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Destination enough: riding across Canada

Scenery, service even better than the railway deals

Passengers on a Via Rail train bound from Toronto to Jasper National Park in Alberta get fresh air at a brief stop in Ontario. Passengers on a Via Rail train bound from Toronto to Jasper National Park in Alberta get fresh air at a brief stop in Ontario. (Stephen Robert Morse for The Boston Globe)
By Stephen Robert Morse
Globe Correspondent / December 12, 2010

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Paul Theroux opened “The Great Railway Bazaar’’ with: “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.’’ Had I been born 40 years earlier, I swear I would have written that first.

At 25, I still get giddy at the sight of a train shooting down the tracks. But most railway journeys I have taken have been disappointments, lacking the romanticism that Theroux encountered.

So it was with trepidation that I turned to Via Rail, Canada’s national passenger railway system, when I needed to get from Montreal to British Columbia. I couldn’t resist the deal: Toronto to Jasper National Park at 75 percent off. I booked a private cabin for a three-day, three-night trip that would set me back $385 plus $50 in tax. (The entire coast-to-coast trip from Halifax to Vancouver, with switchovers in Montreal and Toronto, takes five nights.)

When I reached the front of the line to board the Canadian, a husky man with salt-and-pepper hair and a thick Van Dyke beard was fiddling with the volume on his walkie-talkie. With cheerful authority, he instructed, “Another 60th wedding anniversary. I’ll need a bottle of champagne sent to the Blakes’ room. B-L-A-K-E. In 22.’’

This was Ivan Zenchuk, the train’s service manager, or head honcho. When I asked about getting a tour of the train, he replied, “I’m on duty until 4 a.m., so knock any time after 10 a.m. tomorrow. Now head on over to Vern and he’ll get your meals straightened out.’’

Vern, the dining room manager, enticed me with descriptions of succulent duck, prime rib, and other dishes that would be served over the next 72 hours.

Soon, with Toronto’s CN Tower behind us, the city lights disappeared and I headed to the Park Car, which offers a panoramic view. An older woman introduced herself as Norma Blake, a name I recognized as the 60th anniversary celebrant. After some “welcome aboard’’ champagne, I retired for the night.

The next morning, Zenchuk held court over the observation deck, dispensing information about the train and route before going off to inspect the other 21 cars in his mobile kingdom.

He wouldn’t reveal his age, but it was clear he was nearing retirement at 55. He has worked many of Via Rail’s routes and claimed he loves them all. And he loves the Via Rail family, which he likened to his own.

I asked Zenchuk why he was so much happier than his counterparts at Amtrak. “For them, it’s a job,’’ he said. “For us, it’s a lifestyle. We choose to be here. The turnover here is very low. You get the same people coming back year after year.’’

The next morning we pulled into Winnipeg early. Aside from the cranes circling a large concrete slab that will become the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (the country’s first national museum outside of Ottawa), the skyline looked dull. I set out for the Exchange District, a collection of 150 historical buildings that are relics of the Wild West. Dozens of period films have been shot there in recent years, including “Capote’’ and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.’’

On this Saturday morning, the streets were empty. The only noise came from a 15-story, turn-of-the-century building that was being demolished. After I took photos for a couple of hours I headed to the Forks Market. Aboriginal traders met here for thousands of years, but it’s now just a food court with 25 ethnic cuisines on tap.

When I reboarded, Zenchuk and the rest of the crew were gone, replaced by others.

Eventually we reached Saskatchewan and I dashed to the Skyline car to catch the sunset.

On my final morning we reached the Rockies. The second I stepped off the train into the cold mountain air, I wanted to hop back on board. It felt good to use my legs again, but not staying onboard until Vancouver made me instantly sentimental.

I’m already planning my next trip. Will it be the return ticket from Vancouver to Toronto? Maybe I’ll conquer the east from Montreal to Halifax. Or risk a case of hypothermia to visit Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world, on the route up north from Winnipeg? Wherever I go, I hope Zenchuk will be leading the journey.

Stephen Robert Morse can be reached at stephenrmorse@gmail.com.

If You Go

VIA Rail Canada
VIA Express Deals are found only on the Internet at www.viarail.ca/en/deals Deals are usually updated on Thursday mornings (at no specific or regular time) and are not available over the phone.