An elongated stop outside Jasper puts the brakes on any thoughts of a prompt arrival. One of the niggling caveats of train travel in western Canada is its plodding slowness. VIA locomotives are no match for the bullet trains of Japan or France’s TGVs. Obliged to regularly give way to half-mile-long freight trains, Canadian passenger trains make protracted stops at lonesome sidings and frequently arrive at their destination hours late. If you’re in a hurry, this isn’t the trip for you. However, if you’re on a flexible itinerary and are happy to sit back to admire a conveyor belt of spectacular scenery from a soft leather seat, welcome to slow travel at its finest.
Once the train crawls into Jasper, the small town home to the rugged national park of the same name, I still have enough time to disembark and stretch my legs before dinner. While the train from Vancouver is carrying onto Winnipeg, I’m due to head northwest to Prince Rupert in the morning on a different service. I spend the time hiking up to the mountain-flanked shores of Pyramid Lake before checking into the nearby Athabasca Hotel for the night.
The next day, the train ride becomes ever more surreal. The second part of my journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert takes two days with an overnight stop in Prince George and incorporates snow-covered farmland, chilly lakes, and forests full of B.C.’s symbolic evergreen trees. This train is smaller, and by lunchtime, the passenger count has dwindled to just me and a laconic lady in her sixties with a small wheelie suitcase and a thick book. Diminutive towns flash by in a blur of road signs and scruffy yards. At one station we pick up a slight grey-haired gentleman weighed down by shopping bags and drop him by the side of the track half-an-hour further on in the middle of nowhere. He’s a regular—the purser tells me as I watch the man stumble off through the snow—and the train makes an unscheduled flag-stop to enable him to get home with his weekly shopping haul.
Later that evening, the brakes screech to a halt in the dark just outside Prince George, and I’m told we can’t progress any farther tonight: a freight train is hogging the station. The purser calls me a taxi and, 20 minutes later, a black Toyota, which has somehow managed to navigate through the bumpy backstreets, pulls up alongside the carriage ready to take me to my hotel.
I arrive at Prince George’s station early the next morning for the final part of the railway’s passage, through B.C.’s lonely interior to oceanside Prince Rupert just shy of the Alaskan border. With the last remaining passenger quietly disembarking in the town of Terrace, I find myself alone, enjoying the train in splendid isolation for the concluding 90 miles. It’s a remarkable experience. I feel like a pioneering traveler adrift in a world turned upside down by a global pandemic, seeing things as I’ve never seen them before and probably never will again.
As the lights of Prince Rupert’s container port beckon with a ghostly glow, I grab my bag and get ready to jump off. It’s been a fascinating and economical 1,200-mile trip through some of the least-trammeled corners of my home province. While the pandemic might have derailed vacation plans and canceled work contracts, it has inadvertently opened my eyes to the beauty of Canadian train travel.
Tickets for VIA Rail can be booked online at viarail.ca for travel throughout Canada.