Tour Guide
Canada by Train

Red = Route of bus / boat / van / train. Green = Return route to Edmonton

This page is about my trip across Canada on the Via Rail passenger train in December 2000, which began in St. John’s and went to Vancouver, and then back to Edmonton. I paid a student rate of about $450 CDN, which permitted me to make about ten stops on and off the train over 30 days. If you have the time, it’s fun. The train runs from Halifax to Vancouver, and so I began the train trip in nearby Truro. If you want to, you could make the trip in six days, but I took my time and stayed with friends and relatives along the way. Christmas is a good time to arrive home penniless.
1. Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland

There are no longer trains in Newfoundland, so you have bus and take the ferry from the west coast. It’s 12 hours across the island and then 8 on the ferry. It costs $20 to walk on to the ferry. Dress warm, bring food, and try not to make Titanic jokes.
2. Cape Breton Highway

After the ferry arrived early in the morning, I took a shuttle van from the coast of Cape Breton to Truro in east-central Nova Scotia. Cape Breton’s, uh, charms continue to elude me, but the van was warm in mid-November.
3. Truro, Nova Scotia

In Truro I met up with the Via train station. It’s a little place with a surprising amount of history, and there’s a display with chunks of the Berlin wall. I board in the afternoon and pass through New Brunswick in the evening.
4. Old Montreal, Quebec

3 pm to 9 am the next morning. I went to the old quarter with my aunt. It would of course be more lively in the summer, but it was mild weather and the smoked meat sandwiches were nice. Knowing a little French will help, but people seemed equally willing to be rude in English if necessary.
5. Parliament, Ottawa, ON

Parliament is beautiful, and there was some excitement as CBC was preparing for the federal election inside. The people in Ottawa seemed as welcoming as the climate, but at least they let me come in. This was the year before 9/11. Imagine sailing into parliament now at midnight with no I.D.
6. Public Rink, Toronto

Five hours from Ottawa. I checked out the Much-Music building, couldn’t afford to tour the CN tower, and felt accepted despite not having bathed for, uh, a while. The city has a reputation for being arrogant, but I found it fairly walkable and inviting. It didn’t take much to be friendlier than Ottawa. A stopoff for a few days with friends in nearby Kitchener.
7. Winnipeg, Manitoba

It’s a long way from Toronto, almost thirty hours on the train through not very interesting Canadian shield scenery. ‘Winterpeg’ has two seasons: winter and mosquitos. A lot of bands and comedians seem to come from here. I think you need a sense of humor to live in Winnipeg.
8. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

It’s another seven hours to Saskatoon. But it was November, the trains were quiet, and I slept well. For someone who gets motion-sick in a revolving door, trains were no problem, even for reading. And if there’s a crying baby, there’s always another car open (to throw it into: juuust kidding...)
9. Jasper, AB

An hour or so after Hinton we arrive in Jasper National Park and the town itself. Jasper is a very expensive place to stay and that this point in my trip, going out for lunch is an extravagence. We have an hour break to look around. It’s cool here even in summer and in December it’s freezing.
10. Jasper, AB

Jasper can be a cheesy, overpriced tourist trap, but it has the goods: world-class mountains, scenery, and skiing. It was about -30o Celsius that day, and so the train was filled with grumbling skiers after many resorts closed. Jasper the bear never complains.
11. Rocky Mountains

Despite it really getting pretty cold up there, this is a fun part of the trip to sit in the second-floor observation car. As we move into British Columbia you chug through some pretty shaky mountain passes. The train never falls off the mountain, right, conductor? ...conductor?
12. Vancouver, British Columbia

About 16 hours from Jasper. Vancouver is a 24-hour a day traffic jam, but it does have beauty and a cosmopolitan life. A stay here with family, and then back to Edmonton. It was near Christmas and the train was crowded, which meant a crying baby in each car.

The last leg: 20 hours back to Edmonton. In total, about 120 hours on the train, not counting 12 on the bus, 8 on the ferry, and 5 in the van.

I’ve complained a lot here, but I enjoyed the trip and recommend it. Again, it’s only for someone not in a rush, but the time does go by if you have books and newspapers, and about half of the time I was asleep anyway. There is a dining and snack car. Along with short breaks at each stop, the train has half hour to hour breaks at major points, which lets you get out, look around, and have something to eat. Trains are clean, and service is mostly good even in coach class. The service is far better than any Greyhound bus I’ve been on, and the seats much larger than on any airplane in that class. With my pass I could get on and off as I liked, which you cannot easily do flying. And, not that I’m making light of it, trains are very seldom hijacked...