SAINT-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, Canada — From a glance at the map, this riverside city of 60,000, only 20 miles from Montreal in eastern Canada, is most of a continent away from Expo 86 on the Pacific coast in Vancouver, British Columbia.
As a matter of fact, however, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and its twin city of Lapraire are very much part of Expo and what is perhaps the greatest of all anniversary years in the story of train travel, the past and the promise of tomorrow.
It was 150 years ago this July 21 that a small wood-burning locomotive pulled two railroad cars 14 1/2 miles between Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu and Lapraire, as the economic elite of Montreal celebrated the beginning of Canadian railway history.
Fifty summertimes later, on July 4, 1886, the CP Pacific Express arrived in Port Moody in British Columbia 139 hours after leaving Montreal, to complete the first transcontinental trip by passenger train in Canada.
Both the 100th and 150th birthdays of Canadian rail transportation are celebrated in a special exhibit pavilion prepared for visitors to Expo by VIA Rail, Canada's passenger railway counterpart of Amtrak. VIA Rail is using the history of Canadian rail travel as a curtain raiser for a dramatic look into the tomorrow of train travel.
After more than two decades of decline in rail travel in the Automobile Age, VIA took over the passenger trains of Canada in 1977 and started the renaissance that is flowering this year. Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways now concentrate on freight trains.
Travelers to and from Expo have accelerated the renaissance by booking train accommodations at a record-setting pace.
And there's a timely incentive for taking the overnight train across the Rockies. Calgary will be host city for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Preparations are so far ahead of schedule that the slope facilities at Nakiska ski area near there can be previewed. The new Olympic Center in Calgary is open for simulated ski and bobsled runs for family fun, before visitors head off to such nearby all-year resorts as Banff and Lake Louise.
Bargain for Visitors
The reasonable rates and the buying power of the U.S. dollar in Canada help to explain why so many Californians and other south-of-the-border Westerners are dialing the VIA Rail toll-free number, (800) 665-0200.
The train leaves Vancouver at 3:30 p.m. and arrives in Calgary at 2:05 the next afternoon. A private room with bath would be $272 in Canadian dollars. That translates into $202 in U.S. currency. All trains have a gracious lounge and dining car.
Between Vancouver and Montreal the base fare for two people is $510 Canadian. A deluxe compartment with a private bathroom and beds that make up into a sofa and armchairs by day is another $404, a total of $914 in Canadian currency. That means U.S. $682.
When you get through to that 800 number, you'll be offered options to cut the cost even more by taking a smaller roomette or just two extra-wide seats that become curtained-off upper and lower beds.
Here in the countryside between Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Lapraire, just southeast from the St. Lawrence River and about the same distance from the borders of New York and Vermont, it's easy to recapture the excitement of that July 21 a century and a half ago.
First Leg by Ferry
From Lapraire, those first 14 1/2 miles of railroad track in Canada were linked to Montreal by ferryboat. Guests were already in a festive mood when they arrived to board the train.
The rails were wood, strapped with iron. For the two-hour inaugural run the wood-burning locomotive, immortalized in rail history as the Dorchester, was able to pull only two passenger cars. The other cars in the festive procession were each pulled by a team of two horses. By the next day the Dorchester had been sufficiently fine-tuned to pull four passenger and two freight cars and complete the journey in 45 minutes.
That was only six years after the United States ran its first train, from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills. An American who had been a British prisoner of war was the spark plug behind the Dorchester's inaugural run.
Jason C. Pierce had served as a volunteer in the Vermont State Militia during the War of 1812. Captured by the British and taken to Montreal, he remained in Canada after the war and prospered as a merchant in a town that became Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. He was one of the most active promoters of the railroad, then was made a director of the line. The second locomotive was named after him.
Now shift the scene to Vancouver and Expo 86, where the story of the railroad, its significance to the present and future of Canada travel is being told dramatically to millions of visitors.