Taking on the Greta challenge with two kids in tow- the Canadian way

Last year was a landmark year in global citizen-lead climate action, mostly powered by the youth including Greta Thunberg. And, it inspired millions of us to march and act. For me, her voyage across the Atlantic in a solar- and wind-powered yacht to avoid flying was the catalyst. It really got me thinking about my trips, specifically my vacations. For some time before having kids, getting away in the winter to a warmer place for a couple of weeks was “our thing.” Inevitably, it involved flying. This time it was going to be different and I had the means to make it happen. I had accrued a good chunk of vacation time at work which facilitated my decision making. I was going to vacation in Vancouver this year, and I was going to get there by train – the Canadian. And, with my two elementary school children in tow!

For those who don’t know (although I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people consider the Canadian a trip of a lifetime), the Canadian is a transcontinental passenger train that runs between Toronto and Vancouver. It is a four-day, four-night trip with stops in Sudbury, Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, Kamloops and, finally, Vancouver. In the process, it covers nearly 4500 km. You can travel in any of the three classes, Economy, Sleeper Plus and Prestige. This last bit was where my planning started.

Planning

Given that I had a limited budget, I had to go with the economy class. For the three of us, it cost us about $2000 round trip. Rather remarkable given the distance covered! The next “cheapest” option on the Canadian would have cost thousands of dollars more. So, much to the consternation and anger of some of my family members (why is he doing this? Does he expect everyone to do this?), I bought our tickets. The next problem to tackle was the sleeping arrangements, particularly for my kids. On the advice of some friends, I bought two inflatable EZ beds from Canadian Tire which I thought I could lay on the floor for my kids. After this, where to stay and what to pack were easy decisions.

Chugging along. The journey.

The good, the bad, the ugly.

The good

There is so much to love about the Canadian. We got to see our great country from Toronto to the west. The view is unbeatable and, at times, mesmerizing and breathtaking. I loved perching myself on one of the seats in the glass dome of the train to watch snow-covered forests, villages, towns and cities whiz by or to snap pictures of a lifetime when the train stopped by a frozen lake or in awesome Jasper. On our return trip, as we rumbled through Saskatchewan, I felt transported to another time riding in steel dome cars that were built decades ago.

And then there were the relatively unplugged days (there is not wi-fi on the Canadian) when I spent time enjoying simple activities with my family, interacting with complete strangers and watching the beautiful country one field, village, forest, river, lake or town at a time. Passing the time on a four-day trip turned out to be unexpectedly easy and fun (and with minimal screen time!). We watched only a fraction of the shows we had downloaded, and I often wondered where the day went.

The company on trains is unbeatable – there are people of many cultures, countries and from many walks of life. And, since we were lucky enough to be on a train with families going home for Christmas, my kids played with other similar-aged First Nations, African-Canadian and Caucasian kids all day for a couple of days until it was time for other kids to hop off. And, as I got to know the adults on the trains, I had hours and hours of conversations on everything ranging from the environment, climate change, politics and the economy. 

The relatively inexpensive food in the economy section is surprisingly good, but did depend on the chef, and the menu is limited and unchanging. The mornings always started with fresh pancakes for the kids and a Chef’s omelette for me. The evening meals were tasty with fresh salad. My only gripe was that while meals were served in compostable containers, the containers ended up in the trash because recycling (apart from soda cans) and composting mechanisms don’t exist on the Canadian. The food in the sleeper plus class is something else. À la carte meals, which are included, were delicious and elegantly served.

And, the crew is sooo friendly (match that, airlines!). When we were stranded in Sudbury for a day, the crew made the ordeal so much more bearable. They always had a smile on their face despite the delays and false starts.

If you can afford a sleeper plus, sleeping accommodations are very comfortable. We had an opportunity to switch to sleeper class for the last two nights. After two nights of so-so sleep in economy class, it was heaven! But sleep is a good place to start to talk about “the bad.”

The bad

In economy class, sleeping is little fun even for the somewhat-prepared. Our air mattresses, which rested on the seats and the large suitcase in between the seats, lasted one and two days each before they sprung a leak. They still held some air which gave us some sleep. On the way back, I ditched the air mattresses, fashioned a cheap table/mattresses support and bought a two-inch thick Thai mattress. It was an adequate alternative but not very comfortable, for me at least; the kids seemed to do fine.

Unfortunately, delays appear to be the way of long-haul passenger trains. Since the tracks are owned by CN, freight trains get priority, and frequently passenger trains must wait for freight trains to pass. For an unrelated reason, our train from Toronto to Vancouver was delayed by 24 hours. This, however, I was told is unusual. I still say it seems to be a way of life in train travel because our five-hour train, the Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver, was also delayed by an hour. However, on our way back to Toronto, our train was only delayed by a couple of hours, which is quite good considering it is a four-day, four-night journey. The delays did not impact us much. But, for others it meant losing out on limited valuable holiday time with family.

The ugly

I loath to mention this because I met so many amazing people on the train, but I would be remiss if I didn’t. On our trip back, a passenger was arrested with a stolen credit card, and there was a woman with a mental illness that needed to be escorted out. But the incidents were dealt with promptly and professionally by the crew.

All in all, it was a journey of a lifetime, one rich with fond memories of breathtaking views, long conversations, new friendships, laughing and playing children, and good food. I don’t know if we ended up reducing the carbon footprint of our trip by taking to the rails instead of the skies, but if it did it would be a secondary benefit.

For potential cross-country travelers…

For potential cross-country train travelers, I would suggest doing a multi-stop trip where you would get off at some stops and spend a couple of days there. It would be cheaper than the Sleeper plus fare. Or, snag Sleeper plus tickets when they go on sale. I, personally, would choose the former, because the companionship of fellow-economy-class travelers is unbeatable — if you can stomach the occasional hiccups. 

Semi-deep thoughts related to my trip…

I have been reading a lot about how much we need system change to address climate change and how we need to get away from focusing on individuals. So, I have resolved to refrain from giving my friends and family a hard time about non-sustainable choices. And, someday, I would still want to go on my dream trip to Africa. So, I do not expect others to give up flying given the system with limited alternative modes of long-distance transportation, but if you are inclined to do that and have the time, train travel cannot be beat.

Also, Canada and Viarail needs to invest more on railways as others have said. They need to be faster, more affordable (at least the Sleeper plus class), and more family friendly.

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