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+}’

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