Riding the Rails in Canada's West

Riding the Rails in Canada's West

Posted on July 26 by Ron Brown
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In 1988 VIA Rail launched an all-daylight tour train known as the Rocky Mountaineer between Jasper and Vancouver, giving riders unequalled views of Canada’s most stunning mountain scenery.

But in 1990, when Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government slashed VIA’s routes by half, the Mountaineer was sold to the Great Canadian Rail Tour Company. Today the railway offers four scenic all-daylight routes through mountain passes and along the steep canyon walls of Canada’s western mountain ranges.

“First Passage to the West” traces the CPR’s historic route through Banff and Lake Louise on its way to Vancouver. “Rainforest to the Gold Rush” follows BC’s fabled gold rush trail of the 1850s, while “Journey Through the Clouds” makes its way through the mountains to Jasper. Two levels of luxury service, the Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf, offer dome cars and fine dining. It is ranked today as one of the world’s top rail journeys

But VIA Rail hasn’t totally abandoned its scenic opportunities. The legendary chrome coaches of the Canadian (launched originally by the CPR in 1965) make their scenic way though mountains passes down the Fraser Canyon to Vancouver as part of its cross-country trip, although portions operate through the night hours. The all-daylight Skeena (now Train 5/6) chugs west from Jasper stopping at heritage railway stations in Smithers and McBride en route to Prince Rupert, stopping overnight in Prince George.

The mountains also offer some shorter rail adventures The popular Kettle Valley Steam Railway carries train lovers behind the historic steam locomotive 3716 encountering, on its pastoral route overlooking the Okanagan Valley, the high level trestle above the Trout Creek Canyon at Summerland, BC, and perhaps even a train robber or two. And while it is not promoted as a tour train, the Seton Lake Indian Band–run Kaoham Shuttle links the gold rush town of Lillooet with First Nations communities of Seton Portage and Shalalth. This three-hour journey hugs the stunning cliff-lined shores of Seton Lake.

So “all aboard” for Canada’s mountain train excursions, be it for a few hours or a few days, to experience some of North America’s most stunning railside scenery. 

Ron Brown

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014
Ron Brown photo

Ron Brown

Ron Brown is a geographer and heritage writer. He has authored more than twenty books, including Rails Over the Mountains and The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. A past chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, he also conducts tours along Ontario’s back roads. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.