Saturday, August 11, 2012

Harrowing Train Experience

When most people talk about their bad experience with a public service transportation platform such as a train, the closest thing that normally comes to mind is playing chicken or staying too close to the tracks when one whizzes by. I'm normally reluctant to take the train, even though I took it practically every day on my way to High school. It's partially the design of the later trains that aren't quite up to my liking. It's also because the schedules are rather sporadic that it makes memorizing the schedules an awful chore. But mainly, it's buying tickets for what amounts to a 5-minute trip that really rattles on my nerves. Back then, I could reuse my bus tokens as proof for train passage, but now the system is divided up so that I need to purchase separate tickets for each, which hasn't quite helped my cheapness any.

The horror stories I've heard about people taking the train don't help either. There was the story of an interpreter who took the train during a nasty blizzard and wound up unable to attend her appointment right across the tracks because of an accident or something. She was practically five feet away from her destination, but couldn't move forward until the safety conditions were met. So she had to wait outside in the cold with a throng of other people for several hours until it was finally deemed safe enough to cross.

Then there was my sister who one day took a train going the wrong way, and wound up extremely distressed by the experience. This was back in the day before cell phones existed, and my sister was also deaf, but had no one to ask for help, and only had a rotary phone to call.

On the day in question, I was feeling tired, so I decided to take a shortcut by taking the train home. I left late during lunch one day, and noticed that the train went past by right ahead of me. I didn't think much of it at the time, but thought it would be a useful note for next time.

So that day, I went towards the train, hovering my passcard over the registration plate. I wasn't going to waste a perfectly good ticket until I was sure the doors opened. Once they did, I waved my card over the plate, then got inside. I rather liked the roomy design of the train and the comfortable seats, which I vastly preferred to the other make of the trains I normally took to go to work. Soon, I noticed that we were passing by some concrete highway bridges. I didn't think much of it at the time, since I figured that we were probably taking an alternate route, and this was nothing more than a minor detour through unfamiliar territory.

I probably should have been more worried.

My first inkling that things weren't quite right was when the board above the door started displaying the words "LASALLE" in bright orange neon. That's when I noticed that I was on the wrong track. I was on the yellow line, when I meant to take one going the opposite direction.

No problem, I figured. I'll just get off at the next stop. It was at that point that I took a closer look at the railroad map and saw that the next stop would be taking me across Montreal Island for quite a far distance into Sainte-Catherine.

I could've made things much simpler by pulling the emergency break, but didn't want to inconvenience everybody (even if there weren't that many people on the train), let alone risk being subject to a huge fine anywhere from $75-$500. My plight of being off-track didn't seem worth the risk when I could simply make up the mistake by getting off at a later stop and backtracking on another train.

It doesn't take me much to get lost. I still can't recall the street names around my block without a map on hand. I get LaSalle and Laval mixed up very easily. I have to rotate the map to figure out the street angles. I miss the You Are Here downtown maps that would have a blinking huge arrow pointing not just where you were, but also which direction you're facing. It was also the first time I ever got off the island on my own without preparation or planning. Not exactly the best indicator for repeat business.

Further complicating matters was that I wasn't sure if the ticket I just registered was valid for this train or not. Each section of Montreal has a specific amount of tickets that needs to be purchased in each region, and if the wrong ticket is used, the riders can be eligible for a fine. To make matters worse, I still had one ticket left on my card, so if I needed to buy a return pass, I'd need to buy an additional card, since multiple cross-regional tickets simply aren't available. (Though you can purchase bus passes and train tickets on the same card) I tried to relieve myself by paying attention to the rivets while crossing the bridge. I noticed what looked like either a cellphone tower or wireless receiver jutting out of the water. At least I wouldn't be approaching a total backwaters part of town.

When I finally got off at the next stop some ten minutes later, I waited with trepidation for the train to depart so I could easily make it across the tracks and simply wait on the other side for my return trip. Imagine my confusion when all that was left waiting for me was a parking lot and an empty stretch of road.

I don't normally put my life in a narrative, but if that scene were written at that moment, my confusion could've easily been translated into: "What the... where's the terminal?" When people find themselves in trouble, most writers simply verbalize their thoughts into a more coherent line of thinking so their innermost feelings can be easily identifiable. I've never followed that line of thinking, since it's too much of an easy shortcut in trying to clarify their thoughts when they were more likely to be thinking about basic survival commands.

My thought process isn't much of a verbal model, and is more about reacting to the situations around me. As I often like to say, "I don't think, I spontaneously respond". However, for the sake of simplification, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of, "Well, there's simply got to be another train somewhere. I just need to find it."

Up until that moment, I hadn't quite noticed how sparse the area surrounding train terminals were. There wasn't much more than two parking lots on opposite sides, and an empty stretch of road peering off into the distance. The other stations I was more familiar with were close to housing complexes, or school buildings. I hadn't quite made the connections between the specific locations of the train stations.

I sent a text to my mother in the hopes that she would somehow manage to drive over and pick me up in this new location. When I didn't get a reply immediately, I realized that she was probably at the pool, and wouldn't be back for about an hour.

I walked past the parking lot, where there was some construction of what looked like the finishing touches for a hotel. However, there didn't seem to be any workers nearby, and it didn't look like the hotel was occupied, so I kept moving past to a kindgergarten school. When I got closer, it looked locked up, then I realized that by all accounts, it was probably closed for the summer. Fortunately, by knocking on the inside window, I was eventually able to attract the attention of a teacher, and asked if she knew any information on where the Line 1 train platform was, since I accidentally got on the wrong train and would like to go back the way I came from.

The teacher seemed confused by my request, but once assured that I meant no harm, she informed me that the next train wouldn't come for about four hours. This was nothing new to me - I'd already taken a look at the schedule, but that was for the train along the normal route. However, the train going the direction I wanted to take was coming sometime in 45 minutes, so I figured I still had plenty of time. It was just a matter of following instructions.

Trouble was, I had an extremely difficult time remembering, understanding or retaining those very instructions. I was told that after leaving the school, I should keep going down the same street I was on, then take a left, then a right. But I couldn't quite make out the names she'd given me. To make matters more confounding, the street ahead of me sloped towards the right, so I just took a turn at the first block, then turned right. When I didn't see any tracks ahead of me, I started to get concerned. I asked a passing man on a bicycle if he had any idea where the train tracks were, but he hesitantly told me that he didn't speak French. What little English he did tell me was that I was going in the wrong direction, and that I needed to go back the way I came from. So I followed him back to where there was a bus stop, but no timetable, and no better idea of where I should go next. I made my way back to the Line 2 train tracks again, hoping against hope that maybe somehow, there would be another terminal hiding just out of sight. I looked into the horizon both ways. Nothing could be seen, save for a tiny dot where the railroads crossed. In the other direction, the tracks disappeared around a corner into the vast foliage. There was a tiny patch of yellow, but that could've very well been a sign, so I didn't pursue.

Denial is an amazingly persistent thing. Even under the worst circumstances, you can convince yourself that you're doing the right thing and that things will all turn out okay, despite evidence to the contrary.

Falling into desperation, I went back to the school again to ask for more instructions. By chance, I happened upon somebody in a car talking on a cellphone. I thought I came just in time to see the schoolteacher about to leave. It wasn't - it was somebody else, but I asked for directions. this time, I asked for written instructions, since I had trouble hearing. After rummaging around the car, a piece of scrap paper was eventually found, and a marker was used. I offered my book as a slab for writing upon. I now had the correct street names that eluded me. This time I would be able to figure out where I needed to go next. I started off, thanking my savior for assistance, and started walking for about a minute, when that very same person drove up alongside me and offered me a lift. I willingly obliged, thanking for their help, since it would be much easier being shown the way via somebody else.

It wasn't until I got in that I'd realized just how vastly I'd underestimated my destination. I thought the train tracks were just a few blocks away from my current location. So imagine my surprise when we were zipping along several housing complexes at a rapid pace. (Under the speed limit, just to reassure any potential criminal authorities who might be reading this)  I thought it was written 20 meters on the piece of scrap paper, when it seemed closer to 20 MILES. No wonder everybody seemed reluctant about my getting there on time. There would be no possible way I could make it on foot alone. It was a good thing I got a helpful lift from this good samaritian. It's probably the closest I've ever come to hitchhiking across unfamiliar territority.

Along the way, I kept track of the food places we were passing by just in case we wound up arriving too late. All I'd eaten that day so far was an old slice of leftover pizza for lunch. Oh, and some warm cooler water. The entire contents of my backpack only contained some remaining sprinkles from a plastic box of chocolates. Hardly enough energy to keep me going.

When we turned the corner of the relevant street, it was just as long as the stretch of road I'd just ridden past. I checked my watch, and we were maybe five, ten minutes away before the train was supposed to come. I had no idea of just how far away my salvation spot was, or if I would make it on time.

I might as well alleviate the suspense by telling that we managed to make it to the Line 1 platform, and there were people waiting for the train to come, and it didn't look like they'd been waiting four hours. I thanked my driver for going to the trouble to make a detour to drop me off here. As thanks, I pointed out a minor detail about my driver's steering wheel with Tinkerbell on the side. For some reason, the fairy was upside-down on the passenger side, when she was perfectly right side up on the driver's side. As further thanks, I tore out a small piece of paper containing my blog address that I'd been carrying in my pocket. I usually only reserve that for dropping it in backpacks of people interested in Manga/comics or meeting interesting people. That's my form of viral marketing.

Even though I saw the light of the train coming up and checked the timetables, I didn't begin to relax until the steel doors opened and let me inside. Once I sat down on the seat cushions, I then sent a text to my parents and social worker to let them know I was okay. If I managed to make it back to my launching site, I'd be back on proper registration lines and my ticket would still be valid. (It was good up for 2 hours) Then shortly after I sent the text, the train suddenly stopped. I started to get concerned - did I let my guard down too soon? Had I inavertably gotten on the wrong train after all? Was somebody else found with a false ticket?? Were we going in the opposite direction??? I peered out the window to get a better sense of my surroundings, and saw a familiar looking parking lot, a building construction and a schoolyard. I couldn't believe it - it'd stopped right back at the very stop where I'd gotten off! I went traisping around all over Sainte-Catherine for nothing! ...Of course, it's also possible that it was just making a brief stop there without opening the doors. I didn't bother to actually check. Either way, I'm not sure I could handle the actual answer.

On the plus side, I now know where LaSalle is.

As stressful as my experience was, it was nowhere close to the traumatic event that happened to my sister. She was lost during the winter in minus 20 degree weather without shelter. Mine was during the summer with very little shade. My sister only had 50 cents in quarters to use the phone. I had plenty of cash if I needed to buy something. She was practically crying because she had no idea if anybody was on the other end listening to her. I had to contend with not knowing if my texts were coming through. The one advantage my sister had over me was that she knew French, and I didn't. It was only by the sheerest fluke of luck that I managed to talk to people who understood me, otherwise my ordeal would've taken much longer.

The only reason I kept my cool allthroughout was because I'd already heard her story and used it as a base for a cautionary tale. Hopefully, others will get something out of mine.


  1. I have been in similar binds before the biggest thing I have taken away from these experiences is that I am capable of much greater feats of determination than I thought.

    I am impressed with how well you handled the situation. Many people would have just dropped cash for a taxi or waited for rescue.

    I hope what you take away from this is not "avoid the train" but "when using the train prepare and inform yourself properly".

    Finally regarding train fares, I know you can purchase a train ticket take the train then use a metro or bus with the same ticket. But figuring that out from the documentation available is not easy. The worst pratical part about train travel for me is buying the damn tickets, I don't understand the (IMO) poorly designed machines you use to buy the tickets.

  2. Wow. So glad you found a good Samaritan to help you find your way home. Judging from your description, it's possible she drove you to the next stop on the line - St-Constant - which is why it was so far and why you ended up back at the Ste-Catherine station.

    Also - what Edward said. You handled the situation very well, and it's useful to be prepared for next time...

  3. Just to be clear, I don't mean to say the situation was your fault when give advise about being prepared.

  4. Bravo Daniel. This was not an easy situation. You did well, keeping your cool, observing the environment and asking for help.