TRIP REPORT: A Canadian Long Distance Rail Journey

By Bruce Jenkins, RailPAC Director

On Sunday, 9/24/06, my wife and I boarded VIA train #2 “The Canadian” at Vancouver. Sleeping car passengers are required to check in at 1630 (1 hr prior to departure time). You are then entertained on “the patio” (the old platform adjacent to the stub end of the tracks at Central Station) by live music and refreshments. Luggage is deposited in your bedroom, all part of the “Silver & Blue” service. The train is in two sections on adjacent tracks and is connected by pulling out the forward section then backing to the aft section. The total consist comprises 30 cars, made up of 1 baggage car , 2 coaches, 5 dome club cars, 3 diners and 19 sleeping cars. Three locomotives are required, 2 for prime movers and 1 for hotel power. The consist is made up into groups of 3 or more sleepers, dome and diner. The baggage, coaches and a dome are behind the locomotives. The east bound trains dead head about 6 sleepers and one diner to Toronto.

A fair amount of passengers get off at Jasper. However, the diners still have three sittings and the food and service are very good; you just can’t beat that old Canadian charm and friendliness. Meals are now included in sleeper class tickets. The seafood entree’s are excellent, as well as the Bison Prime Rib and Bison Burgers. First class table settings are still de rigueur (china etc). There is an excellent wine list and I never saw one miscreant wearing a baseball cap in the diner. Cocktails are available in the Dome Club Car adjacent to the diner, as well as movies and games for those who find some of the greatest scenery in the world boring.

We boarded VIA #1, the west bound Canadian, in Toronto Thursday 10/5. VIA uses some of the Chateau cars formally used on “The Maritimes” (Montreal/ Halifax) to fill in for shortage of Manor cars. The Chateau cars have one drawing room, and I was lucky enough to reserve one for both legs of my trip. In both the east and west bound trains there were 5 Chateau cars. Fall is the “shoulder” period, meaning lower fares and high demand by tour groups. On the west bound train from Toronto there were about 200 people in tour groups from the UK and they all got off at Jasper to ride the “Mountaineer” and spend time at Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise. So from Jasper to Vancouver the train was pretty empty; there were 4 of us left on my car. Hence it is easier to get a drawing room east bound; I was wait listed for the west bound drawing room for 2 months.

The staff agreed that at this time of year the train takes on the image of a “cruise ship”. The train stops in Winnipeg for service, about an hour. The crew directs the passengers to a new mall about a block away and it is quit a sight to see 500 people marching to buy maple syrup and souvenirs. Winnipeg is also the crew base, so you get a new crew there. Staff does recommend that you travel in the winter if you want the “normal” passenger train consist of 10 to 12 cars.

VIA is CN’s pinata. VIA, unlike Amtrak, has no legal priority (ha) and is shoved into the hole every siding. I awoke one night to witness a container train overtaking us. The 30 car train requires a “saw” movement at some short sidings. Train speed (as close as I could calculate) never exceeded 70 mph even in the plains of Saskatchewan. Due to severe temperature gradients up on the Canadian Shield, CN is replacing many decimated concrete ties with wooden ties. VIA now has equipped their cars with retention tanks so you can flush in the station even though the placards are still in place in the toilets. All sleeping cars have double bedrooms, roomettes, sections and a shower.

We rode Amtrak’s “Maple Leaf” from Toronto to Syracuse roundtrip. Fortunately my travel agent had the foresight to reserve business class for us. Seating was spacious and there is no traffic thru the isle since the car is placed directly behind the locomotive and the rear of the car is the “cafe” The equipment of course is Amfleet, ugly but comfortable. CSX (the UP of the east) treats Amtrak horribly. Down time is made up north of Niagara Falls on smooth CN track (79mph).

I booked my trip thru “Accent on Travel” (Ted and Sylvia Blishek) whose ad we’ve all seen in Trains magazine. They work with Brewster in Canada for VIA, hotels, taxi and airport transfers etc. I highly recommend using their services, so start planning and make your reservations months ahead.

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