The train cars that make up The Canadian were built in the mid-1950s, but their age doesn’t show when I first see them in the dim platform light on a Tuesday night, waiting for me to board.
The first car I see from the station is the last one, No. 239, with a curving wall of windows at the rear, and a glass dome covering a second level.
It is shiny silver, with horizontal ridges. It looks elegant.
In winter, The Canadian leaves from Pacific Central Station in Vancouver for Toronto on Tuesday and Friday nights.
The Tuesday night train I am on is scheduled to arrive in Toronto on Saturday morning.
Sleeper car passengers are welcomed in a lounge where their tickets are scanned, and meal times for the first day are assigned. There’s tea, coffee and cookies.
When we board, the people tally is 46 in sleeper, 20 in coach and 10 crew.
The train is short, with just eight cars. There are two locomotives, a luggage car, a coach car, a Skyline dome car, a dining car, three sleepers and a Park dome car.
Each sleeper provides a fold down bed for about 20 people.
In high season, there might be 20 to 30 cars, including three dining cars.
Our trip begins on time at 8:30 p.m.
As we depart, Champagne is served in plastic glasses and refills are offered. There's a tray of sweets and another of canapés.
It is noisy as strangers get acquainted with each other.
Much of the talk is about the train. Many of the passengers say the journey is their focus, not the final destination. They ask each other why they have chosen to travel by train in January. It is partly the lower off-season fares, but also a desire to avoid crowds, not having to line up for everything. Plus a chance to see the nation under snow.
There is a bit of worry. Yes, it is January. Yes, it has been very cold along much of the train’s route. But just 66 passengers at the beginning of this trip. They worry that The Canadian is in the sights of government budget cutters. They worry that when these six-decade-old cars are deemed not practical to upgrade any more, they will not be replaced. And that will be the excuse to end cross-country train service.
But a happier mood soon intervenes, especially the next day, as The Canadian rolls deep into the Rockies.
The views are spectacular, with clouds at eye level, trees sagging under snow, and mountain peaks so tall that you can’t see the tops, even in the dome car.
The food is much better than what you’d get on an airline. There is legroom galore. The beds are surprisingly comfortable, though sleep can be elusive amid the clatter and squealing of a train in motion.
Strangers aren’t studiously avoiding eye contact. They are happy, even eager, to chat, and they have interesting things to say, especially about trains.
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