2017 sees Canada celebrate 150 years of confederation, but it was the railways that truly opened it up. Here are 6 incredible rail journeys to really appreciate this vast, wild and beautiful country
Railways were the making of Canada. When three British colonies became the Dominion of Canada in 1867, a railway to bind them together was a precondition, as it would be four years later in persuading British Columbia to decline overtures from the US and join Canada. And what a network they created.
The story of the men who surveyed and built these railways have filled books as riveting as thrillers, and the flipside of all the struggles to get the line through the Rocky Mountains was that they ended up with routes that drew people just for the thrill of riding them.
Even British royals sat on the buffer beams of steam locomotives, swathed in rugs, primed for the excitement of an unobstructed view as they thundered through mountains and forests on gradients so steep that four or five locomotives were sometimes required to make the journey.
Observation cars with picture windows were added, and the Canadian train still has one, supplemented by dome cars for a higher-level panorama. But a rail journey here is not just about scenery. As radio broadcaster and Canadian institution Michael Enright once said: “Travelling by train is one of the last sinews that connects us to our history.”
It’s no surprise that many Canadians prefer long-distance rail travel to flying, despite the latter being far quicker. They want what we all want: to experience their country up close and to have the time to engage with fellow travellers. This is what train travel affords: the time to read, to think, to daydream in a way that’s so easy, gazing out of the window on an unfamiliar world passing by.
SUP-ers on Lake Ontario
BEST FOR: Magnificent views of Lake Ontario
ROUTE: Leaving Montréal, the train crosses the Ottawa River, used by many early Canadian explorers, such as David Thompson, Pierre Espirit Radisson and Samuel de Champlain.
Passing through farmland and forest, the border with Ontario can be detected by place-names morphing from French to British in origin.
The route offers glimpses of the St Lawrence Seaway, built to allow larger vessels to reach the Great Lakes. The contours narrow and rock cuttings scythe through the hills before the line crosses the Rideau Canal, completed in 1832 for the movement of troops and supplies.
Views over Lake Ontario, easternmost of the five Great Lakes, alternate with farms stretched across rolling hills and fields lined with trees as windbreaks. From Oshawa, the tracks are shared with commuter trains, and before long Toronto’s distinctive CN Tower comes into view to announce your arrival.
DURATION: Between five and six trains daily complete the journey in 4 hours 40 minutes, with generous coaches and complimentary hot meals served at your seat in business class.
WHY DO IT? It’s much quicker between city centres than flying, more comfortable, and it’s far more interesting.
BEST FOR: Toronto’s early 20th-century Beaux-Arts Union Station and a sense of the wild Canadian Shield landscape
ROUTE: This is the first leg of the Canadian’s four-night journey between Toronto and Vancouver, and unquestionably one of the world’s great railway journeys. After initial grandstand views of Lake Ontario and the CN Tower, the trains heads out through the suburbs before skirting the shore of Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe. Rich farmland gives way to rock cuttings and the first of hundreds of lakes interspersed with conifers and deciduous trees that make up the boreal forest.
The importance of the railway here is reflected by the many preserved wayside stations, kept decades after the last trains called there. Many have been turned into local museums, often with a caboose (brake van) alongside. Some communities were so remote that children were taught in a school train that moved along the line, their homework to be done by the next visit.
The train skirts the huge Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, but sightings of native bears, moose or wolves would be unusually lucky.
Lumber towns and log cabins flash past, and metallic roars denote river crossings – their waters once the province of fur-trade ‘voyageurs’, who transported their skins vast distances.
Floatplanes moored by lake jetties speak of fishing trips, and not long after the pulping centre that is Sioux Lookout, the train brushes the shore of Lost Lake, its shallows dotted by houseboats.
As spruce trees give way to the undulating prairie of Manitoba, the sky and distant horizon assume a greater importance, and Winnipeg comes into view long before arrival, at the end of a dead straight 88km long. In autumn, the sky can be filled with formations of waterfowl in unimaginable numbers.
DURATION: The Canadian runs three times a week in summer (May–Oct) and twice a week in winter (Oct–May), leaving both ends in the evening and arriving after breakfast on the fifth day. The Toronto-to-Winnipeg route takes about 34 hours.
WHY DO IT? The Canadian must be one of the world’s most cosmopolitan trains and nearly everyone has made a positive choice to be there, so it’s unusually gregarious.
Polar bears in Churchill (Dreamstime)
BEST FOR: A powerful journey into remote Canada and a reminder of the role the railways play as a lifeline for far-out communities. Look out for the northern lights, the Prince of Wales Fort, and polar bears and belugas at the ‘head of steel’ (the end of the line).
ROUTE: Union Station in Winnipeg is still redolent of the days when everyone went by train, and the station building’s rotunda was even used to host the New Year’s Ball in the city’s early years. As the journey gets underway, poplar-fringed wheatfields gradually give way to woodlands, with the odd farmstead hacked out of clearings. Tiny single-street communities flash by, short stretches of tarmac soon running to dirt at the town limits. Sunflowers and maple syrup are unexpected crops before coniferous forest replaces the last deciduous trees.
The town of The Pas is known as the ‘Gateway to the North’. The area was first visited by Europeans in 1691, and First Nations (Aboriginal Canadian) reserves; disused tripod telegraph poles designed to withstand permafrost; and white thermal pipes, used to keep the ground frozen as long as possible to prevent sink holes, remind you that this is indeed ‘the North’. Near Loboka, the need for stately progress is evident from overturned freight cars sinking into the boggy muskeg; the track foundations could never hold a crane capable of retrieving them.
A short deviation serves the nickel-mining town of Thompson before continuing north-east.
Soon after the town of Gillam, the train crosses the Nelson River on the line’s longest bridge at 300m. Beaver dams block water courses, and survey lines can be seen threading through the stunted spruce and larch, attesting to the tough – and brief – growing season. These soon give out entirely as you approach the ‘barren lands’, the kind of country you either love or hate.
Churchill lies on the shores of Hudson Bay and has a population of under 1,000. It is also a remarkable place, hosting a vital port for the area (the reason the railway was built), a grain silo that holds 140,00 tonnes, a jail for delinquent polar bears, a National Parks office and hotels catering to those wanting to snorkel alongside belugas or watch bears from tundra buggies.
DURATION: This train operates twice a week northbound and three times southbound, leaving Winnipeg at midday and taking about 44 hours.
WHY DO IT? There’s no road to Churchill (yet), so this is still a train with a difference. Perhaps induced by a vague sense of esprit de corps by travelling into such barren country, one is even more aware of the hard-wired conviviality of Canadians, and the dining-car becomes a social hub. Heading such a long way north, you suddenly gain a graphic understanding of the climatic zones and changing habitats.
Spirit Island in Jasper National Park (Dreamstime)
BEST FOR: Winnipeg’s station, designed by the same architects as Grand Central station in New York, as well as sweeping prairie landscapes and wide open skies
ROUTE: Rolling grassland and flat prairie alternate for much of the journey to Alberta’s capital at Edmonton. Anyone who thinks the prairies are flat and uninteresting is in for a pleasant surprise. The railway has to leap across valleys on tall, long trestle viaducts – Saskatoon is known as the ‘City of Bridges’ – passing fields of potatoes, wheat, rapeseed and sunflowers, all grown in the area’s fertile soils.
Sadly the wonderful wooden grain elevators that punctuated the prairie landscape have largely disappeared now. Each town used to use a different colour and announced its name in large letters on the timber siding.
After Melville, look out for whooping cranes and hawks, just two of over 260 species of birds found at the nearby Last Mountain Lake bird sanctuary. Lakes fill bowls among hills topped with large cattle ranches as the train heads into oil-bearing strata beyond Chauvin, marked by the bizarre nodding donkeys, or pumpjacks, that dot the ground here and by the dominant oil refineries of Edmonton.
Before entering Jasper National Park, the railway crosses the 1,230km-long Athabasca River, renowned for its turquoise colour. The stop at Jasper is long enough for passengers to visit the shops along nearby Connaught Drive and admire the plinthed steam behemoth there that used to haul trains like the Canadian.
DURATION: Westbound, the train leaves Winnipeg late morning and takes about 25 hours; eastbound trains depart in the evening.
WHY DO IT? To change your perception of the prairies as flat and uninteresting.
Mount Robson (Dreamstime)
BEST FOR: Taking one of Canada’s least-travelled railway routes deep into the Canadian Rockies
ROUTE: On leaving Jasper, the train shares the same views of Mount Robson as the Canadian before striking north-west into wildly changing terrain. Dense forests, cattle country and many river and creek crossings interchance with huge mountains dotted with remote communities that set the mind wondering about life in such isolated places. Discarded tractors and farm machinery speak of hard-won crops, so different from the munificence of the prairie farms further east.
The train overnights in Prince George, which became a trading post in 1807 and now lives off the lumber and the railway lines that meet here.
The next day, look out for ospreys fishing in the Nechako River. Then, from Broman Lake, the route follows the Skeena River valley to the sea, gradually widening as it winds through the Coast Mountains on its approach to Prince Rupert, where seals can be spotted as it skirts the shore.
DURATION: Trains run three times a week in each direction and take about 33 hours. The overnight stop in the logging town of Prince George comes with a hotel stay.
WHY DO IT? It’s the most interesting way to reach the port of Prince Rupert, where ferries and cruises can be found to explore the Inside Passage, one of the most spectacular stretches of water in the world. There are also boats going north to Alaska.
Train in Canadian Rockies (Dreamstime)
BEST FOR: The most dramatic landscapes on the mighty Canadian train route
ROUTE: After passing Yellowhead Lake, Mount Robson (3,954m), the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, looms into view, just across the border with British Columbia. It is so large that it even has its own microclimate.
From here, a succession of majestic sights follow: Pyramid Creek Falls; the North Thompson, Thunder and Blue river crossings; Kamloops Lake; Rainbow Canyon and its multi-coloured rock faces; and one of the most spectacular stretches of the whole journey, through Fraser Canyon and past Hell’s Gate, a name derived from the journal of explorer Simon Fraser, who described it as a place ‘where no human should venture, for surely these are the gates of Hell’.
The train gingerly picks its way along a shelf suspended above the V-shaped gorge, with a cablecar above and a fish ladder below to help spawning salmon battle upstream.
As the gorge widens at Yale, look for a black rock in the middle of the river that was named after 19th-century traveller Lady Franklin. She visited the area in 1861, 14 years after the death of her explorer husband, who was lost while looking for the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.
The hills shrink and end as rugged country gives way to forest and then market gardens, thriving on the silt washed down by the Fraser River. Many of the ingredients in the ‘100 mile’ menus of Vancouver’s fine restaurants come from here.
Journey’s end is close when the Canadian clatters across New Westminster Bridge, built in 1904 with an opening span for Fraser River shipping. A suitably grand station building, the Pacific Central of 1919, receives passengers arriving in BC’s largest city, Vancouver – known for repeatedly winning global ‘Best City’ awards.
DURATION: Westbound trains leave Jasper after lunch, taking about 19 hours; eastbound trains depart late afternoon, having left Vancouver at 8.30pm the previous night.
WHY DO IT? This is the climax of the Canadian, with the most spectacular Rocky Mountain landscapes you’ll see in the whole of Canada.
www.viarail.ca for timetables and the types of seats/sleeping accommodation on offer
www.seat61.com for the best guide on what to expect on the trains – both facilities and food.
Main image: train in Banff National Park, Canada (Dreamstime)