Across Canada By Train

Wednesday, January 8th 2014

After a year traveling Southeast Asia, followed by another year traveling Northeast Asia, I had seen more of the Asian continent than I’d seen my own country in Canada. But with two years abroad I had skipped one Christmas at home with my family, my mother wasn’t going to let me get away with skipping another, so after two years abroad I was coming home for the first time – I decided to take the opportunity to make up for lost ground, and experience as much of Canada as I could.

So I decided to take the train across Canada, from coast to coast.

I’d start my trip in Vancouver, and I’d end in Halifax. Actually technically I started in Victoria, taking a bus into Vancouver to catch my train. My home province of Nova Scotia isn’t quite as east as you can go, but the train doesn’t go all the way to Newfoundland & Labrador and we hit the Atlantic Ocean at Nova Scotia, so it’s fair to call it a cross-Canada trip. Before leaving I’d google for any bloggers who had done the same trip and they were claiming their “cross-Canada” trip to go all the way from Vancouver to Toronto, which is a good way to piss off anyone from Canada’s east coast.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Actually, it’s pretty awesome. Via Rail has some rail passes that will take you right across the country. At 25 years old they still consider me a youth, so I got to buy a youth Canrailpass – System pass which gave me 7 one-way tickets across the country. Because I was traveling in winter which is Via Rail’s low season, I didn’t have to worry much about availability and got to book each leg of my trip only a few days in advance (or sometimes the day of), figuring out my trip one step at a time.

Via Rail is pretty awesome in just about every way. In the first leg of my trip I met a professional chef from Korea who had just finished his working holiday in Canada, and even he couldn’t stop talking about how great the food in the restaurant was (and it wasn’t expensive either). Different trains were staffed by different chefs, and later chefs were still really good, but the chef on this first leg was amazing and you could overhear that the conversation at every table in the restaurant constantly drifted back to how good the food was. Via Rail has also got a program where they invite musicians to travel for free, in exchange for performing for the trains passengers. This meant we had live music on the train a few times per day, and we’d also get a quick show anytime we had an extended layover in the waiting area of the train station.

I had to get home to Nova Scotia before a family Christmas party, so I didn’t have time to stop all the places I wanted and only used 4 of my 7 tickets, but this was still an amazing way to see Canada. With more time to make more stops, it would have been even better.

My first leg went from Vancouver to Edmonton, with a short stop in Jasper. I’ve got family in Calgary, so I planned to get on a bus and head straight to Calgary, but the train was a bit late so I missed the bus (you should plan on the train being up to a few hours late). My friend from Korea also had friends in Calgary, had the same plan as me and also missed his bus, so we had a night in Edmonton. We didn’t want to pay for a hotel because the next bus left about 6 hours from that time, so we went for some beers and pulled an all nighter, ending up at Denny’s taking shifts on who sleeps and who stays awake.

After a few days with family in Calgary, I went back up to Edmonton to attend a startup event and get to know the city. I expected Edmonton to be a bit of an oil town, but it’s got heart and I actually really like it there. The downtown is pretty nice, and plenty of coffee shops to write code if you’re a nerd like me. From Edmonton for lack of time I got the train straight to Toronto. I got great views of the prairies, but not having got out of the train to properly experience them I still count the prairies as on my “to-visit” list.

With the train, you can get either seats or a sleeping car, but if you buy the pass like I did you’ll be restricted to the seats. That said, the seats are not that bad. Imagine an airplane seat that’s about twice as wide, 3-4 times the legroom, reclines about twice as far, and even has a footrest that raises up something like a reclining chair in your living room. On top of that because it was low season the seat next to you was rarely taken, so you could recline both chairs and make something of a bed out of it.

After arriving in Toronto, I spent about a week making friends at the local hostel, exploring the city, and meeting up with a few friends who had moved there. Toronto is a city I had never been to, and I was surprised how nice it was considering how much Canadians from outside Toronto like to talk bad about it. After a few days eating Poutine (yes, everyday) in Montreal, I was back in my home of Nova Scotia, having made the trip from coast to coast by land.

As a special note for designers/coders (or others who work from home). The train is a pretty awesome place to get work done, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to travel this way. There’s a plug at every seat, and though certain legs of the trip don’t have wifi a few distraction free days on the train is probably one of the best ways to travel and work at the same time.

Traveling across Canada by train, you should do it. As in really, you should do it. Here’s the link, go buy a ticket: Vail Rail Passes.