The swaying of the train and the clickety-clack of the wheels rolling along the track lulls me into a trance. I lie on a freshly made bed, mesmerized by a blur of conifer trees as the scenery outside my carriage is gradually swallowed by a Canadian dusk. The comfortable bed and rocking motion puts me to sleep quickly as The Canadian whizzes past trees, lakes and cabins. The rumbling and grinding of the train provide an unexpected soundtrack to my dream of herds of buffalo thundering across the plains. Waking up to the sounds of the train is one of my favourite moments on the Trans Canada train from Toronto to Winnipeg.
Somewhere between the railway towns of Gogama and Longlac, on the Canadian Shield, I dream there’s an earthquake. But it’s only the train shuddering on the tracks. When I open my eyes, the sky is a crimson blanket dotted with puffs of pink clouds.
It’s easy to slip into a world of your own on board The Canadian and be swept away by the history of a bygone era.
The Canadian travels 4466 km, from the Boreal forests of Northern Ontario through the Prairies to the Canadian Rockies. It’s a classic train journey across Canada right through the heart of the country.
Train across Canada
The construction of the trans-Canada railway in the 19th century laid the foundation that allowed the nation to thrive. Horses were replaced by locomotives and cities popped up across the land, attracting European immigrants. Without the railway, particularly the trans-Canada train, Canada would not have become the developed country it is today.
Today, the trans-Canada train is no longer a vital mode of passenger transport. These days, there are other options such as a driving trip across the country or hopping on an airplane to reach your destination quickly.
The best way to describe the train across Canada is a restful cruise on land, where you allow yourself the luxury of escaping from phone calls and deadlines while you soak up the scenery.
Via Rail WiFi
There is no Wi-Fi on board the trans-Canadian railway and cell phone service is patchy.
At first, the lack of Wi-Fi bothers me but not long after the train pulls away from Toronto’s Union Station, I realise not having email access has its advantages.
During our train journey, we experience the legendary Via Rail delays The Canadian is known for. Freight traffic gets priority on the tracks and it’s not uncommon for the passenger train to be hours late – sometimes even a day late.
However, by lunchtime, I’ve stopped worrying about being late and have settled into the relaxed pace of the epic train journey, delays and all.
Toronto to Winnipeg leg
Travelling in a cabin for two means there’s plenty of room to tuck my carry-on bags between and behind the seats.
I’m in Sleeper Plus class, in a cabin for two (carriage 113, cabin E). My cabin has two seats, a washbasin with complimentary toiletries, a private toilet and a shared shower at the end of the carriage.
At night, the steward makes up my bed with fresh sheets and pillows. When the bed is made, there’s ample room for one but with bunk beds set up the cabin is a bit of a squeeze.
However, being able to lie flat on a bed is much more comfortable than trying to sleep while sitting upright in an economy-class seat on an aircraft.
Sleeper Plus also has some seats that convert into upper and lower berths at night, with just a curtain for privacy, and there are single rooms where the toilet gets covered when the bed comes out.
At the top of the range, Prestige classrooms come with an L-shaped couch, Murphy bed and a more spacious private en-suite toilet, with access to reserved seating at the front of the dome car.
Via Rail Food
Lunch is served in the dining car and is an orderly affair with two pre-allocated dining times. Meals are tasty and the menu changes each day. Examples are soup of the day with a pulled pork sandwich served on a focaccia bun, shrimp and salad, quinoa salad, bison burger served on a wild rice bun with lettuce and tomato. Non-alcoholic drinks are included in the fare but wine ($8 a glass), beer ($6) and spirits are extra.
On the breakfast menu each day is a hearty Transcontinental breakfast of two eggs prepared in any way you choose, with hash browns and bacon, ham or sausages, served with toast or a muffin. It provides plenty fuel for a day of active sightseeing, even though most passengers will spend their time watching the scenery roll by.
Via Rail stops
After lunch, I retire to my cabin and stare out the window at a blur of trees. Soon the rhythmic motion of the train puts me to sleep. We pass Washago, which is the gateway to the Muskokas, at the head of Lake Couchiching popular for cottages and fishing. I wake feeling refreshed as the train arrives in Parry Sound, a charming town of 6000+ residents on the edge of the Canadian Shield.
The Canadian Shield consists of billion-year-old bedrock that covers a vast area of Canada between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. The area is a rich source of mining for gold, nickel and other minerals.
Back in the dining car, over a two-course dinner of vegetable soup followed by a tasty sweat pepper chicken miscela topped with a creamy red pepper and tomato sauce, we whizz past more forests and lakes.
After dinner, I walk to the front of the train as it pulls into Greater Sudbury, which is known as the nickel capital of the world. I step out onto the platform and I’m not surprised to find that the station looks like a typical country town back home in Australia.
Via Rail Dome Car
Besides your cabin or seat, there are other parts of the train to explore. The dome car has glass windows that extend to the ceiling and it’s the best spot to take photographs.
At the front of the train, the Prestige class bar is open to all after 2 pm, even if you’re not travelling in that class. The bar is the place to head for a Railcar Old Fashioned or a Sloane Tea cocktail.
Passing through the games car on my way back to my cabin, I stop for a game of bingo with other passengers. Other activities are daily talks in the Dome Car and there’s a daily changing roster of other activities, like wine or beer sampling before dinner. But I’m mostly content to sit in my cabin and gaze out the window at the scenery.
Trans Canada Train
One of the benefits of travelling by train is you can have a refreshing shower anytime you feel like it. The shower pack in my cabin has a bar of soap, two towels and hotel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner.
Over breakfast, the train whizzes past Longlac, a small town at the northern tip of Long Lake on the historic canoe route for fur traders. Half the population is English-speaking and the rest speak French. I’m surprised to learn that we’re still in Ontario (home to world-famous Niagara Falls) and only a little more than halfway on our journey from Toronto to Winnipeg.
Back in my cabin, more trees and lakes whizz past. Ontario is rich in wildlife and home to black bears, muskrats, grey wolves, beavers, moose, freshwater otters and coywolves (which are a hybrid between coyote and wolves).
At Jack Fish River, a flock of pelicans watches the train as an announcement reminds us we’ve gained an hour.
The train heads towards Armstrong at the northern end of the 99km-long Lake Nipigon. With 250,000 lakes and 154 species of fish, this part of Canada is a paradise for anglers who come here to catch walleye, northern pike, pickerel, trout, yellow perch and bluegill.
By the time the train reaches Winnipeg, I’m only just starting to get in tune with the slower pace of this epic train journey across Canada.
Christina Pfeiffer travelled on The Canadian between Toronto and Winnipeg as a guest of Destination Canada and Via Rail.
What we loved
1-The relaxed vibe gave us an excuse to slow down, wind down and get into the languid pace of train travel.
2-The food was satisfying and a big tick to the romance of the dining car, with its charming tablecloth setting.
3-This Via Rail escape was an opportunity to see a lot of the Canadian countryside while lying in bed.
4- Lack of Wi-Fi provided an excuse not to compulsively check email.
What can be improved
1- No Wi-Fi makes it unattractive for business travel.
2- There are daily talks in the Dome cars but the programme schedule isn’t obvious. While there’s a list on the blackboards in the bar cars, you have to walk a long way to see it. A schedule in the cabins would be useful.
Did you know?
Canada is the world’s second-largest country.
The Prime Minister of Canada is Justin Trudeau.
Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state.
The Bank of Canada released polymer plastic notes in 2011 (The Canadian is on the $10 note).
Before joining The Canadian in Toronto, we spent a few days wine tasting in the Okanagan then flew to Ottawa to explore museums and participate in Canada’s 150th birthday events. From Ottawa, we drove to Gananoque and cruised the St Lawrence River. Gananoque is Canada’s gateway to the 1000 Islands, which is a group of islands on the USA/Canada border. From Ganonoque, we drove to Kingston and boarded a Via Rail service to Toronto, travelling in a very comfortable business class carriage.