Riding The Rails Across a Continent - Canada, February 2019

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North America » Canada
February 25th 2019
Published: February 25th 2019
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It’s time to “go west woman” but instead of my normal jet travel this time it’s on a train, and what better way than to jump aboard Via Rail of Canada. I have done this coast-to-coast rail journey three times in the past, but I’m always ready to repeat the experience…..there’s just something about sleeping on a moving train that’s so exotic, so soothing – sure beats air turbulence at 39,000’. On this trip, I’ll be watching through a giant picture window as the landscape shifts from the dense forests and mirror-like lakes of Ontario's cottage country, to quaint ponds and meadows, to sweeping prairie grasslands, from sky-piercing mountains with pale blue lakes to lush rainforest and to the old growth cedars of the west coast. The train meanders through almost every type and flavor of landscape this amazing country has to offer - which is a lot, considering Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia. I’ll see it all from the comfort of my reclining seat - while enjoying the friendly hospitality Canadians are known for - and all this before finally arriving at the sparkling Pacific Ocean at the end of the line.

The Canadian runs 2 or 3 times a week, linking Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Jasper National Park in the Rockies and Vancouver, using original 1955-built stainless-steel coaches. There is a choice of travel: very affordably in Economy class in a reclining seat, or in Sleeper Plus class with a private sleeping-car room (what I have) and there are deluxe Prestige class sleepers too, introduced in 2014. Prices vary greatly depending on selection, and tickets can be purchased up to 11 months in advance. The journey originally took 3 nights but in December 2008, VIA Rail changed the timetable to enable passengers to see more of the Rockies in daylight. Today's Canadian takes the more northerly Canadian National route across Canada via Edmonton and Jasper completed in 1917. The only passenger train now remaining on the classic 1885 Canadian Pacific route through Calgary and Banff, is the Rocky Mountaineer tourist train, which only runs between Banff and Vancouver and only between the months of March and November.

Yes, you can stop off along the way, but each leg of your journey requires a separate reservation for a specific train and date. You can't buy an open ticket and hop on and off trains without a reservation. But it's easy to pre-book stopovers online, as Via Rail has a multi-city option which allows a Toronto-Vancouver journey with one or more stopovers at places along the way, such as Winnipeg or Jasper (for Jasper national park). Booking your trip using this multi-city feature is cheaper than buying a separate ticket for each leg.

If I had anything negative to say about this journey, it is that the line shares its tracks with the freight lines. And as those folks are on very tight schedules and have priority, the VIA Rail Canadian has to wait and let them pass whenever needed. Therefore, I wouldn’t plan any pressing business meeting or other obligation immediately following the journey, as you will more than likely miss it. Sadly, delays seem to be more the rule than the exception. It has already happened to me: the incoming train from Vancouver was delayed some 19 hours in Winnipeg, so now I won’t leave Toronto until the following day.

A little bit of history:

Throughout the colonial period, Canada's vast and far-reaching territory was largely uninhabited, making living conditions very difficult. Harsh winters made travelling almost impossible and many villages were left isolated for months at a time. Automobiles were not yet invented, bicycles still decades away. To allow this country to thrive (as opposed to merely survive), to ensure that travel, commerce and development would flourish, a railway had to be built - one that would alter the course of Canadian and North American history. Established by the government in 1977, VIA Rail Canada breathed new life into the country's railways by becoming its first national passenger rail company….. and the rest as they say, is history.

If taking a train across Canada isn’t on your bucket list, it totally should be! Seeing the majority of the country from Toronto to Vancouver via rail, is an unforgettable experience like no other. You go to sleep in one province and time zone and wake up in a completely different part of the continent. This train is a wonderful way to slow travel across country and enjoy the scenery, cities, and people along the way. I’m traveling along the great western way, in a private sleeper-plus cabin, crossing three time zones and four provinces, covering a total of 2,775 miles, making 7 stops over 4 nights and 3 days, until I reach the end of the line.

I have slept in cars, on planes, on ferries, in tents, on cruise ships and even in airports, but sleeping on a train is something special and is one of the best parts about taking a rail journey. The click-clacking rhythmic sound of the cars traveling over metal tracks, coupled with the relaxing movement of the train, rocks anyone to sleep in no time. The train motion is enough to feel completely relaxed without feeling anxious about the constant movement. For an even more restful night, don’t forget to bring a sleep mask and earplugs for maximum comfort.

By selecting a “sleeper plus” class ticket, I have access to the private dining car supplying three very yummy meals a day. At each meal, an extensive menu offers a soup or salad starter, a choice of entrees, and a choice of dessert. The food onboard is high quality and home-cooked by Via Rail chefs. They have the ability to make minor substitutions, since everything is made-to-order and from scratch right in the train’s kitchen. An all-Canadian wine list is available for an additional fee.

Via Rail provides a variety of activities onboard such as wine and beer tasting parties, live music, discussions regarding the territory currently being traversed and much more. There are also magazines, books and a constant supply of coffee, tea, and snacks available 24/7. On-board entertainment is available in the Skyline Car, which contains a library and a lounge where drinks are served. Alternatively, relaxation is found in the comfortable armchairs of the Bullet Lounge and an opportunity to admire the views that embrace the large wrap-around windows. My personal favorite is sitting upstairs in the Panorama Vista Dome Car where windows stretch to the ceiling, affording 360-degree views. It is up in the dome car where I meet most of the other passengers, but the dining car is another great meeting place. Rarely do you get to sit alone at a 4-seater table, since the dining car is small and there are a lot of people all wanting to eat at the same time. Nothing like breaking bread or sipping a good wine with total strangers to develop new friendships.

Tourist Tip:

By signing up on Via Rail’s website (www.viarail.com), you receive an email every Tuesday with great discounts for all the Canadian network-wide routes. Join their frequent guest program, and you earn points on every trip which can be applied to future rides, including the weekly deals. The very best fares are to be found during “Black Friday” sales, i.e. I purchased mine for this trip and saved 48%!o(MISSING)ff the regular fare.

Car 110/Room 3 is where I hang my hat for the next few days. My single cabin is approximately 6’x4’, with a private toilet (covered by the bed at night), a washbasin and a full mirror. Showers are located at the end of the car and shared by others. The cabin door only locks from within – no individual keys – so leaving any valuables in the cabin unattended is obviously not an option. There’s a large, very comfy chair next to the large picture window, which has pull-down blinds. Other amenities include a fan, air conditioning, drinking water, towels, pillows, sheets, a blanket and toiletries. The car attendant turns my cabin from day room to bedroom and back again each day and replenishes any items as necessary – I love the idea of having a maid on call! And to make tonight even more interesting, there will be a “super snow moon” which is when the moon is simultaneously full and at its perigee, the point in its orbit when it is closest to Earth. When this happens, the moon appears larger and brighter in the sky. Will make for fantastic photos, for sure.

Day 1:Arriving at Toronto’s Union Station early the next morning and checking into Via Rail’s Business Lounge, I’m told the previously-announced 11am departure time has now been pushed back yet another hour….at this rate, not even sure we will get out of here today! This trip just keeps getting better and better, huh? Thankfully the lounge has decent Wifi -unfortunately, it doesn’t exist onboard for the journey – only at major stations along the route - however it is available on east coast corridor trains. Also, cell phone service is spotty at best, so I plan on being disconnected a lot and enjoying that freedom. At least I’ll be able to recharge my laptop, Kindle and smartphone onboard from the outlets (same configuration as the US – 110v) in my cabin and the communal cars.

Finally after yet another delay -albeit only 30 minutes this time – I got to board at 12:30pm and upon finding my cabin, wouldn’t you know it, the toilet had been taken apart and it was sitting in pieces on the floor! I immediately stowed my bags and coat in the closest vacant cabin across the aisle, grabbed my camera and purse and headed for the skyline car upstairs – the attendants can figure all this out, I prefer to be sightseeing. For the next couple of hours, I kicked back and enjoyed the scenery of Toronto suburbs and by the time they announced the second seating for lunch just after 2pm, I was more than ready for something tasty. First meal onboard and I wasn’t disappointed. Crisp white linen tablecloths with flowers, beautiful linen napkins and printed menus – first class for sure. I was seated with a couple from Victoria and a single lady from Edmonton – delightful company which matched the meal. Garden vegetable soup in a tomato base for starters, followed by a delicious BBQ pulled pork sandwich accompanied by a small Caesar salad. Dessert was an outstanding thick wedge of chocolate brownie topped with vanilla ice cream – so far, so good. If this is an example of lunch on the train, bring on dinner. I had been given the choice of first or second sitting for the reserved lunch and dinner times – breakfast is a free-for-all between 6:30 and 8:30 each morning and its first come, first served. I went with the second sitting, so I eat lunch around 2pm and dinner at 7:30pm for the entire trip.

Now it’s almost 4pm and we are passing thru endless snow-covered forests and open meadows, with the occasional house and barn close to the tracks. It’s at least 10” deep in most places and totally pristine, with a couple of crystal-clear lakes thrown in for good measure. The sky is grey and overcast, probably holding the promise of more snow in the immediate future. There doesn’t seem to be that many passengers on this trip – probably because the kids are in school and mid-February is generally not the time to take extended train vacations here. I spent the rest of the afternoon up in the dome car, watching magnificent scenery flash past the windows and taking photographs.

Before dinner, I wanted to get my tiny cabin organized so I’m not falling over bags, shoes and my feet constantly. The attendant suggested I use another empty cabin to stow anything I didn’t need, which has proven to be a godsend. Now I just have my small roller bag containing enough clothes for the entire trip and my toiletry bag under the seat – everything else is sitting behind closed doors across the aisle – couldn’t ask for a better solution. Next, I simply had to try out the shower at the end of the car – what a hoot – you try standing up stark naked in a small shower stall, trying to lather unmentionable body parts, while bouncing from wall to wall as the train is racing down the tracks! However, the plentiful supply of hot water and a high-pressure showerhead made up for it all. I can get use to this in a hurry – it’s just a case of mind over matter (yeah right…. LOL). Dinner was another delightful surprise: New England clam chowder, prime rib, wild rice with green beans, followed by a raspberry lemon cake and coffee…. the meals onboard this train are definitely the highlight of the trip, closely followed by the scenery.

Day 2: I slept very little during the night – the train was far noisier than I remember and the 3 or 4 stops we had, woke me each time. Finally I just sat up, wrapped myself in the duvet and watched the blizzard raging outside my window. It was virtually a “whiteout” for a couple of hours and then the skies cleared enough to be able to view this incredible winter wonderland. Mile upon mile upon mile of snow-laden pine trees and massive drifts building against rocky outcroppings close to the tracks. We were literally in the middle of Ontario and in the middle of nowhere – it was gorgeous. With no light other than that from a few train windows reflecting on the outside snow, it was as dark as Hades out there and just as mysterious.

At breakfast, I learned from one of the staff that our train is following two freight trains, and as they have priority on the tracks, we have been unable to go around them and try to make up for lost time. We are now 17 hours behind schedule, and there’s a good chance we won’t arrive in Vancouver until late on Sunday evening (our original schedule was 6pm Saturday). Obviously there is nothing that can be done and on the bright side, it gives me more time to ride the rails, which doesn’t faze me in the least.

It had started out as a beautiful morning with clearing skies and a lovely sunrise, but by 9am the clouds rolled back in and it started to snow again (what else is new?) – there’s enough of the white stuff out here to bury Manhattan 3 times over. We stopped for almost 30 minutes in Hornepayne, which is the northernmost town in Ontario, and our next stop where I will get off for some fresh air and to stretch my legs, will be at Sioux Lookout in about 8 hours.

Other than chowing down on another delicious lunch (Canadian Bison Burger), I spent most of the day up in the dome car watching the weather alternate between blue sky and sun then back to snowfall, and of course taking a bevy of photographs from my elevated position. At one point as we were at a standstill AGAIN waiting on a freight train, I could see the fat fluffy flakes spiraling lazily down from a grey leaden sky – it was hypnotic, as the small snow drifts began building on the carriage rooftops. By midafternoon, an announcement was made to adjust our watches – we had just past over into the central time zone – great, now I have a 25-hour day to enjoy – two more zones to cross.

Dinner was yet again a culinary delight – stuffed portobello mushrooms with wild rice and a chocolate/caramel torte for dessert….no, I don’t have a single negative to say about the food onboard – it’s amazing – and considering there is only one chef preparing every morsel, that says a lot!

Day 3: I had jolted awake a few times during the night, but it wasn’t until I finally got up and dressed, that I discovered we had spent the past 5 hours in the rail yards of Winnipeg…. oh god, here we go again. Apparently when the train arrived here around 3am, the old crew got off, the new crew came onboard and then it was discovered we had locomotive issues – it’s déjà vu. This now puts us at least 24 hours behind schedule and I truly have no idea as to when we will arrive in Vancouver….travel sure can be a challenge at times.

Breakfast begins around 6:30am but as the electricity had been going on and off during the past five hours, the kitchen couldn’t even get the toaster working, not to mention the coffee pot was also a no-go! When I eventually made it to the dining car around 8am, thankfully order seemed to have been restored, we were underway once more, and I was able to order my buckwheat blueberry pancakes – heaven on a plate covered in maple syrup, with lots of strong coffee to get my eyes open. There hasn’t been another electrical outage now for about 3 hours – fingers crossed!

We are now midway across the continent, deep in the prairies of Manitoba – endless flat plains covered in deep snow – grain silos and small farms the only structures looming above this vast desolation. Returning to my favorite perch up in the dome car, I spy small animal tracks zig-zagging across this pristine landscape. Most appear to be rabbit or hare tracks, but some are much larger – coyotes, wolves, white tail deer? Many come right up to the rails – I’m surprised I don’t see “roadkill” carcasses scattered around, but if coyotes are here, there probably wouldn’t be. We are averaging a slowdown/stop for freight trains at least five times an hour – I don’t recall having this many disruptions on prior rail journeys, but they are definitely adversely affecting this trip. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if passengers started a pool as to when we will see the end of the line.

Just crossed the Province border into Saskatchewan and pushed our watches back another hour for mountain time. We have enjoyed the best weather day so far – brilliant, cloudless blue skies and plenty of sunshine…. makes everything seem so much better overall. I hadn’t yet taken the hike to the rear of the train where the Park Car Lounge is located (very last car with the wrap-around windows), and today seemed the perfect opportunity to do so. Spent the rest of the afternoon at that location and had a fantastic time with a group of passengers, people I had met over the past couple of days.

Delays continue unfortunately – the hours we are running late mounts – I’ve lost count of how many so far. Some of the passengers are really concerned, especially one young man who is scheduled to sit a college examination early on Monday morning back in Toronto – there is no hope that he will be making that appointment. I’ll be amazed if we are even arriving in Vancouver by that time! I hear numerous stories of missing flights, losing hotel reservations, trying to reach friends/relatives with the news of our delays – what was once laughing called a reality show – we have blown right by that - this is fast becoming a soap opera. I had previously cancelled the hotel I had in Vancouver and I’ll be able to swap my Amtrak ticket for a new one, so I really can’t get too emotional about it all this. I’m having a great time and will be happy if and when we actually do arrive on the west coast.

Day 4: Awoke at 5am and the train was at a dead stop in Saskatoon. Tried to log into the station’s Wifi portal but didn’t have the required password. It’s been four days without any connection and it’s a very “freeing” experience – however, I imagine my email boxes jammed to the max at this point. We spent a couple of hours in Saskatoon Station and started to roll forward once more, just as dawn was making her appearance on the new-day stage. I overheard one of the staff say we are some 30 hours behind – this just gets better and better – I knew I should have gotten that betting pool started! We haven’t begun the slow uphill climb into the Rockies as yet, but that should be happening later today. Not only will the scenery be magnificent, but opportunities exist for even more delays with the amount of snow and ice which awaits us there. Our next official station stop is Edmonton, Alberta – hopefully I can get off the train and plug into the cyber world for a few minutes, if only to see what the US stock markets have been up to during my absence from the ‘Net.

Still crossing the endless prairies…. I’m eager to see the peaks of the Rockies appear on the distant horizon but patience is a virtue, so I’m told….. time to once again kick back and relax up in the dome car after breakfast with my camera and trusty Kindle. Around noon, the skies clear and blue patches appear along with brilliant sunlight, making the glare reflecting from snow surfaces painful to the eyes…. now where did I put my shades? The prairie scenery hasn’t changed for the past two days, I’m SO ready for mountains and more pine trees. The past three days have settled into a routine. We mark time as pre- or post-breakfast, lunch and dinner and the only decisions needed to be made, are whether or not we read in the Park Car Lounge or play cards in the Skyline Car…..what a life! It’s become a small community of approximately 50 regulars, some of whom will be leaving the train later today when we stop in Edmonton – I believe I’ll actually miss them.

When the crew change was made in Winnipeg, David became my new car attendant/porter/go-to person…. a budding writer of great potential. He has been keeping notes of his daily interactions with passengers/crew for many years, and when I had the opportunity to read these, I laughed so hard I almost cracked a rib. I have no doubts whatsoever the incidents he related are true – you can’t make this stuff up! I’ve been actively encouraging him to publish these in “blurb” form on social media…. I can easily see him becoming an online star when his material goes viral. He is certainly a man of many talents. Not only does he work for Via Rail (covering multiple jobs, I might add), but he also bakes some outstanding bread (I should know, I’ve tasted it – delicious) and apparently his soups are special too – hopefully I’ll get to taste those as well before the end of the trip.

Another interesting couple are Michael and Sarah who constitute the entertainment portion of the rail journey - they remind me of wandering troubadours of the 1960’s hippie era. I first heard them sing in the business lounge back in Toronto – they are quite good – apparently they are headed to Vancouver for a gig at a local pub.

Just as dusk was settling onto the landscape, we finally made our long overdue entrance into Edmonton…. the entire train broke out in applause. A 45-minute stopover was announced – we had various people getting off and a small crowd getting on, for the last segment run to Vancouver. Grabbing my laptop, I made a beeline for the station waiting room, logged on and was able to download the first 200+ emails before the server timed out and I had to jump back onboard. Just the short 20’ walk outdoors from the train car to the station was a freezing experience literally – considering it was -30c with the wind chill factor, I’m surprised I didn’t develop icicles hanging from my earlobes.

Every evening at the conclusion of dinner, coffee is served along with chocolate mint sticks we know as “After 8’s” – they are so additive, especially when melted in coffee. I complimented Glenda, the restaurant supervisor, on these yummy treats and next thing I know, she has a case of them delivered to me. Known as “Ovation” sticks in Canada, it’s a combination of luxurious dark chocolate filled with crème de menthe…. I have enough for a year now. How fantastic is that?

As I was preparing to call it a night and return to my cabin, David had yet another surprise for me….one I’m still reeling over. I had been reassigned from cabin 3 to cabin E which is a one-bedroom suite, combined with an adjacent cabin used as a living room. It’s at least 6 times the size of my previous accommodation. A table and chair had been set up next to the picture window, so I can write while watching the Rockies roll by. Does it get any better than this – I don’t think so! The night marked the best night’s sleep I have enjoyed since the start of this rail journey. I have so much room in here, I could hold a dance and invite 5 people comfortably. I may only have a couple of nights to enjoy it before it all comes to an end, but I’m going to make the most of very minute.

Day 5: The next morning around 3am, we rolled into Jasper, Alberta – gateway to Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and some of the most stunning scenery to be found anywhere on earth. Normally there is a long stopover for sightseeing but with our arrival being middle of the night and the current delay situation (now in the 38-hour range), we spend only the bare minimum needed before departing. However, I was able to take some photos of this western frontier town, capturing the magic and ambiance of a mountain village, built around a railway station. We have crossed our final time zone and are officially back on Pacific time – all hail to the travel gods on high. This last segment is the most beautiful of the entire coast-to-coast trip. The weather gods have granted us cloudless blue skies, brilliant sunshine and in spite of the bone-chilling outdoor temperatures, passengers insulated in this steel chariot are having one hell of a travel day. Currently, I’m sitting in my “living room/office” cabin in stunned awe at the staggering scenery surrounding me. This is definitely “God’s Country” – photographs can never do it justice. The lower mountain slopes are thickly encrusted with evergreen pine forests, while the shimmering peaks are clad in their winter finery, deep snow layers glistening with frost and ice crystals reflecting the morning sunlight. The many small lakes, ponds and rivers are mostly frozen over, but some have melted ice “windows” revealing the dark blue, crystal clear water beneath. Having this entire day to cross the region and into British Columbia, I expect to have hundreds of photos before I exhaust my camera’s batteries. The remainder of the morning was spent in my usual Dome perch and with this type of stunning scenery, I didn’t move from it until lunch was announced.

During what is probably my last lunch onboard, I chow down on a BBQ pulled pork sandwich and crème brulee with whipped cream. As this is an additional unscheduled day of travel, the kitchen is running low on supplies, so no soup for you today! No idea what the incredible restaurant staff and chef will whip together for our last dinner, but no doubt it will do Via Rail proud. Our last stop before Vancouver was the town of Kamloops, where we had a short 10-minute stop…. not enough time to dive into the station and take advantage of their decent Wifi signal unfortunately. We have had only two or three freight train interruptions/diversions this entire morning – maybe a positive sign that the worse it now behind us? Only time will tell.

Good news! It seems that barring any more mishaps, extended freight train interruptions or even Viking raids/pirate attacks, we should be rolling into Pacific Central Train Station in Vancouver around midnight…..there is a god! As it appears we now have light at the end of the tunnel, I turn my attention to packing and enjoying the rest of the day, viewing the Frazier Valley landscape as we approach the Pacific Ocean. It was somewhat of a sad last dinner onboard, saying goodbye to the Via Rail staff with whom we have formed such great friendships – David and Glenda went “above and beyond” to take care of all my needs. These are two very special people who really know the value of customer service; I only hope Via Rail knows what assets they have in these two.

It’s just after midnight…alighting from the train with luggage in hand, I locate the Via Rail representative inside the station and receive my transfer and hotel vouchers. The Best Western hotel is a short taxi ride away, and once I have the hotel’s Wifi connection, I can find a Delta flight to get me home within the next 24 hours. It’s all well that ends well. This is certainly one adventure I will remember for a very long time. It does feel good to walk on ground that isn’t swaying from side to side. Cheers……

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