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.
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
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.
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.
New train on the block
Proving the enduring
appeal of Canadian rail travel, a swanky new Quebec province operator rolled
into the station in 2011. Owned by Cirque de Soleil co-founder
Daniel Gauthier, the sleek, double-decker carriages of the Train of Le Massif de Charlevoix travel
a 140km forest-and-riverside route from Quebec City northeast to the municipality
of La Malbaie.
Several day trip and
dining options are available – travelling during the autumn foliage season is
popular, while summertime stops at the charming little city of Baie-Saint-Paul,
with its galleries and farmers’ market, are recommended. Winter travellers
typically have a different agenda: a popular ski and snowboard destination for
years, the mountain slopes of Le Massif now have a slick new hotel and easy
train access from the city.
New services are
welcome, of course, but nostalgia is the lure for many Canada-bound rail fans.
Luckily, there are dozens of vintage services ready to roll you back into the
Manitoba’s Prairie Dog Central Railway let’s you see
how passengers used to travel. Its half-day steam train excursion – running May
to September just outside the capital city of Winnipeg – includes a couple of
leg-stretching stops en route, including the craft and snack stalls at Grosse
Isle. And if you are a real train enthusiast, you can book a day-long hands-on engineering
adventure where you will learn how to run a locomotive.
should board the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad
from the city of Whitehorse. It takes you on wooden-seated carriages through
mountain terrain that greeted 1890s gold rush prospectors. Make sure
your carriage’s wood-fired stove is on, keep your eyes peeled for
bear-sightings and – as you trundle across the border into Alaska – enjoy this
evocative reminder of the early days of Canada’s pioneering train system.