When we headed back to St. John’s from Port aux Basques, we had no sense of the trip being a part of history. We had come out to Port aux Basques as the west-bound part of the express train Caribou that ran on across Newfoundland. The nickname Newfie Bullet never appealed to me.
The year was 1969 and I was working as a waiter on the train. This day we weren’t actually working. We were dead-heading in the parlance of the railroads (movement of commercial vehicles in a non-revenue mode). We were coming back to St. John’s empty even as the westbound train was making its way with passengers towards Port aux Basques. It was July 1st and I was part of the last run of the passenger service across Newfoundland.
Somewhere on that, our eastbound train, we would have met the westbound Caribou. One train would have been on a siding to let that happen. I don’t know, but I’ll bet the engineers signalled this final encounter of eastbound and westbound. An era was coming to an end.
I was a summer relief waiter that year. I had risen to that position having spent a previous summer as a ‘pantry man.’ That would be like ‘kedgie’ on Newfoundland’s schooners; a general helper to the cook. Older readers will know. Our empty train ride in from Port aux Basques was pleasant. No passengers to serve. Just breakfast, lunch and dinner for ourselves; the crew. Still, we dressed to serve the meals. Black pants, white shirt, black necktie and a crisp, starched waiter’s jacket. Somewhere upstairs I still have the white jacket.
That was a funny year on the trains. CN had introduced a Roadcruiser bus service across the island of Newfoundland the previous year. It was an experiment. Newfoundlanders could choose. As it turns out, the Roadcruiser ridership was higher than the train ridership by a factor of five to one.
That was the whole ballgame there. Everybody liked everything about the trains except actually riding them on a regular basis. The Roadcruiser was much quicker and the late 1960s was a period when ‘quicker’ was a virtue.
‘An Easy Day’
My memories of my last ride on July 1st are but few. It wasn’t a big event to us on board the Caribou. It was an easy day and I remember having a final early breakfast as we neared St. John’s. I had sausages and eggs fried in about a half inch of fat. We cleaned up and everything was put away by the time we passed through the Donovans siding and headed into the St. John’s station.
The next day, July 2nd, the final Caribou would be in from Port aux Basques. Sometimes I still go down to the railway station and look at the locomotive on display. When the wind is right I think I can hear the whistle and smell the diesel.