Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: Vancouver to Winnipeg

Taking the train across Canada has been one of those “things I’ve always wanted to do” for many many years. As always, I pushed it off because of the perceived cost and the time required to actually do it.

  • I thought that it would be cost-prohibitive (ie. thousands of dollars). I bought my ticket during VIA Rail’s 50% off sale (subscribe to their mailing list for advance notice of these fabulous sales) and it ended up costing about $800 for the leg between Vancouver to Ottawa (with one stopover in Winnipeg).
  • I thought that it would take too much time. Flying between Vancouver and Ottawa takes between four to six hours direct. It takes the train about 4 days.

Although I’ve driven through the Rockies numerous times, the view through the Rockies is supposed to be even more breathtaking by train since it goes through places that you would never be able to access by car. I also wanted to see the Prairies (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and figured, sitting on a train watching the Prairies go by must be much more interesting than having to pay attention to the road as you drive across. Rural Ontario is supposed to be beautiful as well as you traverse the Canadian Shield. And isn’t the notion of rail travel romantic? The beautiful train stations, the slowness of the train (compared to flying).

In my opinion, Pacific Central station in Vancouver is the most beautiful of all of the train stations that I saw…and I saw Vancouver, Jasper, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto.

Pacific Central station in Vancouver

Leaving Vancouver, we passed over the Fraser River on the New Westminster Bridge, right beside the Pattullo Bridge, which connects New Westminster to Surrey.

New Westminster Bridge for trains and the Pattullo Bridge for vehicles

Then we were on our way towards Jasper. We left Vancouver on a cloudy evening and awoke the next day to an even more gray day. Breakfast is generally served from 6:30am to 8:30am, which I thought was ridiculously early…until I found myself being roused awake by early birds at 6am. The menu typically has four options for your main course, along with coffee, tea, juice, or milk. For lunch and dinner, there is an appetizer and a dessert as well. The portion size is generous enough for a crowd who sits all day and sleeps the rest of the time.

First breakfast on the train: French toast with cheesecake filling topped with a mixed berry compote and whipped cream

As we travelled closer towards the Rockies, the weather became more gray and it started to pour. Good thing we were inside! Unfortunately, the majestic mountains were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a common comment from fellow travellers was “My camera keeps focussing on the raindrops [on the windows]”. I felt consoled that at least I had seen the beauty of the Rockies before, but I felt sad for the passengers who had never seen them before (and didn’t get to see them on this trip either).

Things we pass by on the tracks
One of many lakes; the polarizer on my lens had a funky effect on the water (I suspect the glass on the train also had a polarizing film treatment).
Where the cars travel
Just passing through this small town
A view of raindrops with Pyramid Falls in the background!

And then it was lunch time! (Seriously, all you do on the train is sleep, sit, and eat. I joked with someone that this must be what it’s like in the womb, complete with rocking motions thanks to the train)

Lunch appetizer: Chicken soup with wild rice
Lunch: Shrimp and scallops on a bed of mixed greens with saskatoon berry sauce on the side
Lunch dessert: Option of a chocolate cake or vanilla ice cream

After lunch, we went back to the Panorama Car to watch the scenery again. (tough life eh?)

Pretty foreground thanks to the pink flowers
Still a lot of clouds covering the higher mountains
So where are the mountains??

We saw a lot of rain, clouds, trees, and the bottom halves of mountains but didn’t get to see the true beauty of the Rockies that you would see on a sunny day. Others who had either taken this train previously or who spent a lot of time in the area commented that there was a complete lack of wildlife sightings this trip. No bears, no moose, no caribou, few bald eagles, no beavers. The stop in Jasper was shorter than planned (about an hour) and it was pouring rain. Would some dinner cheer you up?

Dinner: Vegetarian chili with roasted zucchini and carrots (first time having chili on a plate instead of in a bowl)
And as evening came, there was a glimpse of the clouds parting!

As dinner is being served, the sleeping car attendants whisk through the sleeper cars and make all of the beds. It’s really quite amazing, they’re very efficient and methodical, and they have to change the sheets every single day (it’s a rule, apparently). The next morning, it was super sunny as we rolled through eastern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. A “problem” with being on this train is not having any idea where the heck you are! I actually thought that we were getting close to Saskatoon (where we would’ve been if we were on schedule) but after asking around, I learned that we had been at least an hour delayed leaving Edmonton (at 2 in the morning!) and had been sitting on the tracks somewhere else for a long time…and needless to say, we were still in Alberta somewhere, hours delayed. But no fret, the scenery was beautiful.

Another small town that we passed through
Look at that breathtaking scenery!
Continental breakfast with hash browns, sausages, toast, and fruit. The meal also includes eggs but I requested to have the meal sans-eggs. Complimentary mimosas this morning.
We saw hay bales and animals
Saskatoon station
Dinner: Stuffed pasta with a marinara sauce
Dessert after dinner: Small slice each of strawberry cheesecake and chocolate cake.

As we were travelling through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba, it started to pour like crazy! In the dome car, you could hardly see in front of you. BUT when the sun peeked through the clouds for a bit, we were treated to a double rainbow! And because the land is so flat, you could see the entire arc of the rainbow!

A double rainbow

Seven hours delayed, we arrived into Winnipeg in the middle of the night.

 

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Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: The Train

The Canadian is supposed to provide the most beautiful rail travel views in Canada and arguably, one of the more scenic routes around the world although I bet there are many comparably beautiful routes. Operated by the Crown Corporation, VIA Rail, this train travels through the Canadian Rocky Mountains with termini in Vancouver and Toronto. Major stops of interest along the way include Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg. If you travel end to end, you would spend well over four days on the train. That is, assuming that the train runs on schedule. More on that later.

At its peak, I hear that the train can be as long as 33 cars! This includes a steam engine, some Economy class cars, dining cars, many more sleeper cars, and viewing cars (to watch the scenery pass, in comfort). The cheapest option of travel is Economy class, where you essentially get a seat but you have no access to the remainder of the cars. The other travel options all fall within the Sleeper Plus class; the cheapest option becomes the upper berth (think the upper bunk of a bunk bed).

More expensive are the lower berth, cabins for 1/2/3, and family suites. Once you are in the Sleeper Plus class, you have access to all of the cars, including the Panorama car. This special car is glass-enclosed and the seating is very comfortable, making it my favourite spot on the train to hang out in. Unfortunately, the Panorama car is only available between Vancouver and Edmonton…what does this mean? Well, during that stretch through the Rockies, the Panorama car is situated almost as the middle car of the entire train…then in Edmonton, it gets removed (so obviously if you were going from Toronto to Vancouver, the Panorama car would get added to the train in Edmonton). I was asleep when this happened in Edmonton and I have no idea how this actually gets done.

Panorama car

When you travel with VIA, you can include one stopover in your itinerary without additional charge. I chose to take a break on my Canadian rail journey by stopping at the half-way point (between Vancouver and Ottawa) in Winnipeg. When booking my train tickets, I realized that I had to spend either 2, 5, or 7 days in Winnipeg based on the (in)frequency ¬†of The Canadian. Not bad, as I soon learned that there is actually tons to see and do in Winnipeg, especially during the summer. Yes, I am guilty of stereotyping the entire Prairies as “boring” without having visited any part of it before.

I mentioned train schedules earlier. The portion between Vancouver and Winnipeg takes about 48 hours. You can imagine that the train is slower going up the Rockies and is faster going across the flat Prairies. However, another huge factor that affects the train schedule is the railroad itself. The Canadian National Railway, or CN, owns and operates the railroad that VIA Rail uses. CN runs freight across the country and freight equals money; each minute that freight is just sitting on the tracks is costing somebody somewhere some money. Therefore, the freight trains get priority use of the railroad. I’ve learned that it isn’t unusual for The Canadian to be delayed, although I also hear that it’s possible for it to be early to its final destination. My arrival into Winnipeg ended up being 7 hours delayed (rumour has it the worst delay was 24 hours) due to a combination of waiting for freight trains to pass and a signal failure. That is to say, never assume that the train schedule is accurate!

Back to the train itself….

Sleeper cars plus a dome car (see the last car of the train)

There were three dome cars on the train that I was on: one at the end plus one beside each dining car. The bottom level of the dome car is a lounge area while the upper level is the scenic dome. You get a great view of the entire train from the dome!

Example of the lower level of a dome car
Upper level of the dome car

The dining car is very well tended to by the dining car attendants. White table cloths, real utensils, space to move around, and a great view. Remember when plane travel used to be this nice? To be efficient, the dining car has community seating, which means that unless you come as a party of four to every meal, you will be seated with fellow passengers. It’s a great way to meet people and hear their stories…and in the worst case, it’s an awkward hour you spend with a few other people. I should stress that when it comes to attitudes, travelling by train feels completely different from travelling by air; everybody on the train is super friendly and attentive while people on planes generally seem to be grumpy, unhappy to be there, and uncomfortable. It probably helps that there is no WiFi on the train (only available inside major train stations) and most people lose phone signal for a decent chunk of the ride. Yes, remember those good ol’ days when you didn’t have mobile devices to keep your attention and you had meaningful conversations with strangers, played games, read books, or just watched the scenery go by?

A view into the dining car

Each of the sleeper cars are laid out fairly similarly. There are a few berths, spacious bathrooms, a shower (which surpassed my expectations), and cabins (private rooms). Surprisingly, the washrooms on board do not smell at all! I have no idea how they achieve this but I found it to be quite remarkable. There is also a tap in each car that supplies cold potable water. Bring your reusable water bottle!

Row of cabins in a sleeper car (and yes, the hallway is narrow)
View of the nighttime set-up of the berth, plus the adjacent washroom

And that, my friends, was my home for almost 5 days.