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When Canada’s inaugural transcontinental train trundled from Montreal into British Columbia’s Port Moody in 1886, it practically and symbolically linked the country’s east and west for the first time, triggering a golden age of “high-speed” rail travel that inspired thousands to explore the fledgling nation.

Today aeroplanes have raced ahead in the speed stakes, but meandering train journeys are still one of the most immersive ways to explore the world’s second-largest country.

Animal magic
Carrier VIA Rail runs almost 500 trains each week on dozens of year-round routes, including its flagship transcontinental Toronto-to-Vancouver service. And while some are busy commuter lines, others are off-the-beaten-track gems that are well-worth connecting to.

From big-city Montreal to the Atlantic-facing Nova Scotia capital of Halifax, the 1,346km Ocean service is an almost 24-hour trip. After an overnight trundle northeast through the forests of Quebec, the route threads through historic shoreline settlements in the province’s of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, both known for their seafaring locals, fresh seafood and hundreds of welcoming small communities. Outside the windows, there are views of the region’s signature bright-painted wooden homes, striped lighthouses and excellent birdlife, including plovers, curlews and an osprey or two.

Much larger wildlife is the focus of VIA’s two-day sleeper service between the central Canadian cities of Winnipeg and Churchill. The 1,700km Winnipeg-Churchill line heads north from the Manitoba capital, easing through lake-studded woodland tundra towards the remote, sub-arctic northern region. Passengers are typically rewarded at their final destination with sightings of beluga whales in the Churchill River or wandering polar bears, which amble through snow-covered Churchill in October and November.

Deer, elk and bears – of the black or grizzly variety – are common sightings out west on the Jasper to Prince Rupert route. The spectacular two-day journey, known by locals as the Rupert Rocket, winds 1,160km from Alberta’s towering Rocky Mountains through a British Columbia lake-and-forest landscape dotted with tiny pioneer communities such as McBride and Vanderhoof.

The vintage train is part of the line’s charm. Its stainless steel, streamlined carriages were built in the 1950s, so it feels like riding in a well-maintained museum exhibit – especially in the observation car, where the upper level glass-ceilinged seating area is perfect for watching the vast wilderness unfold. Do not forget to quiz the chatty attendants; they have plenty of evocative stories about the region and its colourful characters, including an 80-year-old local who has been single-handedly renovating an old sawmill in the bush here for years.

Luxe lines
North America’s largest privately owned train company, Vancouver-based Rocky Mountaineer, operates several multi-day scenic routes from April to October. Like a cruise ship on rails, the upscale service is warm and friendly, passengers dine in style and sleeper cabins are swapped for overnight stays in hotels en route.

Snaking through western Canada’s jaw-dropping mountain terrains – usually at a pedestrian, camera-friendly pace known onboard as “Kodak speed” – passengers spend much of their time glued to the windows as the trains inch around steep clifftops and across slender, dramatically lofty trestle bridges. Multi-day services include First Passage to the West, which retraces part of the original rail route that first linked the country back in the 1880s; and the new Coastal Passage, which links the region to south-of-the-US-border Seattle for the first time in company history.

For those short on time, the company also operates a half-day trip from North Vancouver to Whistler. Running alongside Howe Sound’s shimmering coastline before snaking inland through river-veined mountains, the route brings visitors to British Columbia’s most popular resort town, excellent for winter skiing and snowboarding, plus there is a menu of outdoor summer action from ziplining to river rafting.

Top of the luxury tree is the Royal Canadian Pacific. Based in Alberta and as close as Canada gets to an Orient-Express-style train, the company’s walnut-panelled 1920s carriages are pulled by restored 1950s locomotives. Running every summer on its signature Rocky Mountain route, passengers sleep in antique staterooms and indulge in multi-course fine dining. On a six-night loop to and from the city of Calgary, the train snakes alongside rugged cowboy-country landscapes of wide meadows framed by sharp-cragged peaks.

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