Naturally, I chose to travel across Canada by rail when I got the chance to visit the country. It was more so as I had long been longing to see this land of Prairies and rocky mountains from a close proximity.
I booked myself in “Via Rail” in Silver and Blue (First) class from Toronto to Jasper. Starting from Toronto’s Union Station, the train would take me across the span of Canada. I really would have missed the panoramic view of Canada if I had opted for the travel by airlines.
“VIA Rail”, earlier known as the Canadian Pacific Railway, was built to connect Canada’s east to the west. The country’s size required a transport system to carry heavy goods and essentials to people living in remote areas. The history of this railway service can be traced back to 1881 when the first spike was driven in Ontario using the Chinese labour. The last spike in 1885 at Craigellachie in British Columbia: Canada’s westernmost province. The First-Class experience of “VIA Rail” began at Union Station itself where all “Silver and Blue Line” passengers were ushered to a special business lounge for a continental breakfast-buffet.
“The Canadian” looked nothing like the quaint British-built trains that connect India’s hill-stations to the plains. Despite the cold and unwelcoming appearance of iron and steel, the massive train was well-prepared to receive hordes of passengers. I thought the inside looked quite old until I read that they were refurbished Art Deco Cars from the 1950s! I found myself assigned to a cabin closest to the showers. Vivid memories of water overflowing from toilets on Indian trains made me apprehensive enough to almost ask for a cabin change. The cabin itself was sparse: two padded push-back chairs placed at angles to each other, a small covered washbasin, wash-kits and a small closet for exactly two coats! A miniscule little cubicle at one end of the cabin contained the tiny WC.
I had an unlimited supply of champagne and sparkling wine before lunch. The meal, included in the ticket price, consisted of a choice of starters, entrées and desserts, followed by tea or coffee. The combination of an early start, champagne and heavy lunch, had made me sleepy. As the train rolled past Ontario’s landscape of picturesque towns, lakes and woods, I retired to my cabin. Settling into the armchair, the sinking feeling returned that perhaps this was how I would have to pass the night. Later, the Cabin Attendant, assured me that she would organize my sleeping arrangements. Tottering back after yet another sumptuous meal, I found that she had miraculously produced bunk-beds from the cabin walls and made them up with clean, white sheets and fluffed-up pillows, laying all my apprehensions to rest! If getting ready for bed was a bit like performing a careful pas-de-deux, manoeuvring in the toilet defies description! The tiny WC had a vacuum-flush activated by pressing a button in the panel behind. What the situation would have been on a train in India doesn’t bear thought!
After speeding past sparkling lakes, rivers and sun-dappled forests, I arrived at Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the evening for a crew-change, to refuel and uncouple one of three engines which powered the train. As the days were getting longer, the sun stayed up well past bedtime. The weather too decided to put on a rare show. Dark clouds gathered. Soon a spectacular electric storm began panoramically lighting up the expanse of the heavens and the vastness of the earth beneath.
Through the night, “The Canadian” moved through Manitoba and Saskatchewan. On the third morning, I arrived at Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Here, the train was refuelled, water tanks refilled and the vacuum-toilets and kitchen drains mechanically emptied. Both stations, at Edmonton and Jasper, had no platforms. [Passengers had to step on little stools to alight.] This enabled petrol trucks and mechanized equipment to quickly access tanks and drains that needed filling or cleaning.
After tanking up in Edmonton, “The Canadian” persevered through the heat of the day to keep her tryst with the rugged Rockies. I remained in the “Observation Dome” as I didn’t want to miss the first sight of the Rockies for anything. They are awesome testimony to a force and intelligence much greater than ours. Each turn of the rail-track had me spell bound at the beauty of the mountains.
Though the loss of one engine had slowed her down, “The Canadian” still got me to Jasper, Alberta, by evening. Although Vancouver was her destination, (taking three nights), I was booked for two nights to Jasper so as to enjoy motoring through the high Rockies and view awesome mountain peaks, each named after famous Canadians. It was time to say goodbye to the genteel lady clad in iron and steel. As she caught her breath in Jasper’s mountain air, taking in tanks-full of fuel and water and getting spruced-up for the next lot of passengers, I could see what a marvellous piece of engineering she was.Lakshmi Reuben-Gopali