Tracks of time: The epic Canadian train journey

Passengers have to wind their watches forward three hours as they slice through prairies, forests and mountains, making the great journey from east to west. Tracey Foss settles in

Step through the entrance to Union Station on Toronto's Front Street West and there's an immediate transformation, as the noise and bustle of Canada's largest city gives way to the library-like hush of the Great Hall. The station itself impresses in both its size and robust construction; opened in 1927, it is one of the finest examples in Canada of the Beaux Arts style – and a national historic site.

Union Station is officially the busiest passenger transportation facility in Canada. So why, three evenings a week, should it take on the reverential air of a cathedral? Because the railway is at the heart of the Canadian consciousness.

High above, inscribed in stone, are the names of towns and cities located along thousands of miles of track: Saskatoon, Churchill, Halifax, Ottawa, Saint John, Prince Rupert, Vancouver. The last-named city, on Canada's Pacific coast, is the main destination for British travellers experiencing a long-distance train trip that is considerably more comfortable than Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway.

The nation's first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific, was completed in 1885. It was an ambitious project, constructed over 2,781 miles of prairie and wilderness. What resulted from this massive engineering feat unified Canada and shaped the young country's future. The railway linked the frontier lands of the West with the more established Eastern provinces and opened new trade routes from the Pacific countries to Europe.

As in the US, competition on the roads and air transport brought the transcontinental passenger service to an end. To save the legacy, the CP was amalgamated with the nationalised Canadian National Railway to form VIA Rail. Now, three times a week, the Canadian departs from Union Station, running through the heart of the world's second-largest country.

The ideal overture for such a trip is a night in the Royal York right opposite Union Station, one of a string of railway hotels built by Canadian Pacific to accommodate rail passengers in the days before sleeping cars; this one, like its counterparts in Ottawa, Banff and Jasper has acquired the Fairmont prefix and an extra dash of elegance.

Next evening, you can step aboard the gleaming steel cars of the Canadian. I was in a "Sleeping Tourer" cabin, the all-inclusive class offering a choice of accommodation either of berths, or cabins with private facilities. I was soon snuggled beneath my duvet. Initially the rattling and juddering of the train was disconcerting, but my roommate had some good advice: "Just go with the movement and let it lure you to sleep."

During the night, the Canadian rumbled into the Canadian Shield, a vast area of bedrock covering more than two-fifths of the country, resulting from glaciation millions of years ago. This is a landscape of rock, forest and lakes: the single province of Ontario contains a quarter of the world's fresh water.

A century ago William Hand described it as "A land where nature started to say something and stuttered a thousand times, an extraordinary region where there is one small landscape constantly shifting." Next morning, I watched the same landscape stutter past from the comfort of the "Park Car" at the back of the train. This exclusive car is for use of Sleeping Tourer-class passengers only. It consists of a domed observation deck above the Mural Lounge (and bar), and the rounded-end Bullet Lounge, providing armchair seating from which to observe the wrap-around panorama, plus a window looking back down the track just travelled.

I was mesmerised by the snaking of the train around boulders, some higher than the train itself, through avenues of pine and along the banks of countless lakes; Ontario means "shining waters" in the language of the native people. In summer the water is a dazzling turquoise blue, undisturbed except for breezes whispering across the top and the occasional canoe slicing through the perfect waters. In winter the only signs of life are dog kennel-sized huts, set in the middle of a frozen lake, each covering a hole drilled in the ice and possibly housing a very cold fisherman waiting patiently for a catch.

With a bit of planning, you could hop off to talk to them: in VIA Rail's bid to make the journey as passenger-friendly as possible, the train will stop practically anywhere with 48 hours' notice. Yet while the expresses on the Trans-Siberian Railway are scheduled to pause at dozens of stations on their way across Russia, the Canadian has only eight planned stops between Toronto and Vancouver. In mid-afternoon we arrived at the first, Hornepayne, which gave us the chance to step off the train and take a close-up look at this silver capsule we were travelling in. The sparkling stainless steel cars were commissioned by Canadian Pacific from the Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia in 1955; more than half a century on, much restored and rejuvenated by VIA Rail, they are hauled across a continent up to 20 at a time by a pair of locomotives the size of houses.

Everyone in Sleeping Tourer – which, in the height of summer, can be as many as 250 passengers – eats in the dining cars. This gives the dining-car service coordinator, Janet Fletcher, logistical challenges as she oversees the team of chefs and dining attendants. But despite the time pressure, everything is just so: china, silverware, flowers and linen set the scene for a menu inspired by Canada's region and complemented by local wines. On the first full evening, Atlantic fish chowder, prime rib of slow-roasted beef and grilled rainbow trout were on the menu. Janet has worked on the train for 30 years: "It is a real privilege to show my country and the heritage of the train to Canadians and visitors from overseas."

Three changes in time zone from east to west provide the bonus of an extra hour to each day. I slept well, now accustomed to the sound and motion of the train, waking to marvel at the night sky, so littered with stars it was like looking at the darkness through a net curtain.

By the time the sun rose on day three, we had crossed into Manitoba – one of the three prairie provinces, the heartland of Canada. The landscape was as flat as a table-top, the horizon uninterrupted. Dawn bestowed a pink hue on the wheat in the fields. The occasional farm brought variety to the view, with barns and a grain elevator painted in primary colours.

"Look!" a voice called out. The first sighting of a car proved an unusual topic of discussion, exemplifying the splendid isolation we had enjoyed for the last 30 hours, followed shortly afterwards by a procession of electricity pylons announcing our imminent arrival in Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba.

Anyone suffering from cabin fever gets a break for up to four hours here. Thirty years ago, Winnipeg was voted "most boring city in the world" by Business Traveller magazine, but it has plenty of interest. You can reacquaint your legs with terra firma as you stroll along the banks of the Red or Assiniboine Rivers, and explore the Forks public market – a historic warehouse, stables and freight terminal transformed into a complex of restaurants, shops and cafés.

Back on board, I was fascinated by the way that my fellow passengers in the Bullet Lounge still seemed to have trouble settling to read their books, pages unturned in favour of the pleasure of staring out of the window. You would be forgiven for thinking that the unchallenging (yet strangely compelling) contours go on forever, but halfway across Alberta – about 60 hours into the trip – the quiet of the Park Car's domed observation deck was interrupted when a fellow passenger exclaimed "The Mountains!".

Across a long, flat carpet of pine and spruce, the snow-capped tips of the Miette Range of the Rockies hoisted themselves on to the horizon. Few could resist their first photo opportunity, and a clatter of shutters rippled through the observation deck.

Over lunch, the train rumbled along the banks of the Athabasca River into the heart of Jasper National Park. This is the largest of the four Rocky Mountain Parks, at 4,200 square miles – rather larger than Essex, and more scenic, too. The train pauses for 90 minutes at the town of Jasper, where the Jasper Park Lodge is the address of choice for passengers breaking their journeys: a collection of hunting lodges surrounded by lakes, rivers, and mountains.

At Jasper a locomotive engineer with the unusual name (especially for a man) of Tracy Klohn joined the train. We got talking. "I love the extremes, the seasons," he told me. "It's fabulous in the January snowstorms, just as much as at 6am coming east out of Kamloops in August."

His highlight of the trip coincided with the lowest point in this stretch of the Rockies: Yellowhead Pass, 3,718 feet above sea level, which also marks the boundary of Alberta and British Columbia.

On this stretch of the trip your head doesn't stop turning for the rest of the day, marvelling at the spectacular sights on offer: Moose Lake, four miles long and the starting point of the Fraser River which flows all the way to Vancouver; Mount Robson, the "Monarch of the Canadian Rockies" at almost 13,000 feet; bison and moose idly standing in a meadows watching us pass by; and further on Pyramid Falls – the water cascading close to the train, spraying the windows with glacial water.

When I woke on the final morning we were rumbling along the bank of the Fraser River, accompanied by great log rafts floating down to the mills.

The suburbs of Vancouver arrived rather too quickly for most of us. As we pulled into Pacific Central Station I asked Janet Fletcher what her abiding memory would be the day she gets off the train for the last time. "Travelling in this silver bullet, this moving home, where the world goes on around us. The passengers and the people I work with colour my life."

Traveller's guide

Getting there

Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly from Heathrow to Toronto and Vancouver. Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; canadianaffair.com) offers flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to Toronto and to Vancouver from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Getting across

Tickets for the Canadian are sold in the UK by 1st Rail (0845 644 3553; 1strail.com) and other agencies. A one-way westbound trip costs £775 to £1,269 (including meals).

Titan HiTours (0800 988 5823; titanhitours.co.uk) offers a range of trips on the Canadian. For example, a 13-day "Winter Rail Spectacular" starts at £2,195 per person, including an outbound flight to Toronto and inbound from Vancouver, transfers, two nights in Toronto, four nights' full board on the Canadian in a private room, two nights in Jasper, two nights in Victoria and one night in Vancouver.

On board

Cabins are furnished with armchairs that provide an alternative to the public spaces during the day; they are folded away during dinner to make room for the bunks. Each cabin has a private toilet and washbasin, and shared use of showers.

Staying there

Fairmont Royal York, 100 Front Street West, Toronto; Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Old Lodge Road,; Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 900 West Georgia Street. To book a Fairmont in the UK, dial 0845 071 0153 or visit fairmont.com.

More information

Canadian Tourism Commission: 0870 380 0070; canada.travel. For The Independent's latest 48 Hours guide to Toronto, see tiny.cc/dx6aq; for Vancouver, see tiny.cc/jl1gf.

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