Why I keep going back to Canada

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 27, 2011

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In and of itself, VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian is not an extraordinary train. Come on, the equipment is 56 years old, soon to qualify as mobile museum pieces, like the carriages that survive as the Orient Express. Looked at in the cold light of morning, as I am doing this very cold morning in Winnipeg, the train is sort of dowdy. VIA, in fact, thinks so and is doing a radical remake of the train, to increase its attractiveness to upscale travelers. The rich are no longer impressed.

This is my third trip on this train in the past 11 months, so something keeps bringing me back. I know what it is. Dinosaur it may be in 2011, but the Canadian is the last surviving example of the streamline era. The past four decades swept away the Chiefs and Champions and Zephyrs and Cities, the Texas Specials and Eagles and a multitude of other trains that emerged from the floors of Pullman, ACF, and Budd just before or after World War II. They became memories encapsulated on the pages of photo books, and with them vanished the era of stylish rail travel and the tradition of personal service that accompanied it.

For whatever reasons, VIA chose not to order new cars for this train, but to update and modernize the parts you don’t see, such as the electrical and plumbing systems. Showers were added to each sleeping car, but the open sections stayed.

And so the Canadian lives on, not just those beautiful, indestructible, stainless steel cars, but also the élan with which VIA promotes this train and the classy service its people provide on board. You, born in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s: This is the way it was, a glorious way to travel, and still yours for the taking in 2011.

But it’s a tenuous survival, I suspect. It runs but three times a week each way, meaning it is not really dependable transportation from here to there for Canadian citizens. Guided tour groups, primarily British in my experience, are its lifeblood, helping swell the train to anywhere from 18 to 30 cars in spring, summer, and fall.

In dead of winter, the Canadian is but nine cars: baggage, coach, dome lounge, diner, four sleeping cars, and the dome-observation, one of the sleepers serving as a crew car or spare. Were it not for those tour groups, the train might look like that year-around and therefore be a prime target of the budget-cutters at VIA.

I also keep coming back for the experience of getting away.  Yes, the scenery is nice: the forested lakesides of Northern Ontario, the vast prairies of the western provinces and the majestic Rocky Mountains. But I literally mean getting away. For a full 24 hours on each end, thank goodness, you are out of range of cellular towers; the wireless modem on your laptop is useless. I take a book, find a seat in one of the domes and just watch the world go by. Hour after hour after hour.

And though it’s fun to ride at the end of a 23-car streamliner, as I did leaving Vancouver last August, I prefer the winter Canadian. There may be just a couple dozen of you, almost outnumbered by the on-board crew. You get to know everyone. Meals become intimate gatherings of new friends. Nights are long, days are cold, and outside the country seems deserted, depopulated. Perhaps the farmers are all in Miami just now.

Maybe this isn’t the best train in the Americas. On a good day, the Coast Starlight or Empire Builder can be its equal. But for the experience it offers, nothing comes close, which is why I say make plans to ride it this year, before VIA has a chance to alter the train's character, in quest of those upscale travelers.

I’ll have more to say about the Canadian in a later post.—Fred W. Frailey

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