4466 kilometers. 4 days and 1 hour. Lakes, forests, plains, mountains. ‘The Canadian’ transcontinental from Toronto to Vancouver (and back if you like), across the world’s second-largest country, is arguably the world’s greatest train journey. And what a way to test the status of your love affair – whether it’s with trains or another human.
We set out from Toronto on a sunny summer morning. Union Station’s columned limestone façade glowed as we arrived to drop off our luggage. We were expecting queues but went almost straight through boarding to a marble waiting room with wood-paneled seats where coffee, juice, and Danish pastries were offered to all passengers.
We’d been to Montreal, to secret gigs and leaf-dappled parks. We’d spent a week in a cabin on a lake, coming face-to-face with deer and baking in the sunshine by a timber boathouse while mink and otters waggled to and fro. Our plan for Toronto was to spend just one afternoon and a night there. Friends had warned us the capital is not Canada’s most picturesque city. We stayed in an unswish guest house, the Pembroke, and lounged next to friendly addicts in Allen Gardens. We visited the ice hockey and music Hall of Fame that is Maple Leaf Gardens. We ate ramen. Frankly, we’d enjoyed ourselves. But the highlight of our trip – in the shape of streamlined aluminum Budd Company rolling stock – still awaited.
If you swot up on The Canadian, you’ll no doubt find complaints about the unpredictable duration of the journey. Freight transport shares rails with VIA Rail passenger trains – and as passengers, you do not have priority. You just have to wait your turn and watch while Red Barn locomotives and kilometers of boxcars go by. Yes, kilometers. To worry about punctuality or speed is to miss the point. There may be faster ways to cross Canada but board the Canadian and you’re there for the ride, for the experience, the views. And possibly for the food. A bit like a relationship.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little concerned about feeling fidgety or bored. I had some reading to do for work and I took it with me. I took my laptop so I could write. But as it turns out, I had vastly underestimated my own capacity to sit for hours and take in the landscape.
The first shunts or so as you leave Toronto and head west are not stunning. You crawl through suburbs and fairly ordinary countryside. What this gives you though, is a chance to get to know the train. We’d chosen a sleeper package at a discounted price (make sure you enquire about discounts). We had a private cabin in a ‘Manor car’, with a window, a loo, a washbasin, and two bunks. Bunks might not seem the right accommodation for, how shall I put it, ‘traveling with a significant other’, but perhaps that depends on how into each other you are. During daylight hours, the bunks folded away and two generous brown leatherette armchairs took their place. A shared shower was just along the corridor.
Of course, there were classes of travel above and below ours. Above, Prestige options propose fancier cabins with queen beds, plus 24-hour access to the cocktail bar and viewing wagon at the end of the train. On our tickets, we could access the cocktail bar only after 4 pm, and the restriction on our tendency to poison our livers seemed reasonable enough to us. Meanwhile, economy tickets offer a cheaper journey again, with chairs reserved in shared carriages that at night transform neatly into bunks hidden by privacy-curtains from walk-through corridors.
Entertainment took place in communal cars. Alongside non-stop access to free coffee, tea, soft drink, pastries, and biscuits, educational talks took place at scheduled times. It was an opportunity to bone up on Canadian history, flora, and fauna, to learn the difference between birch and poplar, to chill out to acoustic gigs, and take advantage of booze-tastings.
We learned quickly not to stuff ourselves with all those free snacks, so as not to spoil the romance of the restaurant car. Three courses, three times a day. Seasonal, regional dishes. White linen. Table service. The quiet murmur of diners and clink of cutlery. It was like something from an Agatha Christie novel.
Someone might well get away with murder on this train, because why pay close attention to your fellow travelers when Canada in all its glory is unfurling through the window? From your chosen vantage point, your cabin or perhaps the ‘skyline’ or ‘panorama’ cars whose transparent ceilings give the view an extra dimension, you can gaze day-long at armies of trees, at glittering lakes embroidered with gambrel-roofed cabins, or at Canadian Shield rock faces where black bears clamber.
You go to bed, to sleep, rocked like a baby, rattled occasionally by the doors on your washbasin cabinet, and wake to find, hours later, you still haven’t even left Ontario. Indeed, it took us 36 hours just to cross that first giant province – with Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia still to go. It seemed never-ending, in the best of ways. We settled into a different rhythm.
When the stops came, it began to feel an imposition to disembark and stretch our legs. But these stations in small-town, unincorporated, or remote-city Canada, are a short story unto themselves. Their names swing on signs as if a frontiersman has only just finished hammering them into place. McKee’s Camp. Sioux Lookout. Some are ‘flag stops’, meaning you only halt there by request. We wandered, dazed. Further, along with the platform, someone smoked a spliff fragrant with weed purchased, presumably legally, in one of Canada’s public marijuana retailers, pristine as pharmacies, with advice on strains and effects.
There is however no need to add to the hallucinatory charm of the journey. From the Narnia of Ontario, you enter the wide grasslands and prairies of southern Manitoba. Grain silos loom ominously into open skies above a flat earth landscape. Hours and hours and hours later we reached Winnipeg, a city named by First Nations for the silty water that flows off the prairies at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers.
One of the disadvantages of taking The Canadian as opposed to, say, driving, is that you don’t have time to properly visit the places you pass through. If you were to get out, wander, or even stay, there’d be no train passing through for days. You’d have to buy a new ticket. And if you’re thinking, as we did, the train is a green way to travel, think again. We were disappointed to realize its carbon footprint per traveler is greater than by air. This is due to the inefficient hulking old locomotives used because VIA Rail rent the tracks from the freight haulers who impose speed and gauge restrictions. Campaigners are seeking change.
Still, if every passenger were to try to do the same journey by car, it would be vastly more polluting, and comparing The Canadian to a domestic flight is unfair. In a plane, you do not get to witness and absorb so much of Canada which – as well as absorbing each other – was a huge part of the attraction for us.
We’d thought we’d have a few hours in Winnipeg, but the train was behind schedule and we ended up with barely one. Luckily, we’d done our research. We rushed from the train leaving good-humored staff to clean, to refresh linen, to restock the restaurant and bars, while we headed through urban parklands watched over by The Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
It’s a staggering building, clad in argon-filled interlocking glass. Inspired by dove-wings it resembles some kind of armored creature. Architect Antoine Predock conceptualizes his structures as ‘rides’ and has declared this his favorite project. You can see why.
With not enough time to go in, we admired it from a distance and headed to a covered market to grab a cheeky craft beer at The Common. (The craft beer scene in Canada deserves an article of its own). We caught up on the news. Somewhere way up in the north of the province, two young serial killers were on the run from the police, hiding in mosquito-infested swamps. Fearful of missing departure, we took our leave and I have to admit were slightly annoyed when re-embarkation was then delayed, but it gave us the chance to see more of Winnipeg station and its opulent design, by the same firm as New York’s Grand Central. Generations of immigrants have come and gone under its impressive marble, cream, and gold rotunda.
Back on the train, we left Manitoba and the ‘straits of the Great Spirit’ behind. We entered Saskatchewan. The train shadowed highways. We read our books. We fetched each other drinks and sat looking through the window. I’m sure we must have argued or bickered, but I have absolutely no memory of it. We dozed.
At Saskatoon, the station lies out-of-town. In damp grey air, we walked hand-in-hand along a ridge overlooking a car park. Gigantic trucks came and went. Beyond that, side-by-side on rail tracks the brutish noses and unending containers of cargo trains lined up as if starting an interminable race. Off we went again. Time and kilometers passed. We tried to imagine bitter winds blasting across the plains; winter temperatures of minus forty. Toweringly gothic potash mines yearned for the moon. In Edmonton, we waited for hours in dark sidings because the signalmen had gone home.
Then, in the white of morning, I woke to the sight of jagged rocks and a faint snowline. The Rockies were upon us.
No one can prepare you for the sheer awe induced by tall peaks against a butter churn sky while the length of your silver transport snakes around the valley floor. The train buzzed with excitement, chatter filling the breakfast car. At Jasper, we breathed cool mountain air and grabbed coffees and souvenirs, fantasizing now about skiing, or taking the Rocky Mountaineer – an even more luxurious gourmet rail experience with stops in hotels. It felt almost like treachery, so attached to our Number 1 Canadian had we become.
The final stretch, curving around foothills into Kamloops and onwards felt like an easy descent – almost too fast. We wanted to put on the brakes, savor the journey some more. There’s something magical about train travel, that sensation of purpose and progress combined with the ability to relax and enjoy the way. Arriving in Vancouver, this time we delayed our own departure, taking breakfast while other passengers – the Mormon, the poet, the US Navy veteran, people who had become our friends – made their way along with the platform outside and waved goodbye to us.
We sipped our coffee, bleary-eyed but happy. Together we’d passed some sort of test. We were ready for the next steps of our journey.