27 Hours on the Train and not a Minute of Boredom

In red neon letters on top of a monumental building, the name “Pacific Central” shines through the night, which is receding rather late and slowly. Walking through the park in front of the station building, I carry my heavy bags, as always on long journeys far too full with books, as if my struggle with excess luggage was a symbol of my fight against modernization and digitalization. I would think I am quite up to date with my social and political views, but concerning technology, I might feel more at home in the 19th century. For crossing Canada, the railway was thus the natural choice.

I step into a large, spacious, beautiful train station with high ceilings and a large number of helpful staff. This is Vancouver’s main station, the end or starting point of the Trans-Canada Railway as well as the train connection with the USA, but nobody is in a hurry, nobody is stressed, nobody is running. The train to Toronto, which departs from here twice a week, takes four days. The length of the journey leads to more serenity than the regular rush of commuters in train stations from Munich to Mumbai.

I will split up my Canadian crossing and will therefore only be on the train for 27 hours. In Edmonton, the next big city, I will already alight again.

But the route is much more important than the destination, for its leads straight through the Rocky Mountains. Granted, 27 hours on a train are definitely better than 27 hours on a plane or in a truck or on a rocket launched into space. But they are still 27 hours. There are couchette cars, but the option of lying down lies outside my price range. A seat is all the luxury I can afford. Jack London would have simply jumped onto the freight train.

While I am pondering how prepared or unprepared I am for a 27-hour train journey, a beggar sits down beside me and asks, very politely, if I could give him some spare change. With sincere regret, I have to negate his proposal, because Canada is rather expensive and I could soon be begging myself. An attractive lady hurries over and addresses the poor gentleman: “Excuse me, Sir, I work here. You are getting yourself into trouble if you are asking people for money in the station,” before adding, politely and respectfully: “But you are more than welcome to stay in the building and get warm.”

Another railway employee walks through the waiting hall with a basket from which she distributes candy.

I drop off my luggage, wanting to take on board only the bare necessities (books, food, slippers), and I am thinking whether I should take my heavy winter coat on board. None of the other passengers waiting for the train wears arctic polar gear, and one gentleman has even shown up in shorts. (It’s mid-December.) The people here surely know better how well the heating works on the train, so I deposit my coat in the freight car.

Too late I realize that the other passengers have probably booked a couchette with heated blankets and hot showers and that I will be the only one freezing for 27 hours. Damn it. Going through the mountains in winter and in the night, that’s going to be cold.

To pass the waiting time until departure at 12 o’clock noon, I will have an extensive breakfast and tell you how important the railway is for Vancouver. Like everything in North America, the railroad in Canada moved from East to West. British Columbia, the westernmost province, only agreed to join the Canadian confederation after the federal government had promised the construction of the transcontinental railway. And when a decision had to be made which of the small logging and whaling towns would host the final station, Granville won the prize in 1884. Two years later, it was renamed Vancouver. Since the arrival of the first train in 1887, the city’s story has been one of boom and growth. If the station had been built elsewhere, Vancouver might be an unimportant hamlet today.

But enough with talking, it’s time to get aboard. I am walking past 15 long rail cars, which seemingly takes me several minutes, because the economy class is of course the one farthest away from the station building.

But immediately after getting aboard, I utter the first “wow!”, the first of many on this trip: the seats are large and comfortable, with sufficient legroom. On a plane, one would need to pay first class prices for that level of comfort.

All seats face the direction of travel, and every passenger gets a window seat, except for the ones, of course, who showed up as a couple and now have to sit next to each other. As J. D. Salinger’s Zooey Glass replied to the question why he won’t get married: “I like to ride in trains too much. You never get to sit next to the window anymore when you’re married.”

A conductor walks through the wagon and asks each passenger how far they wish to travel. Most of them only strive for Edmonton. One gentleman will continue to Winnipeg, and a young guy will stay on for the whole ride to Toronto. People quickly start to talk about their motivation for this journey. Most of them are on this train for the first time, fulfilling a dream they have had for many years, now that the fare has dropped for winter. Some are visiting relatives and it seems they still want to drag out the encounter for a while, hence choosing the slowest mode of transport. A lady wants to look out of the window the whole time, revisiting the area she once crossed on a bicycle, decades ago. A girl from China happens to have time because she just moved to Edmonton and hasn’t found a new job yet. “Nothing is going to happen before Christmas anyway,” she says, “so I can finally take a look at Canada. I’ve already been living here for three years, but it’s a huge country.” There you have it, if even someone from China says that Canada is huge, then it is probably true.

A couple guides a grandmother onto the train and treats her like a child. “Where do you want to sit? Is it OK here? But there are other people. On the right hand side, you will see the mountains better.” I take this route for the first time, but I am quite certain that there will be mountains on both sides. The grandmother herself will probably be quite relaxed and cool once her annoying children (in law) have left.

The carriage is served by two stewards, Don and Gabriel. They point out the emergency exits, the restaurant car and the panorama car. While they are still explaining, the train starts rolling, quietly and gently. I feel the happiness of there’s-no-way-back-now, which I often sense at the beginning of long journeys once the train leaves the station, the plane lifts off or the ship sails out of port. As so often in the vicinity of train stations, we first pass the less beautiful boroughs full with car cemeteries, storage facilities and sawmills. A homeless couple, holding hands, follows the train with longing looks, dreaming of the honeymoon that life has denied them.

As if to give them a chance to jump aboard, the train stops. A freight train is crossing, and this will happen quite frequently on this journey. The long freight trains have the right of way over shorter passenger trains, which can be parked on a siding more easily. For a freight train to rattle past with its hundreds of cars can well take five minutes. Thank you, globalization and world trade! On the other hand, many freight trains also mean lots of opportunities to jump onto a train once I run out of money. Maybe I will continue the journey to Toronto in hobo style. After all, it will be spring by then.

The more experienced travelers are already unpacking the pillows and blankets they brought with them. It’s only noon, but already ice cold. Don walks through the car, promising that they will try to get the heating running.

The speed, I estimate it at 60–70 km/h, shows that this journey is about comfort, not about efficiency, like with the crazy fast bullet trains in Germany racing from appointment to appointment at 300 km/h. The train across Canada is more like a rolling living room. Even more so now, as the heating is coming on quickly. Someone put plenty of coals into the furnace, it seems.

After roughly an hour (I didn’t even bring a watch), we have left Vancouver and the suburbs with their bland high-rises behind us. There is a wide river to our left, snow-topped mountains on the other side, and rafts of timber floating in the water. That’s how I had imagined Canada!

The train picks up speed, as if liberated from the confines of suburban sprawl. The engine driver enjoys sounding the horn at every crossing, even where it is only a dirt road between some fields. The gates at the railroad crossings are jingling happily. Thus, the whole country learns of the benedictory accomplishment of being fully traversed by one long railway line.

Something like a town appears for the first time in Mission City, a cheerless place with a river rich in fish, as I judge spontaneously and probably prematurely while whizzing past. But I cannot base my opinion on a broader set of observations, because the train doesn’t deem the town to be worthy of a stop.

I keep jumping back and forth between the windows on the left hand and the right hand side, because there are rivers, lakes and mountains all around. Each view is more amazing than the previous one. This train journey is like visiting a gallery of landscape paintings by the great masters.

Some of the mountains are as steep as the Matterhorn, but then, this is another one of my inappropriate European comparisons. Europe may be more culturally diverse and interesting than North America, but when it comes to impressive landscapes, the road-tripability so to say, I would prefer North America. Here, one doesn’t get into another town every 50 km, but merely by a wooden house every 150 km or so, like the store in Kilby.

Via Rail, the operator of the train, invites artists to entertain their guests. On this trip, Audrey is singing and playing the guitar. But her repertoire resembles the stuff that is always being played on the radio, which I already don’t like there. I would prefer something related to the railway, like “Hey hey Train” by Johnny Cash. Why don’t you invite that guy?

But actually, I don’t need any musical entertainment at all. I just look outside. Nature is becoming more spectacular as darkness descends slowly. The sun has long disappeared behind the mountains, but the dusky mood lingers for hours, as it does far up north. The valleys are filled with fog, and the forest is no longer green, but brown, grey and black. This is the time of day where the joy of hiking through the wilderness is slowly replaced by the fear of not reaching the camp for the night, where any cracking branch sounds like danger. In this vastness, expanse and remoteness, the forest can indeed seem threatening. Thinking of being out there, I feel all the more comfortable and safe on the train.

Some of my fellow passengers have already transformed their chairs into beds. Even in the cheapest class, one can travel quite comfortably, even more so if one is shorter than 170 cm (which I am not, I regret for the umpteenth time during long-distance travel).

And then, the night is finally pitch-black, something that most people in cities never experience. I change into jogging pants for the night. Only when the train is going into a bend, I see the lights of the locomotive reflected by spruces, firs and snow flocks.

The train hasn’t been hooting for a few hours, so we must be deep in the Rockies. Let’s hope there won’t be any train robbers waiting for us when the train has to slow down for a mountain pass.

Gabriel walks through the train and informs each passenger who wishes to leave in Kamloops that we are running 45 minutes late. Estimated time of arrival is now at 21:30, the first stop after a riding for nine hours. A passenger who is going to Winnipeg, having another two days ahead of him, asks to be woken up in Kamloops as well. He needs to step out to smoke. For an addicted smoker, three or four days on the train must be really tough. Personally, I am not affected by this anymore, because I have ditched the bad habit for the duration of my stay in Canada. High tobacco taxes work.

We actually reach Kamloops at 22:47, about one and a half hours late. The folks joining us here have missed dinner. Until Toronto, all the delays may add up to a day. Before my return flight from Toronto, I will generously add some extra days, so I won’t be stressed. Two Inuit children, who have boarded the train with their mother, are already in full-body pyjamas, but still energetic enough to run up and down the carriage. I don’t blame them, for I can’t really fall asleep myself. For my train journey around the world, I will have to plan shorter legs and more stops with a bed and a shower.

The night is a little bit cold. The seats are not objectively uncomfortable, but I am about 10 cm too long to fully stretch out. Finally, the children are exhausted and it seems I have fallen asleep somehow, because I only wake up shortly before 6 am (in the next timezone already). I can see snow outside, nothing else. It will probably be dark for a few hours, but like in hostels, I like to be the first one to brush my teeth and to perform some cursory cleaning.

The fact that I have another 10 hours on the train ahead of me is almost incomprehensible after the long night. We have been on the rails for 18 hours already. In Europe, I would have traveled from Munich to Minsk in that time. In Canada, we barely crossed into the next province, hence the different time zone.

In the washroom, I realize that the space between tap and basin is large enough to wash my hair. And while I am at it, I am treating myself to an extensive shave. Now I am awake! Freshly hygienized, I see my happy smile reflected in the mirror of the rolling spa. You won’t get that level of comfort on a plane, bus or car. This is basically like a cruise, just more environmentally friendly.

Under the glass dome, I am waiting for the sunrise, which doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. The Chinese girl got up early, too, and I am telling her about my plan to continue to Toronto by train in April. She smashes my hopes that it will be spring by then. “Maybe in June,” she says. More and more passengers are coming upstairs and marvel at the heavy engine plowing through snow and darkness. We actually don’t get a real sunrise, it is just incrementally getting lighter, as if the pitch-black darkness is slowly packing its bag and getting ready to rest from the night shift.

Only when we stop in Jasper, where all the skiers and snowboarders get off to break their legs, the sun wakes up and brings a picture-perfect snowy Canada with it. There is even a herd of elk or moose (I can never tell the difference) grazing next to the railway line, not disturbed by the train in the least.

After Jasper, the landscape becomes even more dramatic. Or maybe it’s the sunny day, which allows for better and farther views. In any case, by now I am happy every time the train slows down or comes to a halt.

When I see so much natural beauty, I always wonder why people kept moving westward. OK, according to Columbus they would find China there, but when you have come all the way from Europe and walked across half a continent, why don’t you just settle in places like these, as close to paradise as one can get on Earth?

The only sad thing I see, or rather overhear, on this journey is that in Canada, too, elderly divorced women are very proud of their children getting engaged, married or reproduced. They, of all people, should know that this is the path to tragedy. Tom, a 25-year old backpacker from Germany, delights the ladies as he speaks of his planned engagement, settling down and raising two planned children, while I want to scream: “Dude, don’t be stupid! Just look outside: the world is big and beautiful and interesting. Do you really want to forgo all of this to clean screaming baby butts?” Yet I refrain, because today I am more in my relax-and-enjoy-the-nature mood than in my unsolicitedly-saving-other-peoples’-lives-from-doom mood.

As a professional penny pincher, I have of course packed enough calories for the whole journey, but after 24 hours, I can’t see any more müsli and protein bars. So I advance to the restaurant car and order a cheeseburger. They even have the daily newspaper Globe & Mail here.

Apart from me, there are only employees of the railway line in the cozy and sunny restaurant on wheels. As I look out of the right window and see that we are crossing a river, I can’t hold back an expression of wonder. “The view on the other side is also nice. There is a lonely cabin at the end of the river,” one of the engineers tells me, barely looking up from his lunch. The people working on the train seem to know all 4,466 kilometers by heart. They would probably even notice if anybody came out here to cut down a tree for Christmas.

A woman and a man, both middle-aged, enter the restaurant car. First, I think of them as a couple, but overhearing their conversation, it becomes apparent that this is a rather new development, which came about during the course of this train journey. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be anything too serious, because they invite me over to their table and into their conversation. For my taste, they are talking about cars, houses and shopping malls a bit too much. Now they only need to raise the subject of hockey, and we would have everything covered that’s important in an average Canadian life.

But the woman knows a lot about trains and knows all the staff by name, so I ask her if she works for the railway. “Oh no,” she laughs, “my ex-husband was with the railway. When we got divorced, I fought harder for the lifelong free railway pass than I did for the children. It cost me 100,000 $ in lawyer’s fees.” As a former divorce attorney myself, I notice immediately who of the parties involved gained the most from that dispute. “But only now that the bastard is dead, I can really enjoy the trains.” Her laughter appears even more out of place than before. Noticing my look, she adds: “Trust me, it’s really better that he is dead. Even my children agree. He was a criminal”. I really should have warned Tom about family life.

Instead of the guitar players and singers, Via Rail could actually engage a historian for edutainment, because the history of the railway construction is exemplary for many changes in Canadian society. One could even say that only with the rail network from ocean to ocean did Canada become a modern state with a consolidated territory and the ability of the state to enforce its power in all parts of the country. In 1885 for example, it allowed the central government to quickly dispatch troops to quell the North-West Rebellion. There was also a telegraph line next to the railroad, bringing the country closer together.

The settling of the west was sped up by the railway, too. For the construction, foreign workers were recruited, Europeans for the eastern part and Chinese for the western one. But as soon as the railway line had been finished, the Chinese were no longer wanted. In 1885, immigration from China was taxed prohibitively high and in 1923, it was outlawed altogether. (Canadian immigration critics, all of whom descend from migrants themselves, ironically, still seem to have far fewer issues with white Europeans as with other people.)

Special drop-off“, it sounds from Gabriel’s walkie-talkie. He is followed by a passenger with a backpack and in hiking gear. The train stops with no town or village in sight. There is only a pick-up truck waiting by a railway crossing, and the Trans-Canadian train comes to such an exact halt, that the waiting friend stands right in front of the right door of the right carriage.

Kind of in jest, I ask the conductor if people can just get off anywhere they want.

“If you let us know 48 hours in advance, we schedule a stop for you anywhere. You can even board the train anywhere you want, you just need to know the exact mile number.

People like to use this when they go canoeing, for example. We drop them off in the wilderness and we agree on a spot to pick them up after a week. Approaching that mile number, we drive very slowly, so as not to overlook them. Sometimes, these people bring buckets full of fish or a killed moose with them.” I wonder if those animals find their way straight onto the menu.

I cannot conceal my admiration for this friendly, helpful and brilliant service. (Only in Macedonia have I seen something similar.)

“But people often misjudge the time they need,” Gabriel continues, “and they are not always there by the agreed time. In that case, we inform the following trains, so that they will drive by slowly and watch out for them. If we don’t see them for three days, we notify the police.”

Just before Edmonton, a bright sunset announces another long night, at least for those staying on board. They can still evade the artificially lit and noisy civilization for a while.

Honestly, I don’t even want to get off. I am enjoying the train ride so much that I would rather stay in my seat for another few days, or maybe just live on the train forever, going back and forth through Canada.

Practical advice:

  • The website of Via Rail has all the information, schedules and booking options.
  • In summer, the train goes three times a week, in winter twice per week.
  • If you are flexible, try out different dates because the prices vary greatly. People told me that the train is quite booked out in summer. For the ride from Vancouver to Edmonton, I paid 184 Canadian dollars (= 120 €). I haven’t seen any cheaper price, except for young folks or teenagers.
  • I couldn’t book the ticket online with my European credit card and thus had to ask a friend in Canada to help. (Thanks a lot, Edward!) But none of the other travelers spoke of similar problems.
  • What you should take with you: a book, a blanket for the night, slippers. (I saw too late that I could have acquired a blanket in exchange for 5 $.)
  • Internet is only available at the train stations. (The lack of internet was one of the factors I liked the most. It made people much more communicative.) But every seat has a power outlet.
  • A tip for cost-conscious travelers: The tap in the washroom is high enough to allow bottles being filled up with water. That way, you don’t need to spend anything for drinks on the train. And if you want to be a supersaver, you will most likely find an empty plastic bottle in the rubbish bin of the train station where you embark. — As I always say, traveling doesn’t need to be expensive.
  • The food on the train is actually not expensive (take a look at the menu), but if you really want to save, you can bring everything with you. There is boiling water next to the kitchen, so you can prepare tea and soup.
  • Calculate a few hours of delay. In no case should you book a close flight directly after the planned arrival.
  • There is another train leaving Vancouver, the Rocky Mountaineer to Calgary. But that one only goes in summer and costs several thousand dollars (just for the ride, not for buying the train).

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