In today’s very fast-paced life, where it seems we are always on to the next thing before even finishing what we are doing, travelling by train is like stopping and taking a deep breath.
It’s a step back to a time when the journey is as important as the destination, where service is second to none and where you have a chance to get to know your fellow passengers in a way that leaves you feeling like family at the end of the trip.
Or at least that’s how my February trip on VIA Rail went. I rode the Canadian from Saskatoon through the Rockies to Vancouver with a brief stop in Jasper.
There were 10 cars and a couple of locomotives on my 1120-ton train, and tucked in the middle of car 110 – Craig Manor – was room E. I had my own little space to spend hours gazing at the passing landscape and two nights comfortably sleeping in my fold-down bed as the train rocked back and forth.
From the moment the train arrived at the station, I was given an understanding of the luxury of train travel. My host greeted me inside the train station, gave me a quick explanation of where I would stay and showed me to my room at 1:30 a.m. She described everything from how to work the lights to my shower access. She smiled all the time – in the middle of the night or the middle of the day.
The train pulled slowly out of the Saskatoon station at 2 a.m. The next morning, I took full advantage of my extra hour of sleep gained crossing the time zone and lazily rolled out of bed late to spend time staring as the scenery rolled past.
As the prairie landscape gave way to the rolling foothills in the area between Edmonton and the mountains, I started to meet the people I was travelling with. These people are the unexpected benefit to travel by train.
There was the couple who started their journey in Albany, New York and crossed the border before departing across Canada from Toronto. In the dining car I met a pair of retired police officers from California were celebrating a birthday with an adventure. In the economy car I met an Indigenous woman using the train to go from Winnipeg to Edmonton. She told me about the Northern Lights she saw in the middle of the night from her perch under the domed glass ceiling.
An old guy, wearing a ball cap, got on in Biggar, Saskatchewan, a couple of hours after me. He used to lay tracks for the railway and still takes the opportunity to ride the train when he can. He still loves trains and took the time to explain any delays or questions I had about the trains passing us.
This journey helped me understand the importance of Canada’s rail network. VIA Rail doesn’t own the tracks it runs on, so train timing is dependent on the many, long freight trains, with cars hauling oil, grains, shipping containers and anything else across the country. It isn’t until you are on the rails that you realize how much it is used.
Meals meant meeting more people as tables were shared between travelers. The dining car is a holdover from an earlier era of travel, with silverware, china tea cups, white linens and attentive staff. We chose from menus, and had the option of pairing wine, for an additional cost.
I had a lunch with a girl from Australia, and a breakfast with an elderly couple headed out to the coast to visit old friends.
Traveling by train means you really get to know the people you travel with – more than the cursory “where are you from?” and “where are you going?” I was fortunate to be with a group of people that got along with each other very well. I heard a rumour that there was some drama with some guests early in the trip, but they either got off the train before I arrived or it was all sorted out.
All I had was excellent conversation, and stories of incredible trips. As she tidied up a room, one of the hosts told me nearly unbelievable stories from the history of trains in Canada. In the bar car I swapped travel stories with a husband and wife from Arizona and I bonded with a couple from Portland, Oregon over the great bookstores in their city.
That night as the train crossed into the Pacific Time Zone there was time for a nightcap with a bunch of new friends, which including singing songs about trains — Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash for example — with the guy who had his guitar on the trip. We made for an international group of backup singers with two Canadians, two Irish, and a German, and our accompanist was British.
The next morning, a seat in the domed car meant views of the passing mountains as we headed through the Fraser canyon. A group of us listened closely to the woman who had a guide book and was sharing bits about the areas we passed – picture 8 people straining to spot a black rock in the middle of the Fraser River in a snowstorm – it was as far as Lady Franklin made it while searching for her explorer husband.
While we were running a few hours late as we pulled into Vancouver, in some ways it still felt like it ended too soon and saying goodbye was hard. The snow, stops, and scenery was something we all shared and now we were going our separate ways.
Sidebar: If you go
If you plan on riding from Toronto to Vancouver splurge on sleeper class – space to sit during the day and a place to lay down at night, also you have access to a bar and dome car with comfortable seats and all your meals are included.
Bring a camera and binoculars: the views are worth it.
Don’t hesitate to start chatting with someone new.
Savour a glass of champagne as you enjoy the view – it feels so indulgent.
All images are courtesy of Angela Hill