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Chicago to Alaska: Rail & Sail Adventure

Chicago to Alaska Rail & Sail Adventure (Part 3 of 4)

Chicago - Syracuse - Toronto - Jasper - Prince Rupert - Sitka

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: December 1, 2017

The above map shows our "Rail & Sail" journey that we took from Chicago, Illinois to Sitka, Alaska between September 9-18, 2017. Red marks the Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" route we took from Chicago to Syracuse, New York; orange marks the Amtrak/VIA "Maple Leaf" route we took from Syracuse to Toronto, Ontario; yellow marks the VIA "Canadian" route from Toronto to Jasper, Alberta; green marks the VIA "Skeena" route from Jasper to Prince Rupert, British Columbia; and, finally, blue marks the route of the Alaska State Ferry we took Prince Rupert to Sitka, Alaska.

This article will be presented in the following four parts:

../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska12017.jpg Part One: Chicago to Toronto (Will be uploaded on November 1, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska22017.jpg Part Two: Toronto to Jasper (Will be uploaded on November 15, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska32017.jpg Part Three: Jasper to Prince Rupert (Will be uploaded on December 1, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska42017.jpg Part Four: Prince Rupert to Sitka (Will be uploaded on December 15, 2017)

We hope you enjoyed the first and second parts of this series of four articles that covers a recent trip we did between Chicago, Syracuse, Toronto, Jasper, Prince Rupert, and up to Alaska. If you haven't read the first two parts of this article yet, you may wish to before proceeding with the third part. Links to all four parts of the article are above.  Part one deals with our ride from Chicago to Syracuse, New York on the Lake Shore Limited and from Syracuse to Toronto on the Maple Leaf. Part two deals with our ride from Toronto to Jasper on VIA's Canadian and our free time in Jasper while we laid over for the Skeena.

Just west of Jasper, the Skeena train leaves Alberta and enters British Columbia

We will pick up with our story mid-day on Wednesday, September 13, 2017. We returned to the Jasper VIA train station around Noon to return our rental car and prepare for boarding of the Skeena (actually, I believe VIA just calls it the Jasper-Prince Rupert train now, but we will keep calling it the Skeena for the sake of this article). Robert had done this train once before with his friend Mike in September 2011, but we had never rode it together as a couple. For those who are not familiar with this train, it runs between Jasper and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Because the scenery is so spectacular (and maybe for other reasons we don't know about), the train actually makes an overnight stop in Prince George, British Columbia, so passengers do not miss any of the beautiful mountains or rivers along the way. Since there are no sleepers on the train, everyone must get off the train once it arrives in Prince George and go to a hotel in town (that you book on your own).  The train waits in the yards and you begin your journey the next morning.

Jasper is surrounded on all sides by Jasper National Park

A "must see" in Jasper National Park is the Colmbia Icefields, a couple of hours south of Jasper - reachable via rental car

Do you have a good eye? Can you spot the Jasper VIA station and the Skeena in this shot we took from the Jasper Tram?  This was about two hours before our departure on Wednesday, September 13, 2017th; there was snow at the top of the mountain this day.

Robert and Kandace Tabern at the VIA Jasper Station, served by both the Canadian and Skeena trains

The Skeena train has quite the interesting consist, especially after riding the Canadian for three days prior, which grew to almost 30 cars in length by the time we reached Jasper. Our train for the next two days ended up being made up of one engine, one baggage car, one coach car, a Panorama Car (see photos on Part 2 of this series for more on this car), and an un-refurbished Park Car (versus the refurbished Park Car we had on the Canadian). Some departures in the summer, like the one we were riding, offer what is called “Touring Class”.  Passengers who choose to ride in “Touring Class” pay a pretty steep premium (around $500 per person) to have an actual seat in the Panorama Car and have exclusive access to the adjacent Park Car.  When “Touring Class” is not offered the rest of the year (and on some summer departures, too) the train only has one engine, one baggage car, one coach car, and the Park Car.  Everyone on the train then has access to the Park Car since there is just coach class on these days. Since there are only three Panorama Cars in existence, and two are assigned to the Canadian between Edmonton and Vancouver, this means only one Panorama Car is available for the Skeena. This means only every-other departure in the summer features the Panorama Car and “Touring Class”. You really have to watch your seasons too -- "Touring Class" is only available between mid-June and mid-September. You also have to look at the schedule of when the Park Car will be on, too, to minimize the layover in Jasper. Pick the wrong week and you could be spending three to four days laying over in Jasper waiting for the Skeena consist with "Touring Class". We timed it where we only had a 23 hour layover between the Canadian and the Skeena with the "Touring Class"/Park Car. We hope that makes sense. If you need a further explanation about how all of this works, don't hesitate to shoot us an e-mail when it comes time to planning your trip.

A view of the exterior of our unreburbished Park Car, named "Assiniboine Park"; Park Cars are named for the National Parks of Canada

TrainWeb authors Robert and Kandace Tabern stand outside the Park Car on the Skeena during a smoke stop

Lookey, lookey -- it's Kandace in the dome car 'railfan' seat in the front row - where we took up residence for the two days

Anyway, wanting to spend most of our time in the dome of the Park Car to view the amazing scenery of the Canadian Rockies, we had a hard time deciding whether to ride from Jasper to Prince Rupert (via Prince George) when “Touring Class” was operating or not. There are potential advantages and disadvantages to each side. On one hand --- If we rode when “Touring Class” was being offered, only those who paid the relatively steep $500+ premium would have access to the Park Car – meaning we would not be competing with those in coach for seats because “Touring Class” would have exclusive access to the Park Car.  On the other hand --- we were warned by friends who worked at VIA that the days when that “Touring Class” is offered, it tends to attract a lot of tour groups with people wanting to sit in the dome. Very few tour groups apparently ride when just coach service is offered... so apparently this minimizes competition for the dome in the Park Car.

In the end, we decided to take a gamble and ride on a “Touring Class” departure. This proved mixed results.  Three large tour groups got on in Jasper – a Chinese tour group riding just to the first stop, a second tour group of Americans called Sun dog Tours riding about two hours, and a third German tour group who would be riding with us all the way to Prince Rupert on the two day trip. Even though when booking the tickets we were promised open access to the Park Car for all passengers, the train customer service manager announced the Sun dog Tour Group would have exclusive access to the dome in the Park Car for the first two hours of the trip. Obviously this did NOT sit too well with us. We tried to explain our desire to also sit in the dome car, but the train manager wouldn’t budge – but there was not much we could do. The train manager has the same power as a conductor on Amtrak and the ultimate say of what goes on with the train's onboard operations.  After the first two tour groups got off, there was plenty of seating in the dome car for the remainder of the journey when we wanted to sit up there – so all ended up okay.  However, VIA should definitely not advertise that the Park Car is open to all “Touring Class” passengers if its train managers are going to block off all seats in the dome car for certain tour groups like the Sundog tours.

An exterior view of the Park Car on the Skeena; we learned that if a Park Car has a blue band around the top it is unrfurbished, but if it has a black band around the top, it has been refurbished for Prestiege Class service on the Canadian.

Kandace enjoys some time alone at the end of the train in the Park Car; this is again, an unrefurbished Park Car; compare with pictures of the refurbished Park Car on the Canadian in Part Two of this article series

Kandace helps herself to some coffee from the coffee and tea station in the lower level of the Park Car on the Skeena

The bar area of the unrefurbished Park Car on the Skeena; this area known as the Mural Lounge was totally changed on the revamped Prestiege Park Cars on the Canadian.

The Skeena is about the only train in North American we can think of where passengers are allowed "smoke stops" right along the main line tracks whenever the train is running ahead, or when it is put into a siding for a long period of time. I don't think would work on Amtrak.

Another "in the middle of nowhere" smoke stop; here is Kandace with the Park Car

While the Canadian is very popular, in our opinion, the lesser known Skeena’s Jasper-Prince George-Prince Rupert route features even better scenery than the Canadian’s route through Jasper-North Kamloops-Vancouver. Of course, the Skeena seems to be a much better kept secret than the Canadian – and that’s not a bad thing for those looking for a more "off the beaten path" experience (we just missed the good food the Canadian offered!) With the schedule of the Canadian, a lot of the beautiful scenery through British Columbia is in the dark unfortunately. The route between the two trains doesn’t split for about 50 miles west of Jasper, so both trains feature the same beautiful scenery going through Mount Robson Provincial Park.
Unfortunately, not too long out of Jasper we began realizing that the Skeena was a very low priority for its host railroad, the Canadian National (who was even worse at time-keeping for this train than the Canadian). It seemed like we were put in literally EVERY siding for every grain train, intermodal train, and coal train who was rolling eastbound. Our little westbound train felt like the fish swimming the wrong way up-river. There was some pad in the schedule which allowed us to make up time – but the constant siding maneuvers resulted in us being between two and three hours late into Prince George our first night.  Our crew mentioned since a new intermodal port was built at the end of the line at Prince Rupert, this was a pretty common occurance being put in the "hole" as much as possible. The Park Car attendant mentioned that she was recently nine hours late into Prince George – arriving at 5:30am instead of the scheduled 8:30pm!  I guess you can't complain being 'just' a few hours late. The amazing thing is since the onboard service manager and attendant are not involved in the actual operation of the train, they don't have any minimum rest hours like engineers do on VIA, or like engineers and conductors do on Amtrak. The attendant mentioned she had almost no sleep and had to turn the train when they got in at 5:30am and were out at 8:30am.

Unfortunately being stuck in siding become an all-too-common problem on the train between Japser and Prince Rupert

The set-up on this train was also quite interesting and should be noted here in our TrainWeb trip report here. There were two engineers on the train (who stayed in the engine) and two on-board personnel. The on-board crew included a train manager and an attendant.  The train manager made announcements, handled tickets, and helped served meals in the Panorama Car. The attendant also helped with meal service in the Panorama Car and took care of drink orders for those in the Park Car.  Meal service was really supposed to take place in the Panorama Car, but we made special arrangements to have our meal delivered to the dome car so we could continue to enjoy the view.  Food was decent, but was quick hot and cold meal service. Some of the selections included salads, sandwiches, and microwaved pasta. It could be compared to (maybe slightly better than) food service now on Amtrak’s eastern long-distance trains such as the Cardinal or Lake Shore Limited

Due to the late arrival in Prince George on Wednesday night, we decided to catch a cab to the hotel (the original plan was to walk the six blocks). We were staying at the Coast Inn of the North – probably the nicest hotel in town. The German tour group was also staying there, but has a motorcoach take them over. I would compare Coast Inn in Prince George to maybe an Aloft Hotel in the United States. Cabs were quite difficult to come across in Prince George, but finally they started to arrive when they realized that the train had arrived. We would recommend that anyone traveling get a number to their cab company of choice for Prince George and make arrangements in advance; this may help you avoid the 15 minute wait we experienced. By the time we got to the hotel it was after 11:00pm and we had to be back up by around 6:30am the next morning, so it was pretty much straight to bed without any real time to explore the amenities of the property or see anything of the town. Some did warn us that Prince George has some "rough parts" to it, however we didn't experience any of that in our brief time there, but you may still want to keep a watchful eye out if you go.

The sun sets on the evening of Wednesday, September 13th, 2017, as the train chugs towards Prince George, BC

Moving on to the next day – Thursday, September 14th, 2017 – we got up and walked the six blocks over to the VIA station in Prince George that we had left about eight hours prior. To get some exercise and because it was daylight now, we decided to walk to the station. It was pretty much a straight shot down a main street from our hotel to the station so it posed no problem and was maybe a 10-15 minute walk. We probably would have been fine walking the night before, but we heard that Prince George had a pretty rough reputation from what we heard. There was a nice selection of souvenirs at the station and we ended up buying a nice VIA system map and that of a close-up of British Columbia. I also had a nice chat with the station agent in Prince George who showed me her special VIA lanyard that was given to her for the 150th Anniversary of Canada becoming a country.

Kandace stands by the sign in the Prince George, BC VIA station, which shows when trains to Jasper and Prince Rupert leave

Leaving Prince George, we passed the other set of Skeena equipment. Note it's just an engine, baggage car, coach, and dome. There is no Panorama Car on this train, and the Park Car at the back of the train would be open to all passengers since there is no "Touring Class". This train was headed eastbound back to Jasper, as we were heading westbound to Prince George on the morning of September 14, 2017.

A beautiful layer of fog filled the air, just west of Prince George on the morning of Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pretty much the entire day on Thursday the 14th was spent in the dome of the Park Car looking at what was the best day of train scenery of the entire week. This was the prize scenery that we had been waiting for since leaving Chicago. Again, much better, in our opinion than anything you see on the Canadian. The train followed several rivers and passed through many mountain ranges. The last part of the journey follows the Skeena River, which ended up giving the train its name.  With only a handful of regular passengers and maybe the 20-30 German tourists in “Touring Class”, there were plenty of seats in the dome car for the entire journey – unlike the day before.

We were able to capture a rainbow from the windows of the dome car

Here's a photo of Robert in his natural habitat - the first row of a dome car

Views of a station out the window of the dome of the Park Car

We enjoyed the relaxed pace of the Skeena, and the fact we had the dome car all to our selves at certain points, even in the Canadian Rockies

Kandace enjoys both the fall colors and Canadian Rockies from the "railfan seat" in the first row of the dome car on the Park Car

Unfortunately, once again, the poor dispatching skills of the Canadian National resulted in a pretty serious damper on the day’s journey on this train. At several points, the Skeena train was put in sidings that were occupied by other freight trains ahead of us. This meant we had to wait for the higher-priority freight train to pass us and then we had to back-up on the main line to get around the other freight train in the siding ahead of us. After doing this three to four sidings in a row, we were seriously behind schedule.  Even though we saw some beautiful sites from the train around sunset, the delays resulted in some of the most beautiful views of the river and mountains close to Prince Rupert being totally in the dark.

Many beautiful mountains and rivers like this can be seen from the Skeena Train between Jasper, Prince George, and Prince Rupert

Going across a high trestle bridge on the Skeena

Kandace enjoys view of the Skeena River, as daylight begins to fade before coming into Prince Rupert

More delays creped up on us as we got closer to Prince Rupert, too. We learned from the crew that a busier than normal intermodal port and grain port near Prince Rupert were mainly to blame for the problems were were experiencing – and unfortunately it was not all to uncommon. The real big delay happened just a few miles outside of the Prince Rupert station where the train got stuck in the intermodal yards until around 1:00am so that an empty container train could be switched out. Most everyone on the train, including Kandace was asleep for this. Robert is a light sleeper and stayed up -- he reported that it seemed like the empty stack train just kept going back and forth on the track next to us for no real purpose (even though we are sure it had a purpose that we couldn't see!)

Besides the scenery, the thing that saved the trip was the outstanding service from our attendant Wahima who went above and beyond to make our trip special. Along with Martin and Erin on the Canadian, Wahima stood out as one of the best VIA employees that we encountered.  She moved to Vancouver from France and had worked from VIA for just a few months. When she worked the Jasper-Prince Rupert train, she dead headed both ways on the Canadian to Jasper and then worked four very long days in a row on the Jasper-Prince Rupert train. Unlike some Amtrak onboard service workers, there were no guaranteed rest for the on-board crew on the Jasper-Prince Rupert train. Even though our westbound train got in at 1:00am, she still had to be on the train at 6:30am the following morning to get it ready for its 8:30am departure back to Prince George!  How about that for a work schedule!  I wouldn't want something like that.

Just before arriving in Prince Rupert around 1:00am, the Skeena had to navigate its way through the large intermodal yard

Taxi cabs in Prince Rupert were a little easier to come by than in Prince George, so we were able to make a quick get-a-way from the station to our room at the Inn on the Harbour despite the 1:00am arrival. This was one of the nicest hotels in town and we would highly recommend it. Once again because of our late arrival into town, we didn’t have much time to explore the hotel itself.

Moving onto Friday, September 15th – we had most of the day free in Prince Rupert before catching the Alaska State Ferry in the late afternoon hours. Since we didn’t get to sleep until 2:30am with the late arrival of the Jasper-Prince Rupert train, we slept in on this morning past 10:00am. We woke up to a magnificent view of the harbor and railroad tracks at the Inn on the Harbour  – another reason we would recommend using this hotel. Some of the travelers we ran into town stayed at the Crest Hotel, but they were not too happy with their service from what they told us. The crews from VIA also stay here and didn't have nice things to say about it either. The front desk clerk at the Inn on the Harbour held our bags which allowed us to walk around town a bit. We walked down the hill to the harbor and stopped to look at the Pillsbury House, which was the first house in Prince Rupert. From there, we walked to the waterfront. There was a small railroad museum down along the water – however it was closed when we were there unfortunately. Not really sure what the hours were because nothing was posted. From there, we walked to the water and looked out at some of the ships in the harbor. Then, we made our way to the former VIA Prince Rupert station. (The current station is in a combined building a couple of miles to the east and is shared with BC Ferries). The train apparently still backs down a mile or so to the old station, but the building is completely boarded up and only a small shelter area is used by the train crews. There appeared to be a storage area and an area to water the train. From there, it was just a few steps away to the physical “end of the line” covered in trees and brushes. This might look like a very insignificant point to most people – but this point (which we took a picture of) marks the terminus of the furthest western railroad line in North America that is connected to the mainland railroad grid.  We have to say “connected to the mainland railroad grid” because of course you have the Yukon & White Pass and Alaska Railroad lines. However, again, these are not connected to the rest of mainland North American in anyway and railroad equipment would have to be shipped by barge or truck to connect with these.  It’s too bad there was not a marker or something more significant to make this point besides the end of the track behind a fence with a sign that said “End of Track”.


This is the furthest western point on the mainland North American railroad system (in Prince Rupert, BC

The former VIA Rail Station in Downtown Prince Rupert, now boarded up; the new station is on the east side of town by the ferries

Robert enjoys walking down some of the docks at the Port of Prince Rupert, BC

Kandace with view of the Pacific Ocean behind her at Prince Rupert, BC


Kandace poses at the end of the Skeena route, the Prince Rupert, BC VIA train station

Kandace checks out some of the large seafood traps piled up on the docks of Prince Rupert

After seeing this point, we continue to walk along the waterfront to a tourist area of Prince Rupert known as Cow Bay. Apparently the tracks continued about another one half-mile further west of where they end now – and cattle would be shipped in – and hence this area got its name. There were many small tourist shops here meant more than likely for cruise passengers. We browsed, but didn’t really buy anything.  We ended up hitting a provincial liquor store on the way back to the hotel to pick up two bottles of ice wine, as we only had a few hours left in Canada. Ice wine is a very expensive super-sweet dessert wine that comes from Canada. It is actually made when the grapes are frozen still on the vine. The reason for it being so expensive is that each grape may only produce enough juice for one or two drops of ice wine.  We got hooked on ice wine during other visits to Canada in years past – and found it for sale in the Prestige Park Car on the Canadian. Anyway, because of the rareness of the ice wine itself and the taxes imposed on it by the United States government, it is much cheaper to buy when in Canada.  We also made a stop at the Tim Horton’s in Prince Rupert to pick up three cans of hot chocolate to bring home with us – this is also another Canadian food/drink that we enjoy and you can’t really buy in the United States (the hot chocolate mix sold at the few U.S. Tim Hortons has a slightly different recipe and isn’t as good.  Time was catching up with us – so we grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local Pizza Hut and headed back to the hotel to collect the bags.

We hope you enjoyed the third part of this four part series on our trip. The fourth and final article, which we will post in a few weeks, deals with the conclusion of the trip on the Alaska State Ferry between Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and our ultimate destination of Sitka, Alaska. We hope reading this inspires you to book your own train trip between Chicago and Alaska using Amtrak, VIA, and the Alaska State Ferry system.



Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" |  Amtrak/VIA "Maple Leaf" |  VIA "The Canadian"VIA "The Skeena"Alaska State Ferry System

More information about VIA Park CarsJasper SkyTramColumbia Icefields ParkwaySitka National Historical Park


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