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Crossing Canada on a Terrestial Cruise

Book a "Roomette"

One sunny morning, with a remarkably cheap breakfast of salt cod fishcakes under my belt and a small bottle of Atlantic seawater in my pack, I climbed aboard a VIA train in Halifax station. In the Maritimes the train is still a vital means of transport and not just some lumbering curio from another era.

The frugal ride in simple day coaches and pack brown bags or buy snacks from a cart or vending machine. Those with bigger budgets eat in the dining car, with pink linen cloths, china, and real carnations in a vase. Buffet lunch costs CAN$8 and dinner CAN$15. For the most part, it’s worth it. Drinks, except for tea and coffee, are extra.

When night comes, weary heads loll on seatbacks in the economy coach or settle on soft, white pillows in one of three bed arrangements: a bunk, a roomette, or a double room. During the course of four nights on the train I tried all three and slept fitfully in each of them. (“Let the movement of the train gently rock you to sleep,” says the brochure. “Yeah, but they don’t say a thing about whiplash,” cracked a passenger at breakfast one morning.)

Even traveling alone, my double room was snug. Most passengers roam the corridors looking for company. We found it most often in the dome cars, either upstairs with a view or downstairs with nonstop refreshments.

The change in topography heading west is barely perceptible—and yet the differences between the regions are grand: maritime mist, rocky Canadian shield, vast prairie flatland, and snow-capped mountain ranges. Unlike the Trans-Canada Highway, this ribbon of steel doesn’t attract fast-food outlets, gas stations, and motels. Just feet away from the window are dense thickets of birch, rivers with active beaver lodges, grassy plains of grazing Herefords, and mountain peaks that few will ever climb. The train literally gets you into Canada, burrowing through rock if it needs to.

The view is quintessentially Canadian, but those aboard are not. The locals on the Maritime stretch and the business folk I met on the eastern corridor gave way at Toronto’s Union Station to foreign tourists. Americans, Europeans, and a smattering of Asians fill nearly every seat as “The Canadian” starts its three-day run to Vancouver.

The British especially are experiencing a railway nostalgia boom. I met several who had gladly paid around CAN$4,000 for a 10-day packaged trip: three days in Ontario, the train ride to BC with a side trip to Banff and Lake Louise, ending off with a few days in Vancouver and a brief overnight in Victoria. They’re seeing the whole of Canada, they say, as they sit and smoke in the bar of the club car.

The journey became a terrestrial cruise. Friends were made within minutes, and claustrophobia was purged by walks along the platform of every station we stopped at for more than a quarter-hour. Time didn’t seem to matter. This was travel, not transportation. Delays, caused by freight trains to which we had to yield, or derailments, or whatever, seemed to matter little. We were two hours late into Winnipeg and almost seven hours late into Edmonton, yet no one complained. “Late” only matters to those who read the timetable.

On many legs of the journey I rode up front with the engineers, a friendly pair who will invite almost anyone in for a ride. It seems all you need do is walk to the front of the train while it’s in the station and chat with them through the cab window.

Mike Poirier, one of the drivers, told me the windshield and side windows are made of bullet-proof glass. “It’s essential for some American trains, especially in cities,” he says, but here you rarely see vandalism. In fact, country folk wave at the train a lot, and the engineers always wave back. Always. It nurtures goodwill toward the train and the crew. It also reminds Canadians who might forget that trains are still alive. People are still riding them. We’ve spent more than a century proving there’s a cheaper, faster way to travel . . . but it’s not always a better way.

On a warm, golden afternoon I got off the train at Victoria station, walked the last 100 yards, and poured my Atlantic seawater into the Pacific Ocean water of the harbor. Another journey complete.

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