Ontario Stories and Tips

Going west: on the train from Toronto to Sioux Lookout

Canadian Shield Photo, Ontario, Canada

The Canadian is Via Rail's flagship service, the train with a number 1, which runs cross-country and (almost) cross-continent between Toronto and Vancouver. It used to be a daily service with two trains, one on each of the southern (via Calgary) and northern (via Edmonton) routes. There are now three trains a week, covering the northern route only.

The Canadian leaves Toronto at 10pm, and this is what I wrote on the day, waiting to board the train for the first leg of our trans-Canadian journey:

"Anyway, we are ready to GO WEST. Actually, I know we have been going west (more or less) since we left Halifax, but somehow this feels like the real thing. The Canadian is supposed to be one of the greatest rail journeys in the world, and despite the fact that majority of it nowadays takes place at night it probably still remains so. Our next stop is Sioux Lookout. What does one do in Sioux Lookout? We are ready to find out."

The train journey between Toronto and Sioux Lookout takes almost thirty hours (which is quite a long time to cover the less-than-a-thousand miles between Ontario's capital and one of its westernmost towns). We are travelling in economy class, or "coach", rather than in one of the sleeper carriages that the train predominantly consists of. But there is none of the condescending attitude that you encounter on other major train journeys towards the passengers in the cheapest class (as it was for example on Australia's Indian-Pacific). In fact, once you get on the train, the somehow officious attitude that ViaRail ground staff quite consistently show changes completely. The people who run the train are helpful, friendly, down to earth and sensible, making the journey just that little bit easier.

The train consists of old (call it "classic") stainless-steel carriages. The economy car is open plan, with rows of seats in 2+2 setup on both sides of the central aisle, mostly facing towards the direction of travel. At the both ends of the carriage there are sets of four seats of which two face the opposite way, reserved for larger groups and families travelling together. We get one of those, but as the carriage is by no means full, we make ready to claim more spaces.

There is plenty of room: the seats recline quite far back, and each has an extendible footrest – the amount of legroom is pretty good in the standard seats too, and the arms-rests in between folds up so you can stretch across if the train isn't busy.

We are given pillows and blankets, and in addition to our own sleeping bags and fleeces all that makes for quite comfortable pallet, and after the initial excitement we all, somehow, sleep.

When we wake up the next day, the train has passed the industrial heartlands of eastern Ontario (it leaves Sudbury around 5am) and we are already deep into the seemingly endless landscape of the Canadian Shield. A boreal forest of pine, fir and birch stretches interminably around us, broken only by a glimpse of an occasional lake. The day is dull and grey, and the desolate stations we occasionally pass seem no more than logging or fishing camps. When we arrive in Hornepayne, the wind is howling and a freezing rain falls diagonally against our faces as we walk along the platform (i.e. a strip of hardened gravel by the track side) to stretch the legs. It's horrible. I'm loving it.

When the train departs, we go to the Dome Car, an observation carriage which has a fast-food buffet in the lower section, and a domed, glass-roofed viewing area upstairs. The food selection in the buffet confirms the Canadian fascination with processed dairy, as the sandwiches on offer are: cheese, ham and cheese, egg and cheese, and beef and cheese. I am eerily reminded of the SPAM sketch, but settle for pot noodles (or a local equivalent) and a burger.

The view from the top is similar to the view form our carriage (it's in the mountains that the Dome seat is worth it's weight in gold), but the change of indoors scenery is always welcomed. We meet people as we always do, other tourists, backpackers, people travelling for work and for family reasons. There is a woman from Sioux Lookout that can't understand why we would even think of going there (this is a bit discouraging, but we remember that the main idea was simply to break the journey). There is a guy travelling over thousand miles to meet his virtual family from Second Life. There is a girl with a son of our younger's age which is great because they can run up and down the carriage shrieking and jumping, pissing the other passengers off but giving the parents a break.

In the evening, we decide to send Mum and Daughter for the sit-down dinner (the sleeper travellers have food included, we have to pay extra 30 CAD for a three-course meal) to save money and save embarrassment in the posh company from the first class.

We order one dinner between us, but "with chef's compliments" we actually get two, which to be honest is more than we can eat, but as the food is rather lovely, at least by train restaurants' standards, we manage somehow. The cheesecake is the best I ever had in our travels in Canada, anyway.

As the day comes to the close, the rain stops and the sky clears to a deep, purplish blue, painted with golden and red streaks towards the west. The lakes gleam darkly as we – this time literally – ride into the Canadian sunset.

We arrive at one in the morning and when our hosts' friend turns up (they are not here and in addition to leaving a key for us and the flat for our use, they delegated a friend of theirs to be our contact point) and takes us to our couch, we can only crawl into the beds and sleep.

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