Vancouver to Toronto Train Journey Across Canada

At the end of May I embarked on a Vancouver to Toronto train journey across Canada with VIA Rail.

In Vancouver, I was taken to a chicken wing throw-down in Gastown. Ten chefs from around the city competing to barbeque the best wings – as people drank beer or Caesar cocktails, ate and voted on their favourites.


I walked around East Van with a friend, checking out the pop-up street corner gardens and kitsch shops. Mexican Day of the Dead figures, cards drawn by Canadian artists. We went to a vegan café for lunch before strolling along the beach. It’s almost what I imagined Vancouver to be.

But there were a lot of homeless people in the city. That I wasn’t expecting, I felt cheated. I’d always read Vancouver was the cleanest most progressive city in the world and here was a huge social problem needing to be addressed staring visitors in the face on every street corner. Why had nobody mentioned it?

We left Vancouver and the train curved past the Rocky Mountains. The middle of the train had a panoramic viewing car with glass walls and a glass ceiling. Sometimes you might see elk, bald eagles mountain sheep and bears as the mountains rose up and the lakes and trees surrounded you.

In Jasper I ate the most delicious meal at Tekara Lodge. A real work of art with smoked salmon under smoke filled glass, a burning hot coal next to a perfectly cooked venison steak. We went rafting on the Fraser River, water spilling everywhere. I jumped in and descended far beneath the water before collapsing back into the raft. We rode out onto an ice field in a huge glacier-traversing vehicle. We saw two bears, one moose and numerous elk, heavily pregnant.

Maurice Li Photography

Maurice Li Photography


Sad to be leaving the mountains and cold glacial water behind, we boarded the train to Winnipeg. Winnipeg surprised us. I visited the railway museum with its shuffling volunteers, rain from the roof falling lightly in places on the old carriages below. We took a tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, which had more hidden Masonic symbols than Dan Brown’s wet dreams.

Manitoba Legislative Building

We walked the city at night and I filmed the trains passing by from up close.

And then it was time to go again. Boarding the train. Flirting with a young customer service man over Stephen King novels and learning about how his house burned down so he came to work on the trains to earn additional cash.

And then we were in Toronto; out on a harbour tour past The Toronto Daily star that Hemingway once worked in but has now sadly closed its travel desk.

Toronto Daily Star

Down open streets and past second hand bookshops and tattoo parlours. The heat much stronger than what had been felt the rest of the trip. Shorts and Tim Horton’s coffee all the way. It was my first time in North America. It won’t be my last.

Tim Horton

My trip was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. There’s more on the CTC blog. If you book far enough in advance, Vancouver to Toronto will cost £285 if you travel in economy or £1,280 in a cabin for two. The price varies if you stop off along the way.

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Sophie Collard on Google+

From Winnipeg Train Museum, With Love

Winnipeg Train Museum is located on tracks 1 & 2 of Union Station in Winnipeg. It’s pouring with rain as I push through the heavy station doors and make my way up the stairs.

Winnipeg Railway Museum Sign

At the top, one of the volunteers from the Midwestern Rail Association, who keep the museum running, has temporarily left his desk. I wander in a little way before I hear a series of loud,      “um… um… UM”s coming from the desk. I turn. A man of about sixty is standing there looking at me from behind thick glases. Like Milton from Office Space.

“Sorry,” I say,  “I was waiting for you to come back.”

“Hum…hum…hum,” he replies.

“Right,” I say.

He gets out a sheet with prices on it. I fumble for the five dollar entry fee and hand it to him.

“Hum,” he says, by way of thanks. He motions for me to write down my name and where I am from on a form, then writes notes my five dollars carefully in a log book and stows the the note in an ancient cash register.

The museum consists largely of a number of old railway carriages. The main attraction is ‘The Countess of Dufferin,’ the first steam locomotive in the Canadian Northwest, built in the States in 1872 and purchased for Canada in 1877.

Countess of Dufferin

Countess of Dufferin

There are a number of other trains in the museum too, arranged along the track space. A little rain breaks through in places from gaps in the station roof.

Retired Canadian Pacific Train

Old Canadian Train

Old Canadian Train
Kamloops Auxiliary Cable Car
















Some of the laminated descriptions have water damage, but there’s such a high volume of carefully compiled information it hardly matters.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the usual rail-loving demographic, there’s a very large section devoted to female railroaders.

It’s been put together a little haphazardly, with some rambling information about women’s rights here and there, and few random quotes taken from interviews with female railway workers from unspecified times.

‘Women are as loyal as men’

‘Women are proud to be railroaders’

‘Women are more patient than men’

‘Working with women is pleasing, they’re both refined, just, hard working and efficient.’

A copy of a poster begging more women to come to the Canadian West is displayed. It is from the time the west was being opened up by the railways…

Urgent! Canadian Railway Girls

There is also a vast quantity of information about women working on the railways during the First World War, the gist of which is summed up in the following:

‘1914 -1918 In railway stations, along the lines as well as in the repair shops, women occupied a variety of positions within railway offices, hotels and restaurants.’ Before we are told most of them were sacked after the war under the heading, ‘1919 – 1929: years of euphoria.’ (which alludes to Armistice, not the sacking of all the women). And some images.

Canadian National Women

Woman and Wheel









What I love about museums like this, is that they are essentially windows to the minds of the volunteers who run them. There are far more facts than you could ever hope to absorb in one visit, lovingly put together and curated by people who really care about their subject. There might by rain coming through the roof damaging displays of information that is at times rambling, off-topic or unedited, but it’s got heart.

A T-shirt on sale in the gift shop

A T-shirt on sale in the gift shop

Until 20th June, if you live in the UK, US or Canada, you’ve got the chance to win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. Simply retweet the following on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

I visited the Winnipeg Railway Museum on a trip hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail.  CTC blog. A cabin for one when booked in advance costs around $700 (£400) for the Jasper to Winnipeg leg of the trip. 

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Service Manager | Conversations on the Train

The Canadian. Miles of cool, densely corrugated steel encasing sleeper, economy, dining and activity cars. It is gorgeous – If a train can be said to be gorgeous.

© Maurice Li Photography

Fabien, the Service Manager (and, I find out later, union rep), is in the back activity car playing his guitar in the moments he doesn’t have to appease anyone.

I look at the gold name badge that announces his role and ask, “What’s a service manager?”

“The person in charge of the safety and security of the passengers. I’m the guy who makes sure everything that’s supposed to be on board is here. The one who makes sure it’s all running right.”

“How long have you been doing it?”

He tunes his guitar.

“Since 1998. I started as a Red Cap in 1984 in Montreal, handling baggage. I transferred in the Western region in 1996.”

He’s French Canadian and I like the impact this has on the way he phrases things.

“Do you like it?”

He grins, “Yeah! It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Jobs are 8am – 4pm. Over here it’s well… you get on the train and the family, it’s your crew. We stay together, very close, and we go forward.”

He launches into a rendition of Puddle of Mudd’s Blurry. I’m not sure what the words other than ‘blurry’ and, ‘can you take it all the way… when you shove it in my face,’ are, so wait until he moves on to Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) before I join in. Then a static voice says something through his walkie talkie. He talks to it briefly, and I use the break to speak.

“What’s the best story from the time you’ve been working?”

“There is no best story, it’s all the best story.”

I give him a look.

“A story, a story… there are many. We meet lot’s of good people, I’ve met John Cleese, Sylvester Stallone, Sting – these are nice people, they love the train. And I’ve collected a lot of addresses from people I can go and visit when I retire.”

“That’s lovely.”

He grins again.

“The New Year’s Eve train is the most fun. We take away the tables and create a dancefloor and have the best champagne. In 2000 we were on the Y2K train, but with so many time changes nobody even cared what time it was.”

He sings a song in French before sipping his tea.

“I guess my story is music. I’ve always played music on the train. The head of the company came on board and liked what I was doing. We talked about it, and I was given the go-ahead to start a music programme. It gives access to musicians. Now we have them performing twice a day on board. We give them a bedroom and a meal in return. So yeah, that’s something that when I retire will be my legacy.”


Until 20th June, if you’re based in the UK, US or Canada, you could win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. For a chance to win, retweet the following message on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

We were hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. More about the trip can be found on the CTC blog. An upper berth is cheaper than a lower berth. If you book well in advance, a discounted fare upper berth costs around $400 (£250) for the Vancouver to Jasper leg of the trip. A lower berth costs around $475 (£300).

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Canadian Train Traveller | Conversations on the Train

There’s a group of fourteen of us from all over the world rolling out of Vancouver one late May evening.
The route goes all the way to Toronto and takes four days to complete. But we’re breaking it into three parts, stopping in Jasper and Winnipeg along the way. The first leg will take 18.5 hours.

©VIA Rail
©VIA Rail

The atmosphere on board is electric. Passengers are a mixture of people who’ve waited their whole lives to do the trip, and those who ride more regularly. The latter group include a few Amish Mennonites (white bonnets and bowl haircuts), families, and students.

We are travelling Sleeper Plus class, in seats that become berths behind grey curtains, reminiscent of the interiors of musician’s tour buses. I think of Janis Joplin, who travelled across Canada by train with the Grateful Dead on the Festival Express tour. She was as old as I am now at the time.

We have access to the panoramic viewing car, and a couple of us sit there after our bags are stowed. By now it is dark outside.

© Maurice Li Photography
© Maurice Li Photography

A VIA Rail guard comes round with plastic glasses for champagne and a tray of canapes. He pours the champagne into our glasses. The bubbles go straight to my head. A woman with grey hair in a white blazer and khaki trousers walks along the aisle. She asks if she can join us.

“Of course,” I say, gesturing for her to sit down.

She’s on her way to visit her son. She doesn’t go into great detail about this, but paints a portrait of herself an easy-going liberal vegan in a ‘that’s-all-you-need-to-know’ kind of way.

“I started travelling on the train when I was seventeen. In fact, I got married on the train when I was seventeen. Yep. And I got divorced by the time the train arrived.”

She’s also a teller of tall tales it would seem.

“How’d you get married on the train?” I ask.

“Well, I was travelling in economy around Christmas time, from Edmonton to Toronto. There was a lady on the train who was really sick. She had three kids and the kids were driving everybody crazy. She couldn’t really take care of them, she was just so sick. Me and a gentlemen got her kids, and the other kids in the carriage, and took over the activity car. So the parents could have some rest.”


“And later everyone starts saying this gentleman and I made a really cute couple. They buy us drinks because we’ve taken care of all these kids. The kids jump up and down and tell us to get married. So the gentleman makes a ring out of cigarette packet foil.”

I laugh.

“And he says,’On a ship the captain can marry people, a train can’t be so different.’

“So the VIA Rail guy in the bar car comes out and performs a ceremony for us. The lady with all the kids is my maid of honour. Another man, a single father, is my gentleman’s best man. Then afterwards, we’re given all these VIA Rail gifts. I still have my VIA Rail cards, my eye mask and washcloths. I wear the eye mask at night.”

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Well, I was seventeen then and I’m forty-nine now.”

I wonder how many people there are who have thirty year-old socks. I want to meet more of these people.

“Then what happened?”

“In the morning, just before we got to Toronto, I woke up and said, ‘what happened last night? What is this on my hand?!’ And he replied,

‘We got married!’

Then we got coffee and Baileys, even though it was 9am in the morning. We put it on a Chargex card, and made our ‘marriage’ null and void by the time we got to Toronto.”

“Did you see each other again?”


“And after that you continued travelling by train?”

“Yes. And by bus. I just like to be in control, you know. At least if I’m on a train I can get off at the next stop. Can’t really do that on a plane.”

“How often do you do it?”

“About four times a year. A lot of times I’ve gone economy, but I can’t sit in a chair for four days at a time anymore. I used to take the bus more, but something happened on the bus a few years back so I don’t do it anymore. I enjoyed taking all my food in a cloth bag. Apples… cheese. I even took a cheese knife.”

“I thought you were a vegan?”

“I cheat.”

Canadian Train Traveller.jpg
The Canadian Train Traveller

Our group was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. Read more on the CTC blog. An upper berth is cheaper than a lower berth. If you book well in advance, a discounted fare upper berth costs around $400 (£250) for the Vancouver to Jasper leg of the trip. A lower berth costs around $475 (£300). 

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Until 20th June, if you’re based in the UK, US or Canada, you have the chance to win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. Just retweet the following message on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – Castle in the City

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – Castle in the City
The railway hotel in Vancouver is the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Many cities and towns across the world served by railways have railway hotels. These were built to host the passengers who travelled to those places by train. And Canada is no exception.


It’s easy to see why the hotel is referred to as the ‘castle in the city.’ Built in chateaux style, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver really stands out among all the more modern buildings which surround it.


In 1887 the first Hotel Vancouver opened. It was replaced in 1916 by something grander in the same place. In 1928 work began on the third and current Hotel Vancouver. It took eleven years to complete and opened on May 25th, 1939 just in time for George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s first tour of Canada.


The beds are pretty fab.


Perhaps you’l have some important work to get done while you’re here. I could use one of these at home.


The pool has had its finishing touches added quite recently and is simply magnificent. There’s a wonderful view and it is very light inside. Swimming along pretending to be Lara Croft or, I dunno, Oscar Wilde, is an idea. Bet that’s the first time you’ve seen Lara Croft and Oscar Wilde in the same sentence.


Living here wouldn’t be too difficult, I imagine.


Great rack. Even the small details are well executed.





The dining spaces are excellent too. Even if you don’t stay, a visit to the bar or restaurant makes for a pleasant afternoon or evening.


Last minute, Fairmont Hotel Vancouver costs from $349 a night at the best available rate. The staff are incredibly helpful and will happily show you round.

The SkyTrain from Vancouver International Airport costs $7.50 into town. A cab will cost $50 and the ride isn’t as fun.

I visited the Fairmont while on a trip kindly hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission. It was blogged live on and with the hashtag #TMKcanada, and posts also appeared on with the hashtag #ExploreCanada.

Sophie Collard on Google+

Explore Canada By Train

Saturday 18th May I’ll be going to explore Canada by train with the Canadian Tourism Commission and twelve other bloggers.

Via Rail

It’s all very exciting. The most exciting part is that a lot of the trip from Vancouver to Toronto will be by train. It’s a trip that you can book with my friends at International Rail and if we were doing it the usual way, would cost around £451. We are stopping off along the way at Jasper and Winnipeg. There will be videos, Instagram pictures and blogs along the way. I’ve made a pre-trip video:

This trip will be interesting from a blogging perspective too, as I’ll be trying to figure out what people who might want to go on the train themselves want to know. Do they want videos of the train journey? Interviews with people on the train? Links to where they can book? I should think so, but I’m about to find out.

You can follow the trip on here, on Twitter using the hashtag #ExploreCanada, on and on the tumblr

Sophie Collard on Google+