Why Travel by Train Rocks, Especially in Canada (Hint: It’s Relaxing and Green)

Skeena route through fall foliage

Got a hankering to see the continent, but short on time/funds/without wheels? Travel by train is a lower-impact, relaxed, and budget-conscious way to go, especially in Canada.

Serious travelers have likely logged time on the rails, be it  sleek, high-speed European or Japanese trains, or the clapped-out versions found throughout parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia.  Here in the states, unfortunately, long-distance rail travel can be time inefficient and pricey. 

In general, however, train travel  is a greener way to go. Recent freak accidents in Spain and Quebec notwithstanding, trains are statistically much safer and less expensive than driving (when you factor in gas and depreciation), and far more efficient if you’re not in a hurry. After all, you can nap, read, or work.

Personally, I just like to zone out and  stare out the window, taking in the  scenery. Having traveled by train on four continents, I’ve experienced the good, the bad, and the seriously fetid. So it’s with good authority that I say VIA Rail Canada—the country’s national passenger rail system—rocks. Another eco-plus: Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station is just a 20-minute ride from the Vancouver National Airport on the efficient Canada Line rapid transit system.

Skeena route along river
VIA recently underwent a $22 million dollar renovation and eco-consciousness is notably a part of their promotional campaign  (Canadians are impressively on the ball when it comes to green practices and ethics). Perhaps being an enormous country with a low population, fragile ecosystem, and massive foodshed is a good thing?

The VIA website addresses environmental issues and cites statistics, such as this: “Last year, 4 million VIA rail passengers traveled more than 851 million miles (1.37 billion kilometers)? Despite all these trips, they produced only 0.03% of greenhouse gas (GHG)  related to transportation, while motorists alone have produced 13% of GHG emissions.”

This isn’t to say that you should believe everything you read, but the fact that travel by train is environmentally cleaner than plane, car, or cruise ship is nothing new. I’ve always loved taking the train, so for me, VIA’s makeover was an excuse to go to British Columbia for a week, and travel two of the province’s most famous routes.

Sleeper car

The Canadian line runs from Vancouver to Toronto, but I chose to travel from Vancouver to Jasper (which is actually just over the border in Alberta), home of the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. Because the Canadian travels trans-provinces, it offers both Economy (which includes a sleeping berth) and Sleeper Plus class, which includes full-service dining, and by far the sweetest room I’ve ever seen on a train.

VIA isn’t the Orient Express, so don’t expect bells and whistles, but the cushy chairs fold down into a full bed with a duvet, and there’s a private bathroom; showers are shared. There were even functional electrical outlets (are you listening, Amtrak?), but Wi-Fi capability depends upon route; in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, forget about phone and internet…which I gladly did. In fact, I was so cozy in my room, I had to force myself out and into the glass-ceiled and -sided Dome and Panorama cars (access may depend upon route and travel class).

During daylight hours, if you’re lucky, you’ll have an engineer who slows the train for photo ops of stunning visuals, like the towering Pyramid Falls, visible only from the tracks en route to Jasper.

dining car
The 20-hour overnight journey offers distinctly beautiful scenery. There are jagged peaks, meadows of wildflowers, farmland dotted with bales of hay, and usually, loads of wildlife (I seemed to be napping or peeing every time someone saw a moose, Grizzly bear, or bald eagle, but they’re out there, I promise- there were plenty of animals in Jasper). You’ll see crystalline glacial lakes, and cruise alongside the milky jade waters of the Fraser River.

In Jasper, I boarded the famed Jasper-Prince Rupert line, formerly known as “The Skeena” because it follows the dramatic river of the same name. This two-day, 720-miles run heads west, going from the Rockies to the rugged Pacific Coast. There are no sleeper cars on this route; instead, the train stops overnight in the sleepy city of Prince George (recommendation: the stylish Sandman Signature Hotel).

Panorama car
While the first day has attractive, pastoral scenery, the second day is money. From the jagged, glacier-swathed peaks of the Coast Mountains to the misty sandbars of the swift, wide Skeena, it’s Canadian wilderness at its best.

Prince Rupert itself is a delightfully quirky little port, and a great place to kick it for a couple of days. The highlights of the region (besides the views of the Alaskan Coastal Range, just 40 tantalizing miles away) are the stellar humpback whale watching and grizzly viewing.  I took a six-hour round-trip boat ride up the Northern Inside Passage with the excellent, family-owned Prince Rupert Adventure Tours.

We watched humpbacks “lunge-feeding” just yards away from the boat, spotted porpoises and harbour seals, and watched bald eagles snatching fish scraps out of mid-air. The highlight of  the week, however, was seeing grizzly bears in the Khutzeymateen Valley.

Although completely wild, the bears live in a protected region known as a “sanctuary,” how close to shore the boats can get to the animals, which spend summers foraging onshore for dandelions, grass, and clams, depends upon their mood. Many of the passengers on the boat were the same folks I’d spent the last two days riding the rails with. It had been a running joke amongst us  that we’d ask for a refund if we didn’t see any whales or bears on our trip. It turns out that traveling to the edge of the continent is worth every cent.

All images: VIA Rail Canada

Related on EcoSalon :

10 Things to Love About Rail Travel

7 Lessons from Canada’s Environmental Pragmatism

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