Drawing a metallic line across the country, few journeys are as beautiful, or powerful, as the one experienced aboard this national icon
Our journey begins in darkness. We slip away from Toronto’s Union Station just after 10 p.m. on a chilly February evening, skirting the CN Tower before plunging into the vast commuter belt. It’s an unassuming start to one of the world’s great transcontinental train rides; the 4,467 kilometre trip to Vancouver, which will take us four nights, five provinces and four time zones to complete.
We’re aboard VIA Rail’s ‘Canadian’ – a tram so important to the story of Canada that it appears on the $10 bill. The ‘we’ in question is my partner, my parents and me, and there’s a reason we’re embarking on this journey together: the history of the route is intertwined, not only with the history of the nation, but also with the history of my own part-Canadian family.
Work on Canada’s first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific, began in 1880, 13 years after Canadian Confederation established self-governance, and nine years after the far-flung colony of British Columbia joined the Dominion on the condition that an east-west rail link would be established within a decade. The last spike was driven in at 9.22 a.m. on November 7, 1885 – a feat of engineering that unified the young country, fuelled a settlement boom across the fertile prairies and powered Canada’s emerging economy by transporting gram, ore, timber and more.
A second, more northerly route – the Canadian National – followed in 1915, and it’s along this line that the modern-day ‘Canadian’ travels after competing passenger services were merged in 1990. It’s also along this line that my Toronto-based great-grandfather worked in the 1920s as a conductor, managing freight trains from the caboose at the rear. My childhood in the UK was filled with tales of his adventures and I have long wanted to travel in his tracks with my father, himself a railwayman and the fifth generation of my family to work in the industry.
As we rumble through seemingly endless Toronto suburbs we settle into our home for the next few days. The sleek, bullet-shaped cars were built in the 1950s and, despite multiple refurbishments, still retain an air of mid-century glamour. Some contain curtained berths, others are full cabins with ensuite toilets. We have opted for the latter, which is furnished with bunk beds that swing down from the wall; by day, they will be magicked away by an attendant and a pair of armchairs set up in their place. They’re tiny but surprisingly comfortable and we’re soon snuggled beneath our duvets, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic clackety-clack of the wheels.
When we open our blinds the next morning the suburbs have been replaced by fir trees and lakes, blanketed in snow that sparkles in the sunshine. This is the Canadian Shield – a vast expanse of boreal forest which covers more than half the country and contains a fifth of the world’s fresh water. The weather here is bitter in winter and ice has built up in the train’s vestibules overnight, though the interior remains toasty. As we head to the dining car for breakfast, I find myself thinking about the harsh conditions my great-grandfather would have faced at the start of his career when, as a brakeman in the 1890s, he would have been required to clamber along the top of moving wagons to set the brakes.