The Canadian 001.01

By Bryan • canada, photography, travel • 1 Jun 2010

IMGP1359May 22-23 2010 – I have no idea where this train is, other than somewhere in northern Ontario and about 12 hours from Toronto.  That could mean an number of locations considering this train has stopped, slowed down and even ran in reverse over those 12 hours.  I don’t think it has run over 100 km/h for any extended period of time.  Still, I don’t need to worry about as many time-zones as with the Trans-Siberian

I like to believe that train travel is a higher form of travel in contrast to the sardine can nature of economy-class flying.  In some cases, it isn’t as I can think of a few Chinese train adventures in hard-seat class that left me questioning humanity.  Those trips were before China’s ambitious high speed rail days.

Traveling on The Canadian (as VIA’s flagship line is known) is in the former class.  It is a sleepy, relatively comfortable way (even in economy) to move across the country…providing one has IMGP1351the time.  In my case, from Toronto to Jasper, and then from Jasper to Prince George. I think the comfortable aspect is helped considerably by high popularity of the sardine class Toronto-Vancouver economy flights.  No sane person would consider a 4.5 day journey in favor of a 4 hour flight. Suckers.  Thanks to those folks, passengers on The Canadian enjoy probably a 60% vacancy rate in the economy coaches.  This translates to everyone getting their own seat +1. $400 one-way to my destination…the sleeper equivalent would have set my back almost $1600 (meals included).  I had a first class ticket on the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow…$900.  Strangely, both my ticket to Jasper (from Toronto) and my ticket to Prince George (from Jasper) were exactly the same price…but the Toronto to Jasper leg is probably three times the length.    

The seats are giant and rival the foot&body room on the Japanese, Chinese and European trains I’ve taken. There is also access to the dome car, which seems to be a uniquely Canadian rail service (maybe Amtrak has these?). IMGP1363 Even with these features, it still remains a challenge for one to discover their optimal sleeping position.  Two seats are perfect for a child, but present some challenges for adults.  Most people seem to prefer the ‘curled ball’ position which spans the two empty seats.  There are several variations with the head either being angled against the aisle arm rest or the window wall. One may also rest on their side, facing either the back of their seats, or the rear of the seats in front of them.  The odd maverick passenger might be bold enough to stick their feet right out into the aisle, threatening the wrath of the coach attendants.  I’ve been told that smaller folks have climbed into the over-head baggage shelves, slept under the seats or commandeered the dome car.  I always thought that sleeping under the seats (with newspapers) was strictly a Chinese characteristic in their hard-seat class…but we do it in Canada too.

It takes awhile to find your position.  I think I’ve decided on a combination of curled ball (head on aisle arm rest) and side sleeper (head facing my seat).  Kind of reminds me of pass-the-pigs positions.  The razorback is when one just lies down on their back in the middle of the aisle.

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Northern Ontario is a lot like northern BC…mountains absent.  The forests are of similar species and size and in some cases I feel like I could be driving highway 97 from Prince George to Mackenzie.  There was some sections…I really don’t know where, that also had Siberian characteristics…low scrubby trees, open fields and run down rail line buildings and communities.

VIA trains are at the mercy of freight movement and play second fiddle to the 150-car behemoths that race down the track.  Freight train size may also be a North American characteristic.  I don’t think I ever saw a freight train in China and Russia that was larger than 50 or 60 cars.  There were a lot more of them though.  Canadian trains are exclusively diesel (although I believe there is some electric business going on in BC), in contrast to the heavy electrification of their Russian, Chinese and European counterparts.  I was always under the impression that electric train motors offered more power than diesel engines.  If the Russians can electrify their entire Trans-Siberian and associated spur lines…I’m not sure what our deal is…wait…we can’t even put in a high-speed rail line between Montreal and Toronto.  That is probably why.

Boarding The Canadian was my first time in Toronto’s Union Station (my urban planning buddies will probably laugh at that).  I was quite impressed with the size, architecture and relative efficiency of the boarding process. I was annoyed that I had to pay an extra $21 for my bag that was 7lbs over the 50lbs weight limit.  I understand weight and aircraft…but weight and trains?  Stop squeezing me for cash.

IMGP1352The silver HEP1 Coach Car is in good condition, but the style (blue pastel interior…carpet, walls, roof) is beginning to look dated (especially in comparison to the uber-modern and sleek Asian trains).  It has been retrofitted with electrical sockets which is a welcome addition (but no wireless yet).

The train is stopping to dump of some fishermen at the town of Alsace…that is where I am…but I don’t know where that is.  

I think I’ll dig out my camera.  My old Pentax K100D died in India.  Circuit board problem that would take weeks to repair (I brought it in in early May) and cost upwards of $300.  The camera store had a second had Pentax ist’D…which is the step down from the K100D.  I picked up the body for $200.  Resolution is a bit less and it doesn’t have an anti-vibration function…but it works fine and the shots come out great in RAW.  They also had the latest Pentax X for $700…maybe next year.

Tasty coffee on this train.

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* after checking with Wikipedia…most of the passenger cars on VIA are over 50 years old.

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10 Responses

  1. Lovely! I think trains are one of the best transport systems in the world! This I’d like to try when I’m in Canada. Though don’t know when that will be.

  2. I agree. Trouble is….VIA Canada moves pretty slow…it’s close to a five day journey across the country.

  3. Heidi

    Thanks for the word journey Bryan — well put and I’m happy the trip went smooth for you! … Also, as I am currently zipping along on a train myself — you have now granted me advice for the best ‘where to’/’how to’ nap position. Me? I’m opting for the overhead compartment! Haaahaa. NOT!

  4. Adrian

    Well now that you’ve tried the trip across Canada one way, you have to try it the way back! I’ll save you the details, it’s just as long and monotonous. To answer some of your questions about Amtrak, it’s got a slightly better sightseeing car, the food is pretty good, and the train runs on schedule! Hope you’re enjoying the good life in Mackenzie – ya missed a pretty good Beach Slam last night!

  5. Adrian

    Ha – I must of missed the part about the Razorback position, I just read it now! By the way, the best seats are the ones with all four facing each other. The last time I went on the Canadian the coach attendant told me to bring up all the leg rests and build myself a “nest!” Talk about great customer service!

  6. @ Heidi – are you heading all the way to Vancouver?

    @ Adrian…hah hah hah a “nest”. If you got on in Toronto, you had dibs on the second seat as long as possible. The folks who got on in Winnipeg had to give up their free seat before I did. VIA connects a brand new dome car (completely domed) in Jasper…first class folks only, I believe.

  7. niall

    I have only taken the train once (i know, i know, I`m a crappy urban planner) so I haven`t experienced any of these train strategies, yet. I`d definitely like to take the train `cross country, I`m sure it would be rather boring until about Calgary…. but it would be a great experience! The shot that was taken in northern Ontario, was it taken with a polarizer through a tinted window?

  8. Adam

    From what I saw on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, its closest equivalent to the Dome Car (which I used on my Montreal to Halifax trip last summer) was the lounge car, which is almost all glass and two floors high. The lounge (and what appeared to be a now-abandoned bar) was on the upper floor with swivel seats and side tables and a snack bar and booth seating area were on the lower floor.

  9. @ Adam – I think the new dome car the attach in Jasper is probably equivalent to the Amtrak lounge car.

    @ Niall – I think I did have the polarizer on. It’s tough taking shots through the dome car…there is a lot of reflection and the glass isn’t that clean. Unfortunately, VIA doesn’t run on the CP tracks that go through Calgary. They used to have a route through there pre-1990…but that was cut when they consolidated. The northern route (less-scenic) through Edmonton/Jasper was chosen because apparently VIA has a Federal mandate to service small towns and there were more smaller communities on that route.

  10. Kay

    I should be thankful that I am short and can curl up in the seat(s) for napping/sleeping purposes. If I can go visit Heidi and my best friend by train, maybe I should try the overhead compartments and let you guys know whether I can fit and whether it is comfortable to sleep in?

    Last time I took the train back to K-town from Gare Centrale, met a couple who were visiting their in-laws in BC. They told me to take the train from QC-BC, but fly back. What does it say about the BC-QC train trip? Boring and not recommended!

    Just a question, do they have communal showers on the train or that is just reserved for the Sleepers’ class? I was trying to figure that one out when I was checking out the ticket prices. Astronomic prices as a student for a few days in the Sleepers!! (even 2k packages look even more appealing) I really do not understand how they can charge that much for a train considering you can fly one way Executive class from Mtl to Vancouver or pay more to fly one way from Vancouver to HK…

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