The Canadian is one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world: 4,467km (2,792-mile) across Canada. Four nights, three days gazing at dense boreal forests, magnificent plains and the legendary Canadian Rockies. The steel train crosses over five Canadian states and four time zones.
We boarded the VIA flagship train in Union Station in Toronto, by the time alighted in Vancouver we had stars in our eyes. I am known to get bored rather fast. the prospect of spending three days in a train filled me with apprehension; when the station’s officer announced that the train was 4 hours late my heart sank. And when we were shown to our cabin, the size of it made my heart sink even further. I may have even died, as the next day I woke up in paradise and spent the best part of a week in the Great Train Journeys Wonderland.
A LEGENDARY TRAIN
“The Canadian” is so famous that it now appears on $10 bill. Originally built in 1955, it still cuts a fine figure, a real classic. The train consists of the original stainless-steel coaches and one to eight engines depending on the weather conditions.
The Canadian Pacific Railway opened the first trans-continental line across Canada in 1885, running from Montreal/Toronto to Vancouver via Winnipeg, Calgary and Banff. Nowadays the line is run by VIA Canada and takes a more northerly route across Canada via Edmonton and Jasper which allows passengers to enjoy an even more spectacular scenery.
The Canadian leaves Toronto Union Station at 22.00 and meanders the next day around the clock through the beautiful forests and the magnificent lakes of Ontario.
2 500 bodies of water. Until recently, they were all numbered, none of them had a name. Urban Legend has it that the computer-gaming world changed all that.
It is said that due to an increasing number of Geocatching participants getting lost in the woods, the rescue helicopters under pressure had great difficulties to pinpoint the wondering gamers; the authorities lost patience and named every single body of water to find the location of people lost in the wood, more easily.
On day 1, by dinner time, after an all day parade of trees of various shapes, sizes colours and species, passengers were ready for a change of scenery. Like on cue, on day 2, all the spruce had disappeared and the busy forests had given way to the emptiness of the prairies of Manitoba.
Endless fields which are so flat that in the far distance, they merge with the sky. Crossing Ontario, and you can’t help wondering about the hardship endured by the railway-workers who built this line. Crossing the prairies of Manitoba all the questions are around the modern life of farmers, so few towns, how do people entertain themselves?
The trains stops a couple of hours in Winnipeg. It was almost a shock after so much natural world to surrounded by skyscrapers and to glimpse at the ultra modern structure of the Human Rights Museum. It was almost a relief to board the train again and gaze at agricultural machinery of gargantuan proportion of the barns which due to their size could well house all the cornflakes flakes ever be eaten in the world.
Around dinner time on day 2, the excitement is palpable not only the train supplies were refilled at the last stop but a new “bubble car” has appeared. Glass-windows from the floor all the way around. It can only mean one thing, the train will enter the Rockies soon.
It’s not long before the train slows down as it starts its ascent, the excitement is palpable and quite rightly, the scenery is spectacular. It’s difficult to make out which mountain is which, among the highest peaks there is Mount Robson (3,954m /12,972ft). Even in June, the snow caps glistens.
It’s not only mountains, the list of rivers in the Canadian Rockies is very impressive too. The chief engineer’s voice (known as The Godfather) booms every now and then on the internal speaker system to explain the topography and the fauna. We learnt to recognise the Fraser river when it was nothing more than a rivulet before parting with it, like with an old friend, at Vancouver where its mighty river flood out to sea in the bay.
When it comes to the animal kingdom don’t expect too much. Of course, Canada is populated by beavers, geese, bears, moose and caribou but I didn’t really see anything much bigger than a chipmunk and when I spotted bisons it’s only because they were farmed. Though my partner was one of the lucky few who caught sight of a black bear waddling by the tracks.
Prior information could be more explicit, some of the passengers were slightly confused about classes and train cars.
There are three classes
Sleeper Plus which have collapsible armchairs during the day and two (or more) single birth at night, toilets, a basin and a tiny wardrobe. Doors lock from the inside . There is also large shower rooms are at the end of each carriage. Meals are included in Sleeper Plus but not alcoholic drinks.
Each carriage has an attendant, the staff is extremely dedicated, they will go the extra mile to make your journey one to remember.
In Spring 2015, Prestige class were introduced. Large bedroom with double bed, full en suite bathroom, plus a host of amenities including flat-screen TV (with a selection of videos) unlimited free drinks, including alcoholic drinks, 24-hour butler service.
There is also an economy class which consist of a seat in a space separated from the corridor by a curtain, no frills, no meals included.
The dining cars are named after famous luxury hotels located across Canada, The service runs like clockwork. The menus are pleasing and the food plates are generous, there is a option for everyone. Dinner time is the time to meet other passengers and share anecdotes.
Some passengers waited a lifetime to travel on the Canadian. It’s on the top of many bucket-lists but it’s a journey which ticks many other boxes: Nostalgia, Canadians reliving the trip they took years ago as newly arrived immigrants. We met a lady with her grand-daughter doing exactly that.
Train buffs, people celebrating the dawn of a new decade, couples marking an anniversary, passengers from all around the world, though luck would have it, the first people we met lived down the road from us in London (England). The train journey is a very sociable affair. The staff encourages people to mingle and there are activities such as videos, wine tasting, a appointed singer and even a welcome party with bubbly and canapés.
The journey ends in Vancouver-central a far less grand station than the fine Art nouveau style station of Toronto and a bit of an abrupt finish after the wonders of the trip.
Predictably, the Canadian Rockies, it’s a spectacle by day and somehow by night too, when nothing moves but the train making its way in narrow canyons lit only by the stars.
COST and BOOKING
Fares vary by time of year, higher from June to October, lower Jan-May & Nov-Dec. To give you an idea: a ticket for one, during the peak season will cost
in economy from CAD $425 in Sleeper Plus CAD $3900 in prestige CAD $7300
Just go to Via Rail to check fares for your date of travel in your chosen class.
There is no smoking policy on board but smokers seem content to wait for the next stop. Nicotine patches can help too
Make the most of the stops to walk- constant seating can be hard on the ankles
Don’t forget to pack a pair of binoculars- Only carry on luggage will fit in the cabin, the rest is stored in the hold for the duration of the trip.
Stops-over are possible, there are 3 train each way per week- Jasper is the most popular place to hop off.
Leave the window blinds opened at night, there is always something to see out there.