Saturday, October 04, 2008

Eastward on "The Canadian"

"The Canadian" is Canada's main passenger train. It runs from Vancouver BC on the west coast through Kamloops BC, Jasper AB, Edmonton AB, Saskatoon SK, Winnipeg MB and on to Toronto ON, taking about five days for the journey. It runs three times a week. Stodgy schedules, high prices and vast distances have made air and car travel the methods of choice through the country for most people, but we had always dreamed of doing the trip by train once. This turned out to be the year.

These days the train is mostly a touristy sort of thing for retired folk with fully three quarters of the train reserved for First Class travel. We went economy, which wasn't exactly inexpensive; purchasing sleeper car tickets (i.e. First Class) would have quadrupled the cost, so that definitely wasn't happening -- not for one overnight each way! There were a mere two cars of Economy passengers, and they weren't anywhere near full.

We picked The Canadian up in Jasper. It was almost on time. Noah had assumed the train would be organized in compartments in the European way, but quickly got used to the long open corridors and bus-like seating. One of the prerogatives of travelling as a family is that the conductor will, upon request, set aside sets of four facing seats for you. The train was not crowded, so we were given two such sets of seats, making for a relaxing and fairly spacious zone for the Burkholders. The kids quickly had the footrests up and had settled in for reading, colouring, sketching and game-playing.

The Skyline Car contained the observation dome as well as the dining car and a snackbar. The dome was a plexiglas windowed bubble grafted atop the train. The trip through the last part of the Rockies was especially nifty from up here.

We had brought lunch and breakfast snacks with us for the trip east, but we ate supper in the dining car. It was a welcome change of pace to sit down and order a meal and chat and eat properly with cutlery and space. The food was surprisingly good and reasonably priced.

Night was of course not ideal, but we all managed a fair bit of sleep. We developed no particular fondness for the loud woman who shared her life story for the fifth time with a passenger who embarked at the Saskatoon stop at 1 a.m.. How anyone can suffer from such a complete lack of empathy and appreciation of social cues and conventions (i.e. room full of people trying to sleep = be quiet!) is beyond me. If we hadn't been so amazed by her obliviousness we might have been more angry. I'm sure the entire rail car's worth of passengers felt the same way. Amazingly no one was rude. Her conversational target at the time was increasingly unresponsive but never overtly rude.

The next morning we enjoyed a last few hours of railway prairie scenery before disembarking in Winnipeg only an hour or so late, in the early afternoon. My sister, who lives in Winnipeg, surprised us by meeting the train and facilitating our retrieval of a rental van. We retired to a hotel fairly directly and made sure we got a good night's sleep in actual beds, to make up for the night on the train.


  1. Hi there,

    We are homeschool family in Northern California. Thank you for posting about this train trip. It sounds fantastic, and I'd love to do with with my family. Very neat!


  2. Sounds like a fun experience! Would you do it again? It is amazing really how Via and Amtrak are so different from one another. When we did our Amtrak 3 day train ride (Michigan to Oregon), the price was a fraction of what a similar trip with Via would have cost us (Ontario to BC). We did check out Via's fares as we thought traveling across the continent on OUR side of the border would be nice, but the rates for sleeper cars scared us off. With Amtrak you can get teeny sleepers for not a whole lot more than regular seats. Deluxe rooms were a lot more, but we did splurge for one of those (and even then it was still far less than the VIA rooms). The Amtrak train was pretty much all coach seating, about 10 cars worth, and there were just 2 cars of us sleeper car passengers. For the most part the train was very busy. I wish Via's rates were more inline with Amtrak's. I would love to ride the Canadian across this country!

  3. Would we do it again, as in for a second time? No. Not the same route, anyway. But if we had it to do over, the first time, would we do it again, knowing what we know now? Yes, for sure! It was really an experience -- in rail travel and in experiencing Canadian geography.

    We looked into Amtrak a year or so ago ... the Coast Starlight or whatever it is heading down the West Coast. I was pretty stunned by the sleeper rates but at the time I hadn't yet investigated VIA's rates. On Via we would have paid over $13,000 return, vs. just over $2400 for Economy class. I'm sure Amtrak is a lot cheaper than that! Part of the reason our Via rate was so high was that they won't let two kids share a top/bottom berth, there has to be an adult in each pair of berths ... so as a family of six with two adults we couldn't go with berths, we needed two of the BIG 3-bed bedrooms.

    You've definitely got me interested in Amtrak again now ... maybe in a couple of years.

  4. LOL - we paid about your 2400 for one luxury car (sleeps 2), and 1 regular, compact sleeper all the way from MI to OR. The rates did fluctuate depending on time of year, and we did make sure to choose one of the cheaper times. Also the 2400 included all of our meals while on the train. When we checked the ON to BC rates with Via, the online fare calculator came up with around 15 000. I was stunned, seeing as I had checked Amtrak out first.

  5. What a lovely looking train, and great views. I love travelling by train. Interesting the comments on compartments. English trains have open seating like you have there.

  6. Looks like a great trip --- I've enjoyed reading about it!

  7. Love the observation car.
    Travelled across australia by train and bigger windows would have been welcome, though no when he air-con died in 50C weather in the desert.


This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.