May 25-26, 2012: When you buy a ticket for Via Rail over the Internet, they email you a bar code. For some bizarre reason my email server wouldn’t display the bar code within the email, I had to print it separately. It covered all four of my Canadian trains, so when I went over to Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station to collect my tickets I took both the code and the itinerary. It was a good thing the place was virtually deserted, as the elderly gentleman who moved from his Amtrak terminal to his Via Rail terminal to print my tickets operated with glacial slowness. But he did print the right tickets.
When I returned to the station Friday evening after an early dinner at Zachary’s (the train leaves at 20:30 and doesn’t serve dinner the first night) to be confronted by a mob scene, I was glad I already had my tickets. The Canadian, running between Vancouver and Toronto, is Via Rail’s flagship service, but you wouldn’t have known it before you boarded. I found the station staff abrupt and the seating uncomfortable and insufficient. Also, in common with Amtrak, Via Rail doesn’t let you onto the platform until just before you board, which seems odd to someone used to European stations. (Although it’s true that China and Vietnam operate the same way.)
Happily, once I was allowed on board, things looked up. Way up. Unlike Amtrak, Via Rail actually has one-person roomettes (called cabins in Canada), including sink and toilet, and I loved mine. True, once the bed was let down from the wall there was only just room to stand beside it, and if I wanted to use the loo I had to crank the bed partway up again, where it hovered above my head, but once I took a few things out of my bigger bag it fit under the seat, and in daytime mode the room was plenty big enough for one.
I didn’t eat dinner on this train, as I got off at Jasper late afternoon, so I’ll have more to say about the food on the second leg across Canada, but breakfast and lunch were good, and better than Amtrak, which had rather skimped on those meals. This was, however, clearly a tourist train, with several tour groups on board. The California Zephyr had had more coach class carriages than sleepers, but almost all the Canadian’s many (23?) carriages were sleepers, and it carried two dining cars and four dome cars. Unfortunately, unlike the Zephyr, the windows were never cleaned.
Although I spent some time in the dome car, and in the lower-level lounges, I had pretty good views from my cabin, too. This stretch, through the Rockies to Jasper, had the best scenery of the whole four-day journey to Toronto, and I couldn’t have been happier. I slept well, I ate well, I enjoyed a few friendly chats, and gorgeous mountain scenery slid continuously past my window. I didn’t have to drive, I didn’t have to navigate, I didn’t have to worry about mountain roads, or traffic, or parking, I just had to sit back and enjoy the show.
I did find photography even more challenging than on Amtrak. Besides the dirtier windows and even more problems with trees and telephone poles, I had trouble with reflections, especially in the dome cars, which were also more crowded. And although the train now took four days for a journey that used to take three, I thought it was moving faster than the Zephyr and the Coast Starlight. (BTW, I’m currently traveling with a Nikon Coolpix S9100. I often use the 18X optical zoom, although I never use all the available pixels as I prefer smaller files.)