Although no one suggests my plan to take the train across Canada with my family is “an act of insane recklessness” (that’s what a politician said in 1871 when he heard that Canada was going to build a railway across the immense and largely empty country), some friends are clearly flummoxed.
Even when I extol the virtues of train travel – it’s environmentally responsible, it allows me to spend uninterrupted time with family, it makes the journey as exciting as the destination – they retain their doubts.
“Doesn’t that train trip take, like, forever?” asks one friend. In fact, it’s a three-day journey from Toronto, Ontario to Vancouver, B.C., aboard VIA Rail’s Canadian train.
“And your teenage sons want to go on this trip?” asks another (who, it must be noted, was recently told by her teenage daughter that she is far too embarrassing to be seen with in public). Thankfully, yes. Spence and Shane, 14 and 16, once worshiped at the altar of Thomas the Tank Engine and are psyched to ride the rails. So am I.
Our railway adventure starts the night before our departure when we stay at the Fairmont Royal York, a grand railway hotel built in 1929 across from the Toronto train station, We love the vintage feel of the hotel, its location within walking distance of the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, where the Blue Jays baseball team plays, and that an underground tunnel connects the hotel to the station.
We roll through that tunnel at 8:20 a.m. for our 9:00 a.m. departure. Oops. Savvy passengers who are also booked in Silver and Blue Class (VIA Rail’s premium service that includes three gourmet meals a day and private bedrooms) have already checked in, and all decent mealtime reservations are gone.
That first day we’ll wait until 2:00 p.m. for lunch and 9:00 p.m. for dinner – wonderfully romantic times if you’re on a European holiday with your amour, a tad challenging with hungry teenagers. (Train attendants ensure the better meal times are shared in subsequent days).
Stepping aboard the gleaming stainless steel rail cars is like stepping on a cruise ship – albeit a really skinny one. Everything to keep us fed, watered and amused for three days can be found along a rabbit warren of carpeted passageways.
Down one passageway are our side-by-side double bedrooms. “Whoa,” says Shane when he steps in the door, “this is some small.”
Indeed, each room is a study in space efficiency with a tiny sink, private toilet and two armchairs. During the day an attendant removes the wall between the rooms and adds a table — the perfect set-up for playing games. At night the wall is restored and two bunk-style beds with fluffy duvets are lowered into place, making cozy cocoons in which to be rocked and rolled to sleep.
Not that we spend all our time in our rooms. The glass-lined Park and Skyline cars provide lounge seating, refreshments and various activities (board games, movies, trivia contests, bingo). Each of the cars has an upper level seating area with glass dome for 360-degree sightseeing.
It’s here we meet our fellow passengers — lots of Americans, a smattering of Canadians and Germans and a tour group from England (mostly seniors but with one heavily tattooed and multi-pierced young couple from London).
Stops and starts
As the first day unfolds the scenery morphs from urban scenes to tiny towns to jewel blue lakes with summer cabins and ski boats. We wander between the public cars and our rooms, reading, talking, playing games and watching the country scroll by.
In late afternoon, an attendant announces we’re approaching Sudbury Junction, the birthplace of Jeopardy host Alex Trebek.
“The answer is ‘Blink and you’ll miss it” says Spence as we roll past the little town.
Shane hits an imaginary buzzer. “What is Sudbury Junction?”
We stop and start irregularly, picking-up and dropping-off passengers, letting freight trains pass, changing crews. At least once each day we’re allowed to hop off the train and stretch our legs.
At one point I walk the length of the train – from the engines, through the Comfort Class (read economy) cars with upright seats that recline for sleeping and through the Silver and Blue Class lounging, dining and sleeping cars. I count 19 railcars in total, about a quarter-mile mile of train.
Meals in the pink-and-grey dining cars are welcome diversions. Although the Art Deco-inspired décor is less than fashion-forward (glass etchings of birds, anyone?), the cuisine is up-to-date delicious with regional dishes such as Atlantic fish chowder and Alberta bison rib roast and apple pie. The serving crew is even more impressive than the food as they gracefully navigate between tables in the swaying train.
Late afternoon of our second day, almost 30 hours into the journey, we finally cross out of Ontario and in to Manitoba. Bales of hay appear, the tracks straighten out and soon we’re speeding across the Prairies at 90 mph (as opposed to 45 mph on curvy sections).
“Guess it’s as close to bullet train speed as we’ll get,” Spence says with a sigh.
The morning of our third day, we wake to learn we’ve passed through the entire province of Saskatchewan at night. We’re sorry to have missed it, particularly the sign outside the town of Biggar: “New York is big, but this is Biggar.”
We rumble through Alberta and climb into the Rockies.
And this is where our warm and fuzzy family vacation threatens to derail.
Blame it on the rock-and-rolling sleeps, the limited ability to burn off steam, the lack of privacy or the 55 hours of togetherness. Tempers flare over nothing and we stomp off to separate corners of the train for much-needed alone time.
(After the trip, when friends ask Spence about his train adventure, he tells them, “It was a really excellent two-day trip.” Of course, it was a three-day trip.)
When the train pulls in to Jasper, we regroup for a vigorous walk around the mountain town. Family harmony restored, we reboard and enjoy one fine, final meal.
Early the next morning we arrive in the Vancouver station. Seventy-one hours, 2,776 miles and three time zones after our adventure began, Shane climbs down from the train, drops to his knees and kisses the platform.