Riding Canada’s Steel Spine
Unlike its neighbor to the south, Canada has maintained a viable tradition of rail travel ever since the 1885 completion of the coast-to-coast Canadian Pacific Railway; an engineering marvel and “act of insane recklessness,” it united the nation and saved isolated British Columbia from becoming an American territory. “If we can’t export the scenery,” declared William Van Horne, the first president of the CPR, “we’ll import the tourists.”
The rail’s route through the Canadian Rockies has been touted as one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, and rail fans shouldn’t exhale until they’ve checked it off their list. Along a 2,250-mile stretch west of Alberta, a Texas-size province with the population of Philadelphia, the route passes hundreds of relatively young (in geological terms) 60-million-year-old peaks and spires, their granite and glacier-capped profiles edgy and dog-toothed. The views keep crescendoing until you reach the monarch of the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson, jutting 12,972 feet into the British Columbian sky.
Train enthusiasts have several options for exploring this inspiring and generally roadless country. The Rocky Mountaineer, the largest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, is deservedly popular for its two-day, all-daylight train ride (night accommodations are off-train) east- or west bound between Vancouver (BC) and Jasper, Banff, or Calgary (Alberta). Glass-domed observation cars promise horizon-to-horizon views of the passing show, and a good deal of attention is given to dining.
For a more bona fide nostalgic experience, the American Orient Express re-creates the style and romance of the great transcontinental rail trips of the past, with handsomely-restored 1940s and 1950s railcars and top-notch service and food. With the Rockies the uncontestable highlight, the Express makes a ten-day, 2,100-mile trip between Montreal and Vancouver, offering guided off-train visits to historic towns and national parks.
For those with less time, the same continent-straddling five-province rail tour can be made by the national public train. VIA Rail’s Art Deco-style cars make the 2,774-mile trip between Toronto and Vancouver in three days but also offer the option of an open ticket, allowing you to disembark and explore any of Canada’s urban and rural treasures independently, then resume your trip at a later date.
Corridor service links Toronto with the line’s easternmost point in Halifax, Nova Scotia, completing the entire awesome, one-of-a-kind, 4,000-mile cross-country adventure.