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Leaving Toronto on Board Via Rail’s Canadian Train


October 2, 2011 by Jools Stone

The Canadian at Union Station

A whirlwind day of sightseeing, socialising and Mexican food in Toronto comes to an end. I say my farewells to wonderful hosts nearafar, boomergirl50 and adventureista as we step off the streetcar and suddenly I’m alone again, outside the Fairmont Royal York blinded by the rocket lolly proportions of the illuminated CN Tower, cases in hand, feeling a litle homesick, ala Homeward Bound, looking across at Union Station.

Toronto's Union Station

This is how my 2 week Trans Canadian rail trip begins. There’s no time to get maudlin, I’ve a train to catch and a 2 day wait if I miss it! Entering the palatial Union Station feels like a religious experience. It’s a veritable cathedral to rail travel. Like many cathedrals its high ceilings and polished floors echo with emptiness. Apparently it’s Canada’s busiest transport building, busier even than Toronto Airport (abstractly coded YXX for some reason) ferrying some 200,000 people a day. But at 9.30pm on a Thursday you wouldn’t guess it.

The ticket hall has the comforting smell of cinnamon doughnuts. I head down the ramp and get in the queue to check in and have my meal sitting assigned. The it’s up the escalator we go – ‘take care to hold the handrail’ coos the sweetly overprotective station assistant – where the seemingly endless silver sardine can cars of the Canadian sit gleaming in anticipation on the platform for us to board. ‘Aaaaaaaall Aa-booooooard’ hollers the conductor, and so we do.

Via Rail triple cabin

Via Rail triple cabin, *bunny not included

Once on board I find I’ve been royally spoilt with a triple family cabin. Just as well since this will be my home for the next 3 nights.  The ubiquitous Via Rail interior livery of grey is brightened up a little with touches of pink and blue. The cabin is more than ample for one, with two beds arranged in a L shape which convert to double seats during the day.

There’s a wardrobe with shelf, side cabinet, your own toilet cubicle, a wash basin, dozens of light switches and alarm buttons to summon your porter and a clever leather pocket positioned over the bed to hold your book, ipod and whatever else you need within easy grabbing distance. The cabin doors lock only from the inside, but there’s an attendant in each car at all times and I never feel the need to use my industrial strength bike lock to secure my case. It’s just not that sort of train.

Via rail cabin

Wardrobe, WC & sink, pretty in pink

Via rail bed triple cabin

Silver fan

A touch of classic 50s retro class

After a few minutes our car porter pops her head round and tells me there’s champagne in the bar car and that it’s going fast. No further encouragement is needed and I join the throng of excitedly chattering voices grabbing glasses and petit fours, bouncing around the narrow corridors as the train lurches into life on the tracks.

A hippyish lady in her early 60s reminisces about being packed off on the same train at the age of 13, claiming it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. A lanky English retired rail tour guide lets us know what we have to look forward to. He warns us of ‘prairitis’ and the nowheresville towns chosen as designated stops.  ‘Sioux Lookout is just that, doesn’t even have a platform!’ he chirps.  He’s accompanied tour groups on this journey seven times, but is traveling alone this time so he must enjoy the experience despite the dismissive quips.

Via Rail Champagne train

As the train rolls backwards on the tracks for a good ten minutes a  jovial engineer emerges and explains that the train has to back up in order to turn around. CN owns the tracks which means that their freight trains need to take priority and overtake Via’s passenger ones. Uusally when the train stops dead in the middle of total wilderness, this is the reason why.

You might think this causes frustration and a little enmity between the two train crews, but we see a glimpse of their mutual understanding when the engineer opens up the rear door of the caboose and marches out on to the tracks to meet the driver of the freight train behind. Is there some technical issue the two men need to meet in person to resolve? No, our engineer is simply delivering a flask of coffee to the other driver! This is not a regular occurrence, he assures us.

This moment of excitement passes and the bar car gradually empties, as does the champagne bottle.  It’s time to settle into my cabin for the night and let the rocking on the rails work its hypnotic magic. In the morning I’ll awake to a strange new place with an exotic name and an alien landscape. Stay with me for that.

My trip was kindly hosted by Via Rail and the Canadian Tourism Commission en route to attend the Go Media 2011 Conference in Edmonton.


  1. RobFord says:

    Pearson Airports code is YYZ… like the Rush song 🙂

    • joolsstone says:

      Ah, mea culpa, and that’s a handy way to remember it too. Why do they all start with Ys though?

      • Colin says:

        Canadian airports don’t start with Y – they start with C (CYVR, CYYZ, CYXX – which is Abbotsford, incidentally). They don’t all follow with Y – Boundary Bay International, CZBB, being an example. The reason for the C, however, I can explain – radio stations in Canada were already started with C (for Canada, duh) when the ICAO was formed and they simply decided that it would make sense to give the second largest country on earth it’s own prefix, like the USA as K and Russia with U and so on. Hope this enlightens you a tiny bit 😀

  2. Mike C says:

    Classic train journey, if only I could afford it. I love the old school train station, they really are grand, can you imagine London Victoria ever looking like this?

    • joolsstone says:

      Yes, most of the Canadian stations are very elegantly designed. Look out for 75% off fares when you’re out there about a week before, that’s how most of the Canadians I met did it.

  3. @Tweeting_Thom says:

    Sounds like you are set for a grreat trip. I love travelling by trains and planning to do the trans-Canadian int he next couple of years. I look forward to your updates!

  4. Your cabin looks pretty cozy. Enjoyed your story about the kind of trip I’d like to take sometime. I also like the smell of doughnuts in railway stations and airports!

    • joolsstone says:

      Thanks Cathy, it was ridiculously cosy! I felt quite guilty to have it. Maybe they should pipe doughnut essence into doctors amnd dentists waiitng rooms.

  5. That all looks fantastic. I can feel the rythmic motion of the carriage already…

  6. Stephanie says:

    I was on Via Rail’s Canadian a couple of weeks ago and just put up a post on my blog. I found it very difficult to find blog posts about the train, so I’m glad that I’ve found yours.

    I loved the train. It was such an amazing travel experience! I was in a single roomette, and although it was very cozy, it was big enough for me. Everyone kept telling me that the prairies would be dull, but I really didn’t think that they were. I could have looked out those windows for several more days!

    • joolsstone says:

      Thanks Stephanie, your review looks great, but I’m deliberately not reading it properly yet, before I write my part 2, since I don’t want to be influenced by it too much! Good pics of the roomette, i was grateful for the extra space & was a little shocked by the toilet thing! Agree about the prairies, more varied than some would have you believe. There is another one I know of by the Planet D, prob a few others by other Canadian travel bloggers too. I’ll let you know once I recall them! 🙂

      • Stephanie says:

        Honestly, I didn’t feel too crowded in the roomette. It was kind of…cool. Like a space pod with 50s flair. I look forward to reading part 2 of your review.

  7. […] Leaving Toronto on Board Via Rail’s Canadian Train […]

  8. Baron's says:

    I’ve come across your blog while searching for “Travel by train” stories and immediately liked what I saw. Needless to say….I became an instant fan and will be adding you to my blog roll.
    Yes Canadian train stations are grand…have you seen the one in Place Ville Marie in Montreal…used to be my favorite hangout whilst at university…lots of good reading o do here…all the best mate…Cheers

    • joolsstone says:

      Thanks for that Baron – and welcome on board! 🙂 Yes, Montreal’s station is rather grand too. It shows you how important rail travel was in the past, but I can’t think of many airports as well designed!

  9. […] before you spit biley chunks of poutine in my general direction, do consider that I had to endure a Trans Canadian train trip from Toronto with Via Rail, 3 nights amid the spectacular fall foliage of Jasper National Park and […]

  10. Hi great site! My Husband and I are train travel lovers and had the pleasure of travelling from Vancouver to Toronto by train for our Honeymoon. Now we are in Asia and just did the Eastern and Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore, another classic I can recommend.

  11. […] Continue reading this article @ Trains on the Brain […]

  12. Mr X says:

    Best things i experienced with my last Canada train trip was the beautiful scenery views. Your post reminds me my train journey between Vancouver and Whistler.

  13. Sounds like you had a great journey. What a great way to see Canada. What was your favorite part of the trip? Perhaps this will make you want to jump on a train and do it all over again:

  14. This is on my list for this summer. I am Canadian but have never seen Canada, yet I’ve been to over 25 other countries. I think it’s time:)

  15. I came across this on stumbleupon:)

  16. Rita Mogge says:

    Can we tip with american dollars on the train?

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