Crossing Canada By RailPosted on: 23 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves
Colin Nicholson takes in the majesty of Canada's landscape by train.
Who could fail to be moved by the sight of the mighty Canadian trains with their glass-domed carriages dashing across the prairies?
My first model railway was just such a train, with its sleek silver corrugated sides and rounded viewing carriage. As a boy playing with my train-set I dreamt of being a passenger onboard one of my carriages, but I never imagined that dream would come true.
Indeed it came as a surprise to learn that those renovated 1955 trains are still plying their way on the 72-hour journey across the continent. So I booked and found myself among a group of 50-something Brits, who preferred the romance of a rail journey to the more conventional option of cruising. They, like me, were all set to take The Canadian, which runs three times weekly from Toronto to Vancouver, at nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning.
But we would have to wait just a bit longer. Train number one, we heard, was delayed due to a freight train derailment up the line.
Now as a seasoned model railway operator, I am used to the problem of derailments and ViaRail, which runs the excellent Canadian passenger train service, must in any case give precedence to the freight network, which owns the tracks, making delays inevitable.
The Ontario Forests, most spectacular in the autumn
Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes
The big sky of Saskatchewan, with its impressive views of the stars by night
Bighorn sheep, with their curly horns
Mountain Robson, the ‘monarch of the Canadian Rockies’
Mountain goats, they can apparently jump 10 metres from cliff to cliff
The flying boats on Fraser River
The skyscrapers of Vancouver
ViaRail responded rapidly, offering us our money back, or a seat on the next train. We Brits took the third option of being flown out to Winnipeg that evening, no-holds barred meals and a nice hotel. But a Canadian man next to me said: 'Shucks, the Ontario bit along the Great Lakes through the forest is really neat. I think I'll just come back and catch the next train out on Thursday.'
Our patience pays off as on Wednesday morning - hurrah! - we board the train. You can travel economy, known as 'coach' class, where you get just a seat, but most people travel 'Silver & Blue', where you have a cabin with an en suite loo and showers at the end of the carriage.
We quickly settle into the routine of life onboard as we cross the prairies. Travelling on Silver & Blue there is sparkling wine and canapés after every city, and three sittings for lunch and dinner in the dining car.
The trains have a comfy, old-fashioned, relaxed feel, very different from the sterile atmosphere of modern European trains. They are slower for sure, but have a sense of self-importance, hooting at every level crossing, despite the fact that the prairies are so impressive for their vast emptiness, with just a silo here and a farm there. At night a sense of propriety makes me pull down the blind of the cabin, but in all honesty you could perform a striptease and nobody would notice.
The dining car and observation wagon are the places where friendships are formed. We scurry to the windows like children when our driver points out a wolf by the side of the tracks or our first glimpse of the Rockies, which seem impossibly high after the flat landscape we have grown used to.
I break my journey at Jasper so that I can do the picture postcard drive along the Icefields Parkway – a glacier-topped mountain pass. It leads to the spectacular old Canadian Pacific Railway – now Fairmont – hotels at Lake Louise and Banff. But as soon as I am onboard again, I feel a huge sense of relief. As the train pulls out of the station, all I need to do is sit back in my seat and watch the world go by.
This stretch sees the most dramatic changes. After passing the Canadian Rockies' highest peak, the ever-snowy Mount Robson, standing at nearly 4000m, we go through a virtual desert, with cacti and red rock formations, before following the Fraser River into Vancouver.
Vancouver itself is mild and welcoming. On my way to Grouse Mountain with its spectacular views of the unfolding Pacific Ocean, I pass by the marinas and forests of Stanley Park, which feel very much like Bournemouth. And yet, while I feel very much at home here - overlooking English Bay in British Columbia - I occasionally hear a lonely cry: it is the call of the steel beast that has brought me so far. I think I will miss him, and I like to think that he will miss me too.
Book It Yourself
To organise your own trip go to www.viarail.com or phone 001 888 842 7245. All prices quoted below are for low season, which runs from Oct 22 to May 31, when it’s substantially cheaper to travel.
A ‘coach’ class single costs from C$393 (£200). The best value is a Canrailpass, which costs from C$550 (£275) or C$500 (£250) if you're over 60 and allows you 12 days travel over a 30-day period. A supplement of C$634 (£315) gets you a ‘Silver & Blue’ cabin on the Canadian.
For stays at Fairmont hotels go to www.fairmont.com
Various British holiday companies also offer tours, which include three days and three nights travelling ‘Silver & Blue’ on the Canadian:
- Thomas Cook (www.thomascooktours.com) offers the 16-day Trans Canadian tour from £1795;
- Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com) offers a variety of trips from £1695;
- Titan Travel (www.titantravel.co.uk) offers a variety of trips from £1945.
By Colin Nicholson
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