Canada on rails. 4 days train trip from Toronto to Vancouver. Day 1.
Canada on rails. 4 days train trip from Toronto to Vancouver. Day 1.

Canada on rails. 4 days train trip from Toronto to Vancouver. Day 1.

4500 km.

Across 5 provinces each roughly the size of France.

Crossing 4 time zones.
One of the most ambitious railway engineering feats ever.
That is the journey of ‘The Canadian’. A train journey from Toronto on the east to Vancouver on the west. Traversing across the breadth of Canada it is truly a journey of epic proportions. In January of this year I decided to do it. Fresh off the completion of my Masters I was looking for an adventure. Since I was going to Montreal to visit my brother I was looking at something that could connect the two. And then I read about this train journey somewhere. So the options I had to come back from Montreal were these. 
Take a 5 hour flight journey that would cost me around 400 CAD or Take a 4 day train journey that too with no sleeping berths that would cost me around 600 CAD. For me it did not take much time to decide. The train it was! My love of trains sealed the deal. 
Another important point which helped me with the decision was the fact that the original plan to connect the west with the east through railways was one of the most ambitious railway and engineering visions. The story of the entire line is inspiring and worth a read. The Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway both played important roles in shaping the Canada of today. I was not going to do this journey with knowing the history of it so I borrowed a famous book called ‘The Last Spike: The Great Railway 1881-1885’. An excellent read, it details how the railway line was built. It only increased my respect for the planners, managers and engineers of the past. Not to mention the thousands of nameless workers who worked and lost their lives on this line. 

Here is an account of the journey.
Day 1

I woke up early in the morning before any of the other occupants of my cramped 6 person room had woken up. I was staying at the Hosteling International hostel in Toronto. I am a lifetime member of the Youth Hostel Association of India, which is a part of a network of Hostels around the world. I got a handy discount at this hostel thanks to my membership. Out of the other 4 people in my room I had met 3 of them the night before and as luck would have it they were also taking the same train as I was taking. They were from Germany and were spending their holidays just backpacking across countries. Their destination was the famed Jasper. I kept meeting them now and then during the whole trip.

Within an hour I was out on the streets in the morning cold dragging my trolley bag behind me. Here and there, there were patches of snow still sticking to the ground. People rushed past me hurriedly presumably going to work. I attracted a few casual looks as I dragged by trolley bag with me. I had three bags: the big trolley bag and two backpacks. It did take some effort to drag those around but since the Union station was within walking distance I was reluctant to take a taxi.

I reached the Toronto Union Station at around 7 45 am. I was 2 hours early. The Toronto Union Station is the largest railway station in Canada. Built in the Beaux-Arts style it was a joint venture between the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Inside, the Great Hall is a thing of beauty. It is without any doubt the most beautiful big city Railway station I have ever seen. The current structure was built around 1920 but the previous structures date back to 1850s.

I wandered around for a while gazing at the beautiful walls before I decided to head to the gate for my train. Since I was early I sat in the waiting room near the Gate from where the passengers of ‘The Canadian’ were to depart. After some time spent in just casually gazing around at other passengers it was time to go. I could see a line forming near the gate. I gathered my luggage and made my way over to the queue. After my ticket got checked I followed the crowd ahead of me and we were led to the side of the train. It was a shiny coach with outward lines of metal running along it to give it a streamlined look. This was the only glimpse I had of the coach as I was quickly guided by a conductor to my coach. Even though I wanted to roam around a bit to look around I did not want to obstruct other passengers so I made my way inside to my seat. It was dark inside as the trains are parked in covered sheds. With a few nods of acknowledgement to the passengers around my seat I settled down. The coach was not packed with only a few passengers scattered around. I was happy to note that the conductor assigned one person per two seats. This is very convenient as spending 4 days on a sitting seat is difficult. With 2 side by side seats one can at least sometimes stretch diagonally and sleep.

Soon it was time to leave. Right on the dot, at 0945 Hrs the train started to move. As I settled down comfortably in my seat outside my window the city passed by. Soon the cityscape gave way to the suburbs and finally to the countryside. We were away from the city and all the while I kept staring outside the window. I had first heard of this journey long back in India in a travel magazine. It was like a dream back then. To be actually sitting in that very train embarking on that very journey was exciting. My intention to this journey was more than just interest in the scenery. I was more interested in the history behind this railway line.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was the company which built this line. Started in 1881 their target was to finish it in 10 years but they managed to do it in 5 years. A hugely impressive feat. There were a number of hurdles to it but the work never stopped. A person of significance to note here is a man called William Cornelius Van Horne, the legendary Manager of the CPR. He is largely said to be the man who made the entire venture possible. Presently, it is operated by Via Rail.  To be on this legendary line albeit with a few deviations was a different thrill altogether. I love doing stuff related to trivia and did quite a few trips back in India too. Like my trip to the stations with the shortest railway station name in India and the also the station with the longest railway station name. 

Coming back to the present journey, most of the scenery passing by was covered in snow. Nothing was distinguishable. It was all snow. Trees, houses, streets everything was covered by a white layer. Sometimes it was not even possible to make out if the clear even snow covered area was a lake or a ground. This was largely the trend for the next 4 days of the journey. But it was beautiful. There is something magical about the snow covered landscape. As I was about to find out later there are variations too in this snowy wonderland.

One of the earliest towns of note to pass is Parry Sound. As the train pulls into Parry Sound it makes for a very beautiful vista. Its a town surrounded by lakes, big and small. The train crosses a tiny part of the huge Lake Huron as it enters. On my left, far away I could see pretty little houses perched at the edge of the lake. They made for a enchanting scene.

At around 1400 Hrs I got up for lunch. I made my way towards the adjacent coach which houses the dining section. Here I saw a small pantry manned by a friendly lady. Since I don’t eat Non veg if its not halal I settled down for a veg Burger. As she prepared my meal I chatted with her for a while. Found out she was a book reader as well but she was a big fan of Fantasy novels which I hated so that put an end to our awkward conversation. After I got my order I made my way to the seating area. It was a lovely little section with around 6 tables spread around. The aesthetics looked like they were frozen in time since the 60s. But one bite of the burger and I was bought back to the present. It was delicious. In fact it was the best Veg Burger I ever had. Now and then the train conductor would pass by and we had bits of conversation in between his talking into his walkie talkie. He made the same point too about the look of the coach. He told me that coach was indeed made in the 70s and had not been upgraded since. I had no complains. I loved the look.

After the meal I made my way to the dome section which was just above the pantry. Here I spotted a couple of other passengers. I went to the last seat and settled down to enjoy the scenes. The best part of sitting in the dome section is seeing the front of the train making its way through the land. Especially now as the locomotive hit the snow on the tracks they were making this streak effect all around the locomotives which made it look like it was going more fast that it actually did. On the rear side it was like watching a snake as it twisted and turned and followed the locomotives.  It was fun watching it and I never got tired of it for the next 4 days. Also I met a fellow traveler here who was from Montreal. We spent some time chatting. Coincidentally he was going to University of British Columbia(UBC) for a Project for his studies. I had just completed my Masters from UBC. We talked for a while about this common point and exchanged info.  As evening approached I returned back to my seat.

At around 1700 Hrs we were to make our first stop where we could get down from the train. It was at a place called Capreol. The temperature outside was -17 Degree Celsius. As I stepped out into the biting cold it was already beginning to go dark. In my heavy jacket and gloves I was warm but I could feel the cold air as I breathed. This was the lowest temperature I had ever encountered in my life and I kept beating this record in the next four days. Since the start of the journey I had wanted to take a look at the locomotives driving ‘The Canadian’ and this was a good opportunity to do so. I walked over to the front of the train and had a good look. Our locomotive for the journey was the GPA-30H. A General Motors built machine, built for passenger coaches and is rated at 3000 Horsepower. A bit low for a passenger train but since this was primarily a tourist train power and speed didn’t matter much. The Capreal Station was nothing to write about. Just a lonely building set beside the tracks. Nothing fancy nothing big. After a good exercise to my legs I went back inside the train to my seat. Other passengers were just hanging out. The break was a relief for the smokers amongst them who all took a puff. The stop was for just 30 mins and we left the station soon.

I had Dinner at around 8 pm. I had the same Veg Burger again. After dinner I spent some time sitting in the deserted dome car looking at small towns passing by glowing in the dark. Soon with not much to see I decided to go back to my seat.

Somewhere around 11 pm I slept. This was going to be the test if I can survive the sleeping ordeal. Since I had the adjacent seat empty I stretched myself horizontally across the two seats and kept a towel that I had under my head and slept. With the train rattling rhythmically along slowly I drifted off to sleep. And thus ended my first day on ‘The Canadian’.

For those of you who dont like to read heres a video of the whole trip.

Some useful links
1. The Canadian
2. Canadian Pacific Railway
3. Toronto Union Station
4. Van Horne



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