I n an early scene in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the characters sweep through the Istanbul station toward the storied sleeper. The platform at Toronto’s Union Station isn’t quite as vibrant this early May morning—there’s no sense of being in a teeming bazaar, no provisions being inspected by a chef at the dining car, not one goat—but there’s still an air of anticipation as we embark on the Canadian. The gleaming stainless steel cars and the signature domes hint at the adventure ahead. As an ad for the trip promises, we’re going to “glide through gentle prairie fields, rugged lake country and picturesque towns to the snowy peaks of the majestic Rockies.”
Not on the route through those majestic Rockies is Craigellachie, BC. One of Canada’s origin stories is the driving of the Last Spike there in 1885, symbolizing the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway transcontinental system. In his bestseller The National Dream, popular historian Pierre Berton described this endeavour as “the dawn of a new Canada.” The thing is, use of the tracks that run through Craigellachie was ceded to a luxury excursion operator, Rocky Mountaineer (“Truly Moving Train Journeys”), more than three decades ago. Since then, the Canadian has exclusively taken the arguably less dramatic—and less historic—Edmonton–Jasper route.
Declining service is certainly a through line in the Canadian’s story. When it was launched by CP in 1955, it ran each way daily, as did its competitor, Canadian National Railway Company’s Super Continental. Today, Via Rail, the Crown corporation that was incorporated in 1977, is the boss, and there’s just the Canadian, which is down to two trips a week. When the train was introduced, the Toronto–Vancouver journey took three nights; now it’s four. Though the revised schedule offers more hours in the Rockies during daylight if you’re going east to west, the principal reason is that freight trains get priority on the tracks, so a lot of that extra time is spent sitting on sidings.