Preview: TVO’s Tripping Train 185 is a lazy, lovely trip into Ontario’s north

I’ve covered Mitch Azaria’s excellent real-time Tripping documentary series before. From the first, Tripping the Rideau Canal, through followups Tripping the Niagara and Tripping the Bruce, they all embrace the “slow TV” genre of broadcasting a trip from beginning to end, in real-time.

Azaria’s latest, Tripping Train 185, has a special connection for me.

Debuting Friday on TVO at 7 p.m. ET and post-broadcast on and TVO’s YouTube Channel, Tripping Train 185 immediately revived beloved memories of chasing trains with my Dad when I was a kid. He and I used to tool around the back roads of Brantford, Ont., watching passenger and freight trains at level crossings through the countryside. It was exhilarating and felt a little dangerous too. Tripping Train 185 also recalled Cochrane, Ont., my Dad’s hometown and the base of a similar train in the Polar Bear Express. In fact, Azaria was initially planning the board the Polar Bear Express and track its journey from Cochrane to Moosenee, Ont.

“[The Polar Bear Express] a great run in that it ends in a particularly cool spot, but the ride itself is a bit of a tunnel,” Azaria says over the phone. “It doesn’t have the sweeping views that Train 185 has, and that’s just the nature of the country it’s going through.” You can’t argue with him on that. Tripping Train 185 shows the rugged and wildly varying terrain between Sudbury and White River, a beautiful chunk of the Canadian Shield showcasing rocks, valleys, endless forests, marshes, rivers and lakes.

Azaria (third from left) and his crew, next to Train 185.

Operating three times a week, Via Rail’s Train 185 is a flag-stop train, meaning all one has to do to snag a ride on it is stand next to the tracks and flag it down between scheduled station stops. That in itself makes Tripping Train 185 a unique documentary; seeing the train slow down and wondering who and what will be hauled on board is particularly fun, especially when the reality is that train is their only connection to the outside world. But the train itself has a story to tell and attracts enthusiasts from around the world.

Train 185 is the only remaining Rail Diesel Car (RDC) line in North America. Nicknamed Budd Cars because they were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in the 1950s to service rural areas around the world, each car has its own twin diesel engines as well as compartments for passengers, conductor and baggage. Like a bus, an RDC provided inexpensive commuter service into remote areas where short rail spurs had been abandoned because of the high cost of traditional, multi-car trains.

“The Budd Cars have a bit of a cult following,” Azaria says. “It’s such a unique type of train that they want to ride the last one in North America.”

As with past Tripping projects, Azaria has compiled a staggering amount of factual information to tell the history of the train, route, and the country itself, which is presented via on-screen visuals. It’s through them that a very cool story about educating the north is told. Using CGI and old CBC footage, we learn of Bill Wright, a teacher who used a revamped Canadian Pacific Railroad passenger car in a schoolhouse/living space for him and his family.

“For 40 years, he worked out of this car,” Azaria recalls. “It would stop on the tracks and any kids in the area would find their way to it. They would be taught for a week and then receive three weeks of homework. Then he’d move up the line and do the same for the next group of kids. He probably taught a few thousand kinds in the time he was up there.”

Tripping Train 185 airs Friday at 7 p.m. ET on TVO. Stream it anytime post-broadcast at and the TVO YouTube Channel.

Images courtesy of Tripping Train 185.


4 thoughts on “Preview: TVO’s Tripping Train 185 is a lazy, lovely trip into Ontario’s north”

  1. We watched Tripping Train 185 last evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. Our beautiful boreal forest and continuous lakes seen by overhead views. My father was a trainman/conductor on the CPR for 20+ years and travelled from Thunder Bay to Chapleau, at home for 2 days and out for 2. To think he rode those very rails, stayed in sleeper cars at side of tracks at times as well as the YMCA (that was his second home). Thank you for such a video and great memories.

  2. I watched the TVO documentary on Train 185 last evening and congratulate the production team for an interesting documentary.

    The photography was excellent. The aerial photography in particular provided a dramatic, unique visual description of the Height of Land region of Northern Ontario. The fact that the two-car train photographed from the air was not the three-car train on the ground level shots was obvious and a bit disconcerting.
    I offer the following more specific observations which would have been useful and interesting:

    • It would have been interesting to note that the route of the CPR over the Height of Land region was influenced by the advice of the Ojibway guides on the CPR survey team who advised the surveyors that a few miles north of the proposed survey route, the water flowed north. The surveyors followed this advice, altered the route and this decision allowed the line to avoid crossing the major rivers flowing south and the significant time and expense of constructing major bridges. Your documentary shows only small trestles crossing rivers and streams illustrating this. There are no major bridges. Contrast this with the CNR line, built in `1912, that runs fifty or so miles north and the large bridges this line required.

    • Wilderness travel created by construction of the CPR began as early as the late 1800’s. These trips included groups travelling south from various rail sidings on the Height of Land to Lake Huron and north to James Bay. They were described in the major US outdoors magazines of the day.

    • Biscotasing was the home of Grey Owl who was a well known environmentalist and featured in a major film produced by David Attenborough along with numerous other TV documentary and film dramas. He was perhaps the first internationally recognized advocates for conservation

    • The HBC post at Lake Pogomasing referenced in your documentary was managed by Louis Espagnol who was the first indigenous manager of an HBC post.

    • The Height of Land is the border between Treaty Nine and the Robinson Superior and Robinson Huron treaties which generally define the traditional hunting grounds of the Ojibway and Cree nations.

    • Missanabie is located on one of the major fur trading routes connecting James Bay with Lake Superior. It was perhaps the most important of the HBC trading routes.

    • The poles along the CPR line which are in various stages of decay did not carry power lines as mentioned in the documentary. They carried telegraph lines which were an important part of the railway’s operation.

    • The CPR did bring white fur traders who encroached on the traditional indigenous hunting grounds. The fur trade, however, was in serious decline by the time the railway was completed in 1885, particularly beaver pelts.

    • The Chapleau fur trader who advocated for creation of the Chapleau Game Preserve was William McLeod

    1. Hi there, as noted above, you can stream it on TVO. org or on the TVO YouTube page. Links are at the end of the preview.

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