Two track minds – Ontario ‘railfans’ chronicle their devotion to train travel

Among the most dedicated devotees of railways, these transit enthusiasts can trace their passion, far down the line.

These are the training days of our most die-hard fans.

The start of journeys that turned into rail-life devotion.

There are aficionados of airplanes. They gather on their off hours – reclined on lawn chairs or the hoods of cars – near most major airports, including Toronto’s Pearson International. And as much as rock stars have allure, huge ships and the smallest Mini Coopers have their own loyal followers.

But we’d argue that few other forms of transportation have as knowledgeable and passionate supporters as the railway industry. These recreational enthusiasts often keep tabs of the smallest details that make one quickly passing line of rolling stock – including GO trains – different from another. They are the private chroniclers of history and change on the rails that wind through countless communities.

Around the world, groups keep in touch to trade photos or share videos online – pointing out a special vehicle or moment they’ve captured – akin to spotting a rare bird. The most well-known buffs can themselves become celebrities within the shared pastime.

And each country seems to call them something different – ‘gunzels’ in Australia and ‘trainspotters’ in the U.K. Here in Ontario, they often self-described as simply ‘railfans’ – yes, often spelled as one word.

There’s a special language among rail buffs – even magazines that feed their fire – and they may just be the oldest breed of mechanical transportation aficionados on the planet.

Locally, they’re also loyal customers. So we asked a small group to – in their own words – take us back to the start of their own journeys. How do you put the many pieces together and build a great Canadian railfan?

Christopher Balestri, Digital Producer and Marketing Professional 

Christopher Balestri poses with a train

Railfan and model railroader Christopher Balestri is a lifelong fan of trains. (Photo by Christopher Balestri)

“Growing up in Toronto in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, railways still seemingly had a large impact on how the city and country operated. I could barely contain my excitement when we would visit downtown and cross the Union Station Skywalk bridge, peering over an endless sea of rails and a parade of passenger trains.

West Toronto would become a focal point for my first railfanning experiences. The Canadian Pacific’s Lambton Yard, the West Toronto Diamond, the Toronto Stock Yards, and the Humber River Bridge on the Galt subdivision. These areas of the city had such an impact on me – so many memories – they bring me back to a correlation between being around and visiting family, the culture of the neighbourhoods and how things all seemed a little bit more simple than they do today.

Trains and the stories behind them are a passion. Not only do they tie into my own personal memories but significant historical milestones as well. When I photograph or film trains it preserves a moment in time – that moment can be enjoyed and relived again in the future.

Trains are also purely fascinating machines. Being able to capture such a wide variety of locomotives and unique combinations makes railfanning truly unique – you never know what rare consist you might catch.

In addition to railfanning, I’m also a serious model railroader. For the past 25 years or so I’ve recreated many prototypical scenes and replicated them in 1:87 scale. It’s truly enlightening when you model scenes from actual moments in time.

From my point of view, trains are without question, awesome! They reconnect you to historical moments and memories – trains and railroading has been and will continue to be a fascination.”

Alex Glista, Master of Planning student at Dalhousie University

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Alex Glista grew up in Oakville, but is now attending Dalhousie University in Halifax (photo by Alex Glista)

“Starting from when I was young enough to watch (TV’s) Thomas the Tank Engine, it was clear that I was destined to be a rail fan. I would drag my parents to any place that had trains – subway lines, streetcar storage facilities, and GO stations to watch trains arrive then depart.

Eventually, my love of trains rubbed off on my parents because it became a way for us to spend time together. From riding the GO into Toronto with my mom to visit my grandparents, to rushing to the Willowbrook GO Maintenance facility to get pictures of the vintage GO coach before it was moved to Roundhouse Park with my dad, to riding the subway extension to Vaughan a day before it opened with my sister – transit has become something we’ve bonded over.

It’s a space where you can let someone else do the driving, and enjoy the company of the people around you while the world wizzes by.

A particular memory that is a transit highlight for me was a day-long adventure that I had with my dad on transit back in December 2018. We woke up early and took the Lakeshore West and East GO train from Oakville GO to Danforth GO, where we walked to the TTC’s Neville Park loop to catch the 501 Queen, which is famously known as the longest streetcar in the Americas.

We spent the day hopping on and off, stopping at coffee shops, having a sip at craft breweries, and observing construction projects that are re-shaping Toronto. We concluded our trip at the route’s end at Long Branch GO, where we took the Lakeshore West train back to Oakville.

It is because of trains and transit that my Dad and I were able to have a laissez-faire adventure across the GTA, and most importantly spend time together.”

Damian Baranowski, freelance photographer/videographer

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Damian Baranowski is a train guy to the core (photo by Damian Baranowski)

“Jedzie pociąg z daleka
Ani chwili nie czeka
Konduktorze laskawy
Zabierz nas do Warszawy.”

“This was one of the many songs I had to learn in Polish School. The song itself is about taking the train to Warsaw. I loved this song because I always liked taking the train, because for one, I never really took the train that much when I was a child.

The family would always take the car into Toronto, and we only took the train in on occasion. This made taking the train seem special to me and for that it’s the reason I like taking the train and why I went into railfaning.

Taking it always felt special and from that I did more reading about the local train system, and I learned more about the rail network and the places it went to. I made a goal, one day to check out all the places the train went.

When I went to College, I was finally able to complete this goal, and check out all of the GO Stations on the network. From the nice farmland at Gormley GO to the Lakeside of Rouge Hill GO. To be honest, I enjoy the stations more than the train itself. For each GO Station seems unique and has something different to offer while waiting for the train.

Giving credit to the trains itself, the views are spectacular and shows places you don’t usually see from the car. With the double decker Bi-Level cars, for me as a kid, this was the best part taking the train.

I like the train network we have in Toronto with GO Transit, VIA Rail, TTC, and YDHR (the heritage railway in Uxbridge). I love to hear news of expansion because that’s more places the train will GO. “

Jordan Hollingsworth, local high school student 

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Local railfan Jordan Hollingsworth snaps a quick selfie before getting on the GO in Whitby (photo by Jordan Hollingsworth)

“Becoming a railfan was something almost mindless to me.

I grew up in the apartment building located directly beside Eglinton GO Station on the Lakeshore East line. From a very young age, trains excited me.

When the bells would come on, I would be excited that a massive train would be barreling past my apartment.  As it stands I am also visually impaired, this means throughout my life I have been reliant on public transit.

In 2012, I decided that if I am going to be reliant on the transit systems, I may as well know my way around them, and enjoy the ride.  Since then I have learned all the routes, all the models and gone all over the GTA, I have also taken trips by rail to places like Ottawa, and Montreal.

Trains are among some of the most interesting pieces of machinery to me – these massive engines are able to pull so many people home each night.  Taking pictures of trains to me is a lot of fun, knowing all the routes and lines is a lot of fun, and meeting some excellent people along the way is amazing.

I’ve met tons of friends by doing this hobby but I’ve also met a plethora of amazing CSAs, conductors and engineers.  I’m excited for the future of GO Rail expansion in the GTHA along with the rest of the expansion Metrolinx is making throughout the region.  In 2020 I am taking a college course (Civil Engineering Technology) that I hope will allow me to be part of the team that plans and makes these projects happen. Until then, I’ll continue to stand behind the yellow line, and film the passing trains.”

Story by Scott Money, Metrolinx advisor, social media and media relations.