Trains, planes and a total solar eclipse! Watching the moon block the sun was a transportation adventure (exclusive)

a rainbow halo in the sky with the side of a train station
A halo shines around the sun just before the total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024 at a train station in Dorval, Quebec, just outside of Montreal. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

DORVAL, Québec — I needed a big sky, and I was willing to stand outside a remote, chilly train station for hours to get it.

A total solar eclipse happened in the skies here, just outside of Montreal, on Monday (April 8). The sights of the bigger city would have been incredible, but so too would've been the deep crowds. 

Based on my experiences chasing "Manhattanhenge" twice in New York City last year, bathrooms, elbow room and sightlines would have been at a premium. So when my husband objected to being in big crowds during eclipse planning, I agreed.

Related: I'm taking the train to see the 2024 solar eclipse in Canada. Here's why I'm riding the rails

My husband and I live in Ottawa, Ontario, which would have just shy of 99% totality on April 8 as the moon passed over the sun. That's good, but we Canadians wanted more, as we missed a chance to see totality in August 2017 in favor of Coldplay tickets in Toronto. (No regrets, especially as the band mentioned that solar eclipse mid-show.)

Fearing road traffic, at first my husband and I booked tickets to seek totality by train. Our original itinerary brought us west toward Toronto, but the weather forecast got fiercely cloudy for all Ontario stations the day before the big event. 

So, late on Sunday (April 7), crowd and cloud conscious, we made a last-minute interprovincial ticket change east, to the only other eclipsed train station near us, aside from Montreal's urban zone: Dorval. It's a few minutes away by shuttle from Montréal-Trudeau International Airport, which meant a day of both trainspotting and planespotting was in store for us. And if we were lucky, eclipse-spotting, too. staff writer Elizabeth Howell (foreground) fights for a Manhattanhenge viewing spot on a bridge beside Grand Central Terminal in New York City, on May 29, 2023. These crowded conditions influenced her decision to watch the total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024 outside of Montreal's urban zone. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Both trains and planes run in my family, you see. I'm upset that the rails run through unceded Indigenous territory and killed some of the Chinese construction workers who built it, but I also recognize my kin's legacy on the tracks. 

During the Apollo era, my maternal grandfather by marriage worked for the Penn Central and New York Central railroads from an office in Toronto. My grandmother, his wife, did paperwork for other Canadian rail lines; she was one of the select few who knew of troop movements in-country during the Second World War as the young soldiers shipped out, or at least that's the family lore.

I ended up working as a journalist on the aerospace side; my paternal line has held positions at places like passenger plane regulator Transport Canada, as well as in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I was lucky to have childhood adventures in aerospace, such as flying in a DC-3 to Michigan, running around the Prime Minister's private jet fleet and seeing Santa Claus visit by helicopter.

But trains are a strong interest of mine, too. Decades ago, I rode a historic locomotive in Wakefield, Québec — it's sadly no longer running, however. While growing up, I also was thrilled to occasionally clamber about the trains on display at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in my hometown of Ottawa. (I even met Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar at the science museum in 1992 when I was a child, so I've been very lucky indeed to live so close by to it.) 

Related: Artemis 2 moon crew announcement felt like a Canadian history time warp

A VIA Rail train during a media event at the train station in Ottawa, Canada in November 2021. (Image credit: David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

So, to try to honor my family's two-pronged transportation history, what better way to while away the hours before an eclipse than outside a tiny train station, near an airport runway? I'm no expert on the big locomotives coming through, at least not yet. But even a passing look at the cities listed on train cars showed me cargo coming from both Canada and the United States en route to the port city of Montreal. 

VIA Rail, our passenger provider, also had numerous trains running on the big west-east corridor where most of Canada's population lives, between Toronto and Quebec City. Audio announcements in English and French cheerfully called out all the little towns these trains would touch, along with arrival and departure times.

A cargo train passes through the Dorval train station, near Montreal, on April 8, 2024. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

I sat on the shady side of the station with my husband for hours, leisurely watching the trains go through and glimpsing the occasional groundhog or pigeon. Bathrooms, snacks and shelter were steps away in the station, and a few passenger planes zoomed overhead. We enjoyed the unseasonably warm temperatures of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) in comfy lawn chairs we toted on the train.

Next, we swung around into the sunshine to catch the eclipse. That presented, of course, a show of its own. About 20 minutes from total eclipse, a rainbow-colored halo began to circle the sun and adorn the thin cirrus clouds high up. The light turned muddy, similar to how the sun's rays look through smoke. Ghostly shadows filtered through the budding trees as refracted sunlight spilled around the moon. 

I quickly pulled out a children's book I copy-edited for a friend of mine: "Elizabeth's First Total Eclipse" by Betty R. Robinson (Tellwell Talent, 2023). Sitting on the sidewalk, I took an obligatory selfie beside the book and ghost-branches. staff writer Elizabeth Howell beside shadows of tree branches, with ghost images due to an ongoing total solar eclipse in Dorval (near Montreal, Canada) on Aug. 8, 2024. Also on the ground is the book "Elizabeth's First Total Solar Eclipse" by Betty R. Robinson. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Shade deepened in the sky halo. Streetlights and headlights blinked on in the station's parking lot, as cars on the nearby Autoroute du Souvenir freeway pulled over. A taxi driver asked for a pair of eclipse glasses; I had extras, and, after advising him when totality would strike, I told him to keep the set I gave. 

Armed with my own pair, kindly donated by Western University's space program in London, Ontario, I saw the sun's disk slowly diminish into a thin crescent. Then all turned black. I whipped off my glasses to safely bare my eyes to the heavens. 

The sun's white corona shone brightly, tripling the sun's diameter at the top and the bottom of the disc. Fiery solar-kissed red glowed around the right edge of the moon, and at least two planets popped into view on either side.

For 90 seconds, the horizon was navy blue with yellow tinges. The sky's zenith was grayish navy as the narrowest of space shadows sailed over us. A small crowd of taxi drivers and train passengers gathered around us in silence, in reverence. 

Then came the flash, the diamond ring, as the sun's light shot at our planet through a deep valley of the moon's receding edge. Safety glasses back on, I saw the solar glow slowly creep around the moon again.

Related: The 5 stages of the 2024 total solar eclipse explained for April 8

A brief shot, blurry cell phone style, at the total phase of the solar eclipse over Dorval, Quebec (near Montreal) on April 8, 2024. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

And then totality was done, but that strange red glow remained in my mind on the train ride home. Coldplay lyrics, deepened by my recent studies of classics and history at the University of Leicester, ran through my head. I pondered privilege in seeing the eclipse, and whether I had been deserving of it: 

I've been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
The testaments they told
The moon and its eclipse

And Superman unrolls
A suit before he lifts
But I'm not the kind of person that it fits ...

I also couldn't help but look at the setting sun a bit differently. I saw a whole other side of the sun that's not usually visible. The eclipse felt alien, yet it's been periodically happening on Earth for eons. What other secrets of the sky haven't I considered in my 30 years of enjoying space, I wondered, and what would be shown to us next?

When the next solar eclipse happens, our guide on how to observe the sun safely guide tells you what you need to know to look at the sun. We also have a guide to solar eclipse glasses, and how to safely photograph the sun if you'd like to get practicing before the big day.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: