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Riding the rails

Four days and nights spent on the VIA sleeper train to Vancouver from Toronto and the same back is highly recommended. For retired civil servants and schoolteachers on indexed pensions, to make no mention of financial consultants and ordinary travellers seeking comfort and elegance, this excursion is well within budget. Having ridden the rails on the U.S. Amtrak, Eurostar, Egyptian Railways and the Mombasa to Nairobi Railway, VIA Rail I rate top of the list.

© Kate Cockerill
The No.2 Trans-Canada train sits quietly in Vancouver,
before starting its journey to Toronto, Ontario

Imagine! You have to imagine because your journey begins late at night and you’re retiring after a welcoming glass of champagne in the viewing car, courtesy of VIA. The train pulls quietly out of the terminal and snakes along the bank of the Fraser River, past scrap iron yards, car wrecks, empty storage sheds, abandoned factories, the flotsam, jetsam and discarded rubbish of a mighty and neglected waterway to all of which you are oblivious because you’re busy getting ready for bed, for the trans-Canada train has left Vancouver at night. There, with the carriage room window blind up, you watch the lights of houses, office buildings, shops and stores slip by with increasing tempo as the train picks up speed. And if you’re not sleepy or you’re kept awake by the unfamiliar movement of the train, you watch the lights gradually devolve into the blackness of night.

As the train snakes its way east then south and east again as it climbs the Rockies you get a view of the full moon in a cloudless night sky. The train stops in a side track, as it does frequently on the trans-continental route, to let a freight train pass by. Freight trains take precedence over VIA Rail, which should come as no surprise as Canadian National Railways (CNR) owns the track and who is the VIA engineer to argue with those who rule the rails?

The brazen North Star displays its nakedness in the silence of the night and makes you reflect on the glory of creation. At least, this was my reflection as I listened to the click-click and clack of links, lines and pipes easing themselves in the cold night air, for it is winter and cold grips the land tighter than a drum; not on the BC coast, of course, but the rest of the land shivers. 

Deep in the Rockies, heading for Jasper where we are to bid farewell to Aussie tourists who are stopping to say hello to any elk who might be hanging about town, there we can meet fellow passengers and enjoy a full breakfast as the mountains, frozen lakes and waterways fly by.

The cuisine on VIA Rail is excellent. Hearty lunches and full dinners with a choice of soup, salad, entrées – a choice of meat, fish, fowl or pasta – and desert are what one expects in the finest restaurants. Ask a VIA customer service rep, as I have, what gratuity one might expect to leave a server or a car porter and you’ll be told with alacrity that VIA train staff are well paid. They do not expect gratuities, nor does VIA encourage such largesse.

For those who feel peckish between meals, biscuits, muffins, croissants, fruit and beverages are constantly available in the lounge-cum-viewing car at the end of the train. That is for sleeping passengers. Coach or economy-class passengers, meaning those without sleeping accommodation, a viewing car is forward as much as five-car lengths. They also have an excellent food service car and may, if there is capacity, eat in the dining car.

One may gush about the elegance and comfort of travel on Canada’s VIA Rail, but the fact is plain. Travel, accommodation and food on VIA is equal if not superior to that of the very best hotels in North America. Concerning cost, not to mention the changing variety of scenery, there is no comparison: travel to Vancouver from Toronto and back (4170 miles or 6710 Km) with accommodation and meals for eight days and nights is a great deal. The most ritzy of hotels cannot compare with the cost of VIA. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out at

Most of all, the joy and pleasure of travelling on VIA Rail is having the luxury of reading a good book in the privacy of one’s quarters or listening to one’s private store of music. In my case, the choice was Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and wallowing in Lehar’s Wie hat die Liebe uns ins Herz Interestingly, passengers may not disturb fellow travellers with loud electronic devices.

With acknowledgement to VIA Rail

Leaving the Rockies behind, the VIA Rail trans-continental
Heads towards Edmonton, gateway to the Athabasca tar sands

An announcement comes over the loud speaker system. We are told we are now passing Mount Robson on the left hand side of the train (the announcer is oblivious to those who are might be facing the other way). At 12,972 ft (3,954 m), Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The announcement in English and French has it that the peak of Mount Robson is visible only ten or eleven times a year. This must be one of those times, for a low-lying cloud obscures the five to seven thousand feet section. The top is clearly visible.

That night, the second of the journey, bleary-eyed and sleepy, a jolt in the train brings you back to semi-consciousness. The window blind being partly raised, you are dimply aware of a plethora of lights as the No. 2 Trans-Canada moves from a siding after yet another freight train goes by. A check of the time tells you the Trans-Canada is nearing Edmonton, which is more than a day’s journey from Vancouver.

It is near midnight. The lights blend and thicken and become a blinding blaze as the train draws into the centre of this great Alberta metropolis. Edmonton is the gateway to, and supply depot for, the Athabasca oil sands. The work of receiving, storing and forwarding supplies and equipment to the tar sands is unceasing. The hungry world must have its oil and there are dollars to be made. As you are sleeping, warm and comfortable, you go back to sleep and let them get on with it.
Breakfast is from 6.30 am to 9.30 am, but by a cunning twist of scheduling when we change one hour forward, from Pacific time to Mountain time over breakfast, the breakfast is but a two hour window. At this first meal on the train, one begins meeting fellow passengers. ‘Hello! My name is…’ ‘How far are you going and where are you from?’ Such are the introductions.

A U.S. couple from Portland, Oregon, are heading for Toronto, Niagara Falls and, from there to Texas and back to Portland by Amtrak. The mail member of this couple expresses amazement at the excess of lakes and timber and remarks on the abundance there for the sharing perhaps. I nod my head, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. There being a desperation for water in California, I speculate on the possibility of his being a scout in search of water.

Lunch is in two sittings on account of the number of passengers on the train; so there are more passengers to meet with and exchange greetings. Nor are they by any means the aged and retired with time on their hands expend on train travel. My companion at lunch is a fibre cable engineer returning to Ottawa, back from India. I’m happy to get a lesson on fibre cable technology, for he is articulate and enthusiastic. Across the way is a young French Canadian returning to Quebec following a spell working in Vancouver.

At another meal, another time, I meet a corn farmer with a broken foot. He has four sections, a small operation, he says. A section is a square mile. Four square miles doesn’t seem at all modest to me. He says 2013 was a bumper year, not good for farmers. The trouble he explains is twofold. First, there’s a glut on the market. Prices are rock bottom because buyers can pick and choose. Secondly, farmers can’t get their product to overseas customers because there’s a shortage of rail cars to move the harvest. Added to this, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific are chock-a-block with work. ‘See!’ he says, ‘it’s like that. The oil trains are filling the tracks.’

The problem is understandable. Approval of a new oil pipeline (called the XL pipeline) to move Athabasca oil to refineries in the Southern States, is being withheld by Washington. The First Nations (North American Indians to the rest of the world) are contesting passage of yet another line from Alberta to the BC coast to serve the Asian market. As a result, the Canadian railway system is chock-a-block transporting oil.

My prairie farmer’s grumble is borne out by hundreds spanking new oil tankers heading west to Alberta from railcar factories in the south and east. Still, he’s a pragmatic fellow with a  cheerful outlook on life and is heading east to Toronto for a break. Interesting, I think: the inhabitants of Toronto head south for the winter and here’s a prairie farmer and his wife heading east for relaxation.

We’re rolling across the prairies towards Winnipeg. The aspect beyond the viewing car window is one of unending miles of snow. The temperature is 20 and falling below. [When the wind chill is factored in, the weather forecasters say, it feels like 35 below, but who can tell the  difference that far down the scale?] The weather has been this way in Canada east of the Rockies for the past four weeks: the whole Country has been blanketed by snowstorms, blizzards and the foulest weather for weeks. How fortunate to have been on the balmy West Coast all this time.

The flatness of the Canadian prairies needs no describing. How can one describe a flat table top? Like the steppes of Russia, the frozen land has an incessant and unremitting aspect. A few bumps here, the suggestion of a copse there, lonely animal tracks in the windswept virgin snowscape.

We halt to let another west-bound train go by. Some asks why has the train stopped. I am reminded of a conductor’s answer to the same question on train journey in the wilds of the north of England. ‘You can’t do anything about it, so you don’t need to know.’

At dinner I am seated with a delightful passenger well into her nineties. She is almost blind and exceedingly deaf. I introduce myself. ‘Spell it,’ she says. ‘A…R…T,’ I reply and she says, ‘Strewth! I’m Ruth.’

I don’t believe it. This woman has a rugged sense of humour. Intellectually, she proves lively and as spritely as a spring lamb. I read her the menu. ‘Would you like meat, duck, chicken or pasta?’ I ask. ‘I’ll take the meat,’ says she. ‘Very well, then it’s the rack of lamb’ and she says, ‘A half portion’, so half a rack of lamb it is. When delivered, I cut it up for her and she is thankful.

The next morning, I find myself with strewth Ruth again. Seated opposite are two female passengers: one a fulsome university student; the other a well-endowed, mannish woman with short-cropped and greying hair. She is wearing an oversized silver cross hung about her bosom on an equally weighty silver chain. I think of the troubles our Arab citizens experience in their burkas and hijabs. Are they saying, ‘Look at me. I’m making a statement. I can see you, but you can’t see me ha! ha!’ Is our cross-wielding breakfast companion not sending the same message? Being neither pro nor anti-spiritual in outlook, I wonder all the same.

After Winnipeg we plunge into the dense forests of Northern Ontario. A thick blanket of snow envelopes everything in sight, the slightest sliver of twig, branch, limb and bough, every post, every falling-over telephone post – the use of for pole-strung telephone wires was abandoned years ago.

Thick snow drips from trees, bushes and every vestige of growth like clotted cream. We are encased in a snowy wonderland. Should the scene appear as a Christmas card illustration, it would be dismissed as artistic license gone overboard. We stop for a while at Sioux Lookout where smokers – yes, though few, there are some left – leave the rain and brave the freezing air to satisfy their habit, but only for a minute and they soon clamber back into the warmth of the train.

Sioux Lookout, a community of 5,000 to the north west of Lake Superior, is known as ‘sunset country’, but why is not known. A Mohawk friend, who despises the ‘First Nations’ term for his people and prefers instead the ‘North American Indian’ appellation, tells of the well-known origin of the name Sioux Lookout. A Indian scout for the British Army in the war of 1812 is said to hurried back to report, ‘Sioux! Look out!’ And so Sioux Lookout was named.

In Ontario, another night and another day of forest and lakes are the outlook before the first most northerly Ontario farm comes into view. More communities are seen as we run south. No clickerty-clack here. The rails are welded into a continuous, smooth run. Farms, horse racing stables, paddocks, golf courses, factories, schools, towns and other unmistakable signs of civilization come into view.

Through wind and blinding snow we hurry south. No stopping now. We have a clear run to Union Station, Toronto. We are nine hours late, but who cares? Like the Royal Mail, nothing must impede those freight trains on their way. While we passengers are taking our ease, still enjoying the ride, the VIA Rail staff are working behind the scenes, making arrangements for we late arrivals.

Some passengers will be accommodated overnight to take their connecting trains in the morning. For others, with trains available to connect, new issue tickets are ready and waiting at available at the Union Station ticket offices. The organisation is magical; it runs like clockwork and there, on the deserted station at Cobourg, stands my number one.

What a lovely journey to remember!


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© A. W. Cockerill 2005

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