Riding in a winter wonderland on the Snow Train

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I hardly consider myself a train buff. Other than taking a few city-to-city rail jaunts in Europe and an occasional commuter haul out of central New Jersey, I'll opt for a plane, car or cruise ship any day. Recently, however, I was a happy-go-lucky passenger on a segment of the Snow Train to Jasper, a transcontinental Via Rail itinerary that connects Canada's eastern and western coasts with the cold-weather glories of Jasper National Park in Alberta.

If U.S. train trips were more like this one, Amtrak might not operate at a loss.

The Snow Train, it turns out, is a particularly marketable segment of what Via Rail calls its Canadian Service, which links Toronto and Vancouver with Jasper Station, which is located at the northern end of Jasper National Park, at the nexus of the Athabasca and Miette rivers.

A journey from Toronto to Jasper is completed in an effortless two days, seven hours and 15 minutes, and includes 38 picturesque stops (passengers can book by segment and board and disembark at any stop). This east-to-west leg of the Snow Train includes short layovers in Sioux Lookout, a fishing and canoeing center; Winnipeg, Manitoba, once a fur-trading hub and now a modern city; the inaptly named Biggar (pop. 2,400), whose slogan is "New York is big, but this is Biggar"; and the thriving metropolis of Edmonton, Alberta.

Premium service on the Snow Train to Jasper is provided in the Silver and Blue Class option, which entitled my wife and I to share a just-roomy-enough double bedroom, one of three traveling options that also include single bedrooms and berths (upper and lower).

The double, which is a veritable box measuring just over 7 feet on each side, constitutes a private room for two by day, with armchairs, a large picture window through which to enjoy the spectacular, wintry tableaux of frost-tipped pine and snow-capped mountains, a small closet, a hand basin and an enclosed toilet. A vanity and foldout table converts into upper and lower berths.

But make no mistake about it. Even two people who continue to love each other through thick and thin found the accommodations confining after a few daylight hours together and often chose to single-file their way through the train to the relative freedom of the Park and Skyline cars, rolling stock perks exclusive to Silver and Blue passengers.

The Park Car, on the tail end of the Snow Train, is a great place to take in the passing scenery, with its armchairs, available refreshments, observation dome and 360-degree wraparound windows.

The Skyline Car, which also has an observation dome, is something of an activity center, with games, videos, refreshments and a book exchange. An activities director runs the show.

It should not be surprising that life aboard a long-distance rail trip centers about the dining car. Three meals a day offer a lively and reliable break when ennui threatens in such a captive environment.

It somehow seems unimportant then that many of the elegantly named dishes served by our waiter sounded better on the menu than they tasted because the romance of "dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer" is a truism that transcends a chewy steak or listless slice of pie.

Meals are included in the Silver and Blue service, which is being discounted by up to 37% through the end of May. For example, a double bedroom for the trip from Toronto to Vancouver, with a multiday stopover that could include Jasper, is available for $798 when purchased at least five days in advance.

Packages are available from Via Rail and tour operators such as Cartan Tours, John Steel Rail Tours, Fresh Tracks Canada, Exclusively Canada, Brewster Tours and Anderson Tours.

For more information, go to www.viarail.ca/packages.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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