There was a time when train travel was considered to be the only civilized way to get around the country and in our fast-paced present-day world there is still something remarkably refined about this mode of transportation.
There are certainly faster ways to get from point A to point B, but that really isn’t the point. Rail travel is about slowing down and enjoying the journey.
One of Canada’s quintessential train journeys is known as The Ocean. It’s a route that begins in Montréal and ends in Halifax about 21 hours later — roughly double the time it would take by car.
The overnight journey departs Montréal in the evening and arrives in Halifax on the afternoon of the following day after passing through spectacular scenery in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
As we waited in Moncton to board The Ocean, I was pleased that we would have the opportunity to join the final four hours from Moncton to Halifax, but I couldn’t help feeling just a little sad that we would not have time to experience The Ocean’s entire journey.
While we waited for the train to arrive, my husband and college-aged son went to a nearby drugstore to purchase some bottled water.
When they came back with bottled water and four large bags of chips I had to ask them why they had purchased so much junk food for a four hour journey.
“I’m sure it won’t go to waste,” my husband said. Despite his reassuring smile I was pretty sure those chips would be going to someone’s waist.
We settled into our comfy seats and spread out the junk food extravaganza on the table while we watched the Maritime landscape outside the large windows beside our seats.
The train passes through wetland areas, rural communities, tiny towns and along the oceanfront before it finally reaches its final destination in Halifax and watching the ever-changing landscape was a highlight of the trip.
Canadian passenger trains outside urban areas can sometimes be delayed by freight trains and our train came to a standstill on the tracks for about 30 minutes waiting for a freight train to pass.
I used the time to thoroughly explore the train — visiting the lounge car, the dining car, peeking in the odd sleeper cabin, checking out a display of the flags of each of the provinces through which the train travels, and gazing out the back window of the caboose.
I may have watched a few too many James Bond movies, because I also planned an escape route should it become necessary to jump from the train at some point later in the journey.
In the summer months, there is a glass domed observation car at the back of the train, where passengers can take in a 360 degree view of the ever-changing landscape. Unfortunately, we were a few weeks early to be able to enjoy that.
Back in my comfy coach class seat watching the scenery change outside the window, I couldn’t help thinking how inherently “Canadian” train travel is.
There is a reason Gordon Lightfoot is still singing about Canadian railroad s— the development of Canada’s railway system in the 19th century was integral to the settling of the nation and modern train travel remains a link to that rich historical past. It’s comforting to know that the romance of train travel is still alive and well in Canada.
Top Five Canadian Rail Trips
Canadian Rockies: Voted by the Society of American Travel Writers as the best train journey in the world, the Rocky Mountaineer offers 3 distinct rail journeys into the Canadian Rockies. Travelling during the daytime, you pass rugged mountains, waterfalls, valleys, and wildlife. Rates start at $859 per person for a two-day journey. For reservations or information visit: www.rockymountaineer.com.
Far North: The Winnipeg-Churchill train completes a 1700-km journey from Manitoba’s capital city to its subarctic northern region in two days and with notoriously frequent delays. Taking the train is an adventure, but the adventures available in Churchill are even more exciting. You can see belugas in summer, polar bears in fall, and the northern lights in winter. Rates start at 185 for adults, youth and seniors and $92 for children one-way. For reservations or information visit: www.viarail.ca.
Maritimes: The Ocean travels from downtown Montreal to Halifax passing through the scenic Maritimes. The entire 22-hour trip will cost $315 for adults, youth, and seniors and $159 for children one-way. To travel from Moncton to Halifax is only about $35 per person. For reservations or information visit: www.viarail.ca.
TransCanada: The Canadian is the ultimate cross-Canada rail experience. Travelling from Toronto to Vancouver in just over 3 days, this long-haul train transports more than 100,000 people every year. Over the past two years, more than $22 million has been invested in the modernization of this particular train. Rates start at $624 for adults, seniors and youth and $312 for children in economy. Sleeper cabins start at $1627 for adults and $1220 for children including meals. For reservations or information visit: www.viarail.ca.
Agawa Canyon: This one-day excursion from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Canyon Park in northern Ontario is particularly stunning in the fall when the leaves are ablaze with autumn colour. The train passes pristine northern lakes, roaring rivers, vast forests, and giant granite rock formations typical of the Canadian Shield and allows travellers time to explore Canyon Park, a scenic wilderness park in northern Ontario. Rates for the one-day rail journey start at $85 for adults, $75 for seniors and $40 for children. For information visit: agawacanyontourtrain.com and for reservations phone 1-800-242-9287.
The Alberta Prairie Railway
If you would like to experience the romance of rail travel in a single day without a big ticket price, consider an excursion on the Alberta Prairie Railway. Trains depart from Stettler, Alberta to Big Valley and return about six hours later. Most excursions include meals, entertainment and a train robbery with an exciting shoot-out between the outlaws and old fashioned law enforcement personnel. Regular adult fares start at $95 per adult, $70 for youth, and $40 for children. For reservations, schedules or pricing, visit: www.absteamtrain.com or call 1-800-282-3994.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.