Vancouver to Toronto by Train

The Vacation within a Vacation

One of our planned vacations this year was a trip to Collingwood Ontario for a small family reunion. JC (my partner) and I decided that we would take the train from Vancouver to Toronto and return by air. It would be, in effect, a vacation within a vacation.

During the summer, VIA Rail runs 2 cross-country trains per week in each direction. We chose a train leaving Vancouver on the evening of Friday, July 5 with a scheduled arrival in Toronto for the following Tuesday morning. Our package included the train ticket, accommodations in the form of a small sleeping room with barely enough room to turn around in (but providing privacy and a better sleep than a seat in coach), and three meals daily in the dining car.

Neither JC nor I are very good at the kind of vacation where you just sit at the beach doing nothing but soaking up some rays so there was some concern that we might get bored being confined to a handful of rail cars for four days. JC packed a large selection of books to read whereas I brought binoculars, camera and an iPad with my own reading material. My plan was to take pictures during the trip and to try my hand at starting a new nature/birding blog (the one that you are currently reading).

The plan did not go quite as expected. First, the only internet access to the outside world was through the 3G connections on our phones and tablets and this access was intermittent. On the last full day through Northern Ontario, for instance, we had no signal at all except for a few brief periods. Second, a moving train can provide a fairly bumpy ride making typing and editing challenging. Finally, the view from the train was compelling and we ended up spending a large part of our time watching the countryside go by and taking lots of pictures.

In the end, only 4 of 10 books were read and while we had hundreds of pictures the blog was little closer to getting off of the ground.

A note on the food

It was excellent! The continental breakfast was good and for Lunch and Dinner in the railcar provided choice including a vegetarian option for JC. Because of seating constraints, there were 3 separate 90-minute shifts for the two later meals.

A note on taking pictures from a moving train

Camera settings: A camera with image stabilization will help for the small train movements but probably not when the train is rockin’ and rollin’ at higher speeds. A high shutter speed may be your best friend when the train is moving at its fastest speeds. Passenger trains do seem to stop frequently to let freight trains pass and these stops can provide good opportunities for taking pictures without the train motion.

Choosing a seat: You might think that the observation cars with the raised viewing area would be a good place to get good shots but we didn’t find that this was always the case. First, the viewing cars are often crowded. Second, they have been constructed of sections of glass that have curves that distort the light. Finally, at least in the forward direction, the glass tends to gather a fair amount of ‘bug-splatter’ which can show up in the camera shots. Viewing from the side-windows in the cabins or some of the corridors is a good option though the windows are low down and you have to bend over or sit down to get a good view. If you want to watch both sides of the train, the dining car (if meals are not being served), and the breakfast/entertainment car provide seating with lots of windows. A final option that we discovered was found right in the sleeping cars. A pair side-by-side bench seats provided a view out both sides of the train and as these seats were frequently unused it was easy to move from one side of the train to the other as the view changed.

A note on birding from a moving train

I found bird-watching from a moving train to be tricky. When the train is moving it is as though you are being submitted to a continuous bell-ringer quiz in bird-identification – you get a few seconds to see and identify a bird and then it is gone. Trying to follow birds with binoculars falls somewhere between difficult and virtually impossible and trying to get a camera shot for subsequent identification is almost as challenging. An SLR camera with a full-sized sensor and a good burst mode might make the camera a useful tool if you just spam pictures into your memory card to be viewed later.

In the end, we found that the naked eye turned out to be the best method for bird watching and identification on the moving train. Of course, it helps if you recognize the birds on sight without having to go to an identification guide and even then some species will be all but impossible to identify reliably. For instance, identifying a male Yellow-headed Blackbird is easy. Telling a Common Tern from a Forster’s or a Common Goldeneye from a Barrow’s in areas where their ranges overlap may not be possible. The time of year is also important. With a single short look, you might be able to tell an Eared Grebe from a Horned Grebe when they are in their breeding plumage but in non-breeding plumage they will be hard to separate. Finally, knowing the ranges of each species can help.  For instance, a breeding scaup with chicks that is seen from the train while passing through Saskatchewan on the main CN line is probably a Lesser Scaup as the Greater Scaup breeds much farther North.


The two maps show different views of our trip.  The first map shows the trip in relation to provincial boundaries, rail lines, roads and towns.  The second section shows the trip in relation to the Canada’s Ecozones (see also: The Ecological Framework of Canada).

The highlighted portions represent (roughly) the parts of the day during which we were awake.

Vancouver to Toronto Map

Vancouver to Toronto Ecozones

The 6 ecozones passed through on the trip are, from left to right:

Day by Day Links

A more detailed account for each day of the trip along with our favourite pictures follows the subsequent posts listed below:

Day 1:  Sunset Departure
Day 2: Kamloops to Jasper
Day 3: Saskatchewan and Manitoba
Day 4: Northern Ontario
Day 5: End of the Road

Each day’s post has a link to the entire Flickr set of pictures for that day.

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