Across Ontario by Train

Union Station Departure Board
The last two trains of the night departing Toronto’s Union Station. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

My father and I arrived in Toronto the afternoon of Tuesday, October 14, 2014 ahead of our scheduled departure on the westbound Canadian at 10:00pm that night.  We spent the afternoon visiting the Toronto Islands and the CN Tower.  It was starting to rain as we walked back to Union Station from the CN Tower around 8pm.  I picked up my duffle bag, which the baggage room had been holding onto since lunchtime.

Sleeping car passengers are able to pass the time waiting to board at a lounge off the concourse.  The lounge is comparable to what Amtrak offers its sleeping car and business class passengers at major stations like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC, although the amenities are basic in comparison with a lot of airport lounges.  There are complimentary magazines, juice, soda, and Wi-Fi.  I was surprised to see Canada Dry prominent among the beverages offered.  I’d cynically assumed it was about as Canadian as Mountain Dew is mountainous.  As it turns out, Canada Dry was indeed created by a Canadian, John J. McLaughlin.

Lounge in Toronto Union Station

Via began boarding the Canadian around 9:30pm on platform 16.  Ours was the last westbound Canadian of the year comprised of the longer summer consist, in this case 2 locomotives and 19 cars.  In the winter, trains are about half that length.

The Canadian at Toronto Union Station

Leading the train were two EMD F40 diesel locomotives followed by a baggage car, two coaches, a Skyline dome/activity car, Dining Car A, another Skyline, 7 sleeping cars, Skyline, Dining Car B, 3 more sleepers, and finally the Park car, named “Evangeline Park.”  Other trains I’d been on had one or two lounge cars (if any), whereas the Canadian had four cars with domes!

14 Park Car
“Bullet lounge” at the end of the Park car seen prior to departure at Union Station

Our sleeper, car #112 (“Elgin Manor”) was about halfway back.  There were a lot of empty rooms and none of the other berths in the “sections” were occupied.  Once I’d stowed my duffel bag, my father and I headed to the Park car at the end of the train and snatched seats in the front of the dome.  We were greeted by an attendant who served hors d’oeuvres as the train got underway with an on-time departure at 10pm.  The CN Tower was visible through the top of the rain-slicked dome immediately after departure.

CN Tower Departure
CN Tower seen through the top of the dome

I retired to my berth soon after departure and slept relatively well.  The berth’s curtains do provide privacy from foot traffic, though I woke up a few times because of the bumpy ride.  Dad says the ride in Canada isn’t as smooth as some places because, with all the freezing and thawing, the rails tend to sag a bit.

Minisinakwa Lake near the town of Gogama during a gloomy morning in the Canadian Shield.  My GPS module came in handy for identifying what I’d captured in photographs once I returned home.

I awoke the next morning to find the train traveling through the largely undeveloped Canadian Shield.  It was still rainy and gloomy.  I only took a handful of photos before lunch, of which I deleted all but two.  The rock here is some of the oldest on Earth and the terrain is dotted with lakes and marshes.  The deciduous trees in the forest had bright yellow leaves; some with white bark must have been birch or aspen.  The big surprise was tamarack (larch), a deciduous conifer (!) that turns bright yellow in the fall.

I joined my father for a breakfast of pumpkin pancakes in the dining car.  After breakfast I headed back to my berth for a nap.  I hadn’t slept well in the days leading up to the trip and was still playing catch-up.  After I awoke from my nap, I reached underneath my berth for my duffel while laying on my back and somehow pulled a muscle in my upper back.  A sharp, excruciating pain immediately radiated to my neck.  The injury took days to heal.  It seemed like a freak event, but allow me to recommend that anyone traveling in the berths on the Canadian get their belongings by bending down from the corridor rather than twisting backward from a supine position like I did!

3 The Canadian
The Canadian passing through the Canadian Shield in Chapleau-Nemegosenda River Provincial Park near Elsas

Around 1:40pm the clouds cleared up.  The sunshine really lit the forest into a brilliant yellow.  The view from the Skyline dome was almost good enough to make me forget my neck pain!  It was mile after mile of beautiful forests, ponds (some hosting beaver lodges), and rivers.

Glittering water on Kapuskasing Lake near Elsas

Tamarack 2

Photography on the Canadian was actually rather difficult.  I usually shoot in shutter priority on the train so I can keep a shutter speed of at least 1/400 if conditions allow.  It’s easy to get blurry pictures otherwise, given that there is movement in multiple forms: the train’s movement forward and back, the jostling of the train car as it moves, and shake from the photographer’s hands.  When subjects were close, I panned with the key subject as I photographed.  In a lot of cases though, it wasn’t quite enough.  A lot of pictures have a strange distortion in a portion of the frame.  It wasn’t blur, but rather distortion, like an oily smudge.  I’m careful to avoid shooting through fingerprints (a microfiber cloth helps with that).  I get the impression that the distortion is caused by the curvature of the dome or some other peculiarity of shooting through railroad glass.  It wasn’t really evident to the naked eye but tended to show up in photos, especially when zoomed in.

The tree at left is blurry due to motion blur, as I panned with the yellow tamarack.  Unfortunately, other images were damaged by a peculiarity of shooting through railroad glass, as is somewhat evident at the top of the tamarack.

I had a similar problem in the Pacific Parlour car on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.  I found that distortion was somewhat less likely when shooting out the ends of the dome (towards the front or rear of the train).  It was also less prevalent in shots taken from flatter windows like the ones at my seat.  Since I considered the view more important than taking photographs, I still spent most of my free time in the domes when space allowed.  I managed to salvage some shots that would have otherwise been ruined by cropping, like the one below.  The stand of tamarack was even more impressive in the original shot, the blurry area notwithstanding.

Tamarack (or larch), a deciduous conifer found in the Canadian Shield
Pond near Dishnish
Upper level domes on the Park and Skyline cars are among the best places to sit on the Canadian

The CN line is a single track, so at intervals we had to pull into sidings to let eastbound freight trains pass.  However, we never fell more than two hours behind schedule.  That was actually surprisingly good performance, since my father said that despite padding built into the schedule for this very sort of thing, the Canadian had been running as much as five to seven hours behind schedule recently.

The Canadian at Hornepayne

Around 4pm we arrived in Hornepayne, a well worn town of about 1,000 people in central Ontario.  We had a chance to stretch our legs for about ten minutes.  With that little time, I wouldn’t have dared leave the platform lest I be marooned for the next four days.  My father, however, confidently strolled into town and returned with a bottle of naproxen to treat my neck pain.


After departing Hornepayne, there was a complimentary wine tasting in one of the Skyline cars.  They made a challenge of it by asking passengers to guess which wine they were drinking (three wines, six possible choices).

Trackside vegetation.jpg
Trackside vegetation as seen from a siding near Hillsport

Close to sunset, we passed through Greenstone, a town made of several communities that include flag stops for the Canadian: Caramat, Longlac, and Nakina.  We sat down to dinner after passing through Caramat.

Cabin in Caramat

Dinner was chicken with rice and string beans, and I had to admit that my father was right about Via’s food being way better than Amtrak’s.  Around 6:51pm, while passing through Longlac, I caught sight of a white church standing sentinel on the shores of Long Lake.  I snapped a shot which would have been quite nice except for all the obstructing wires.  (I prefer to limit my Photoshopping to color correction and cropping, as there seems to be something dishonest about extensive editing.)


As the name implies, Long Lake is indeed quite long.  It seems, however, that Canadians have grown bored with coming up with unique names for all their lakes, seeing as there are 65 Long Lakes in Ontario alone!  It’s not like there aren’t synonyms that would have let them come up with different names (i.e. Lengthy Lake, Lake of Ludicrous Length).  Alternatively, I would be happy to help them reduce confusion by renaming one of them Lowell’s Long Lake.

A few hours after dinner, the train crew announced we would be switching from Eastern Time to Central Time even though we were still in Ontario.  I don’t think I appreciated just how big the province of Ontario was before this trip.  We’d been traveling for almost a full 24 hours and had yet to leave its boundaries.  In fact, the Canadian takes almost 31 hours (if on schedule) to reach the neighboring province of Manitoba just before 5am during second night of the trip.  Ontario covers over 1,000,000 square km, a greater area than every US state except Alaska.  Assuming Wikipedia’s numbers are accurate, if Ontario were its own country, it would be the 28th largest by area in the world.

That night, I found that although sleeping on a rocking train is difficult to begin with, sleeping with an injured neck is especially unpleasant.  On the plus side, it ensured I was up bright and early to see one of the most spectacular sunrises of the trip.

Series on Via Rail Canada’s Canadian

Introduction to Via Rail’s Canadian

Night of Departure and Day One (Across Ontario by Train)

Day Two (Three Hours at The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba)

Day Two (Across the Prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan)

Day Three (Across Alberta by Train: Edmonton to Jasper)

Day Three—journey resumed after stopover in Canadian Rockies—and Day Four (Across British Columbia by Train: Jasper (Alberta) to Vancouver)


4 thoughts on “Across Ontario by Train

  1. Dad: A good summary of my favorite train

    Well the rails don’t really bend from the cold. The supporting subgrade freezes and thaws making it difficult to keep the track in perfect alignment. The CN maintains the track so it’s safe but doesn’t spend the money on surfacing that say Amtrak does in the Northeast.

    As Lowell says the faster the shutter speed the better but also use as little zoom as possible (in fact wide angle is best to minimize movement)

    Sleeping on a train is funny. I sleep much better since deciding one night I was going to be exhausted and stopped worrying. The Cabins for two (nee Bedrooms) on the Canadian are my favorites. The rooms are in the center of the car which minimizes the noise and vibration. The beds are also across rather than the length of the car. There are two distinct schools of thought as to which is better for sleeping, transverse or longitudinal. I’m in the transverse camp.


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