The Canadian – Canada’s transnational train service

Rail journeys have long been loved by unhurried travellers who appreciate opportunities to view the landscapes through which they traverse. The Canadian, which runs for 4,466 kilometres between Toronto and Vancouver, is a long-established passenger service and widely regarded by rail aficionados as one of the world’s great train journeys.

Running between Union Station in Toronto and Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station, anyone travelling the entire route without a break will need to block their diaries for three nights and four days. Perhaps surprisingly, the journey takes over an hour longer (three days and ten hours) while travelling from east to west, due in part to slight variations in the route at a handful of places. Many travellers are also surprised to hear that only a handful of main stops are scheduled en route, though a further 55 can be requested by passengers using the service.

A trans-continental rail journey

At its broadest point, Canada stretches for 9,306 kilometres from east to west, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

In an age of instantaneous electronic communications and affordable air travel, few people are able to comprehend what that kind of enormity meant in bygone times.

The sheer vastness of Canada is a factor in why railroads played such an important role in transforming North America in the late 19th century. They were regarded as revolutionary—helping open up the west to settlement and making possible transcontinental journeys that only a few hardy souls could previously contemplate.

The track running across Canada was constructed from 1881 to 1886. It was seen essential to creating a sense of unity in the then young nation. Prior to agreeing to become a part of the confederation of Canada, which was established on 1 July 1867, British Columbia pushed for the creation of a rail link with the east. The epic construction project employed 12,000 men, 5,000 horses and, in a land where huskies still pull sleds, 3,000 dog teams.

The exterior of a Via Rail carriage.
The exterior of a Via Rail carriage.

Travelling on the Canadian

Travelling on the Canadian today, much of which involves powering along track belonging the Canadian National Railway, gives passengers an impression of the scale of Canada’s landmass plus opportunities to look on at the ruggedness of its landscapes.

The snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains tower above the nine carriages of the train as the Canadian rolls through one of the continent’s most beautiful wildernesses. On clear days passengers might spot the 3,954 metre (12,972 ft) high peak of Mount Robson in British Columbia. In Alberta the track skirts by cliffs as it runs alongside the Athabasca River.

The route sweeps from Saskatoon through the swaying cornfields of Saskatchewan—cultivated prairie land that’s interspersed by red-painted barns and arching silos. The equally flat landscape of Manitoba gives ways to the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg.

In Ontario, close to the Great Lakes, the track snakes through dense boreal forest and verdant spruces can be seen reflecting in blue surface of the lakes on calm, sunny days. In all, the Canadian’s route cuts across five of Canada’s ten provinces.

The wildlife of Canada

Anyone staring out of the windows for the duration of the journey might count themselves unlucky if they don’t spot a bear, a moose or a deer roaming in remoter areas of countryside. Many people, though, enjoy reading and socialising between the more scenic sections of the Canadian’s journey.

The train’s shining rolling stock is, in some senses, a throwback to the golden age of railway travel. The Budd Car Company built the original carriages—known as cars in Canada—between November 1954 and April 1955, in time for the inaugural journey by the Canadian, on 24 April 1955. At the time it was the country’s only train with panoramic windows.

New, more luxurious, carriages were introduced last year for use by holders of Prestige tickets—the first class section that has been described as a ‘five-star hotel on rails’. It means a personal concierge for the duration of the journey, access to a choice from menus in the elegant dining carriage, plus access to reserved seating in the Panorama carriage, which has a domed, glass roof for viewing scenery.

Canada's national flag on a Via Rail railway carriage.
Canada’s national flag on a Via Rail railway carriage.

Dining on the Canadian

Passengers in the Sleeper Plus category also gain access to the Panorama and dining carriages, and can enjoy live entertainment by travelling musicians, performing as part of the Artists on Board Programme, during the journey. All passengers, including those in Economy, can enjoy viewing the scenery from the comfort of the Skyline carriages.

Dining on board the Canadian provides opportunities to tuck into cuisine inspired by some of the nation’s favourite dishes. At breakfast pumpkin pancakes are served with cinnamon syrup and whipped cream. Bison burgers make the lunch menu, along with a fashionable quinoa salad. During dinner ribs in a rosemary demi-glace plus a pickerel remoulade count among the mouth-watering options.

During the peak season the Canadian departs from its terminuses in Toronto and Vancouver three times a week but that dips to two departures in the low season. Nonetheless, those journeys during wintertime provide travellers with opportunities to see the Rockies and landscapes across the route in snow.

Whatever the season, the Canadian is a way of seeing a great swathe of Canada’s landscape.

Further information

Find out more about the Canadian via the Via Rail Canada website (www.viarail.ca).

In addition to the terminals at Toronto and Vancouver, stops are scheduled at Kamloops, Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Sioux Lookout and Sudbury Junction.

See the Explore Canada website for further travel ideas in Canada.

Canada's maple leaf on the side of a Via Rail train.
Canada’s maple leaf on the side of a Via Rail train.

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