Exploring Canada by Train

By Dustin Manley

Over the past three years, I’ve traveled over 50,000km across Canada’s railway network. It’s given me an unprecedented opportunity to explore my country, forge lasting friendships, and build my business. I wouldn’t trade my time on the train for the world and--given Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation--I encourage more Canadians take to the rails to explore our beautiful country.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with trains. As a child, the instant that sweet cacophony of bells and whistles reached my ears, I’d run to the Brock and Bethune St. railway crossing waiting excitedly for the exhilarating high that only a 40-car CN freight train can deliver. I was a junkie for trains, but as the years went on and I got older, my passion began to wane. Fortunately, my love for the rails was rekindled years later with a golden ticket from VIA Rail.

While booking a train - to celebrate Canada’s 147th anniversary in Ottawa, a text ad for “Youth Summer Rail Pass” caught my eye. It seemed too good to be true: for $999 I could travel anywhere across Canada between July and August. Recognizing this as the opportunity of a lifetime, I went to Union Station to purchase my ticket the very next day. I was one of the first and among the few people in Canada to get the rail pass that year so it took three VIA employees and 20 minutes to process my ticket. Ironic, considering how all 1,867 Canada 150 Youth Passes sold out in less than two days this March.

That decision was a turning point in my life. The freshly printed white and yellow rail pass gave me unprecedented levels of freedom and opportunity.

So ticket in hand, I embarked on my first of many VIA Rail journeys, The Canadian: a four day, 4,466km train ride from Toronto to Vancouver.

The experience was phenomenal. The first morning I awoke to the gentle chugging of the engine and looked out the window to witness a moose and her calf grazing in the verdant muskeg of Northern Ontario. The following days I completed my master’s thesis in the glass domes of the panorama cars, surrounded by the endless sea of gold canola fields that are the prairies. The last leg of the journey was a path carved through the rapturous ranges and glistening rivers of the Rocky Mountains.

Throughout this trip, I met fascinating people from all walks of life, from Texas to Twillingate. I played euchre with a newlywed couple from Nanaimo, dined with farmers and park rangers from Saskatchewan, was serenaded by traveling musicians from Halifax, and was up until the wee hours of the morning in the Bullet Lounge solving all the world’s problems with a group of Newfoundlanders.

I rediscovered that same thrill I had as a child at the Gravenhurst train station, and I was hooked. I’ve kept a rail pass ever since.

The train gives me the perfect environment for productivity and reflection. The convenience of being able to access Canada’s major cities for business or leisure at any time is unmatched. While on the train my creativity is at its peak, allowing me to focus on my work and writing with clarity for hours uninterrupted. And if I ever need to take a moment for myself, I only need to look out the window and get lost in the scenery.    

Traveling across Canada through VIA Rail has given me a deep understanding of its vastness and diversity, helping me grow as an individual, professional, and Canadian. As Harold Innis wrote, Canada “emerged not in spite of its geography but because of it”.  With Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, there is no better way—or time—to experience Canada geography than by rail.

All photos by Dustin Manley. All rights reserved.