Although no one has suggested that my plan to take the train across Canada with my family is “an act of insane recklessness” (that was Opposition leader Alexander Mackenzie’s reaction in 1871 when he heard that Sir John A. Macdonald was going to build a railway across the sparsely populated country), some friends are clearly flummoxed.
“Doesn’t that train trip take, like, forever?” asks one friend. In fact, it’s a three-day journey from Toronto to Vancouver aboard Via Rail’s Canadian train.
“And your teenage sons want to do this trip?” asks another (who, it must be noted, was recently told by her teenage daughter that she is far too embarrassing to be seen with in public).
Thankfully my sons, Spence and Shane, who are 14 and 16 years old, once worshipped at the altar of Thomas the Tank Engine, and are keen to sleep on a train. They also like the fact that, by riding the rails back to our home in Vancouver rather than flying, we’ll reduce the environmental impact of our trip. (Via Rail reports that rail greenhouse-gas emissions are 20 percent of those of aircraft, and less than half of those of automobiles on a per-passenger basis.)
Our rail adventure begins the night before the train departure, when we stay at the Fairmont Royal York, a grand railway hotel across from the Toronto train station that was built in 1929. We love the vintage feel of the place, its location within walking distance of the CN Tower and the stadium where the Blue Jays play, and the fact that a tunnel connects the hotel to the station.
We roll through the tunnel at 8:20 a.m. for our 9 a.m. departure. Oops. Savvy fellow passengers in Silver & Blue Class (Via Rail’s premium service that includes three meals a day and private sleeping quarters) have checked in, and all of the decent mealtime reservations are gone.
That first day we’ll wait until 2 p.m. for lunch and 9 p.m. for dinner—wonderfully romantic times if you’re on a European holiday with your amour, a tad challenging with hungry teenagers. (To their credit, train attendants ensure that the better meal times are shared around in subsequent days.)
Climbing into the gleaming stainless-steel railcars is like stepping aboard a cruise ship—albeit a really skinny one. Everything to keep us fed, watered, and amused for three days can be found along a warren of carpeted passageways.
Down one are our side-by-side double bedrooms. “Whoa,” says Shane when he steps in the door, “this is some small.”
Indeed, each room is a study in space efficiency, with a tiny sink, a private toilet, and two armchairs. During the day, an attendant removes the wall between the rooms and adds a table—the perfect setup for playing games. At night, the wall is restored and two bunk-style beds with fluffy duvets are lowered into place, creating cozy cocoons in which to be rocked and rolled to sleep.
Not that we spend all our time in our rooms. The glass-lined Park and Skyline cars provide lounge seating, refreshments, and various activities such as board games, movies, trivia contests, and bingo. Each of the cars has an upper-level seating area with a glass dome for 360-degree sightseeing.
It’s here that we meet our fellow passengers—lots of Americans, a smattering of Canadians and Germans, and a tour group from England (which is mostly seniors, but includes one heavily tattooed and multipierced young couple from London).
As the first day unfolds, the scenery morphs from urban landscapes to tiny towns to jewel-blue lakes with summer cabins and ski boats. We wander between the public cars and our rooms, reading, talking, playing games, and watching the country scroll by.
The land becomes increasingly rugged as we traverse the Canadian Shield, a hard blanket of bedrock that covers half of Canada and parts of the northern United States. Where there’s enough soil, dense forests grow.
It’s late afternoon when an attendant announces that we’re approaching Sudbury Junction, a train station in Sudbury, the birthplace of Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.
“The answer is, ”˜Blink and you’ll miss it,’ ” says Spence as we roll through the station.
Shane hits an imaginary buzzer. “ ”˜What is Sudbury Junction?’ ”
We stop and start irregularly, picking up and dropping off passengers, letting freight trains pass, and changing crews. At least once each day, we’re allowed to hop off the train and stretch our legs.
At one point, I walk the length of the train—from the engines, through the Comfort Class (read: economy) cars with upright seats that recline for sleeping, and to the Silver & Blue Class lounging, dining, and sleeping cars. I count 19 railcars in total, about half a kilometre’s worth.
Meals in the pink-and-grey dining cars are welcome diversions. Although the art deco–inspired décor is less than fashion-forward (glass etchings of birds, anyone?), the cuisine is up-to-date delicious with regional dishes such as Atlantic fish chowder and Alberta bison rib roast. The serving crew is even more impressive than the food as they gracefully navigate between tables in the swaying train.
Late in the afternoon of our second day, almost 30 hours into the journey, we finally leave Ontario and enter Manitoba. Bales of hay appear, the tracks straighten out, and soon we’re speeding across the Prairies at 145 kilometres per hour (as opposed to 70 kilometres per hour on curvy sections).
“Guess it’s as close to bullet-train speed as we’ll get,” Spence sighs.
The morning of our third day, we wake to learn that we’ve passed through the entire province of Saskatchewan overnight. We’re sorry to have missed it, particularly the sign we’ve heard about outside the town of Biggar: “New York is big”¦but this is Biggar.” We rumble through Alberta and climb into the Rockies.
And this is where our warm and fuzzy family vacation begins to derail.
Blame it on the rock-and-rolling sleeps, the limited ability to burn off steam, the lack of privacy, or the 55 hours of togetherness. Tempers flare over nothing, and we stomp off to separate corners of the train for some much-needed alone time.
(After the trip, when friends ask Spence about his train adventure, he tells them, “It was a really excellent two-day trip.” Of course, it was a three-day trip.)
When the train pulls into Jasper, we regroup for a vigorous walk around the mountain town. Family harmony restored, we reboard and enjoy one fine, final meal.
Early the next morning, we arrive at the train station in Vancouver. Seventy-one hours, 4,470 kilometres, and three time zones after our adventure began, Shane climbs down from the train, drops to his knees, and kisses the platform.
Does this mean our trip was “an act of reckless insanity”?
Evidently not. Waiting in the station for our extra luggage, my sons wander over to a brochure rack and come back with big smiles and glossy Via Rail pamphlets.
“Where to next, Mom?” they ask.
Guess I’m not too embarrassing yet.
Access: The writer and her husband travelled as guests of Via Rail Canada. The Canadian travels between Toronto and Vancouver three times per week. Adult fares for seats only (no meals) in Comfort Class in the summer are $765. (Check on-line for discounted and off-season fares.) Between June 1 and September 15, children under 12 travel free in Comfort Class when accompanied by an adult. Silver & Blue Class includes three meals a day, private sleeping quarters (bedrooms, berths, or roomettes), and specialty observation cars. Fares for an upper berth start at $1,324 for adults and $1,192 for students. For more information, see www.viarail.ca/.