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Trip Report The Canadian train from Toronto to Vancouver

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After about a year of investigating, questioning and as much research as we might never wish to repeat, the day has finally arrived.

We left Ormond Beach, Florida at 10:30am on Thursday, September 2nd and made good time to EZ Fly Parking in Orlando. We were whisked to the airport and got through security with less hassle than anticipated. Laptop and DVD player in their own baskets and anything else, which might make the bells ring in a fanny pack.

Air Canada’s flight 907 left on time and we landed at Toronto’s Pierson Airport early. Customs was a bit of a trial due to the long lines moving left and right like a ride at Disney, while lugging all our baggage.
Once out of the airport, we boarded the Airport Express shuttle bus to the downtown hotels. Out stop was the Fairmont Royal York, a magnificent structure with the sole advantage to us being it is across the street from Union Station.

Our reservation was for a sleeper and the price included nine meals.

We scanned our pre-paid receipts at one of the kiosks within the station and got our tickets without having to declare our dates of birth. Just what is the number to qualify for “Senior Fare”?

With tickets tucked away, we checked our luggage and went out to dinner. There are many eateries in the area, as there are around Manhattan’s Penn Station.

Departure time for the train (The Canadian) is 10:00pm, so we had some tome to kill after dinner. As the sky darkened, and the area around the station, while not actually threatening, appeared less than friendly, insofar as it was foreign to us, we decided to wait in the station. Unlike Penn Station, Union Station is not air conditioned and the air within was hot and humid. However, after making meal reservations for the next day, we were allowed to sit in the lounge, where it was much cooler.

By 9:35 they started boarding by cars; ours was 121, which was the third car from the end, so there was a bit of a walk. The bunks had been made up, so there wasn’t much room.

The room measures (according to the official description, 7 ft 3 in. X 5 ft, excluding 2 ft 9 in x 2 ft 1 in for private washroom. There is storage for one (small) carry-on baggage per person. Each also gets a bag of shower towels. The compartment contains an amenity basket for body care articles.

Once we placed our bags on the floor of the compartment, and with the ladder for the upper berth in place, there was no room at all. I asked our attendant and was shown how to remove the ladder and after we put the bags on the beds, there was room to stand but little else.

The train left on time and we wound our way to the last car, one of four dome cars, for some champagne and goodies. There was no view, but we stayed for a bit.

Getting ready for bed was an experience, due to the lack of space, but we managed. The compartment has a tiny sink and an even tinier commode room, a closet that’s about eight inches wide, but a number of hooks for hanging things scattered throughout.

The berths are quite comfortable, though smaller than a single bed. Nevertheless, the movement and sounds of the train are not conducive to falling or staying asleep, especially on the first night. We were told it takes some getting used to. Climbing down from the upper berth in the dark, while the train is moving would be humorous were it on film, ala the Marx Bros., but not quite as much fun if you’re the victim climbing down. It’s best, too to memorize the placement of the various light switches for obvious reasons in the dead of night.

Night eventually became day and we learned that two cannot be up and about at the same time in a compartment for two.

Somewhat akin to getting one’s sea legs when first aboard ship, walking through a moving train requires balance and the ability to grab any fixed object to keep on your feet.
There are twenty-one cars, including the engine, two dining cars, several snack/game cars, and coach cars. The sleeper cars include corridor berths one might remember from the “I Love Lucy” TV show or the movie “Some Like It Hot”. There are also compartments for one to four people.

All the passengers must be very trusting, as there is no outside lock on the doors and people leave all their belongings in their compartments when they leave. Several, who have mistaken their own car, have barged into someone else’s compartment. The corridors are so narrow that you may have to duck into a stranger’s compartment in order to allow someone else to pass. Curiously, there is a safe in the compartment, but no way to lock it. Trust, trust, trust!

Breakfast is served from six to nine, with the best times being between 6:00-6:30 and 8:30-9:00. At other times there may be a wait for seating, as breakfast is on a first come, first served basis. Each day’s menu varies slightly in that two choices are constant and two change. All are very good.

There are three sittings for lunch and dinner. We had selected the second sitting for 12:30 and 7:00 respectively. The first is for 11:00am and 5:00pm, while the third is for 2:00 and 9:00. Both lunch and dinner have three choices with sides, soup or salad and deserts. Non alcoholic beverages are included, though harder fare is available. Of course, everything is delicious.

The Rockies don’t come into view until the last half day of the trip, so it’s trees, trees and more trees as we travel through Ontario Province. That was just as well for the first day, inasmuch as it rained or was overcast, with just a short period of sunshine.

Our first major stop was Winnipeg. Central time took over the previous night and we were scheduled to arrive at 8:00am. However, we got in an hour early and had to wait for a crew to unload passengers who were detraining, etc. before we could get off. The schedule called for a four hour stop, but we weren’t allowed to get back on the train between 10:00 to 11:15.

Winnipeg, near the station on a Saturday morning is CLOSED, or so it seemed. The station is in the downtown business district and even MacDonald’s and Starbucks were closed. We finally found a place where I could send my DVD player back home. The laptop made it unnecessary and an extra thing to carry. Getting a Wi-fi connection in the station was simple and we were able to check emails. Cell phone service was also good, so we could check in with family.

A market near the station opened at 9:30 and we walked around inside until it was time to board.

They say 20/20 hindsight is a marvelous thing. It occurred to us, after having been passengers for 36 hours that picking up the train in Winnipeg and from there on to Vancouver would have served our purpose, which was to experience train travel and see the Canadian Rockies. However, there don’t appear to be non-stop flights from Orlando to Winnipeg. Furthermore, a larger compartment for the trip we took cost about three thousand dollars more. Thus our alternative options were extremely limited.

The entire crew changes at Winnipeg. Having been forewarned via the Fodor’s forum, we tipped the dining car staff and our car attendant before getting off the train.

The scenery once the train leaves Winnipeg is startlingly different as the trees have turned into miles of farmland, flat and as unchanging as, well, railroad tracks.

About four and a half hours west of Winnipeg the scenery changes again to the beautiful Que’Appelle valley, carved out from the ice age. But, alas the beauty and the valley only lasted for about an hour.

The scenery is not the only thing that changes. The routine and indeed the very attitude of some of the new crew caused much grumbling among the guests.

Inasmuch as we could not get back on board at Winnipeg until 11:15, there could not be a first sitting for lunch at 11:00. The result was two sittings, instead of three.

Dinner was even more confusing, with an apparent attempt to seat everyone in two sittings. Unfortunately, no announcement was made and no one knew what was going on.

The sky filled with stars that night and the train did not seem to move as fast. There was less swaying and more sleep to be enjoyed.

Sunday morning seem to bring a more congenial attitude. We were on mountain time and awoke in Edmonton. A panoramic car was added, with more of a view. Unlike the dome cars, all was on one level and the seats reclined. However, there was no tea, coffee, danish, croissants or fruit available. The best view could only be obtained while standing, as there is no forward windshield to see through and the seatbacks are higher.

Brunch was available for four hours beginning at 7:30am. Reservations were made for the only two evening sittings.

At last, the Rockies came into view. They were still a long way off, but we were getting closer. We had been aboard for about 60 hours. Between Edmonton and that point there were more……………trees. But the Rocky Mountain expanse was awesome in all its beauty and majesty. The most striking portions are those rocky formations for which the mountains are named and the snow copped peaks, of which, even in early September, there are more than a few.

The scenery as we approached them is truly the stuff artist’s and outdoorsmen’s dreams are made of. In our anticipation of the trip, we expected to see an abundance of wildlife. Up to that point we had only witnessed a bobcat, fox and some goats in addition to the cattle and horses we saw while passing through the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The train arrived in Jasper on scheduled at 1:00pm and we were allowed off to visit the town. Jasper is alive and thriving with many shops and eateries crammed into a relatively small area. Unfortunately, unlike our stop in Winnipeg, I was unable to hook up to the wi-fi connection we were promised was available. Nevertheless, we walked around and shopped until we were allowed to get back on board.

As evening arrived, we passed into Pacific time and gained the third hour in our trip west. Before getting ready for bed each night we watched some part of one of the movies were we’d brought, until weariness overcame us. Once again it seemed like the train moved more slowly, with more stops, resulting in the best sleeping thus far. An announcement before we turned in informed us we would probably arrive in Vancouver some forty minutes early, so we were up, packed and ready for breakfast by 7:30am. At breakfast we were told, however that we would arrive more than an hour earlier than scheduled.

During the trip we met many interesting and pleasant fellow travelers. Some came from various portions of Great Britain, a good many from both coasts of Canada and even a few from the states. All have etched themselves in our memories, as well as our hearts.

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