Friday, July 1, 2011

Riding VIA Rail's The Canadian

Inside the dome car: The best way to travel!

For someone who likes trains, I sure don't travel on them as much as I would like.

One reason is the time it takes to get anywhere by train in this big country--two days to Toronto or Vancouver from where I live in Winnipeg, three days to the east coast. It's hard to explain to your boss why being away from the office for two or three days is a good idea, no matter how much work you think you'll get done on the train.

Another reason is that VIA Rail doesn't go to all the places you might want to get to in Canada--like Calgary, for instance.

So, it's the plane for me almost all the time when I travel for work, which I do at least once or twice a month.

Train No. 2 arrives in Saskatoon.

But that changed in June, when I took VIA Rail's The Canadian home from a business trip to Saskatoon. As I expected, and remembered from train trips taken long ago, it was a delightful and civilized way to travel.

Since it was it was a daytime trip, I travelled in coach 8116 (formerly CPR 116), built by the Budd Car Company between 1946-55 for the original CPR The Canadian. It was acquired by VIA Rail in 1978, and is one of 43 coaches in the VIA Rail fleet (numbered 8100-8147).

Interior of coach #8116. Note the HO models
in the display cases.

For a car built 56 years ago or more, it’s in pretty good shape. Perhaps uniquely, it has two HO scale models mid-car, in glass cases: A CN F unit and an Atlantic Coast Line GP35 (both by Athearn). I didn’t see similar displays in other coaches on the train.
Not that it mattered; I didn't spend much time in the coach, anyway. As soon as the train left the Saskatoon station, I made my way to the dome car-- in this case, #8515 (originally CPR 515), also built by Budd in 1954-1955.
Skyline No. 8515 in Melville, SK.

The car, one of 16 in the fleet (numbered 8500-8517), is what makes The Canadian so special; there were four on the 21-car train I travelled on, including the unique Park dome car at the end.
(According to VIA, the word "skyline" comes from "Skyline Trail Hikers of the Canadian Rockies", a group of amateur mountaineers that travelled to the peaks of the Rockies in 1933.)
VIA Rail 6414, aka "the turd"

The train was pulled by F40PH 6414, "resplendent" in it's Lotto Quebec scheme (some people unkindly have nicknamed it the "turd"--I can see their point) and F40PH 6453. 
The Saskatoon station was OK, if out of the way and hard to find (it was the first time my taxi driver had ever taken anyone to the station; he needed to use his GPS). The stationmaster (if that's what they're called these days) was a world-weary VIA veteran--a situation not helped by the fact the train was almost two hours late.
(The cause of the delay was traffic on CN--the line VIA uses out west. "CN can be pernicious" about VIA, was the stationmaster's resigned explanation.)
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer . . . .
Note the real linen, glassware and cutlery!

Unlike on an airplane, where one is expected not to talk to other passengers, train travel seems to encourage conversation, especially in the diner, where you are seated with strangers. Well, strangers at the beginning of the meal, but acquaintances by the end.

(Also unlike an airplane, you can watch the weather change on a train. I started in Saskatoon in the rain, but ended up in bright sunshine the closer I got to Manitoba.)
Another unique feature on VIA is it's onboard music program, where Canadian musicians can get free travel and meals in exchange for performing on the trip. Try that on an airplane!
Onboard entertainment.

Overall, the trip was an excellent experience--one I would happily take again, if the opportunity presents itself. Plus, trains have a much smaller carbon footprint than airplanes, an important consideration for those of us concerned about climate change and the effect of our transportation choices on the planet. (That might impress my boss!)
I also shot some video while in the dome car; you can watch the short clip by clicking here.
Finally, since I took many more photos, here are a few gratutitous VIA Rail pics. Enjoy!

A look back . . .
The stainless steel side of coach #8116.

Ain't that a grand view?
The end.


  1. You came to TOWN, did you? How did you like it in Saksatoon? There seems to be all sorts of neat model-railroad oriented people riding the train around here latley, with Jason Shron and all.

  2. Nice post, John. Surely the ONLY way to go.

    I enjoyed the jazzy Peter Dent soundtrack, and recognized 'Stand up and bless the Lord' in the middle of the piece during the dome segment, so it's appropriate I viewed the video this Sunday afternoon:) Also liked your photo of the glinting stainless steel.

    Regarding the 'turd' I thought it was so named because 'it was da turd unit dat got painted'?

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. Great post, John. I really wish I could take the train for work but as you say, it takes forever to get anywhere from Winnipeg. I almost had a chance to go to Edmonton "via" train recently. Maybe next time.