Instinct sent my left hand diving into my pant pocket, seeking a cellphone that wasn’t there.
What time was it?
I wasn’t even sure what time zone we were in anymore.
It took another second or two to realize time didn’t matter. Not right now.
As my final night aboard Via Rail’s “The Canadian” drew to a close, about a dozen of us were enjoying a live show performed by musicians Scarlett Flynn and Kevin Howley in the economy class Skyline lounge car.
The train was rolling southward along the Thompson River valley on its way to Kamloops, B.C., having left Jasper, Alberta, that afternoon.
Backpackers exploring Canada, people moving to a new job or to school, or just your garden-variety commuters with time to spare (as was the case for me), together joining the musicians in song.
Forget about trying to find that magical atmosphere aboard a plane.
When the party broke up and we scattered back to our rooms and seats for the night, we were less than 12 hours from Vancouver.
Too bad, I thought. It would have been just fine if time stood still.
There’s something to be said about taking things slow and being out of touch in the middle of nowhere.
“The Canadian” takes about three and a half days to make the trip between Toronto and Vancouver, cutting across the vast Canadian Shield of northern Ontario, the prairies and gentle rolling hills of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the foothills and Rocky Mountain peaks of Alberta and the lush valleys of southern B.C.
But my trip didn’t start in Toronto. It began in Halifax.
I spent about a day aboard Via Rail’s eastern transcontinental service, “The Ocean”, which connects Halifax with Montreal along Strait of Northumberland’s New Brunswick coast, the Matapedia River valley and the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.
After spending a weekend with the parents, I hopped aboard one of Via’s many Montreal-Toronto trains to connect with “The Canadian”.
It took me eight days to go from coast to coast. Without the Montreal stopover, it could have been completed in a little more than five.
But who’s counting?
It was a refreshing change of pace, not having to be as preoccupied with the passage of time.
No news is good news
The transcontinental trains were often beyond the coverage area of cell towers, so no phone and no mobile Internet.
Much of northern Ontario and in the Rockies is beyond the reach of CBC’s vast network of stations, leaving my travel radio generating nothing but static into my headphones.
Being so deliberately isolated from the latest news and social media meant there was a lot of time for other things: Reading; listening to music, live and recorded; admiring the Canadian countryside scrolling across the train’s picture windows; simply chatting with fellow-passengers.
On the Halifax-Montreal and Toronto-Vancouver trains, there are dome-observation cars for sightseeing as those trains chugged their way across our vast country. I spent quite a bit of time upstairs, staring off into the distance looking at God knows what.
I brought two books, making a slight dent into the first but never managing to crack open the second.
At Winnipeg, the station stop was four hours long, allowing for a brief away mission into town to grab a coffee, stretch my legs and snap some photos.
Same thing for Jasper, Alberta, although the time was somewhat shorter.
My fear of being bored never came to pass.
There was also no fear of going hungry.
All things being equal, Via Rail feeds its passengers well, whether you’re paying as you go, or if food is included in the price if your ticket.
(I was travelling in the off-season, so you should note that things are a bit different in high-season.)
On the Halifax-Montreal train, “The Ocean”, meals were not included in the price of my room. All passengers could purchase catered meals in the dining car.
I had chicken soup and turkey sandwich for lunch, a stuffed fish pinwheel on rice for dinner and a continental breakfast with oatmeal in the morning.
I’ve had catered food on Via before and it’s been excellent. Dinner on this trip, sadly, was not as good as I remember it. The rice was a tad overheated so it was dry and crunchy in spots. The garnish was one lonely broccoli floret. Dessert was a very rich chocolate cake that I could not finish, although it was a bit dry on one end.
On the Montreal-Toronto corridor train, I was travelling in coach, where food and drink service was provided by an attendant pushing a snack cart. I wasn’t particularly hungry that day but I can tell you the coffee was very good. (A catered meal and drinks would have been included had I travelled in business class. Those tend to garner rave reviews from foodies and non-foodies alike.)
On the Toronto-Vancouver train, “The Canadian”, meals were included in the price of my roomette. During the off-season, coach passengers have access to the dining car to purchase the same same gourmet meals provided to sleeping-car passengers. (In high-season, coach passengers can purchase meals in the forward dome/lounge car.)
It would be too long to list all the meals I had over the multi-day journey
but here’s a link to a sample menu for this train. (EDIT — Aug. 7, 2014: Link no longer available.) Suffice it to say, the food served in the dining car is exquisite, from the vegetarian option I chose for lunch on Day 2 right up to the prime rib for dinner on the last night — quite possibly the best steak I’ve had anywhere. (The only miss was an omelette that wasn’t quite to my liking.)
Time for R ’n’ R
Many of us have become unaccustomed to sleeping on a bed aboard a train.
In North America, going long distances by train is not as common as flying. Case in point: Until this trip, I hadn’t been in a sleeping car since 2004.
It was pleasing to be reacquainted with Via Rail’s sleeping cars.
Under normal circumstances, “The Ocean” operates with what Via Rail calls “Renaissance” cars — rolling stock bought second-hand (but never used by the original owner) from the U.K., shipped to Canada and customized for Via’s use.
Dating from the early 2000’s, these are the newest cars in Via’s fleet.
Renaissance sleeping quarters are very spacious for one and a bit less so for two. (However, if you’re very tall, you might not find things as roomy under any circumstances.)
Being relatively new, this rolling stock runs very smooth under most track conditions. Where the rails get a little rough in New Brunswick, the rocking is not as severe as I remember on previous trips, in older equipment.
The room’s doors, equipped with special keys, are self-locking on the outside.
The sofa folds down into a lower bed for one. A second, upper bed folds down from the wall.
All rooms have a private bathroom. In some of the rooms, the bathroom doubles as a shower.
There’s a bit of storage space and a narrow closet for a couple of shirts or a winter jacket. Whatever baggage that won’t fit can be checked into the baggage car.
A double AC outlet allows you to power and recharge your electronics.
I can’t say I slept well aboard “The Ocean” — but I highly doubt this had anything to do with train itself. My lack of sleep was more likely a result of excitement at riding a passenger train in Canada for the first time in years.
Besides, I had no trouble sleeping whatsoever in the older (but recently renovated) classic stainless steel cars of “The Canadian”.
These cars, build by Budd about 60 years ago, are in remarkable shape given their age.
Many cars have seen their interiors redone in the last year or so, with finishing and trim in earth tones. (Those cars that haven’t been upgraded contain materials with a blueish-grey hue.)
There are many types of sleeping accommodations in stainless-steel cars: Rooms for one, two and three, plus sleeping berths, semi-private facing sofas during the day that fold down into upper and lower bunk beds at night.
I opted for a room for one, also known as a roomette.
The comfy couch hides a Murphy bed, which is accessible with the turn of a handle.
There’s a small vanity in the corner, which includes a wash basin. An Ottoman/footrest style piece of furniture conceals a toilet underneath.
The shared shower is a short walk down the hall.
There is decent space for smaller bags under the seat and overhead above the vanity. This train also had a baggage car for excess/oversize luggage.
Privacy is afforded from a sliding door. However, it can’t be locked from the outside.
By the door is a double-AC outlet, plus controls for a fan in case the air conditioning alone isn’t suiting your needs.
The rooms are great if you want to have private time.
However, aboard “The Canadian”, there are lounge spaces and take-out counters in all the dome-observation cars — Skyline cars mid-train and a Park car at the back.
For sleeping car passengers, the Skylines and Park have complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and light snacks. There are also organized activities throughout the day. Some lounge cars also offer a limited selection of card and board games and the like, so you can make your own fun.
For those times when there’s no Internet or radio and you’re desperate to read something current, there are newspapers, too.
And failing all that, chat with a fellow-passenger or a member of the crew as the train snakes its way across Canada.
It’s a similar setup on “The Ocean”. There are lounge cars on either side of the dining car — one for coach passengers and the other for sleeping car passengers. Each has a take-out counter for drinks, light meals and snacks.
With single- and double-seats plus a bar-style counter at one end of the car, it’s a cosy environment for reading or to meet fellow travellers.
There is no better way to travel.
My home, Calgary, isn’t on the route of “The Canadian” — nor along any other Via Rail route, for that matter.
It is a regretful omission that I hope will be corrected one day.
So for now, getting to and from a Via Rail train means a bus connection to Edmonton or a quick plane hop over the Rockies to Vancouver — something I am certain to do again.