Across Canada by train
The overwhelming thing about Canada is its sheer size – 4,500kms from Toronto to Vancouver! If you want to cross this enormous country, there are four travel options. It is five hours by air, three uncomfortable days and nights by bus or five tiring days at the wheel of a hire car. Or you can let a train take the strain, relax for four peaceful days, sleep in a comfortable bunk bed, enjoy personal service, eat tasty food and observe dazzling scenery slide past your carriage window. We chose the train!
Canada’s first transcontinental trains began in 1886 and grew in popularity over the years. The fleet of carriages was modernised in 1953 and the route from Toronto/Montreal to Vancouver was named ‘The Canadian’, a name that is still retained today. In 1978, the company VIA Rail took over this passenger service and has since tastefully refurbished the carriages. This Trans-Canada route is now regarded as one of the world’s finest rail journeys, operating three to four times per week in peak season. The trains typically have 20-30 carriages, three of which are dome cars giving panoramic views. Two enormous 3,000 H.P. diesel engines provide the locomotive power.
Our journey began at 10 pm from Toronto Union Station and after being shown to our personal cabin by our Sleeping Car Attendant, we joined other passengers for a welcome glass of champagne before turning in for the night. Our private cabin was small but quite adequate for the journey, with comfortable upper and lower berths, a toilet and washbasin. During the day, the attendant folded away the beds and provided us with two comfortable armchairs. There was a communal shower at the end of the carriage. We awoke the following morning to see Ontario’s colourful forests, lakes, rivers and marshlands bathed in glorious early summer sunshine. We then enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the elegant dining car, whose décor echoed the glamorous days of 1950’s long-distance rail travel.
And so began the soothing daily rhythm of our journey. In between eating three delicious meals each day, we sat in the glass-roofed dome car admiring magnificent landscapes and scanning the horizon for bears, moose and eagles! We socialized with our convivial fellow travellers and attended various activities organised by the informative crew. There were lectures about the cities and towns seen on route, the history of the railway and Canada’s natural environment. There were even wine and beer tasting sessions.
The initial 1,800kms of the trip are in Ontario and we spent the first day gazing at millions of trees and hundreds of lakes. There were short stops at mining towns, and on one occasion we changed drivers, as they are not permitted to work longer than 12 hours at a stretch. Much of the route across Canada is single track and as trains are travelling in both directions, serious scheduling problems occur. As evening approached, we stopped and then were shunted ignominiously into a siding, where we remained all night. A freight train engine failure meant that the line was closed to all traffic for 11 hours. However, early the following day we started to move and soon crossed the Manitoba border into the beautiful hills and lakes of Whiteshell Provincial Park, a wilderness area popular with fishermen. The trees then slowly thinned out and the wide expanse of the prairies lay ahead. A long stop was planned at Winnipeg, roughly the mid-point of the journey, in order to change our whole service crew and allow passengers to enjoy a city tour. Sadly this proved impossible, as it was midnight when the train eventually pulled into Winnipeg station!
To our surprise, we found the prairies’ scenery very attractive. Fertile open fields and low hills stretched to the horizon and were dotted with farmsteads and corn silos. The region’s many natural ponds were home to a splendid variety of aquatic bird life. Trundling westwards at its maximum speed of 110kms/hour, the train entered Saskatchewan and stopped at Saskatoon. This prosperous city has a thriving economy revolving around wheat and oil, but a very uninteresting station! Alberta’s beautiful hills and mountains lay ahead, but our arrival in this scenic paradise was to be delayed by another freight locomotive failure. Once again all train movements were blocked and we spent most of the night parked in the middle of nowhere. To compile our problems, our engineers had completed their 12-hour shift so we had to wait for a replacement team to be ferried out to our stranded train! We were now 24 hours behind schedule!
By dawn we were moving again and awoke to see ugly oil refineries as we approached Edmonton, Alberta’s capital. There was little of interest here and we only stayed long enough for passengers and staff to stretch their legs at the station. The crew told us that the charming town of Jasper was only a little bit further up the line and had far more to offer. There was now a palpable feeling of excitement amongst the passengers as the train gathered speed, the terrain became increasingly hilly and at last the snow-capped Rocky Mountains came into view. The approach to Jasper follows the Athabasca River amidst breathtaking scenery. The track snakes along the shores of picturesque Lake Brulé and into the magical town of Jasper. Here we were allowed plenty of time to see the town centre whilst four more carriages were added to the train and over 100 extra passengers climbed aboard.
The next stretch through the Rocky Mountains to Kamloops and British Columbia has fantastic scenery. We enjoyed our last delicious dinner in the dining car as the train climbed up and over the American continental divide amidst towering mountains and shimmering lakes. The weather was perfect and there were tremendous views of Mt. Robson, at 3,954m, the highest point in the Rockies. The line descended to the Thompson River and the train slowed to allow a view of the enchanting Pyramid Falls, right besides the track. We passed through Kamloops at night and awoke besides picture-perfect lakes amidst the mountains of British Columbia’s coastal range. The train sneaked almost apologetically into Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station exactly 24 hours late. Our journey was over.
Whilst the dreadfully delayed arrival made no difference to our own arrangements, many passengers missed on-going flights and some were justifiably very angry at the inconvenience. VIA Rail do warn passengers of possible delays, but no one expects to be a whole day late – a five day trip instead of four! The staff, who gave excellent service throughout the journey, told us that freight traffic on this line always take priority over passengers and such long delays are frequent. VIA Rail and the Canadian National Railway (the track owners) ought to be ashamed of this wholly unacceptable operating performance. Nonetheless, in today’s climate of rapid communications and jet travel, we thought this rail ride across Canada was an absolute joy and a supremely relaxing experience. But if you also choose to travel on ‘The Canadian’, don’t expect it to arrive on time!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.