Using the railways and railcars as venues for education is not a new idea:
From the 1930s-60s the Ontario Department of Education had up to five travelling schoolhouses serving remote areas. Each of these specially equipped railway coaches, with a suite for the teacher(s)—often married couples with children—served as classrooms for the children of hunters, trappers, woodsmen, aboriginal Canadians and railway section workers living along the line.
The Classroom coach stayed for a week at a single location, parked on a siding. Then it was picked up by a passing freight train and moved to the next point, having left the children at the last location with enough homework to keep they busy for the next three weeks. (see link to Sloman School Car…)
Till the 1980s the railways provided mobile classrooms for occupational training for their employees. The two most common types were the Rules Instructional Car and the Mechanical Instruction Car. These covered the territory less frequently than government school cars, but often enough so workers could upgrade their certificates and credentials every 1-2 years. A rebirth of this model is occurring with CSX’s Oil Train Classroom-on Rails, providing enhanced safety training to first responders to accidents.
Both of Canada’s major railways, and some regional carriers, provided educational exhibit trains for the public. CN and CP had museum trains and, later, coaches that were parked for a time at their stations along the line. Both cooperated with the federal Government for the Confederation Train of 1967 and in the later Discovery Train –originally envisaged as the Unity Train — following the election of the Parti Québécois in 1975. Writer David Watts was involved in preliminary consulting for this.)
These ventures all involved using the railway to take an educational offering out to the public in the regions. Another approach uses the train as a travelling venue with students aboard: using stops along the way not as delivery points but as parts of the program:
CN’s Sanford Fleming train (named after the man who surveyed its western lines and who gave the world standard time) carried executives and senior technical staff out to see the line in the 1980s.
«A-trains» have carried musicians and other artists not only for performances but for workshops and practice sessions on board. Jazz musician Oscar Peterson funded one such charter. Writer-educator David Watts organized a Folk Festival On Rails from Edmonton to Fort McMurray and back that ran five years and a Songwriter Workshop On Rails to the Pacific Coast and back in the 1980s.
The first pan-arctic oil and gas discoveries were announced, and contracts signed, aboard a chartered CN train that crisscrossed Alberta in 1966. For a week top world geophysicists, engineers and financiers studied, questioned and decided, like a papal enclave—this was before IPhone and internet—on hydrocarbon finds worth billions.
There are good reasons for using the train for these activities:
Space/self-contained – A well serviced passenger train offers in mini all the amenities of a hotel or university residence but more compactly. There is space to get up and move around or retire to one’s cabin, but not enough space to wander away and break up the group.
Pace/p(e)ace – Rail is, as Canada’s national passenger service advertises, «a more human way to travel.» Once aboard, there are no checkins, little waiting in line, less (even with Wi-Fi) demands of an outside world. The Outside World is the one you’re passing through by train. It’s easier to be Present here: the first thing one checks at the start of a school day/class.
Focus/concentration – One recurring complaint about the teaching of social studies (geography and history) is that it’s «far away and long ago» (irrelevant). That can’t be said when you’re on site, passing through it.
Many of Canada’s best known historic sites are on the rail line because the railways followed the waterways taken by the First Nations, traders and voyageurs. 90% of our cities and population, and 9 or our 14 capitals are served by rail. Add in three capitals (Fredericton, Charlottetown and Yellowknife) within an hour of a rail line and the number rises to 12/14.
Convergence – Rail train brings it all together—the people, the facilities and the program: the places and history we’re passing through. No other mode but ship or canoe can equal or surpass the train and the immense distances rule out water travel for most of the time we spend together.