All Aboard the Trans Canadian Railway, Part I: Welcome to Toronto

Since I was a little boy, one of my dreams has been to ride a train, cross-country.  It has been a dream since the first time I laid eyes on the rows and rows of locomotives and cars berthed at the Sunnyside Yard in Queens just a few miles from the foreboding entrance to the East River tunnels.  It seemed like a pipe dream as it went unnoticed for years until January 2008 when my dad surprised me on a spur of a moment when he and I boarded a train in Chicago’s Union Station bound for Emeryville, California, near Oakland.  It was an unforgettable 55 hours that reignited my passion for travel, trains, and bottomless coffee.  For nearly 9 years after that, it seemed I would never be able to do such a feat again, especially since my family is prone mainly to European destinations, mainly Italy or the UK.  A cross-country train ride seemed unlikely as the years passed since my trip aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr.  That is, until December 2016 when my mom and I flew into Toronto.

The Trans Canadian or simply, The Canadian, is one of the most iconic rail journeys on Earth, right up there with the Trans-Siberian in Russia and the now defunct Orient Express.  A 2,775-mile (4,466 km) long journey aboard Via Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail service, traverses mountains, plains, prairies, forests, rivers, and several major cities throughout the country.  It is a journey where one can get up close and personal with the great outdoors that could only come from the Great White North.  From Toronto’s magnificent Union Station, Via Rail takes you into the wooded wilds of Ontario, the rivers and farms of Manitoba, the prairies of Saskatchewan, the mountains of Alberta, and the valleys and peaks in British Columbia.  On board, passengers experience accommodations that guarantee both a comfortable and unforgettable experience; prestige class is definitely the way to go in terms of comfort and space.

The Canadian’s history dates back over a century when much of the rail track existed mainly as a freight train route owned and built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR or CP Rail).  In the years following World War II, passenger trains on the CP Rail consisted of a mixture of prewar heavyweight and pre- and post-war lightweight cars, even on its flagship transcontinental The Dominion and its eastern extension, The Atlantic Limited.  While these cars were serviceable, American trains of the early 1950s, such as the California Zephyr, which was operated by the Rio Grande & Denver and then Western Pacific, had already adopted streamlined all-stainless steel consists featuring domed observation cars.  CP Rail christened its new flagship train The Canadian and service began on April 24, 1955 with its initial run between Montreal and Vancouver.  Running time was reduced from about 85 to 71 hours, so that passengers spent only three, rather than four, nights en route.  Although CP Rail competitor Canadian National Railways (CN Rail) began its own new transcontinental service, the Super Continental, on the same day, CP Rail was able to boast honestly that The Canadian was “The first and only all-stainless steel ‘dome’ stream-liner in Canada.”  The Canadian’s 71-hour westbound schedule was 16 hours faster than that of The Dominion.  Passenger train ridership began to decline in Canada and America during the 1960’s and 1970’s; competition from airlines and increased automobile usage following construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, the CP Rail cancelled The Dominion in 1966, and petitioned the government to discontinue The Canadian in 1970.  Although this petition was denied, CPR during the 1970’s attempted to remove itself from the passenger service market.  The Canadian was operated at reduced levels, with the government subsidizing 80 percent of its losses.  Via Rail Canada formally assumed responsibility for CP Rail’s passenger services on October 29, 1978.  Following the takeover by Via, the Canadian became the company’s premier transcontinental train, and initially operated over its old CP Rail route.  It was supplemented by the former CN Super Continental, which operated over the parallel, but more northerly, CN route.  In 1990, following tough budget cuts, the Super Continental service was terminated and the Canadian was moved from the CP Rail route to the Super Continental’s CN route. This maintained transcontinental service and allowed Via to operate its government-mandated service to small communities along the line.  The new longer route bypassed Regina and Calgary in favor of Saskatoon and Edmonton.  The schedule was lengthened so that the train now takes four nights, rather than three, to travel between Toronto and Vancouver.  The present schedule is almost identical with that of the 1940’s over the same route, when CN operated it with steam locomotives.

As my mom and I flew out of LaGuardia Airport bound for Pearson International Airport in Toronto, I couldn’t wait for the plane to land.  Once we saw a view of Mississagua, the town where Pearson is located, I began to lose all feeling in my legs.  Don’t worry, it was from excitement.  After clearing customs, we boarded the very fast and very clean UP (Union to Pearson) Express Rail service which took us towards Union Station.  However, we had hours to kill before our train left; we had left early in the event our flight out of New York was delayed.  We left our bags at the train station and went out for dinner at Toronto’s famed Royal York Fairmont Hotel.  Situated just across the street from Union Station, my mom and I dined in the lobby of one of the most beautiful and famous hotels in Canada, if not the world.  The lobby was opulent with Christmas decorations, chandeliers, hand-carved walls and columns, and an autographed framed photo of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip who once visited the hotel.

The Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto

The Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto

With dinner out of the way, we marched back through the freezing rain, we spent the next two hours in the VIA Rail lounge patiently watching the hands on the clock slowly move towards ten o’clock.  Just thirty minutes before departure, we were introduced to one of the train’s crew members, Dan.  He was only too delighted to introduce himself and get us and our luggage onto the train.  Before we boarded, however, he gave us a quick, yet fully detailed blow-by-blow on what we would encounter throughout our journey to Vancouver.  I was rather impressed with his savvy knowledge about Canada (then again, he was a red-blooded Canuck from Winnipeg!) and how much he seemed to love telling us about each and every destination we’d encounter.  He was so enthusiastic, I had to wonder if VIA Rail had ever promoted him.  If not, they should because eats, breathes, and sleeps the Trans Canadian!  With his pre-game warm up over, my mom and I boarded our car, the Chateau Denonville; all VIA Rail sleeper cars are named after famous Canadian historical figures.

The journey of lifetime begins now!

The journey of lifetime begins now!

At precisely 10 pm, eastern standard time, we slowly took off out of Toronto, bound for the Pacific coast of Canada.  After dining on some gourmet cheese and crackers, I retired to my cabin.  It was even more glorious than I imagined: a bed big enough for two, four pillows, a window as wide as the entire cabin itself, and a bathroom with small, yet very nice shower.  Oh, and of course, a working toilet.  Even the complimentary toiletries were larger than most hotel shampoos and conditioners!  If VIA Rail was trying to impress me, then mission accomplished.  I couldn’t wait to try out the bed.  It may have been early, but breakfast would be served between 6:30 am to 8:30 am and I didn’t wanna oversleep.  Also, it was hard to stare at the scenery when it’s so dark outside.  It didn’t take long for me to pass out and drift away into a peaceful slumber.  The gentle rocking of the train only brought me sleep faster.  Who knew where I’d be when I would wake up the next morning?

VIA Rail invites you to sleep soundly tonight!

VIA Rail invites you to sleep soundly tonight!

About admin

I am a graduate of Stony Brook University, and I have a degree in History. I am an avid traveler, with an extensive knowledge of geography, a passion for photography, and a knowledge of animals too. I enjoy pop music of the 1980's, fine dining, movies, baseball, basketball, and rugby.
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