Travel: Trans-Canada Train Adventure

Full set of photos

My idea to return home from Vancouver to Toronto via train was largely prompted by a desire to see Canada in the wintertime, to experience the country in what I think many would consider its most iconic state. “The Canadian” is a bit of an institution in Canada, having operated since 1955—it’s even featured on the 10 dollar bill! I also liked the idea of ringing in the New Year on a train, with fellow travellers and kindred spirits, in many ways. My journey was scheduled to leave the evening of December 29th and arrive the morning of January 2nd.

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It was pouring rain in Vancouver when the parents saw me off at the train station. I had purchased an upper berth in a sleeper car, a small luxury I thought was necessary since I’d be spending 4 nights traversing the countryside. There were 6 berths in each car (3 upper, and 3 lower), sharing two bathrooms (male and female) and shower facilities, which were clean and surprisingly spacious. Each sleeper car had its own attendant, who kindly took us through the features of the car and let us know there’d be a “Bon Voyage” service with a little sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres. Naturally, I beelined for the wine, finding a seat in the dome car, with its 360 degree views that I’m sure would afford some spectacular sights once we were out of the rain-soaked station. Passengers gradually trickled on, and there was a general feeling of merriment and congeniality, with strangers gregariously introducing themselves, giving brief backgrounds as to where they came from and where they were going. We were soon under way, trundling slowly out of the station, and I eventually made my way to my bunk and settled in for an early night. The upper berth was comfortable enough, with fine bedding and personal lights, though conspicuously lacking in power outlets. Our attendant informed us there was one in the bathroom, which might make for awkward cellphone charging.

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A happy perk of a sleeper car ticket is that all meals are included. Breakfast was generally served between 6:30-9 am, and strangely enough, I was up and in the dining car not long after 6:30 am. There were a selection of choices on the menu, but I couldn’t resist apple pancakes with sausage and toast, which were thoroughly delicious. It was still dark out when I finished and found a seat in the dome car (wanted to stake out a spot as it can fill up quickly). The blue-grey landscape, with its monochromatic palette, was eerily gorgeous in the moonlight. We ghostly glided alongside the lake as the sky gradually lightened. An ice storm not far out of Vancouver had impeded our progress during the night, so we were about 3 hours behind schedule. It mattered not to me, as I was content to gaze out the window, camera in hand and at the ready to snap the endless barrage of picturesque views on our journey to Jasper.

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The landscape became steadily more rugged and mountainous, punctuated by rivers and small ice-strewn lakes. The trees were varied, sometimes appearing as branchless toothpicks dotting the hillside, others as soaring conifers, draped heavily in white cloaks of snow. I was soon called down for lunch and continued enjoying these views from the dining car. One of the perks (or not depending on how you look at it) of traveling solo, is that you get put at tables with other couples or travel groups in order to fill the table, which provides a great opportunity to meet new people. My lunchtime dining companions were a lovely couple from Colorado celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The sun was gloriously blazing, and I couldn’t believe some of the epic views that were whizzing past the window. The food continued to be exemplary—the chicken and wild rice soup and chicken pot pie were excellent.

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Train rides are such leisurely affairs, just lounging around with a good book or a great view, and I embraced this leisure wholeheartedly. The light was gradually fading as we raced towards Jasper, and the mountainous landscapes increased in scale and grandeur. Passengers surged towards one side or the other of the dome car, attempting to capture glimpses of snow-capped peaks between the trees. The moonlit mountains were truly beautiful, haloed in pinks and mauves, which I’d never be able to capture properly on camera. It was a little disappointing to be several hours behind in our schedule, as we lost the light just as we were coming into the epic grandeur of the Rockies, but I’d certainly had my fill of beauty throughout the day.

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At dinner, I was seated with a mother-daughter pair from London and a young woman from Australia who was starting a year-long work visa at an as-yet-unknown location. We chatted over baked salmon and salad, and I offered to take her for a drink in Toronto. One of the many joys of travel: meeting new people! I learned from her that the last car of the train also had a dome and lounge (and a bar), which, during the summer months, is reserved solely for Prestige class passengers but is open to sleeper car ticket holders during the winter. It was definitely more luxurious and quieter but also, critically, had power outlets at each seat. So I  capped off my night with a gin and tonic while charging my various devices and conversing with other friendly passengers. We eventually rolled in to Jasper, where about two-thirds of the passengers disembarked–I learned that we started off with around 150 people on the train, and left Jasper with 54.

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The second day saw us starting off even more delayed, as we’d lost another 5 hours during the night trying to get in to Edmonton. Cold weather and heavy freight traffic apparently makes for an unfortunate combination. I later learned that the cold was even directly affecting our passengers on the train, with people needing to be moved out of certain cars where the pipes had frozen up. We would sit for long periods at a time waiting for signal clearance. Most passengers were fairly magnanimous about the delays, shrugging it off as the inevitable perils of wintertime train travel. Thankfully, I had nowhere urgent I needed to be when I returned home, but it could definitely be problematic for anyone heading onwards from Toronto, particularly if they’d booked connections relatively close to our originally scheduled arrival time. I spent almost the entire day in the last car, curled up with my book or looking through photos. I enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich and tomato bisque soup at lunch, whilst conversing with a trio of men from Chicago, funnily enough.

sunrise in Edmonton
sunrise in Edmonton

Canada is a truly vast and beautiful place—even that middle part that so often gets overlooked or passed off as being uninteresting. My father often likes to describe the prairies as “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles”. He’s not wrong in his characterization, but there can be something beautiful in large expanses of seeming nothingness. An elegance to its vastness and stillness. Sure, it wasn’t as obviously picture-worthy as British Columbia, but the endless white fields of Alberta and Saskatchewan had a kind of hypnotic, dreamy quality. As the setting sun fired the sky ablaze in oranges and yellows on one side of the train, the moon peered down in all its melancholic fullness over a cloudless, mauve sky on the other. I looked out over the never-ending fields, locked in snow and ice—a blank expanse, ready to be filled with my imaginings for 2018.

land of the living sky, Saskatchewan
land of the living sky, Saskatchewan

I was very much impressed by the exemplary service on the train—all the staff were incredibly friendly and considerate. Little touches like a beer tasting in the bar car, which I even partook in despite my not being a fan of beer, and their general level of enthusiasm were very much appreciated. After a dinner of delicious prime rib and mashed potatoes, I made my way to the back of the train to partake in the New Year’s Eve festivities.

our awesome crew doing a beer tasting
our awesome crew doing a beer tasting

We were now a good 14 hours behind schedule, inching our way to Saskatoon, but everyone was in good spirits. We joked about taking bets on how many freight trains we’d have to wait for each time we stopped and told embarrassing or funny stories while we waited to count down. We donned ridiculous shiny hats and had noisemakers at the ready, and they were generous with the free champagne. They’d also handed out printed lyrics for Auld Lang Syne, so we we were fully prepared to ring in the new year. After an enthusiastic countdown, we had a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne, complete with us standing and holding crossed hands for the last verse, swaying and singing. A wonderful way to cap off 2017, with bubbles and a bit of joy.

ready to ring in the New Year
ready to ring in the New Year

Unsurprisingly, I had a relatively late start on New Year’s Day, grabbing the second call for breakfast (actually being awoken by the attendant who traversed the halls calling out “second call”). We trundled our way into Manitoba and eventually made it into Winnipeg, now 14 hours behind schedule, where there was a complete crew change. It was a bit sad to leave the crew we’d become so fond of behind, but they were due to work on the westbound train back to Vancouver. We had about 45 minutes in Winnipeg, so I bundled up and braved the -30 C to take a quick jaunt, if only to get a bit of fresh air. There was a cute little market by the train station, Forks Market, with food stalls and artisan shops that kept me warm and occupied.

Winnipeg, Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Eventually, we were let back on the train and provided some lunch (the open-faced pulled pork sandwich was my selection, and it was another delicious choice!). Train passengers are a varied and interesting group of people–many are genuine train enthusiasts (I learned more than I ever expected about trains on this journey), and others, in many ways, are Canada enthusiasts. I suppose you have to be to sit on a train for 4 days to see it. It was fascinating to hear about the different parts of Canada from the people who actually lived there. As there were also a plethora of international travellers, particularly from Australia, a host of recommendations for places to see and things to do were always being offered, so I made sure to listen in to pick up a few tips myself! As the sun set on another day, I enjoyed the company as much as the views of snow-laden trees and frozen lakes in the fading light.

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As we were so substantially behind schedule, they now estimated we wouldn’t arrive in Toronto until late in the evening of January 2nd, meaning essentially an extra full day on the train. Over a scrumptious chicken and hollandaise dinner, we joked that we couldn’t remember a time when we were not on a train. What would it like to just be able to walk down corridors without looking a bit like a drunken sailor, weaving about? To have to go back to sitting alone at restaurants instead of joining random strangers at their table? The following day was heightened with the anticipation of our arriving in Toronto–everyone was counting down the hours, and we were now a good 16 hours behind. Since we weren’t meant to still be on the train on Day 4, menus hadn’t been printed for the day’s meals, which were thus amusingly presented to us by our server on a post-it note. As we enjoyed our meals, we looked out at the Northern Ontario landscape whizzing past, which at this point largely comprised of dense forests and the untouched white expanses of frozen lakes.

frozen lake in Ontario
frozen lake in Ontario

As no one occupied the lower berth by now, my attendant kindly left my upper berth as a bed and converted the lower berth into seating for me, so I had a luxurious two-story area to lounge in for the last day. I had lost any cell service at this point (and the train does not have WiFi), leaving me very much disconnected, which was both mildly disconcerting and somewhat refreshing. It gave me time to ruminate on the coming year, challenges to be set and goals to aspire to. 2017 was a challenging year for the world in many ways, and it’s easy to be come cynical about our prospects as a society. However, in a funny way, this train adventure did a little bit to restore my faith in humanity–finding warm, genuine people from different places and backgrounds who had a kind of earnest enthusiasm for this country, its history and its possibilities. And as we rolled into Toronto at 2 am, having spent over 100 hours traversing 4466 km, I was cheered by that thought and of all the memories I’ll take with me.

made it to Toronto's Union Station
made it to Toronto’s Union Station

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