Coast to Coast to Coast
- Published: 07 February 2017
Memories of VIA rail travel in Canada
When my daughter graduates this spring from the University of Saskatchewan I am leaning towards taking VIA rail. I must convince my husband of the virtues of long distance train travel. The difference in our levels of enthusiasm might be explained in part by differences in our past experience with train travel, and in part by our cultural identity.
My husband arrived in Canada in his mid-twenties from New Zealand. A jaunt of twelve kilometers aboard the Weka Pass Railway left him with few stories or memories to draw him to the rails. For me, I had grown up with songs and tales and historical accounts how the railway helped shape the Nation, one spike at a time. History classes and documentaries illustrated the building of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railroad networks. This attachment to the rails was intensified after my first overnight journey when I was just twelve and invited to join my Grandmother on a trip from Toronto to Halifax. My first excitement was the announcement itself. With five children and twelve grandchildren in the Toronto area there was some stiff competition on her companion list. The purpose of our journey was to visit her two other children (my Uncles) and seven more grandchildren. We took the Subway to Union Station and boarded the then Atlantic on a thirty-six hour trip towards the Eastern terminus of the Transnational rail network..
We had a lower and upper berth sleeper that converted to seats in the day. At night a thick curtain offered privacy. I can’t remember the passing scenes or the stops we made, but I do remember what went on inside the train. Tea and snacks from the canteen, and meals in the dining car, card games and conversations between us and fellow passengers. It was an entirely social encounter. And, after nearly forty hours VIA rail connected me to Aunt’s, Uncles, and cousins who I met for the first time. Small gifts to each of the children were warmly received and helped create instant friendships. One cousin was only two months my age difference and we became quite close eating fried clams, lobster sandwiches, and exploring the seaside.Years late, after I had children of my own I embarked on another long haul VIA rail trip. My son Brandon was thirteen when I told him I would like to take him with me on a group trip that would traverse 1700 kilometers (over 1,000 miles) of track over 2 days / nights from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Churchill on the shores of Hudson’s Bay. The big draw was a visit to the Polar Bear Capital of the world, and all of the nature that comes from a visit to the sub-Arctic. We each had our own sleeper compartments that converted to single seats across the aisle from each other during the day. There was no Wifi to remove one from the moment, and so meals in the dining car, and conversations with other travellers became purposeful. And this time I do remember more about the passing scenery. Prairie fields and Boreal forests interrupted by small lakes under a big sky and many small rural stations where commuters boarded or disembarked. It was during the second of the two nights onboard that my sleep was cut short by an excited voice outside my cabin - “Mom, come and see the Northern lights.” Indeed, the sky, ablaze with colour was visible from his side of the train. We both lay on his bed with our heads looking out the big window amazed at the unbelievably beautiful hues dancing in the night sky. As we neared Churchill, the train slowed to a crawl, the transition of landscape from Boreal forest to Taiga with its stunted trees now complete, and a flock of ptarmigan greeted us.
On a more recent journey, I travelled with my mother and eldest daughter on a two night journey from Vancouver to Saskatoon. Undeniably this was the most scenic of my three long haul rail trips as it included the corridor through the heart of the great Rocky Mountains. In addition to the stunning landscape were the wildlife encounters viewed from the observation car. We were rewarded with sightings of a herd of elk almost camouflaged by the forest, some big horned sheep and a black bear ambling up a rocky ledge.
I no longer have my mother or grandmother, and so these memories hold even more meaning. I hope that I can persuade my husband that rail to Saskatoon this summer is worth making part of his new found identity.
10 Tips for Canadian travel on VIA rail
- Check the viarail.ca website for special fares – there are some great deals that are frequently available for long haul travel including sleeper berths and cabins.
- Plan you journey well in advance and obtain travel information from the Provincial Tourism departments before you go. British Columbia offers accommodation and some tour reservations services free of charge.Consider camping at one of the Provincial Park camp sites. This mode of accommodation is very popular. Book your camp site well in advance.
- Consider reading Canada by train: the complete VIA Rail travel guide (2009) by Chris Hanus and John Shaske.
- Consider stopping enroute to explore one of the National Parks the railway passes near. A number of tour operators can assist with transportation and tours. Car rental companies are also available.
- To celebrate Canada’s 150’th Anniversary, you can take advantage of free admission in 2017 to Canada's National Parks with this National Parks pass. You must obtain a free pass online.
- Consider reading Canada by train: the complete VIA Rail travel guide (2009) by Chris Hanus and
- Consider covering less ground, but seeing more of that less ground.
- Consider staying in one of the historic former Canadian Pacific Hotels that lie along the Transcanada route.
- Have a pair of binoculars handy for wildlife spotting enroute.
- Consider purchasing one or both National Geographic guide books that showcase Canada’s National Parks (42 of them), or our National Historic Sites (236 of them are represented in the book).
A. Learn more about Canada's 42 National Parks + more than 40 National Historical Sites and the four National Marine Conservation Areas.
B. National Historic Sites. Each entry gives the site’s unique story and how it contributes to the greater story of Canada.