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All Aboard the VIA Rail
Waiting at Toronto’s Union Station to board the VIA Rail train, I notice that I don’t quite seem to fit in. The big bulk of passengers is made up of retirees planning to enjoy each others company and gourmet three-course meals while patiently watching the world roll by. Elderly couples sip champagne and laugh together as they ask Laura the service manager about boarding, meal times and what stops are going to be made.
And then there is me, furiously typing away on my laptop, trying to get the most out of my last remaining minutes of internet and wondering about cabin fever and how exactly I’ll pass the time on a three day train trip. While the VIA Rail fares are admittedly not the cheapest, the younger generation is notably absent in the waiting hall. I suspect the cause only partly being the cost, but mostly the long days without cell reception and the notable lack of entertainment that does not include board games and pretty scenery.
The Train Journey of a Lifetime
After dabbling in some longer train rides across Europe and Asia, I have decided to hop on what is commonly described as one of the greatest train journeys in the world: crossing Canada aboard the stainless-steel wagons making up The Canadian. If there’s one trip that will make you feel the sheer diversity and size of Canada, it is this one. On the VIA Rail, the journey is the destination and people join not only to experience the worlds second largest country, but also to escape from anonymous, rushed airports, the lack of space and crappy meals in tin foil. The train and the journey it makes are famous, passing through the dense trembling aspen forests and clear ponds of the Canadian Shield, the endless flat prairies of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, the tall grey peaks of the Rocky Mountains and eventually making its way across British Columbia to Vancouver and the coast. Alas, I would get out in Edmonton before heading into the mountains, but the three day journey from Toronto to Edmonton would give me a great insight into what a multi-day train ride through Canada is like.
When boarding time comes around, friendly staff help me find my cabin and after I have dropped off my heavy camera bag, I immediately go on an exploratory walk through the endless seeming line of cars. I pass through luxurious sleeper cabins, restaurant cars, kitchen cars, cars with fold down seating for the budget travelers and eventually end up in one of the panorama cars just as we are pulling out of the station. While I watch the lights of the big city and the CN Tower fade into the distance, I join the other passengers with a glass of champagne. We laugh when the stench of a skunk hits our nostrils and we guess how many we will smell between here and the end of our trip.
Eventually I wander back to my cabin, smiling at the little chocolate left on my pillow and opening the faucets, peeking into the toilet stall and turning on the fan. I marvel at how comfortable and cozy the VIA Rail accommodation is, despite being small and the constant rattling groans of the metal.
I wake up to a blur of trees outside of my window, with the sun just rising behind them. The fall colours are in full display and bright orange trembling aspens compete with deep red maple trees and the yellow of larches. Once in a while a lake with picturesque cabins along the shore pops up among the rolling hills and whizzes past. Towns with dirt roads and piles of firewood out front can be seen as well, but they are few and far between. Ever the geographer, my travel partner Brendan informs me that the Canadian Shield is a mineral belt. Due to the rocky surface, population is sparce, but mining seems to be pretty popular.
The Canadian: a Social Train
We head off to breakfast, where we are immediately seated at a table with a woman in her sixties. After the introductions are over, the usual questions are asked: Where are you from? And where are you heading? We find out over enormous servings of eggs, bacon, fruit and yoghurt that she is from Ottawa and taking the train to visit her daughter in Vancouver. Since she has never been to the Rockies, she’s getting off the train for a few days in Jasper. Brendan, who spent his university years tour guiding in the area, gives tips on what to do and see.
At lunch we meet a retired university professor who’s taking VIA Rail and Amtrak all around Northern America – a grand journey as she calls it – and afterwards we play a round of scrabble with a guy who tells us about his model trains and that he can’t believe he’s travelling in the real version of his favourite panorama car.
Trains are the big passion of many passengers aboard The Canadian and their excitement is contagious. Many of them have crossed Canada on the VIA Rail multiple times and I can start to feel myself joining their ranks.
Once in a while we are allowed to disembark while watchful attendants make sure that no one strays too far from the gravel or concrete strips adjoining the wagons. They need not have worried though, as everyone is always happy to get back to the comforts of the friendly service, warm seats and good views. Only in Winnipeg are we allowed to wander a bit, as the train makes a stop for a full three hours. I get a 10 minute internet fix over coffee at Starbucks, but decide I haven’t missed it after all and head out to explore the city instead. By the time I get back to the train, cold and with a memory card full of photos from Winnipeg that I decide would look great in black and white, I’m almost relieved to return to the slow pace and comforts of The Canadian.
Although there is no internet, no fancy entertainment and only great food to eat and some spectacular scenery moving by, I never feel bored. Instead of feeling trapped in a cabin with nothing to do, I feel liberated from the constant need to be online and to do something productive. It feels relieving to talk to people again, face to face, learn about their journeys, where they are from, where they are hoping to go next and trading tips and tricks on destinations. The pace is slow, nothing feels rushed and you know what, playing scrabble with a bunch of great people having the time of their life on a train is pretty awesome too.
Do I recommend crossing Canada by train at least once in your life? My answer is a resounding yes. Disconnect from the fast paced world for a while and just enjoy the VIA Rail ride and the breathtaking views.