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The Canadian

Union Station in Toronto is happily just a snowy stroll across the street from the Fairmont Royal York Hotel (where QEII and Phil the Greek stayed during their 2002 State Visit). I'd checked the dining options, but lucked into the lovely Library Bar, and tucked into half a dozen Prince Edward Island oysters (superb), and a bowl of butter chicken - just the ticket - washed down with a glass of Niagara riesling.

Back in the Via Canada lounge, I watched CNN and the torture of Donald Trump trumpeting his usual garbage one-liners before introducing the tea-party nutbag-of-the-north, Sarah Palin, who'd decided to ditch Cruz (whom she'd previously endorsed), in favour of The Don in his bid for the White House. Her endorsement speech was full of fawning, factless platitudes and sweeping generalisations about 'tha conmy', 'tha Evil I-rainyans', peppered with 'praise the Lord' and 'Hallelujah'.

Oh, because guns are a citizens' rights, the Perris slaughter would never have happened if the kids at the concert were allowed to carry guns - they would have gunned down the terrorists immediately. One assumes a 'speech' of such crazed drivel qualifies her to be VP of 'tha greatest country on Earth'. Be very afraid.

The Canadian had arrived into Toronto eight hours late, so it was no surprise that our departure was delayed by 45 minutes, but I settled into my sleeper-plus cabin (the 'plus' being a nice dunny and hand basin) - perfectly fine for one, but it would be squeezy for two (especially with the top bunk and ladder enabled). But if you have the money, the Premium suites are grand for two.

Time to start on the 2885mile rail trip to Vancouver.

Daybreak, and we're on the Canadian Shield and travelling through a Christmas card - fabulous conifer and birch forests laden with snow; the rivers and lakes totally frozen over, with pretty snow flurries. The last carriage on the train is a recently refurbished Park Car, and the front seat of the upstairs glass domed car is a perfect place to warmly while away a lazy day through a frozen landscape of spectacular beauty.

The train stops frequently to allow passage of the transcontinental freight trains, which can stretch for kilometres. By 3pm we've reached Hornepayne, nearly 600 miles from Toronto. Even in the wilds of Canada, graffiti appears. A tiny maintenance hut by the railway line is defaced with 'I want penises'.

As one of the great railway journeys of the world, I'd have thought that it would be a once-only trip of a lifetime, but many of the passengers classify as regulars. Bill lives in Boston and has done the trip 11 times. Ron (89) brought his great-nephew Jeremy and his wife Lauren on their first trip, but this is his fifteenth! As a newcomer, I'm in the same league as Geoff and Glenda, farmers from Kununurra and Alan, a funny, gay psychotherapist from Minneapolis who's husband Bob is in Venice visiting his sister. All in all they're a great mob, and heaps of fun.

Freight trains have priority throughout the journey (it's single track with regular sidings). In summer they can run to hundreds of carriages (Peter, our service manager, counted 320 on one trip, taking twenty minutes to pass), so there can be long delays, but the signalling system of clever. The track is divided into blocks, each three to six miles long (taking into account the trains' braking distance). A green light means the next two blocks (minimum) are clear, yellow - the next block is clear to enter but the train must stop at the next block (where it will get a red signal). Sometimes it's a matter of only thirty seconds after The Canadian has pulled into a siding before a freight train comes barrelling through.

Our train only has 14 carriages (in summer it has about 25-35), is 300m long and weighs in at 880 (imperial) tons. It was bought from Canadian Pacific and the carriages are the 1930's original, attractive, hand-built steel models. And the beds are comfy too (unlike the narrow, lumpy, vertiginous palliasses on the Orient Express). The Canadian is a loss-making enterprise. But it continues to exist courtesy of an historical anomaly. In the nineteenth century, the US mounted an effort to annex British Columbia. To foil them, the British/Canadians promised to provide a transcontinental train service to British Columbia in perpetuity. Lucky us.

Winnipeg, and it's 12C. I went for a quick stroll, but the snow flurries had me back in the train inside the hour, although apparently it's a nice little city if you give it half a chance. Leaving Winnipeg, and suddenly we're on the prairies. Flat as a shitcarter's hat; a total 360' sea of whitescape. Superb. And the stands of birch are all feathery, sparkly, silver-white with hoar frost.

They have a saying in Saskatchewan "when your dog runs away, you can see it for two weeks!"

The crew changes at Winnipeg, and late afternoon, passing the massive potash mines and their mountainous slag heaps, we had another hilarious wine tasting. The train only carries Canadian wine - whites from Ontario and reds fro British Columbia - and very quaffable they are too. And the food on board is perfectly fine, if a tad limited in the gluten-free department. But that's a minor issue in the scheme of the Canadian being a perfectly delightful, civilised way to cross the continent.

By bedtime (after another party-evening with our dozen-plus mob of reprobates), we're headed into Saskatoon, and by morning, Edmonton, for just a brief stop, before the Rockies. The eastern slopes are in a rain/snow shadow, so the forests were barely frosted. We spotted a couple of coyotes and a few mule deer, but lucked out in the wolf department. We parallelled the Trans-Canadian and the Athabasca River up to Jasper, with stunning scenery all the way, including the frozen river and lakes (and a couple of massive timber/paper mills.

Jasper is an OK mountain town, a bit slushy underfoot at this time of year, so we were happy to get back to the glorious vistas of railing through the Rockies for the afternoon. Those who stayed up into the early hours said views during the moonlit passage across the Rockies and down into the Fraser River valley (aka the great earthquake fault line), with a near full moon, were spiffing. Damn.

Put The Canadian, Toronto-Vancouver, in winter (for mine) on your bucket list. Bloody marvellous.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

(Oh, and if you know any women or men who are searching for a mate, it seems there's a whole resource of very nice men of both persuasions who spend their leisure on brilliant train trips around the world -

who knew?)

January 2016

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