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Strangers on a Via Rail Canadian Train


October 10, 2011 by Jools Stone

Day two of my Trans Canadian rail trip with Via Rail en route on Edmonton.

Canadian Via Rail train

6.15am, I’m woken by a freight train which seems so impossibly long that I half wonder if I dreamt it. This and jetlag has me awake far earlier than the ‘gentlemanly hours’ I’m used to, but not quite early enough to make the first designated smoking stop at Capreol…

The staff are getting breakfast ready. They ask me if I’m up for that, I decline and sulk off back to my cabin. I lie on my bed and catch the sunrise and watch the mist rising from the lakes outside. There endeth the sulking.

Morning mist rising

Breakfast is the only meal which does not have an assigned sitting. It’s 6.30-9amish, first come, first served. It’s not the best meal of the day admittedly, but it introduces you to an important ritual on the train, especially if you’re traveling solo as I am – your first proper conversations with strangers. It’s worth making an effort to sit with new people for each meal.

At breakfast I meet Mike. An engineer from Toronto moving to Vancouver for a new job, possibly his first ‘real job’ since he looks of that age and is taking all his possessions with him on the train: a single duffle bag and an acoustic guitar! ‘ I guess I’m young enough to not have accumulated too much crap yet!’ he laughs, the carefree bastard!

He also tells me that the landscape outside the window, of pine trees sprouting from grey rocks, is typical of this part of Ontario. The rock is Canadian Shield. Unfarmable and unyielding to much else besides these trees, it’s going to be a fairly steady companion of ours for the rest of the morning.

Hornepayne Station, Ontario

At midday we stop at Hornepayne. This gives us a chance to stretch our legs, take some air/nicoteine… and smirk at the one horse town we have been mysteriously dropped in. It was once a thriving railroad town and later benefitted from lumber trade, but those days have long since passed. Now it’s just a place where travellers get off the train to snigger at its obscurity. Rather sad really. The biggest landmarks seem to be a Home Depot and the Sunshine Seniors’ Club, off the amibitously named Main and Front Streets.

Hornepayne again

Hornepayne, where time stood still in 2003

Hornepayne flapjack house?

A car porter and I stare at the fallen letters on the side of the building opposite and wonder if it used to be a pancake house and what its function might be now. We draw a blank and get back on board.

Lunch on the Canadian train

Lunch is a much better meal than breakfast with a decent range of options to choose from. I plump for the Turkey and Provolone Foccacia with no regrets.  Both lunch and dinner are served as three course meals, with both soup and salad – somewhat bizarrely – for a starter and coffee to finish. Soft drinks are included but alcholic ones are not and are paid for in cash at the table. A reasonably smooth glass of  hockey legend Wayne Gretsky’s Cabernet Merlot costs a reasonable $7, as does a spirt mixer, while a beer costs $6.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Canadians making this journey. They tend to make up the younger part of the train’s demographic. At lunch I sit with Michael, a talented wedding/landscape photographer in his mid 20s and two college age sisters who are making their way to Jasper for a family wedding.

Train travel in Canada, like most parts of the Western world, is not cheap and thus not that widely used for domestic travel, but these guys had all managed to snag 75% off tickets, making it only margianlly more expensive than flying. Via helpfully display these tickets, usually released a week or so before travel, on this discount deals page of their site. Many European rail companies should take note!

Viewing car on the Canadian train

After lunch I check out the viewing car. It’s like sitting on the top deck of a London double decker bus, except the views are infiintely better. The landscape opens up. The sunlight strobes through the endless conifers and through the bubbly glass roof, as we pass along meandering rivers that look cut from the turf and lilly pad strewn ponds. There are very few signs of civilisation. An hour or so past Hornepayne the train slows, allowing us to take pictures of the sister train heading in the opposite direction across the track. The Bar Car Steward tells us that her sister is on the crew of this very sister train!

On the Canadian view form observation car

Activity Car

For rainy days and evenings when darkness descends, there’s always the activity car. As with the bar car and dining car, there are two in each train and each one has its own Activity Manager. They ciome equipped with plenty of cards, boardgames, newspapers, books and magazines. Plus this is where you can stock up on the unlimited tea, coffee, biscuits and fresh fruit provided.  A rolling programme of activities is organised, from film screenings to  local wine and beer tasting and  – to cater for the older tour groups who make up the majority of the guests – even bingo!

Activity Programme on the Canadian

Dinner in the diner, nothing can be finer

Via Rail dining car

My companions for dinner are a retired couple living in Portland, Oregon. She is British and has one of those incredibly clipped, ‘military bearing’ voices not dulled by decades of New York living. He is a New Yorker, an ex-academic with a creepy laugh, nervous like a bird, he flinches massively when a waiter drops a tray. They are both straight out of a Woody Allen film. They’re traveling a lot, making the most of their retirement. Their biggest worry seems to be the possibility of ‘losing their very good Philharmonic to a bigger city.’

After dinner I’m amazed to see we’re still in Ontario. This journey really brings home just how big a country Canada is. I’m a lso a  little surprised to discover the bar shuts at 11pm. I would expect a bar on a night train to be open til at least midnight. I make a gallant effort in the name of addiction to stay awake for the Sioux Lookout stop gone midnight, but I never get to look out, as we move into a new timezone I can’t manage the extra hour and retire to my cabin.

Next stop: Winnipeg (Ok, simmer down now folks!)



  1. So do you mean that wine and beer tasting is only for the older folk?? For lunch and dinner are you told where to sit and with whom?? It looks like you’ve been lucky with the weather!

    • joolsstone says:

      Hi John, no, think it’s the bingo that’s aimed at them, but hey, whatever works! No, you pick your own place at a table of four. Weather was great for this part of the trip, less so on the Rocky Mountaineer leg.

  2. After spending time in Europe, I love train travel. For TBEX, I had the chance to take a train from Seattle to Vancouver and wish that train travel was more available and affordable here in North America. It’s great that there are discounts out there though.

    It’s fun to meet interesting people on your travels. Interesting to know about all the things to do on the train as well.

    • joolsstone says:

      How was the Amtrak from Seattle Jeremy? I haven’t done any US trains, that’s next on the list.

  3. Deb says:

    What a fun journey. Ontario is big isn’t it. I have never taken a cross Canada train journey…price is always an issue. That 75% off deal sounds awesome though! I love the glass dome compartment, must make for a beautiful view. Have fun in Winterpeg err Winnipeg:)

    • joolsstone says:

      ‘Ontario, it’s endless and wild’, they can have that as their strap line! Better than Tornoto’s raher sinister one ‘weve been expecting you.’

  4. Candice says:

    I’ve only taken the train from Hali to Montreal but damn, we didn’t have an activity car! Coulda got wild with a game of poker up in there.

    • joolsstone says:

      It’s not quite seedy enough an environment though and you couldn’t chew on a big cigar. All of tables were decorated with chess squares though. Via obv wants to encourage the more sedate game players out there. 😉

  5. Diane says:

    Hi John,

    Do not know exactly how far you have got in your trip, but Canada is amazing for sure!! Edmonton – i live here!! Wait till you get into the Canadian Rockies – it will blow your mind!! So beautiful take some pictures, ppl do not believe me when i try to tell them that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth!


    • joolsstone says:

      Actually back home now, but yes agree about the Rockies, most beautiful place I’ve ever seen I think. Edmonton’s much underrated too IMO, look out for posts on both of those. 🙂

  6. Janet says:

    That food looks delicious! I also love the wide open window at the front of the upper deck of the train, what an awesome view! 🙂

    • joolsstone says:

      Yes, I was seriously impressed with the food on board. There was always room in the dome car too. Thanks for commenting!

  7. It reminds me my last year trip… Meeting people on board was, for sure, the best part. Can’t wait for the next posts!

    • joolsstone says:

      Thanks MJ. Yeh, certainly is…it’s just those dodgy people you meet AFTER the trip that you have to watch out for 😉

  8. How did you get that amazing shot of the top of railcars? Open window as someone above suggests. I like!!

    • joolsstone says:

      Cheers Judy! 🙂 You mean the penultimate one? I think I just shot through the window at the back of the top deck of the panorama car.

  9. For year I worked on Amtrak in the States (Early 80’s) and reading this reminded me of not only the great experiences but the people! Have you ever met anyone that you wonder “where are they now?” or “whatever happened to ….”. There were times when it was the passengers who made all the difference on whether or not I enjoyed that run! One of the things I like most about train riding is that you see country that cars may never get to and much of the countryside is unspoiled by the commercialism that builds up along highways!

    • joolsstone says:

      Thanks Leslyn, must’ve been fun at times. I’ve still yet to do any Amtraking myself. Maybe you should make some map pins of some of your favourite customers/colleagues from those days, or maybe you already have.

  10. Hi. Just wanted you to know that this blog post was featured in a recent VIA Rail blog post about blog stories on train travel. Here’s the link:

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