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 TVO.org 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.
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.”
Images courtesy of Tripping Train 185.