Train travel is a 19th century answer to a 21st century challenge: Get off the treadmill and out of the rat race, conveniently, relatively cheaply and with little fuss. It lasts for only a few days but it is delicious.


Airplanes are frenetic, providing me a few hours of inflight sanctuary after running the gauntlets of check in and security. Travel by auto has its own anxiety; there are too many cars and trucks hurtling past me as I navigate to my destination. Both are deadline driven; I am anxious and uncertain, running a gauntlet to meet tight schedules.

A train trip is  a mini-vacation, providing a convenient option for getting where I want to go and going off-line for four days. The train provides a warm cozy cocoon to read, write, think, dream, sleep or just stare out the window. I get on, I settle in; I leave the details to someone else. I am safe, secure, responsible for nothing and off the grid.

The mighty engine is an EMD F40PH, a 4-axle 3,200 hp, 16-cylinder diesel-electric locomotive intended for passenger service, built from 1976 until 1992. It has a top speed of 103 mph (166 km/h). Its nickname is "Screaming Thunderbox".

The train trip from Toronto to Vancouver covers 4,466 kilometres and takes four nights and more than three days. In mid winter, a berth costs about $1,000 including meals and access to the dome and the club car. There is also a range of private rooms.

The observation dome provides stunning views of the passing scene. It sits above the Club Car.

It is a chance to cast off the electronic chains that constrict my life, no TV news channel yelling at me, no email marked urgent, no wi-fi to connect me instantly to someone else’s problems. While trains in the Montreal/Ottawa/Toronto corridor offer wireless, on the Canadian, travelling across Canada I have nothing. I cast off the tools of my enslavement and store all my electronics.

I board the train in Toronto at 10 p.m., find my car, locate my berth — already made up into a bed — and get settled with my bags. I do my own orientation tour. The train comes with all the comforts – my new home is a lower berth, a full-length bed curtained for privacy that turns into seats by day. Each car has a large shared washroom with toilet and sink, a separate shared shower room, all tight but manageable.

The whole car is incredibly clean. My porter, Kevin helps me navigate my new home. The club car with a glassed dome is at the end of the train, then several sleeper cars are connected by narrow corridors to the dining car where we enjoy sit-down meals on starched tablecloths, with full silver, decent glassware and remarkably good food. Reassured that all is well and I know the layout, I settle in for my first night’s sleep on my train. I drift off watching the ever-changing kaleidescope of lights pass my window while I try to hum through my personal anthology of rail-related songs; Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson top the charts.

The view from the dome: breathtaking. Below: The club car, seldom this empty, is a meeting place for passengers.

It’s winter, yet surprisingly our group of cross country travelers is dominated by Brits on a tour. I would have never suspected that train travel across Canada in winter would be a vacation activity, yet the Canadian is on most top train tour lists. I am delighted by their presence; it gives me a greater sense of the scope, majesty and untamed vastness of my country through their wide eyed wonder. One couple at breakfast as we cross northern Ontario comment; “This is awesome and it’s such endless wilderness, does no one live here?” I try to describe Canada’s north and fail miserably. We see a coyote, they call it a wolf. We see a fox, and they express a high hope for seeing moose. They sight something, I hasten to point out that brown cows aren’t that rare in this part of the country.

I refuse to confirm that many of us still live in igloos, but being a bit naughty, I don’t deny it either. I prefer to save that joke for Americans who, I decided long ago, should know better. My new British friends are awestruck to see so much land untouched, unowned, uncultivated and uncivilized.

Because we are all together on this short voyage we talk, the casual yet intimate chat of folks who know they’ll never see each other again. Each meal offers new companions; new people to share insights, ask and answer questions, communicate in the good old fashioned way, face to face.

By day, passenger seats provide an outside view, or a chance to look inward.

The conviviality of meals contrasts with the pleasant opportunity for isolation. I read, I stare out the window, I shoot a few pictures, I write some random notes, I think and I let my mind wander across the ever-changing exterior landscape.

The endless tracts of northern Ontario remind me of the vastness of Canada, how sparse and citified we have become. Trappers and harvesters have joined the great cube farms found in every downtown office.

At night, the seats transform into a cosy bed.

We arrive in Jasper in mid-afternoon near the end of our trip. Our Brits jump off and are replaced by Japanese tourists, loaded with the all important mementos and chachkas that the folks back home eagerly await. Because trains were integral to the development of tourism in the Canadian Rockies, the train station runs parallel to Main Street.

After Jasper, I get a few hours to view the magnificent Rockies, the trip’s wonder of wonders. We sit in the bubble-car, wide-eyed at the vistas, until darkness takes over. Finally, we climb into our sleepers and awake in time for a trip down the Fraser River valley and on to the extensive delta that has become Vancouver and its sister cities.

I arrive home, rested and refreshed.

In early morning, we arrive in Vancouver on time. I am refreshed, relaxed and renewed; I’m also happy to get off; too much introspection is uncomfortable. There has been no epiphany, but I’ve had a brief sojourn away from the daily treadmill. I have again been reminded how big my Canada is, and how blessed I am to live in such a breathtaking country. I’ve kicked my electronic habit for a few days and engaged in warm direct human interactions.

It’s a trip that is cheap at twice the price.