Life Travel

'Barrie Bullet' train a piece of history 0

MIRIAM KING, QMI Agency
From left, George Allison, Shirley and Hugh White got together earlier this year, to reminisce about riding the "Barrie Bullet", and then the GO Train, into Toronto, in the '70s and '80s. MIRIAM KING/QMI Agency

From left, George Allison, Shirley and Hugh White got together earlier this year, to reminisce about riding the "Barrie Bullet", and then the GO Train, into Toronto, in the '70s and '80s. MIRIAM KING/QMI Agency

In 2012, GO Train Service celebrates its 45th Anniversary, and its 30th year of providing service north along the "Newmarket Subdivision", the line that links Barrie, Ont. and Toronto.

But before there was GO, there was "the Barrie Bullet."

In 1972, CN Rail was mandated to run a commuter train on the line, running one train south in the morning, and one train north at night. In 1978, the service was transferred to VIA Rail - and by the time the train service north of Bradford was cancelled in 1982, the trains were 4 cars long, filled with groups that made the daily commute, and developed long-lasting friendships.

Hugh White drove from Tottenham to King City, to catch the "Bullet" - and says it was a totally different era in those days. For one thing, smoking was permitted on board.

"Two of the cars were smoking and two of the cars were non-smoking," Hugh remembers - and when he says "smoking," he means the air was blue with cigarette smoke, and it was hard to see down to the end of the car.

And it wasn't just smoking. Passengers brought their own "liquid refreshments." Says Hugh, "In the old days, boozing was rampant... but it was discrete."

"It was more than discrete. It was hidden," says his wife Shirley. Alcohol wasn't permitted and if a conductor spotted booze, he'd have to act. "We couldn't them in trouble."

Hugh and Shirley met on the commuter train, where they got to know another regular, George Allison. The trio, and Allison's wife Marilyn, have stayed in touch and continue to be friends.

"We got to know each other very well," says George. "Everybody used to sit in the same seats." They would play cards, do crossword puzzles, hold competitions - and celebrate. "We would always celebrate Wednesdays, and we would always celebrate Fridays... Christmas... Birthdays."

At one point, instructors from Seneca College offered courses in Computer Basics and Photography, to the commuters. "We took a course every morning on the way down, and we ended up going to Seneca College and writing our exam. We all passed," says George. "The Toronto Star wrote it up as the 'Brain Train'."

When the government cancelled VIA trains 146 and 147, George wrote a mock Obituary notice for the rail service, "killed by one quick but premeditated slash of the axe at the hand of one Jean Luc Pepin." The riders, and even regular conductors who booked off for the day, gathered at Union Station on September 3, 1982 for a funeral procession - complete with coffin, mourning widow dressed in black, and a piper. The procession rode the train north - "The entire train was a party," says George - and disembarked in Bradford, to attend a "memorial service" and wake at The Village Inn.

The riders also picketed the loss of their train at Union Station. They had the placards but, as George notes, "We were all office workers, white collar - in suits."

"The people from the media finally said, could you make some noise? They asked us if we could at least chant," laughs Shirley. So they began chanting, "Save Our Train."

Between the media coverage of the "funeral," the image of office workers picketing, and the actions of a group of high-powered King City lawyers, unhappy at losing their ride/social-club-on-wheels, the pressure was on - and the Province capitulated, providing GO train service to Bradford, in 1982.

The camaraderie and the hijinks continued. There was the time the riders placed an anatomically-correct male blow-up doll in the men's room. And the time one regular dressed up as Santa, handed out presents, shook hands with all the men, and kissed all the pretty girls.

There were plenty of pranks played on the GO Inspectors, but fortunately, says Shirley, "they had a wonderful sense of humour... They used to draw straws to get our train, because they found it so funny!"

Everybody knew everybody - and on occasion, delays on the train line would turn into overnight parties at a commuter's house, something that would make non-commuting spouses "furious!" says Marilyn.

The riders happily got back into their usual groove, especially after service was once again extended to Barrie in 1990. However, in 1993 cuts announced by NDP Premier Bob Rae resulted in the end of Barrie service. The trains came no further north than Bradford - a situation that remained until December 17, 2007 when GO train service to Barrie was restored, for the first time in 15 years.

Things are different today. GO runs 5 trains in the morning, 5 in the evening, with 6 or 7 cars per train - carrying an estimated 7,500 commuters daily - and by the time the trains reach Newmarket, "they are standing room only," says Shirley."It's a totally different atmosphere. It isn't a social atmosphere any more."

"It's no fun," agrees Hugh, sipping his martini. "It's just transportation now."


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