VIA Rail “the Canadian” – what’s it like today
Posted on August 2, 2018
The last time I took a VIA train across the country, or half way across, which is still a multi-day journey, was during the 1980s when the government was making extensive cuts to rail service across Canada. My trip was shortly after the Hinton disaster, in which 23 passengers died after a head on collision with a freight train. All the passengers on my trip were talking about the disaster, not that they were “that worried about it”, but clearly we all were, and were trying to talk our way in to making sense of the tragedy. Needless to say, the atmosphere was dismal, and the demise of passenger train travel seemed imminent.
When our daughter invited me to the Edmonton Folk Festival this year, I scouted around the various transportation options and came across a deal on a VIA Rail pass. That could be interesting, and as the price was a bargain, I decided to take the plunge. But I was uncertain. I pictured old, lonesome me, as one of a very few people on an aging train, and also worried that my aging body wouldn’t be up to the rigors of sleeping in coach.
Those concerns were mainly dispelled when I stood in line for boarding at 10 P.M. last Tuesday in Union Station. I certainly wouldn’t lack for company. A long queue formed with students, families, retirees, all in a somewhat ebullient, chatty mood. I spoke with a young, backpacking schoolteacher from the UK, who had even less idea of what the journey would entail than I did. She was travelling all the way to Vancouver, a full four nights on the train; the first leg of my pass would take me only as far as Winnipeg, a two night and one day journey.
Although I was prepared with books, recording and some fine bluetooth headphones, most of my 36 hour trip was spent talking to folks. I obtained a view of how essential the VIA passenger rail service still is to Canada, all these years later. Airplanes have advantages, but most of the vast crowd on this train were taking the train, not out of a romantic sense, but because it made economic sense to them. There were quite a number of mothers with children in tow, who were returning to family farms or other places West, for a summer visit. It’s much cheaper to move a family on the train than through the air. There were people in transition from one job to another, or recently graduated and looking for job opportunities. Quite a number of tourists, and foreign tourists were on the train, with the retirees typically in the much more expensive sleeper cars, and the backpacking millennials in coach. And there were the train buffs. You can tell them because they travel by rail frequently, and tend to be on a first name basis with the staff.
On boarding, the young VIA staff established a relaxed mood of conviviality, but still one of order, as they cheerily ushered us to our cars. This was maintained throughout the journey, and was refreshing and a bit different from the redcaps and conductors that I remembered. There was a slight ‘faux pas’ as the young VIA host exclaimed that we were boarding the ‘historic’ “Canadian train”. The original “Canadian” that our family took across the country in 1959, as we emigrated from Holland to Alberta, followed the southerly CPR route, hugging the north shore of Lake Superior, and continued through the Rogers Pass. The CN “Canadian” follows a more northerly route than the historic “Canadian”. However, the iconic shining steel train cars on today’s train originally were in service on the southerly route, and date back many decades, so today’s train certainly has that iconic “Canadian” look. The Ontario part of the CN route traverses a vast wilderness. Once you pass Sudbury, the rail line does not shadow a highway as it does further south, and there are intervals of hours with no human habitation in sight. Even the major stops on this portion of the route: Capriol, Hornepayne and Sioux Lookout, are small, sleepy, with the well worn look that suggests that time has passed them by.
Here is a view of the train at one of our stops in northern Ontario, with an unidentified German tourist obliging us for scale. The diesel locomotives are massive.
A few more practical notes. The food was a pleasant surprise. My expectation was for over-priced, possibly edible fare. But here’s a breakfast entry that did me through to supper and cost $8.
And here, supper, a tasty chunk of salmon with a vegetable medley, not soggy in the least, with brown rice, for $13.
No need to pack in sandwiches at these prices. The dining car is reserved for non-coach fares, but I wonder if they supply similar dining fare to the Economy class passengers, because the food quality was a pleasant surprise. In coach, you have access to a car that has dome viewing, and two cafe seating areas. When taking a breather at our first daylight stop, I was surprised to see the train had 20 to 25 cars (not an exact count), including four dome/ dining cars. There was always seating available in the cafe areas. My only objection to pricing was the rental of a blanket and eyeshade for $15. I saw a young mother travelling with 3 children ruminate over that price, times 4 as the blankets are not large, and sadly take a pass. But that story had a happy ending, as VIA staff helped her retrieve blankets she had in checked baggage. On numerous occasions I observed very young children staring out of the window at the passing scenery, and thought, that was me, in 1959 at the age of five. The vast forests and amounts of snow and the odd solitary human figure, so different from our native Holland, are still etched in my memory from that winter journey so many years ago.
One of the happiest moments on the trip was an afternoon performance in the dome car, by a group named Piper Hayes, consisting of the namesake Piper Hayes and her husband, Carson. More on that here.
Finally, there’s the issue of sleeping in coach. Well, I did make it through, not much worse for wear. That’s the best I can say. The seats are no longer fully reclining, as I believe they once were, and it was very difficult to find a comfortable attitude on them. The first night I barely slept. The second night did not begin well, but after trying different postures, I found that I was quite comfortable laying in a fetal position across two seats using my day pack and small pillow to raise my head. I did have an empty seat beside me; if that seat had been occupied I don’t know how I would manage on a multi-day journey. Other passengers had varying degrees of success with their sleep: do take inflatable pillows, neck buddies, blankets and anything else that will add to your comfort, in spite of their bulk. You won’t regret the decision.