The journey from Toronto to Vancouver (and vice-versa) aboard Via Rail’s ‘Canadian’ is regarded as one of the ‘Top 10 Rail Journeys in the World’. It transports more than 100,000 passengers every year. The train has become so legendary it now appears on Canada’s $10 note.
Via Rail Canada train journey
It’s a train journey for all seasons. Whatever time of year, it’s a journey that offers a window into Canada’s stunning landscapes. From the snow-capped Rockies in winter to the maple forests of Ontario in autumn to the golden prairies under the clear blue July sky, the shifting vista beyond the windows of the Via Rail Canadian is like a living art gallery.
My transcontinental crossing starts at Union Station in Toronto, Ontario’s capital and Canada’s most populated province.
After a quick peek at my accommodation, I head to the Park Car and join other passengers in a bon-voyage toast as the lights of the Toronto skyline disappear behind us.
There are two classes available on board – Economy and Sleeper Plus. I’ve opted for the Sleeper service as I’ll be going the whole distance, an epic four-day journey covering 4,466 kilometres and four time zones.
My cosy cabin becomes my sanctuary, with a private bathroom and bed that converts into a bench seat during the day.
Sleeper class customers have access to the entire train including the panoramic viewing cars. I’d recommend upgrading to this class if you’re planning the coast to coast trip, although the Economy class has comfortable reclining seats and is an affordable way to discover Canada’s wide open spaces if you’re on a budget.
This Via Rail train comprises the original 1955-built coaches from the Canadian Pacific Railway. When VIA Rail was created in 1977, it completely rebuilt and upgraded the original coaches, making the train a true classic in its own right as well as a way to get from A to B.
After being rocked to sleep by the gentle rhythm of the rails, I wake to the views of north-western Ontario with its thick forests and abundant lakes.
There are a number of station stops where you can catch some fresh air and stretch your legs at quaint railway towns and isolated settlements typical of this section of the railway.
Although I never tire of looking out the window at the ever-changing scenes, there are other distractions.
The organised games and activities are a great way to socialise and meet fellow passengers. There are also wine tastings and presentations. And the commentary on the history, geography and culture of the regions are fascinating.
We cross the Ontario – Manitoba border and all too soon arrive in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba and Western Canada’s oldest city.
The Canadian stops in Winnipeg for about four hours. It leaves me plenty of time to visit ‘The Forks’, the city’s public market and a few of the landmarks commemorating what was originally the hub of the Canadian fur trade.
Winnipeg is a multicultural city with over 50 ethnic communities. So I also visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which has an impressive collection of Inuit sculpture and art.
Back on board, the VIA Rail train travels through Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Canadian Prairie provinces are a moving art gallery of endless fields of blue flaxseed and golden wheat.
Passing the Manitoba – Saskatchewan border, the Canadian nears the mid-point of its journey across the continent.
The train stops in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s largest city, named after the abundance of purple berries that are found along the banks of its river, and known as the ‘land of the living skies’.
Another border and another time zone, we cross from Saskatchewan into Alberta, and on to Edmonton. Alberta’s capital is the gateway to the north.
Edmonton was a place that attracted explorers and adventurers who came through the city during the era of fur trading and to try their luck in the Yukon gold rush.
Jasper National Park
The community of Edson is midway between Edmonton and Jasper National Park, and it’s from here we get our first view of the Canadian Rockies. Competition for spaces in the sky dome car becomes fierce.
I break my journey in the town of Jasper. Stop-overs are permitted, but as the train is a thrice-weekly service, any stopover requires a minimum 48-hour stay. it’s not possible to hop on and off the train without a reservation but it’s easy to pre-book one or more stopovers through Via Rail’s multi-city option. It’s cheaper than buying a separate ticket for each leg.
Those not staying have around 90 minutes to explore the handsome town, said to be amongst Canada’s most photographed places.
As Jasper National Park is a wildlife sanctuary, there’s a good chance of seeing wild animals such as elk and deer (and sometimes bears) wandering down the main street.
Back on board, for the last leg of the journey between Alberta and British Columbia, we gaze in awe at giant snow-capped peaks around us.
From Kamloops, the forests become rolling hills. The arid high-country scored by deep river canyons are another dazzling and different environment, wrapped in the captivating tale of Canada’s history.
Finally we reach our destination, the bustling city of Vancouver, home to half the population of British Columbia, which is not surprising given its gorgeous location between the Pacific Coast and the forests of the Coast Mountains.
It’s been such a memorable trip that I just want to get back on board and do it all again.
Kris Madden was a guest of Canadian Tourism Commission and Via Rail.
For more things to do in Canada see Best of Canada.