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CROSS CANADA BY TRAIN

Keep your dreams of private jets and fancy cars. There are others who dream of rattling toward Saskatoon in a 40-year-old chariot of stainless steel, passing their nights in a closet-size compartment, conversing by day of gauge widths and locomotive design, of the old B&O and the new Orient Express. I am among them now. We are eastbound from Vancouver, and life is good.

This rumbling all around us is the machinery of VIA Rail's Canadian. Like rail service all over North America, it's not what it once was, but it's still a great train ride, an adventure with history, 1955 hardware and transcontinental scenery.My itinerary says it's a three-day, three-night, 2,800-mile journey from Vancouver to Toronto. Heading east, we will cross the Rockies, the Canadian prairies and the 700-mile, granite-floored, lake-strewn, conifer-crowded stretch known as the Canadian Shield, scraping to a halt in Toronto, on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

We will see nothing of the cities and towns on the way, except what is visible from the tracks; there are no stops of more than an hour. But for the train person, that shouldn't be anything to complain about. Riding the train is the point.

At 8:20 p.m., the train groans and belches, and we lurch eastward 20 minutes behind schedule. Vancouver's suburbs flash past the window of my first-class compartment, the sky goes cobalt, and the black outline of Grouse Mountain rises up, twinkling lights at its top. Then mile after mile of rattling nightscape.

I investigate my new residence: a box of stainless steel and pale green, 7-foot-2 by 4-foot-11, with bunk beds that fold down from the wall and a pair of reclining armchairs that rise by day from beneath the bed. Lights for reading, shaving and dressing. A framed art print. Behind a door, I have a porcelain toilet in a private restroom, which adds another four square feet to my holdings.

The shower is down the hall. The window, which doesn't open but does have a pull-down blind, is about 3 feet by 4 feet.

With the compartment comes service. Twice each day while I'm off at meals or mingling in the lounge car, a cabin attendant will sneak in to transform bed into chairs, or vice versa. Except for the lone drawing room in the last car, these "Silver and Blue Class" bedrooms are the greatest luxury possible on the train. In peak season (assuming an exchange rate of $1.37 Canadian to $1 U.S.) travelers pay about $883 per person for these accommodations, double occupancy, all meals included. Even though I'm one person in a space meant for two, I'm paying a lot less, because I'm traveling in April, when demand is down and rates run 40 percent below summer peak levels.

But the mystique of railroad travel has as much to do with common areas and fellow travelers as it does with private cabins. The prime common area on the Canadian is the bullet-shaped, twin-level first-class lounge, also known as the Park Car. It's the last car on the train, which means there's more to see from its wrap-around window. The room is full of Art Deco touches, including Lucite handrails and streamlined cabinetry.

We rumble through the night. I get up about 6 on Day One, and pull up my blind. Hazy rivers. Ridges thick with evergreens. Farms along a valley floor, newborn calves in pastures. Then a big, still lake with a tall bluff above it - a romantic landscape painter's daydream.

At breakfast, there is bad news containing good news. Down the line in Blue River, the westbound Canadian has derailed, and we have to make a detour. We will be at least five hours late to Toronto. The cognoscenti express concern and inquire about injuries (nine persons were taken to the hospital, but no major injuries). Then, turning attention to our own train, they celebrate discreetly.

The detour will take us south through the Rockies, via Banff and Lake Louise rather than Jasper. This is part of the route that the Canadian followed in the old days, before responsibility for passenger trains fell into the hands of the Canadian government, and then for 12 more years before transcontinental service was reduced and rerouted in 1990. (Like Amtrak's history, VIA Rail Canada's is shaded by cutbacks and shaky finances.)

The usual Canadian Rockies route via Jasper is still strikingly scenic, but not as striking, most agree, as the old southern route. But Canadian Pacific, the company that owns the tracks along the southern route, usually reserves them for freight traffic - except for emergencies such as ours.

The Rockies tower like the Alps, their outlines sharp as cutlery, cleaving a deep blue, cloudless sky marching past hour by hour. As lunch is served in the well-windowed dining car (quite passable, with china and linen on the tables), we pass through a valley with peaks on either side, and the waiters sneak peeks at the unfamiliar slopes. Some of them haven't been this way in five years.

Outside the remote station stop of Field, we pick out perhaps a dozen dirty brown figures in a meadow: sleeping elk. A few minutes later, there's a genteel rush in first class to the top deck of the observation car. The spiral tunnels are coming.

These tunnels, cut in 1908 as an improvement on a more difficult original route, are a rarity for the way they rise and twist. This sounds like railroaders' inside baseball to me, until we reach the site. We enter, then twist and climb, all the while encased in mountain. When we burst out again into daylight, instead of joining a new landscape we have rejoined the one we left, only now we're several hundred feet higher and pointing a new direction. Very strange.

Inside, we have three seatings for dinner, and three choices: halibut, grilled chicken or roast pork loin. My halibut is not great but good.

Outside, the sun sets. Calgary comes into view, a far bigger city than I had expected. The population is about 800,000, and from the tracks, its skyline in silhouette looks like Detroit's.

For all this night and most of Day Two, we have nothing out there but prairie. This is the time to catch up on sleep or slip into a comfortable novel.

The prairie continues. Edmonton, where our detour ends and we rejoin our scheduled route. Unity. Biggar. Saskatoon. Portage-la-Prairie. Winnipeg, where we have an hour to stretch our legs, make phone calls, raid the snack bar and calculate that we're running eight hours behind.

Then back to the open spaces and grain elevators. On their sides are painted the names of towns - towns with little reason to exist except that the tracks pass this way. Occasionally, there's a huddle of low, wooden houses or a tin-topped Orthodox church, raised in decades past by Russian immigrants.

After the prairie comes the Canadian Shield, and its hundreds of miles of rock, birch, aspen and lakes with surfaces still half frozen. Hornepayne, about 600 miles from Toronto. Oba. Elsas. Foleyet and Gogama.

Spring is barely evident here, and then, late on the afternoon of Day Three, we roll into a storm that banishes the idea of it. Through dinner, the sky is filled with snowflakes. I have the feeling we're traveling through a shuffled seasonal cycle: summer skies in Vancouver, now the Canadian Shield blanketed in white.

In a punctual world, we would be arriving at Toronto's Union Station at 9 tonight. Instead, since we remain about eight hours behind, the first-class service manager calls our hotels for us to cancel reservations. We spend a fourth night on the train and roll in at 5 a.m. the next day.