled slower then, more individually by coach or cart or foot, and goods travelled by boat, their destinations limited by sea and river. But coordinating trains requires schedules, and Sir Sanford Fleming, a Canadian engineer proposed standardized time zones. In 1851, he designed the three penny beaver, Canada’s first postage stamp.

Now, I live a block from railroad tracks. Just far enough so that my house doesn’t shake (unless there’s an unusually heavy load), and close enough to hear the whistle. I still go to the end of my street to watch them. I’ve been known to wave to the conductor. They’ve been known to wave back.

The Irony of Time and Trains
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4 thoughts on “The Irony of Time and Trains

  • March 13, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    Lilian I see we have a love in common! Beautifully written, as always, I loved your article. I have travelled by train from the East Coast of Canada to the West Coast on more than one occassion and much prefer this mode of travel!

    Thank you, Lilian, for that wee window into your life!


    • March 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Thanks, Jackie! You see so much more travelling by train, don’t you?

  • March 16, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    I do love a train whistle. And there are some great novels that include train whistles and the passage of trains while the characters stay at home. Of course, I can’t think of them now, but one was by John Irving. My first short story, written in 7th grade and for which I won a prize, included a train ride. Finally, I have long wanted to take the train from LA to SF. Still haven’t done it.

    • March 18, 2016 at 9:12 am

      I hope you do!


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Lilian Nattel

Lilian Nattel