Canadians have a worldwide reputation for friendliness, but if you ever need convincing just take VIA’s “Canadian” train across the country. With its reputation for stunning scenery, you will usually find quite an international gathering on board, including plenty of Canadians wanting to see their own country in a stylish manner. And of course the train crew will be Canadians, eager to share their love and knowledge of the country.
In fact, Canada might not exist in the same way geo-politically if it wasn’t for the railway. The promise of a transcontinental route persuaded British Columbia to join the Canadian Confederation rather than entertain overtures from the United States.
Starting the Journey
The setting for departure is suitably grand: Toronto’s Union station of 1915–20 is Canada’s finest Beaux-Arts station, and its immense departure hall has a roll-call of destinations in its cornice. For those fascinated by the story of places, there are excellent mile-by-mile guides illuminating passing rivers, lakes and mountains or giving the background to sites and buildings of interest.
During the 3½-day journey covering 4,466 kilometres (2,791 miles), you have plenty of time to relax, read and meet fellow passengers in the convivial lounges in the Skyline and Park cars and the dining-cars, which serve regional dishes. Even if you’re deep in conversation, you don’t need to worry that you’ll miss a scenic highlight; the crew warn you of its approach and sometimes the train even slows for a better view.
Canada’s Diverse Scenery
Predictably, it’s the majestic scale and beauty of the Rocky Mountains that enthrall passengers once west of Edmonton, but most find the immensity of Ontario’s lakes and boreal forest a revelation, and the prairies set the mind wandering: what can it have been like, little more than a century ago, to arrive at a quarter-section to make a new life with nothing more than the tools, seeds and belongings a family could carry?
Can't-miss Pit Stops
There are several opportunities to stretch one’s legs during the longer stops. During the almost four hours in Winnipeg, you can wander down to the Forks at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Once the hub of the fur trade, the area and its historic buildings are today home to a vibrant market and recreational area. Or on the platform at Jasper you can admire the gargantuan steam locomotive that used to haul trains over the mountain gradients.
By the time the “Canadian” is clattering across New Westminster Bridge, built in 1904 with an opening span for Fraser River shipping, and arrives at Vancouver’s landmark Pacific Central station of 1919, passengers have not only enjoyed some of Canada’s finest sights but gained an insight into the way a railway can unite a country.