I recently boarded The Canadian to accomplish a travel goal – to ride the transcontinental scenic route between Toronto and Vancouver. Travel was to be simple: I board the correct train and chug along in the correct direction, leaving the rest to Canada. Before departure, I discovered there was more than just buying a ticket.
Depart from East or West?
I chose this train for the scenery. Direction becomes important for timing passage through spectacular vistas during daylight. Canadian Rail posts a detailed itinerary as to expected time of arrival into each station. Keep in mind, trains in Canada are much like Amtrak in the U.S. – they wait on the freights and a perfect schedule should not be expected. One can arrive early or one can arrive a day late.
We chose to begin in Toronto. Departing Union Station at 9:45 am, we left urban Toronto to enter a stark countryside of snow, rivers and leafless trees, reaching Sudbury in daylight. By evening, the train’s headlight outlined our path and revealed it was snowing – hard.
After Sudbury we passed endless lakes and maneuvered tunnels of trees through Sioux Lookout, Whiteshell Provincial Park and into Winnipeg by sunset of our second day. Entering the Winnipeg station for the internet and their Christmas tree, it is a balmy -8º.
Summer or Winter?
A second decision is when to travel. Many people do not consider the advantages of riding the rails in winter. I suggest winter when the mountains and trees are covered with snow. Actually, everything was covered in snow. Highlights of this trip are nature’s abundance of trees and the mountains. Both are spectacular in the winter.
While most trees are conifers with a plethora of spruce, firs and pines, there are forests of deciduous tress like the birch that lose their leaves and allowed us to enjoy vistas that otherwise would have been blocked by vegetation. For us, snow flocked the conifer trees but the abundant deciduous trees were leafless.
The Canadian sped down the tracks through tunnels of trees, heavy snow flakes, and occasional clouds of snow stirred up by the passage of fast-moving freight trains. All the while, the train was warm and snug.
However, don’t underestimate how cold regions of Canada can become in winter. I have trained across Siberia in March and been to the Antarctic. In Saskatoon, the temperature was -25º F but felt like -47º! Just a short walk into the station was brutal.
Another advantage in winter is that the trains are shorter and less crowded. In summer, there will be over 30 cars full of tourists and travelers and that is a loooong walk. Our train contained 9 cars and at times less than 35 passengers.
Overnight stay or remain on the train?
Some passengers booked overnight stays along our route. This is possible to arrange both on your own or through Canadian Rail. We stayed for the full four nights on the train. The accommodations were good, though tight, and the food and service were excellent.
There are several choices of accommodations from economy seats to sleeper cars. We enjoyed a sleeper for two which had a sink and toilet. Clean and roomy showers were at the end of each car. Also, we enjoyed the prestigious Park Car throughout each day; normally it would be restricted to higher priority riders.
Download the VIA app (Via Rail Canada) and join VIA Préférence?
Not only does VIA Préférence provide booking options, but it is the place to find specials and store points. VIA Rail Canada awards a mile per dollar spent and these miles accumulate to pay for future trips. Opening a membership before booking your first ticket, you will get bonus sign-up points. Most of the Canadians I spoke with are masters at this points game.
I met several Canadians on board who traveled frequently via rail and used their points for free trips and upgrades (one on his 50th trip). For my trip, I earned 1,972 points. A Montréal to Quebec trip will cost 1,625 points.
Be aware that prices may be quoted in Canadian Dollar. Be sure to adjust your settings to show the correct currency.
Meet Canadian locals?
Established by the Canadian government in 1977, VIA Rail became Canada’s first national passenger rail company. It is required to operate intercity passenger rail and receives annual subsidies to offset the cost of operating services connecting remote communities. Thus, it stops on call. There are over 60 stops between Toronto and Vancouver.
I expected a train of tourists from the U.S. and around the world taking a world-famous scenic ride on the rails. What I found was a train of Canadians who were going to see their grandchildren, returning home by rail rather than drive or fly, students going home, and a few who just love rail travel and spend many days a year going one place or another. There were plenty of railfans and “ferroequinologists” aboard to entertain us with their knowledge and tales. Rather than cruise ships, Paul seemed to practically live on trains. Prepare for endless stories at meals and in the public cars.
You will meet an assortment of local Canadians in winter. I doubt this will happen in the high tourist season.
Which amenities are important?
In high season, there are more amenities. These may include activities like wine tasting to a broader dining menu. Menus are posted online so you can consider your food choices. There are two sittings for dining and it is a “forced social” as you will be seated with others. We signed up for the second seating, which was less busy. It can be a long walk to the dining car, especially when the passageways are frozen with snow, but the service and food are superb.
While there is 24-hour tea and coffee, the company’s invitation to B.Y.O.B. was welcome. In Toronto we bought wine for our room. There was always an abundant supply of snow to chill drinks! And we didn’t feel we missed anything.
We made brief stops in numerous small villages and sometimes what looked like a road through the fields. If someone wanted to deboard in Melville at 3 am, then the train stopped to let them off.
Through the night, our train traveled from Winnipeg northwest and daylight found us crossing the frigid, flat plains of Saskatchewan. Telegraph poles tilt askew along our path, no longer needed for communication between stations. Miles and miles of fallow fields and plains surround us. Huge grain elevators dot the landscape; this is the bread basket of Canada. Trees are planted to serve as windbreaks. A small buffalo herd graze in a field, otherwise wildlife is sparse.
Also seen is a parhelion or “sun dog,” a vertical sun pillar of rainbow colors with a horizontal line of light that was low on the horizon to the right of the sun. Sun dogs are refractions of sunlight on ice crystals, of which this area has plenty.
Our stop in Saskatoon is brief and COLD! Passing through the train’s gangway from one car to the next, it is like traversing a freezer. Snow has accumulated on everything and provides needed icy chill for my evenings’ aperitif. Darkness returns. A green light is ahead. We have the “Go” to enter the next block; no freight trains speeding our direction. A full moon is behind us. It’s dark, the air thick with snow. Skeletons of trees fly by our windows. It truly feels like we are aboard the Polar Express.
What about daylight and time changes?
Winter means shorter days. Leaving Toronto going West, you will traverse 3 time zones, gaining 3 hours as you travel west. In early December, sunset was an early 4 – 4:30 pm with total darkness soon after. Daybreak came late, between 8 – 9 am. These are considerations one makes when weighing the pros and cons of winter travel.
Barring any big delays, an online real-time schedule helps determine approximately where the train will be during daylight hours. Of course, the train will have delays. However, we learned that the train builds many hours into its schedule thus helping to assure on-time arrival at the final destination. In between departure and arrival, delays will happen regardless of which direction and which season you travel. Held up for about 3 hours east of Jasper, we still arrived into Vancouver ahead of schedule. (You are warned to not schedule a tight flight departure the same day.)
Morning sunrise couldn’t be better. We awaken to the sight of the Canadian Rockies as we approach the town of Jasper and the gateway to Jasper National Park. (This area is your best chance to see elk and other wildlife.) Temperatures are a mild -23º which allows us to bundle up and walk around Jasper to look at its totem and early steam locomotive. I feel like I did as a kid when I bundled up for extreme cold in the Midwest, tired of the cold and snow within 30 minutes, then couldn’t wait to get back inside and peel off layers of heavy clothes.
It is at this point in the journey that we enter some of the most spectacular vistas of the trip. We weave our way through the Rockies between the North Thompson River and Yellowhead Highway. Mt Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet, looms in the background. Beyond Valemount, on the left side, we see a solidly frozen Pyramid Creek Falls before nightfall. No doubt whatsoever that it has to be cold to freeze a fast-flowing water fall.
With a brief stop in Kamloops North, -23º, we continue our journey in darkness. The full moon rises behind us, my hope for an Aurora remains unfulfilled, and our train’s headlight draws us around curves and through tunnels of trees. The occasional train horn sounds into total darkness. We are as isolated as we can be as we speed toward Vancouver.
Making the most of your experience
Whether you hanker for trees, open flat plains, mountain vistas, or lakes and rivers, you will see plenty.
Sleeper amenities of linens, shampoos, and towels are good but there are items to bring for a better experience. I suggest booties for the shower, any alcohol you may want for your room, dollars for tips. We used American dollar. Currently it is stronger than the Canadian dollar and being so close to the boarder, many of the personnel onboard visit America throughout the year.
Don’t rely on finding any wifi at stations; Cell service is spotty but I usually connected several times a day in order to update maps and weather apps, etc. Some U.S. phone plans include Canada service. I purchased an inexpensive data plan for Canada from Airalo.
Consider these options before booking your rail experience. And happy travels aboard.