Aboard an epic Canadian train journey from Toronto to Vancouver
The Canadian, Via Rail’s iconic sleeper train, spends four days rumbling through boreal forest, prairies and mountains.
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ABOARD THE CANADIAN-That first overnight on the train was a gloriously sleepless blur disrupted by clickety clacks, rumbles, grinding squeals and ding, ding dings. Alone in F-130 in the Château Cadillac car on a Murphy bed pulled down from the wall to fill the room, I stared mesmerized through an extra-large window into the dark depths of northern Ontario and thought deeply Canadian thoughts.
Happy 150th birthday, Canada. This year cries out for a celebratory road trip. I use the term road loosely. A train track will do just fine. Let someone else drive. For four nights on the Canadian, Via Rail Canada’s iconic train from Toronto to Vancouver, I relaxed and watched boreal forest become prairie and then mountains.
Somewhere north of Sudbury that first morning, I threw on clothes and tiptoed down the narrow hall, hands outstretched to brace for sways and lurches, through the Château Dollard sleeping car to the end of the train.
The Laurentide Park car is tricked out with a downstairs lounge and upstairs domed seating area. The DIY tea and coffee station became my watering hole.
Earl Grey tea in hand, I befriended Tom Box, a retired teacher from Port Hope and fellow early riser. He has been on every single Via route and it was his 20th time, give or take, on the Canadian, thanks to a great Black Friday deal.
“I just love train travel,” Box confided. “Especially these long-distance trips where you’re off in your own little world for a few days.”
You are in your own world on the Canadian, but not necessarily alone. Work on the lost art of small talk in the dining car when you’re seated with strangers. Play a board game with fellow passengers since there’s no Wi-Fi and often no cell service.
This 4,466-kilometre journey is a throwback to simpler times.
Jason Shron — a train nut from Thornhill that I met through Box — has done the Canadian upwards of 40 times and found “there’s a tendency for people on the train to spill their guts to strangers,” especially if they’re on divorce tours, which can become awkward the next day. “There’s a certain magic to that,” he admitted. He was taking his three kids to Winnipeg to meet his wife and other family for Passover.
Shron owns Canada’s largest model train company, built a section of a full-size Via car in his basement, is restoring two train cars and is writing a book about Via for its 40th anniversary next year. The Crown corporation “doesn’t celebrate its own history and doesn’t celebrate its own people” nearly enough, he lamented, and so he’s “like this one-man Via fan club.”
Make that two. Shron and Box love trains for different reasons — the actual machines and the art of train travel — but they are anomalies. Too many Canadians have never been on a train, much less slept on one.
Trains are not a part of our modern lives or lexicon, so my learning curve is steep. Passenger trains don’t have cabooses, conductors are obsolete and drivers are called engineers. Freight trains have priority in Canada when there’s one line, so passenger trains like the Canadian have to wait on the siding, causing delays.
There are economy-class seats that you sleep upright in, and banks of seats that convert into upper and lower “berths” at night with just a curtain for privacy. There are private rooms, some with a toilet that gets covered when the bed comes out, and a shared shower down the hall. I was lucky enough to experience “Prestige class” in a room with an L-shaped couch, Murphy bed and private en-suite washroom, with access to a trio of concierges, reserved seating at the front of the dome car, meals, booze and all the Earl Grey I could drink.
The concierges provided a Champagne sendoff and bedtime chocolates, led a Canadian wine tasting, brought afternoon snacks (like smoked salmon on a bed of julienned cucumber) to me wherever I was, and even delivered dinner to my room twice when I was small-talked out.
The meals were classic Canadian with elegant tweaks, like prime rib, rack of lamb, apple crisp and chocolate cake. One night we got Ovation chocolates because, in the endearing words of our server: “Here at Via we like to give a standing ovation.”
I stole a few minutes with head chef Rob Brown, who likened the sensation of cooking on a moving train to surfing. “You keep your knees slightly bent to maintain your centre of balance. If you’re rigid, you might fall over.”
He wouldn’t have fallen far in the tiny kitchen he shared with one cook. Our train had one dining car with 48 seats and meals in three assigned seatings. It was Brown’s third Via season, but he has cooked for 26 years. “Look at the view you get,” he bragged, pointing at Alberta somewhere between Edmonton and Jasper. “You don’t get that in any other kitchen.”
Service manager Mario Laurencelle echoed that sentiment, enthusing about his “unbeatable” office window as well as his “second family” of railroaders and endlessly interesting passengers.
I listened to two of concierge Kevin Bow’s informal talks in the dome car, about the prairies and mountains. I took to heart his mom’s favourite saying: “You’re not going to see anything if you’re not looking.”
I didn’t stay up late enough, or drink enough Canadian wine, to swap secrets with strangers. But gin and tonic in hand, I hung out with Sarah Smith and Ken Ross, London musicians who were on board to perform in economy and first class.
It was only Smith’s third time on a train but she already had important advice to share. “Nobody warns you about the fact you’re stuck with yourself so if you’re not happy within, you won’t be happy on the trip,” she philosophized. “To me, this is real living and everybody is in the same boat. You’re at the mercy of the rails. It’s the ultimate letting go of control.”
The Canadian showed us mercy, with none of its legendary delays. For our April journey, we had just 17 cars, including two engines, one dining car, one baggage car and three dome cars. In high season, that could double.
There were lots of retirees on board, a mix of Canadians and foreigners, plus a smattering of families. It was dreary outside, but the sunsets were otherworldly and it was a pleasure to get off and stretch at a few scheduled stops.
In Hornepayne, Ont., the Legion wasn’t quite open for a beer but there’s a bear statue to take selfies with down the road. I’m ashamed to admit I feasted on Wi-Fi after breakfast in Winnipeg instead of exploring. In Jasper, I wrangled a sit-down with our two locomotive engineers so didn’t leave the train station.
Justine Chambers and Rudi Switala have been driving trains for almost 80 years combined. They liken train travel to “a mini cruise” and shared their pleasure at seeing something new every day, even after all these years.
“It’s not a boring job,” Switala declared.
And it’s not a boring journey, despite what some people fear. Most passengers worship the Rockies — that’s when the dome car gets crowded — but the Prairies and Northern Ontario bush do it for me.
I was happiest in “no service” zones when I couldn’t compulsively check email on my iPhone. I loved that real life was miles away — and the fact the train world actually runs in miles. I was amused by “train time” when the crew delayed time-zone changes so as not to disrupt meals.
That last night, panicked to realize how precious few train hours were left, I cocooned in Château Cadillac F-130, staring out that extra-large window for one final sunset and making Canada a birthday promise: To give my kids a formative train memory this summer.
Jennifer Bain was hosted by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts and Via Rail Canada, neither of which reviewed or approved this story.
When you go
Do this trip: Find out more about the Canadian’s Toronto to Vancouver experience, and other train routes, at viarail.ca.
Top it up: Before getting on the Canadian in Toronto, I flew to Quebec City and started my journey at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, taking trains to Montreal (where Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth is poised to reopen), Ottawa (Fairmont Château Laurier) and Toronto (Fairmont Royal York). I had breakfast at the Fairmont Winnipeg and spent my final night at Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.
Fairmont has partnered with Via Rail Canada for Canada’s 150th birthday to launch the Great Canadian Railway Adventure, a 20-day, customized, luxury hotel/train trip (with tours and transfers) that starts at $11,988 and runs until Dec. 31. Details: Fairmont.com
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