Winter tourism in Edmonton and Jasper has received a January boost.
With the mid-month launch of VIA Rail Canada's new Snow Train Express - a seasonal operation taking travellers from Edmonton to Jasper on Friday evenings, returning to Edmonton on Sunday nights - both destinations are expected to benefit from an influx of foreign tourists once the service gets fully on track.
With its special fully domed observation cars, the Snow Train is able to carry 210 passengers each way - 70 in each of the three Panorama cars. Its inaugural run ends April 22.
While many initial travellers will be Edmontonians taking advantage of the weekend outing - $123 per one-way ticket for adults, including meal service - the hope is that the Snow Train will drive tourism interest in both destinations once it becomes top of mind for tour operators worldwide.
|Photo courtesy of VIA Rail Canada|
|The Snow Train Express is ready to make its weekend trip from Edmonton to Jasper and back.|
"It's great for us Edmontonians for the ease and sheer enjoyment of going to Jasper," says Ken Fiske, vice-president of tourism, events and motion pictures for Edmonton Economic Development Corp. "But long-term for us, it's great for the international markets."
Fiske says that while Jasper is very important to the Edmonton market, this train will present new tourism opportunities for the provincial capital.
"There's no question in my mind that as the product matures over the next few years it's going to open up a new dimension of people - skiers specifically - that (now) aren't coming to Edmonton. They're getting to Jasper by various other ways. But this way, by the use of the train, we'll see them overnight. We'll see them spend more time in Edmonton," says Fiske.
VIA Rail, in partnership with Jasper's Marmot Basin ski destination and Jasper itself, put together the Snow Train package believing it was time to fill a void in the market.
"There has been a demand for a number of years now," says Joseph Volk, VIA Rail's regional director of western services. "My partners and I in Jasper have been talking about what it would take to get the train operating again."
During the six-hour trip, a VIA concierge will be onboard to inform travellers of things to do in the Jasper area. And a Marmot representative will also be on hand to help travellers to purchase lift tickets or arrange for rental equipment or lessons.
Meanwhile, travellers on the Snow Train will find some differences from air travel.
Seats are slightly larger, as are the washrooms. Since there are no overhead bins for storage, panoramic windows stretch from overhead to down the side of the passenger car. Pairs of seats on a swivel base allow a group of four travellers to face each other.
While meal service currently consists of cold dinners, VIA expects eventually to offer hot dishes.
Decades ago, there was a similar train operation that has long since been mothballed.
"This is not new," says Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland. "This is a revival of something that happened before. I (recently) watched a promotional video just a couple of nights ago from 1964 when Marmot Basin first opened.
"How did skiers get to Marmot Basin in 1964? By the train. So what's old is new again and it's a great thing to have it back again."
Enabling the project to become a reality is the fact that the Panorama cars were sitting idle all winter long.
"During the summer months, we operate this equipment between Jasper and Prince Rupert, what we call our 'Totem Deluxe' service on the Skeena train between Prince Rupert, B.C., and Jasper," says Volk.
This is the first time the passenger cars have been winterized to allow the addition of the Jasper ski train, says Volk.
Riders from Edmonton and Fort McMurray are likely to represent the bulk of the first passengers, adds Volk.
However, travel writers from Japan were on the Snow Train's initial excursion and tour operators in the United Kingdom are already packaging this new vacation option.
Domestic operators are also interested. Daryl Adair, owner and operator of Winnipeg-based Rail Travel Tours, says he was impressed after returning from the Snow Train's initial weekend run.
"My reaction is, it's about time," says Adair "It's excellent that Western Canada is getting some added services. It was a wonderful trip, I was really impressed with what they put together."
Adair says he will be packaging the train trip with hotel and tour operators.
"It is probably still too early to say, but there's a buzz starting. People have been calling us in Winnipeg and asking questions and saying, 'Tell me more about going to Jasper from Winnipeg and skiing and what is this new package?' " Meanwhile, Marmot Basin president and CEO Dave Gibson describes the Snow Train as more than just a moving experience.
"You can get there by car, you can get there by bus (to Jasper). To be able to have a train and an opportunity like this I think is very, very unique," says Gibson. "I think it's going to be very exciting."
(Laura Severs can be reached at email@example.com)