Toronto to Vancouver on VIA Rail.

It’s hard to describe the feeling as the escalator at Toronto’s Union Station carries you up to the platform and you get your first look at one of the shining stainless steel sleepers. Having taken this trip from Toronto to Vancouver several times before today, you know the windows will be spotlessly clean as will your accommodations inside. These rail cars aren’t modern; they better than that: they’re classic!

I’ve been assigned to car 114, one of a dozen sleepers in a consist that also includes a baggage car, two lounge cars (each with a viewing dome), a dining car and, at the rear of the train, VIA Rail’s traditional bullet-ended Park car, containing fancy (and very pricey) rooms, a lounge area in the middle of the car staffed by an attendant, a viewing dome with a couple of dozen cushioned seats.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve never been fascinated by the view from the dome car. Yes, it’s a different perspective— higher up, see both sides of the track, etc.— but the only time it seemed to be a truly special experience was aboard the Skeena, a delightful VIA train running from Jasper, Alberta., to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

It was a very small train on that occasion—my guess is that’s the case every day—with just a locomotive, a baggage car, one coach and on bullet-ended Park Car with the observation dome.

From a front row seat up in the dome, you could regularly see the track curving away up ahead of the locomotive. It was almost as though you were looking over the engineer’s shoulder. The dome was a special experience on that day.

I know we complain about the freight traffic affecting on-time performance of Amtrak trains, but pity poor VIA Rail. As freight trains impede VIA’s long-distance trains more and more, their only recourse is to adjust the schedules and add time (and cost) to the run.

We were “on time” with our arrival into Vancouver at six o’clock this morning, but only because many hours had been added to the train’s schedule to cover for the dozen or more occasions in the prior four days when we had pulled onto sidings and sat for 25-30 minutes waiting for a ponderous 150-car CN freight to come lumbering by. 

All those delays have an impact. These days, the five-to-six-hour run from within the Canadian Rockies, down through the stunningly beautiful Fraser River Valley and into Vancouver—always in the past a spectacular conclusion to one of the world’s great rail journeys—these days all that comes at night.

And that is a damn shame.