Canadian, the ~ 1 Friendly and apologetic person, inhabitant of Canada. 2 4,466 km transcontinental train journey from Toronto to Vancouver.
I am no stranger to long train journeys. In 2013 I traveled from Vietnam to the Netherlands by train, an epic trip of more than 16,000 kilometers. Trains are not always the fastest way to get around but I've said it before, and I'll say it again: traveling by train is infinitely more comfortable, enjoyable and interesting than any other mode of transport. The Canadian is no exception to this rule, on the contrary…
The Canadian is an epic four day train trip across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver operated by VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger railway. In less than one hour it will depart from the biggest and busiest railway station in Canada: Union station in Toronto. I’m excited to hop on this train and travel all the way across North America to Vancouver. I won’t travel directly to Vancouver, I’ll make a stop in Saskatoon to visit my friend and awesome travel buddy Whitney from Where Whitney Wanders.
On this pleasant autumn evening in early September Toronto’s Union Station is quiet; when I arrived from Montreal two days ago it was much busier. The facade of the station is supposedly impressive but unfortunately it is hidden behind scaffolding. Inside it’s easy to see where the ticket hall got its nickname Grand Hall. It’s huge. On the West side is an entrance to the recently reopened business lounge and because I travel in sleeper class I can wait here. Hurray for free drinks and snacks! I also receive a paper slip for my lunch and dinner reservation on the train. Compared to flying catching a train is much less time-consuming and stressful. No long queues, no invasive security checks and I only have to arrive half an hour before departure. Both passengers and staff are relaxed and happily chatting away. Looking around the lounge reminds of an elderly care home, with my 29 years I am definitely one of the youngest.
The boarding process starts at 9:30 P.M. and only a couple minutes later I have my belongings stowed under my berth in car 112. The size of the berth is a pleasant surprise. I have traveled in many sleeper trains around the world and this berth is easily twice as wide as in other trains. My bed is already made and to top it all off there is a little chocolate on my pillow. After hundreds of nights in hostels and cheap hotels this feels like a proper five-star experience.
“Champagne, sir?” We’re leaving the bright lights of Toronto behind us, they are now a mere glow illuminating a carpet of clouds in the distance. All passengers are invited to the bon voyage party in the dome car for a glass of champagne. If only every train trip started like this. A British woman is nervously tapping and swiping away on her iPad. “Is there Wi-Fi on this train?” she asks. “No, madam”, our ‘activity coordinator’ replies “and there won’t be cell coverage for most of the journey.” People are shocked. Some of them don’t seem to understand how remote and empty the country is we’ll be traveling through.
We’ve gone dark. Aliens might invade the planet but I won’t know about it until I get off in Saskatoon. For the next 50 hours I have nothing to do but to engage in face-to-face conversations with strangers and worry about the battery level of my e-reader. The lights in the dome car are now switched off, revealing a starry night sky. Slowly people leave the darkness of the dome car to sleep. I stay up for a while, fully intent to consciously experience as much of this journey as possible.
The total length of the journey from Toronto to Vancouver is 3 days and 11 hours. That is 83 hours in a big stainless steel snake with only once or twice a day the opportunity to get off for a couple minutes. If you’re going all the way this probably means that you'll want decent accommodation to sleep at night. There are different classes of accommodation, ranging from private cabins to dormitory style bunk beds to reclining seats.
The cheapest option is a seat in Economy class. I would only recommend this for short distances. One night in one of these seats won't kill you but four nights just might. Also take into account that you cannot freely walk around the train, most of the train is only accessible to sleeper passengers. You also have to pay for your own food.
Next up are the various levels of the Sleeper Plus class. This class includes all meals aboard the train, free snacks and fruit and – most importantly – a bed. The more you are willing to pay, the more privacy you get. The cheapest sleeper accommodation is a berth with curtains to give you some privacy. Most privacy you’ll get in a cabin for two with a bunk bed and a private washroom. The cabins seem like a good option for older people who have to get up to pee every night. I personally think it is weird to have a toilet in a cabin that also functions as a side table during the day. I much prefer walking to the toilet at the end of every car.
I chose the cheapest sleeper available, an upper berth. Every morning after breakfast the car’s steward stows the berths for the day, revealing benches to sit on. After dinner this process is reversed and my bed is made for the night. A first for me were the decent hot showers on the train. On my bed I found a bag with two big towels, a small face towel and soap and shampoo. It’s nice to be able to take an actual shower and not only have a small washbasin where you can splash some water in your face.
On VIA Rail’s website you’ll find an overview of the fares (2014) for the different classes. These are the cheapest, discounted ‘regular’ fares. For the full trip Economy class starts at 434 CAD, an upper berth in Sleeper Plus class at 955 CAD and a cabin for two at 1,440 CAD per person. As mentioned before keep an eye out for special deals on the website to save money.
For my first breakfast I’m having perfect fluffy pumpkin pancakes. Watching the sun rise while eating pancakes, how better to start the day? I get to share this wonderful experience with a nun from Ontario on sabbatical looking for the Holy Spirit and a depressing American couple from Rhode Island. You see, in the dining car you always meet new people every meal. This means that you’ll be telling the same story over and over again. But you also get to know all these different people on the train. Most are retired and everybody complains about the size of the cabins and the beds. Still, it’s nice to have some company and to hear some interesting stories while enjoying a good meal.
All in all the food on The Canadian is great, some meals are even delicious. It brings the concept of food-while-on-the-move to a whole new level. When you consider everything is prepared on a moving train it tastes even better. Three times a day a meal is served in the dining car. For lunch and dinner there are usually four options to choose from. My personal favourite was the brunch served before arrival in Jasper: French toast stuffed with cheesecake filling topped with wild berry compote and whipped cream. I still get hungry just looking at pictures of the food.
Strangers on a Train
Four days, twenty-three stainless steel train cars from the fifties. It looks exactly like the train in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film-noir thriller Strangers on a Train. Except smoking is not allowed anymore.
It’s great to see that people still know how to speak to each other when smartphones and tablets are silenced. Most passengers are couples but there are also a few solo travelers like me. One of these is Sylvie, a retired school teacher and Greenpeace activist from England. She has an inspiring story of doing all these things that she never dared to do before. She realised that life is short and now she is challenging herself to get out of her comfort zone. The berth beneath mine is occupied by Kate, a Canadian girl who is moving from Toronto to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. She tells about her passion for cycling all around Canada and Alaska. I have great conversations with beautiful German Gisele who is doing this trip on her own. Her life is the complete opposite of mine; where I want to keep running around the world she is happy to have her own home to go back to after this trip. And then we have Roger, a retired American software engineer who seems like an older version of me. I love listening to his stories about the early days of software development; of punch cards and searching for bugs in the machine instructions written on paper.
All these people make my trip a lot more enjoyable and interesting. Traveling is not about where you are or where you’re going, it’s about the people you are with along the way.
Priceless But Not Free
Canada is not the cheapest country in the world so it won't come as a surprise that a trip like this is not cheap. However, if you are flexible and patient there are often deals with which you can save a lot of money. I’ve split the trip in two: first I travel from Toronto to Saskatoon and then from Saskatoon to Vancouver. For each leg I bought a separate ticket from the Express Deals section on VIA Rail's website. Total cost for an upper berth in sleeper class? 770 CAD incl. tax (540 EUR). How does this compare to flying? Well, looking at the cheapest economy class tickets I would have paid around 500 CAD (350 EUR) for two flights.
Looking at the raw numbers the train is more expensive, but we’re comparing apples with oranges. What do you get on an airplane? A seat with limited legroom that may or may not recline. On the train? A spacious berth at night and a whole train to roam around during the day. What about food? Chicken or pasta, that’s as good as it gets at 34,000 feet. Sleeper class on The Canadian includes three full meals a day. Even a sophisticated in-flight system does not compare to the activities organised aboard the train. An ‘activity coordinator’ organises wine tastings, gives presentations and holds movie nights on the train.
The World is Outside
Time flies when you're having fun. Before I know it I am in Saskatoon where my friend Whitney picks me up from the train station. The next two weeks I have an amazing time doing yoga, eating Saskatoon berry pie and riding combines. But – again – before I know it I'm back in the train station. Unfortunately the train is an hour late so we have plenty of time to explore the station. After three minutes we’ve seen everything.
When the train arrives I have to get to car number 122, at the very end of the train. It’s cold outside but luckily we get a ride in a golf cart. In ‘only’ 33 hours I'll be in Vancouver.
It's 11:30 P.M. when I make myself comfortable in the observation car at the end of the train. The interior of this car has recently been completely redone, it even smells like new car. In the dark I watch the northern lights do what it does best: dancing in the sky. Tomorrow we’ll leave the flat prairies behind us and make our way through the Rocky Mountains.
Looking outside it's easy to understand where the name Rocky Mountains comes from: the mountains are very rocky indeed. The track winds along a river and slowly we progress towards Jasper. In Jasper many people get off to spend the night and continue the journey on the Rocky Mountaineer, an even more luxurious train. I go for a short walk but the weather is not great so I decide to wait inside the station while the train’s windows are being washed. An hour and a half after arriving in Jasper we board the train again for one last night. Many new passengers boarded the train in Jasper and we all know what that means: champagne! Shortly after I have dinner and I spend the evening reading my book and writing down notes for this story.
After 4,466 kilometer and a last breakfast on the train we reach the end of the line: Pacific Central station in Vancouver. Time to go outside and enjoy the beautiful late-autumn sun in Vancouver.