In its 2017 “Best List: 16 Scenic Train Trips”, National Geographic Traveler magazine highlights Via Rail’s The Canadian. Writer Everett Potter had this to say about it:
“After three decades of riding trains all over the world – rural China, the Swiss Alps, Latin American Jungles – I am still thrilled by a classic rail journey. Take The Canadian, where passengers can spend three days watching the countryside scenery from Toronto to Vancouver via dome cars. From the wheat fields to the jagged Rockies to the thickly forested Coast Mountains, it’s one of the world’s most amazing routes”.
I cannot argue with Potter’s excitement.
In December, I completed my third annual trip on The Canadian, embarking as usual on a blustery, cold afternoon at Winnipeg’s imposing Union Station and exiting on a slightly warmer morning at Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station.
For the price of an upper berth in the train’s sleeper car, about $730, I am treated to a constantly changing panorama of prairies and mountains Along the way, staff pamper me with meals worthy of a fine restaurant. I sip sparkling wine and savour canapés in the dome car. And I meet a whole range of equally thrilled passengers. Passengers from Canada, from the United States, from Australia and New Zealand. All eager to ride the last of the stainless steel streamlined rail cars still operating in North America.
Like walking, train travel is a slow, contemplative activity. Unlike jetting the way by air, time is not a preoccupation. Like a good walk, it is the journey that excites, not the destination.
But there are limits to patience and, when a train arrives almost a full day later than advertised, as it did this December, frustration is inevitable.
The staff on board did a remarkable job seeing to our every needs. They provided meals during the extra day we were on board. They prepared our berths for an additional night’s sleep. It is impossible to fault the staff or Via Rail.
Via Rail, a crown corporation of our federal government, owns and operates the passenger trains. But the tracks are owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) a privately-owned corporation that is 100% focussed on freight traffic.
This might have been workable in 1990, when the federal government initiated this cost-cutting arrangement. But, year-by-year, freight trains have become longer. Up to 3 kilometres long I understand. Too long to fit on rail sidings designed for an earlier time. The Canadian must wait on these sidings while a continuous stream of endless freight trains pass by. This can add up to hours of idling for The Canadian.
So, here’s my advice for adventurous travellers;
- By all means, take The Canadian across Canada. I will be hopping back on board next Christmas.
- Plan as if you will arrive 24 hours after the advertised arrival time.
- Book a hotel that, if necessary, can be cancelled without penalty.
- Book connecting flights and trains with the above delay in mind.
- Write to your Member of Parliament. Demand that The Canadian, our nation’s only trans-continental passenger rail service, be given the priority it needs to maintain some semblance of an acceptable schedule.
And if you think the delays I encountered this past December are intolerable, consider this follow-up story:
After Christmas, I returned to Winnipeg by air. Several months earlier, I had decided this was a necessary evil, allowing me to spend Christmas with relatives in Vancouver and New Year’s Eve with my wife in Winnipeg. After all, the sole advantage of air travel is its speed.
But not so fast.
My plane left Vancouver an hour late and my connecting flight to Winnipeg left four hours late. But I was lucky. Many other flights arriving at or departing from Edmonton were also late with planeloads of passengers having to rebook flights for the following day. No extra meals, no place to sleep, no tuck-down service. Hardly an endorsement for a supposedly efficient, timely service.
So, enjoy your rail journey. You are on board The Canadian, not because you are time-motivated. You are here for an extraordinary voyage across a vast, beautiful country.