48

Lessons Learnt from Travelling Across Canada by Train

VIA Rail 'The Canadian'

From the lush forests of Vancouver and British Columbia to the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, that could be seen as we rolled into Jasper, we were now departing on the next stop of our cross Canada adventure.

Welcome to VIA Rail’s ‘The Canadian’ – from Vancouver to Toronto the train clicks and clacks it’s way across five provinces, each noticeably different from the rails.

Sleeper Plus For One VIA Rail The Canadian

My bed for the night, a sleeper class ‘for one’ cabin was small but cosy. My seat in which I had spent the past hour lounging in was now gone, instead a comfortable bed had been pulled down filling the space. Sitting I watch as freight trains rushes past and the city of Edmonton become a blur as we slowly slink out, past the glow of the city lights.

As a self-confessed aviation geek, I was a little nervous about spending 4-nights and 5-day onboard the train, even broken down with stops in Vancouver, Jasper, Winnipeg and Toronto, it’s a long way.
“Why bother?” I questioned, “you could fly between Vancouver and Toronto in just under 5-hours.”

View of British Columbia, Canada from VIA Rail 'The Canadian'

My nerves subsided quickly on the first leg of our journey – Vancouver to Jasper – as Sophie‘s excitement was contagious and  I slowly came around to the idea of train travel and even, dare I say it, liked it!
It was a bonding exercise for the group of girls who shared the four beds in the area, and was helped by the friendliness of our Cabin Attendant, Basil, who patiently took the time to answer all our questions about the train and the Sleeper Berths we were in for that night, as well as questions about Canada and what we were seeing outside.
It was during this leg that I realised that train travel makes the journey the feature as much as the destination.

View of Jasper's Mountains from the VIA Rail station in Alberta, Canada

Two days in Jasper quickly disappeared when surrounded by mountains full of adventure, snow and new friends. Coming as a group of 13 I thought we’d only socialise as a group, but being spread out over a number of carriages meant meeting new people was a daily experience.

One meal I was seated with a gentleman called Leo, an acquaintance from the ‘welcome onboard’ drinks from the night before, who talked about his travels across Canada and Australia with me. At another meal I met with a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, and another a hipster currently living in Vancouver now heading home to see his family.
As someone who is usually a solo traveller and who enjoys spending time by myself it was a new experience to become so friendly with strangers at such a fast rate.
Anyone you encounter in the corridors offers a friendly “hello” and conversations started in dining rooms or activity cars are continued. It is like time is suspended outside the train as you feel like you’re meeting dozens of people each day on the rails. Train travel is a social event, if you want to keep to yourself then it’s still enjoyable but probably not the right experience for you.

Manitoba

Rolling through the countryside a call comes over the intercom welcoming us to Manitoba. Flat prairie land stretches out from my window, with grazing cows, corn crops and farm machinery breaking up the otherwise flat landscape.
I’d been up for hours but the view, despite plain, was mesmerising and window gazing from the comfort of my bed had become the days activity.
Normally the lack of connectivity would have driven me mad – the need to always be doing something, the need to be in motion – but Train travel forces you to slow down and enjoy life.

I have one more leg on The Canadian – tomorrow I leave to travel from Winnipeg to Toronto. Two nights and just over a day onboard the train to meet new people, cement friendships that we’ve created as we’ve Explored Canada and take time to slow down, enjoy the journey and savour the remaining moments we have together.

Have you ever travelled by train?
What lessons have you learnt from your travels?
How do you keep yourself occupied on long journeys?

horizontal line

My journey to Canada was sponsored by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail.
As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

You Might Also Like

48 Comments

  • Reply
    Sammi
    May 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I love travelling by train 🙂 this looks like a lot of fun!!

    • Reply
      Nicole
      May 28, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      It’s been a blast so far, Sammi! 🙂

  • Reply
    Angela
    May 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I was on the TransMongolian Express when I learned that exact same lesson. Travel is about the journey, not just getting from A to B.
    We could have flown from Amsterdam to Beijing in a couple of hours. The train ride took us three weeks (we had a few stops). But we wouldn’t have done it any other way. We met such nice people, had amazing experiences and read a lot of books. We loved it so much, we haven’t been in a plane since.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      You must have such amazing stories from that journey, Angela. The TransMongolian Express has such a fascinating backstory and what diverse countries you travelled through!

      Thanks for sharing your story! 🙂

  • Reply
    Tash
    May 28, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Ohhh, I love a good train trip – totally different element to travel experience.
    Sounds like you will be ready to tackle the Trans-Siberian after this – still one of the best things I have done!
    Enjoy Toronto when you get there!

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      I’ve always wanted to take the TransSiberian so this was a great warm up!

      Will have to pick your brains about it and Toronto more. =)

  • Reply
    Monica
    May 29, 2013 at 8:13 am

    This looks like so much fun. I love travelling by train, even though it takes so much longer than flying. There’s something exciting and romantic about it. Well there is when you get a lovely bed like that; it isn’t quite so fun on an Indian sleeper train!

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      I agree with you about the romantic feeling that train travel has. That was one reason I was excited about spending so long onboard.

      You’d have an amazing story from the Indian sleeper trains though 😉

  • Reply
    Thomas Dembie
    May 29, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I hope to do this trip one day. It’s right up there with the Trans-Siberian. Train travel is such an amazing way to go. The trip from Winnipeg to Toronto probably won’t have the scenery of Western Canada, but once you get to Toronto (my hometown) you should have a blast.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:30 pm

      You’re right – outside of the Rockies everything gets just a little bit flatter but it’s still amazing how diverse the scenery is the whole way across the country.

      Toronto was a blast! Will be heading back there soon so if you have any tips please let me know. 🙂

      I hope you get the opportunity to take The Canadian one day!

  • Reply
    Sofie @ Wonderful Wanderings
    May 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Sounds like quite an experience. I love it when people are open and when it’s easy to socialize, so it sounds like this would be something for me.
    On the other hand, I’m not much of a train fan and being on one for hours doesn’t really appeal to me.
    Would you say you’ve had enough time outside the train as well, to explore?

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      I was only on the train for four-nights and around 2-full days (and about 4-half days).

      Personally, I would have liked to have spent a few more nights in each place. It wasn’t a bad pace, I just feel that there was more to see and do. I would have also liked to stop/meet the train in Edmonton (we stopped there for 30mins) and Saskatoon (we were only there for 15mins).

      There’s plenty to do on board as well! Musicians, board games, magazines, snacks, panoramic cars… look out for my post in the next few weeks about being on board. =)

      I will note, I didn’t go in standard class – I think that would be hard to do. So I’d suggest getting a sleeper bunk or cabin for one/two for the journey. =)

  • Reply
    Walter Bailey
    May 30, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    “train travel makes the journey the feature as much as the destination” – very well said, the journey is just as good as the destination itself. Meeting new friends and experiencing unique circumstances.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks, Walter! =)

  • Reply
    James Shaw
    May 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    I was amazed that there are many things that you can encounter on a train ride. All the while I thought that it was all sleep and eat for 5 days. Thanks for sharing, this has certainly changed my perspective.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:36 pm

      Don’t forget to take a few breaks on that journey! It’s a great trip but I definitely recommend breaking it down with stops in different cities. =)

  • Reply
    Ben Lomon
    May 31, 2013 at 8:36 am

    I haven’t been able to do much rail travel in my life as of yet. The best I’ve done was a VIA trip from Montreal to Cornwall, ON, and back. Otherwise, it’s been only Montreal commuter trains or metro cars for me.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:37 pm

      I loved travelling in the Windsor corridor after The Canadian. I travelled TO -> Ottawa return and TO -> Montreal and found them super comfortable.

      I hope you get to experience more train travel soon! 🙂

  • Reply
    Wendy
    May 31, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I have travelled the exact train you are writing about. You describe the experience to a T. Both times I have met amazing people from around the world that I still keep in touch with. As you said it is such and amazing way to grow close to a stranger that are now friends and always near the end of my travels it is abit sad as you know you may never see these people again. I will do the trip again and again.

  • Reply
    Debbie
    May 31, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Can you tell us more about the cabin for one? Is there a sink and toilet, or do passengers use a shared facility on the car?

    • Reply
      David
      May 31, 2013 at 11:01 pm

      The individual cabins (either for one or two people) have a toilet and sink (although these are covered by the bed in the single cabin at night). There are also two communal washrooms at the front of the car, next to the berths (which are a more affordable, but still acceptably comfortable means of sleeper accommodation) as well as a shower. I’ve taken it 5 times from Toronto to Vancouver and even to Churchill once and love every minute of it!

      • Reply
        Rukhsana Pradhan
        July 4, 2015 at 10:20 pm

        We are planning on travelling sleeper class in August. Do you know if towels / napkins are provided? As the luggage is kept open beneath your seat is it safe as most of the time one would be wandering about.

  • Reply
    ralph atkinson
    May 31, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    the wife and i did the trip from moncton new brunswick to vancouverb.c. it was one of the best experience of a life time.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      Wow! Now that’s a long train journey.

      So glad to hear you enjoyed the experience so much. 🙂

  • Reply
    nicole | the wondernuts
    May 31, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    Train travel is pretty great. We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa. Made a few friends along the way. The only complaint was that the train literally shakes the piss out of you.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      The VIA Rail trains sound like they’re a heck of a lot smoother than the Hanoi to Sapa train! 🙂

  • Reply
    Shandel
    May 31, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I’ve done the Toronto-Halifax Train 14 a couple times. My favorite part?:
    -Never being stuck in traffic
    -Incredible sunrises
    -The observation car
    -Dining with strangers in the meal car
    -The complete mix of French and English spoken
    -Watching people’s sleeping faces when you walk through the cars (yes, I am that person)

  • Reply
    danny
    June 1, 2013 at 3:31 am

    Is the ‘sleeper-class’-cabin expensive or are they the common choice? I’m more used to cramming into small bunkbeds on trains 🙂

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      Sleeper-class cabins are more expensive.
      I just checked VIA Rail (checked Vancouver to Toronto on Sept 1st) and found that they are around $400-500 (inc. tax) more expensive than sleeper berths.

      I also stayed in a Sleeper Class Berth (bunk) and they were surprisingly roomy and very comfortable. Downside is that the beds have to be packed up each morning to convert into seating. Top berths are without a window but have a little more room and are cheaper 😉

      VIA Rail also have some great sales on from time to time, so be sure to watch out for them!

      Let me know if I can help you with any more questions. =)

  • Reply
    Gary Soucey
    June 1, 2013 at 10:46 am

    We enjoy train travel. Hopefully the option of using it will return to southern Alberta. Amtrak in the US is good service too- we took the train from Havre, Montana to Seattle, Washington and back.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      After your tip that Amtrack is good I’ve booked Boston -> NYC for mid-week. 😉

      Hope that you can head to southern Alberta soon!

  • Reply
    Hogga
    June 4, 2013 at 4:16 am

    i’ve always wanted to do this for the scenery

    • Reply
      Nicole
      June 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      It’s stunning, Hogga!

      Hope you can soon. =)

  • Reply
    Beth
    June 9, 2013 at 8:57 am

    “…train travel makes the journey the feature as much as the destination.” I wholeheartedly agree!!! Plus I hate flying so it’s a nice excuse when people say I’m crazy for always taking buses and trains 🙂 These pictures are gorgeous! I’ll send people to this post the next time they give me beef for traveling by land 🙂 Thanks for this!

    • Reply
      Nicole
      August 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Your dislike of air travel is a great excuse to get on a train, and I understand your passion!

      Thank you for your kind comments – hope to hear about your next train journey soon. =)

  • Reply
    Charli l Wanderlusters
    June 11, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    We drove from Vancouver to Jasper and then on to Banff, I would have loved to have done that route via train. There’s something so immerse about watching the scenery pass you by without having to think about the road ahead.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      August 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Train travel is beautiful, but it would have been fun to have the freedom of a car. Whilst I whizzed by on the train you had the opportunity to stop!

      Hope you get to take the train from Vancouver to Jasper/Banff. It was stunning being able to sit in the panoramic car and just gaze at the scenery. 🙂

  • Reply
    Michael
    June 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I love travelling on the train I can’t think of any better way to travel I would love to do the cross country trip one day but as for now I have a trip planned i’m going to Ottawa perhaps if I win a jackpot at bingo i’ll go see my team play the oilers that would be a great cross country trip

    • Reply
      Nicole
      August 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      I was surprised by how relaxing train travel can be so I understand your love!

      Looking forward to hearing how your cross-country trip goes – you have to take it at least once!

  • Reply
    Shannon J
    June 18, 2013 at 3:13 am

    I have always wanted to do this trip, especially through the mountains! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Nicole
      August 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      Hope you get to take this trip soon, Shannon! It’s so beautiful. I highly recommend it!

  • Reply
    City Guide: Winnipeg
    August 6, 2013 at 2:11 am

    […] in the centre of the country, VIA Rail has a mandatory stop for four-hours in the city, but why not get off the train and spend a night or […]

  • Reply
    Rosanne Lewis
    January 6, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Hi, Can anyone tell me how long you would be in hours sitting on the train from Jasper to Vancouver.
    I know there are different time zones, and if I calculate on that it would take 19 hrs. Or is the actual travel time less than this.
    Thanks

  • Reply
    Arnette RTW
    April 12, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I am hoping to do this soon. I’m hoping it will be my reason to unplug!

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Reply
    Nickolaus Pacione
    June 26, 2015 at 9:48 am

    I had traveled by train to Baltimore, New Orleans, Richmond, D.C. and Springfield — NOLA and Baltimore I had a sleeper but when you do this pack a backpacker’s sleeping bag because those blankets on the American trains are not comfortable when I had my own bedding I wasn’t feeling well going down to New Orleans. I was sick from a bug that was going around. Having a sleeper you can at least get some bed rest.

  • Reply
    Rukhsana Pradhan
    July 4, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    We are planning a trip early August (Sleeper class -not cabin) from Jasper to Vancouver. Does anyone know if a towel / napkin is provided or should we carry our own? As the onboard luggage is stashed below the seat as one is generally moving around is the luggage safe?

  • Reply
    Lauren
    January 28, 2017 at 2:32 am

    For this trip do you stop for a couple days in each location or is it just a straight trip?

    • Reply
      Nicole
      January 30, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Lauren,
      The train goes straight through with two ‘long stops’ – that’s 1.5hrs or longer – in Jasper and Winnipeg. From memory, with the way the train schedule runs, you’d need to spend a minimum of two nights in each place if you take The Canadian. Of course, if you just want to visit the Rockies, you can combine The Canadian with The Rocky Mountaineer. 🙂

      I chose to stop along the way and two nights in both Jasper and Winnipeg along the way, though some travellers do choose to go straight through.

      You can check the schedules and plan an itinerary on the VIA Rail website –> http://www.viarail.ca/en/plan-your-trip/customize-your-train-schedule

      Let me know if I can help you any further. 🙂

    Leave a Reply