Travelogue

Icon

Via Rail's [The Canadian]

Jayan Kandathil

First published , last updated

The longest distance passenger train service in Canada is Via Rail's Toronto ⟺ Vancouver train [The Canadian] (Wikipedia entry here). The trip takes four days and four nights, and is about 4,400 KM. The notes below are based on a trip I took from Toronto ⟹ Vancouver on September 1 (2019) during my 6-week sabbatical from Adobe. This write-up is intended to help others who may be planning a similar trip.

With Toronto ⟹ Vancouver air travel now taking about four hours at about CAD $500-800 (two-way) (compared to 4 days/nights for $1,700 for a one-way subsidized sleeper plus ticket), chances are that you may only do this once in your lifetime, and you want as few screw-ups as possible.

Via Rail

Via Rail is what we call a "Crown Corporation" in Canada. Its exclusive focus is passenger rail service, and is subsidized by the federal Government of Canada.

Useful Links

Before you go on this trip, it's worth checking out (as part of your research) some really useful content available out there both online and in the form of books you can purchase.

  1. YouTube video by The Man in Seat 61 (Oct 2019)
  2. The [Follow Me Away] blog Things to Know (January 2019) and Things to Pack (January 2018)
  3. [The New Travel] channel on YouTube and its Crossing Canada by Train series of videos (June 2019) where the host took the train from Vancouver ⟹ Toronto
  4. [This Life in Trips] blog Review as well as 10 Things You Should Know and by Shaun Robertson (2017)
  5. Jennifer Bain's article in the Toronto Star (May 2017)
  6. The book Canada by Train (3rd Edition) (May 2016) - highly recommended
  7. The map Across Canada (2nd Edition) (November 2013)

Route

I used the iPhone app myTracks to take GPS readings every 1 KM during the trip. Importing that data (in .kml format) into Google Earth Pro produced the chart below. The yellow dots represent stations were the train stopped for at least 15 minutes or longer so that passengers can exit the train and walk about. The first one after Toronto is in Capreol (after Sudbury Junction). The stop there was 35 minutes, long enough to run into the local Home Hardware store and buy stuff. The longest stops were in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

Train Route

Other than driving, this is the second best way to take in the geographic vastness of Canada. This includes the northern Ontario boreal forest (Toronto-Winnipeg), the Saskatchewan/Alberta prairies (Winnipeg-Edmonton), and the Canadian Rocky mountains in Alberta/British Columbia (Edmonton-Kamloops). The highest elevation (according to myTracks GPS readings) the train reached was 1,145 meters above mean sea level, and the highest speed we hit was about 130 KM/hr which happended mostly in the prairies. The train speed was mostly 60-80 KM/hr in the northern Ontario boreal forest and in the Canadian Rockies.

Because the tracks are owned by Canada's freight railroads (mainly Canadian National - CN), Via Rail trains have to yield whenever the freight trains need to pass. Because of this, [The Canadian] is reported to be routinely late although in my case the train arrived in Vancouver three hours earlier than scheduled (5 am, instead of 8 am).

Train

The chart (below) displayed at the Winnipeg Via Rail station illustrates the configuration of the train (top ⟹ bottom shows the front ⟹ back sequence of the train cars). See drone video taken in Winnipeg (Manitoba) circa July 2019. Every car has an assigned number (yellow background). In addition, each car has a fixed Via Rail number as well as a name. The two cars in the [Economy] class are chair cars, meaning they don't have sleeping berths. You will need to sleep sitting up overnight. This costs about CAD $700-800. The [Sleeper Plus] class costs about CAD $1,700-3,500 (depending on whether you chose to include meals or not). The [Prestige] class is the high end option, and costs CAD $7,000-9,000.

Train Configuration

Re-fuelling

Like a car or a van, the train has to be re-fuelled at certain stations. See below for locomotive 6435 (an EMD F40PH) being refuelled (diesel).

Suspension System

Noise Level

Via Rail cars are old, and highly engineered. They tend to be noisy. Mine was a car of the design Manor named "Cameron Manor" (8314). To sleep better at night, bring noice-cancelling headphones, and extra batteries. It's the things inside the car that rattle. The ride itself is smooth. See suspension system below.

Suspension System

Baggage

Large bags will need to be checked in. That means you will only get access to them at your destination. The checked-in bags are loaded to the baggage car, which is usually the car right behind the two locomotives. As in the case of an airline, carry-on type bags can be kept in the cabin. Make sure their thickness is such that they can be slid under the seat.

CPAP Machines

If you chose not to purchase the more expensive cabins, note that there are power outlets near the door of the car that you can still use. The crew can provide extension cords for your CPAP machine if you use one for sleep apnea. Note that power to the car was cut when they added the additional Panorama car to the train in Edmonton (the train reached Edmonton at night).

Train Time

The train passes through three time zones. Sometimes (for logistical reasons), the train time lags actual local time by hours so that dinner sittings don't get mangled. For example, the train will continue on Mountain Time (until Kamloops, B.C.) even after it leaves Alberta and your cellphone automatically switches to Pacific Time.

Cell Signal

Because of the remote areas the train travels through, cell signals are spotty, especially in northern Ontario, and in the Alberta/BC Rockies. Note that even GPS stops working when the train passes through valleys surrounded by very tall mountains. The prairies are generally good for cell signal coverage. In northern Ontario, wait till you pass through Capreol and Armstrong before catching up with the rest of the world.

Device Charging

One of the biggest drawbacks of the [Sleeper Plus] class is the lack of power outlets to charge your devices. The [Cabin-for-One] and [Cabin-for-Two] cabins provide electric outlets. See below for a photo of the amenities in a [Cabin-for-One] cabin.

Electrical Outlets

Sleep

I opted for the [Sleeper Plus] class with the [lower berth] option. This means that the seats you sit on during the day gets converted to a bed at night as the lower berth. The upper berth is neatly tucked away during the day.

Day Night

Views

The train had three Skyline dome cars with a recreation area that had tables, device charging outlets, beverages, snacks, magazines. These cars also had an elevated viewing platform with a glass ceiling (dome) and seats that you can go and sit in. I did not find this particuarly great mainly because the frames of the glass ceiling where too thick and got in the way.

Skyline Car

Panorama Car

In Edmonton, right before the train enters the Canadian Rockies, [Via Rail] added a better viewing platform (the Panorama dome car) to the train which offered much better views.

Food

One of the surprises for me was the high quality of the food they served in the dining car. Brunch and dinner were all of great quality with good options to choose from. There are two dining cars on the train, each with 12 tables that seat four people each. Two of the tables were reserved for the crew. This means that at any given time, they could seat upto forty passengers. When the train is full (especially the Winnipeg-Jasper leg), they schedule three dinner seatings. This also means that the crew ends up seating you with strangers (I was travelling alone) which can be a great, ok or awful experience, depending on the fit of nationalities/personalities involved.

Dining Car

Dining Logistics

Breakfast is served 6:30 am - 9:00 am, brunch 9:30 am - 1:30 pm. Dinner times vary. While breakfast and brunch are first-come, first-served, dinner requires a reservation, in terms of which sitting you choose (two-three sittings per evening). The reservation ticket looks like below (this ticket is for the 3rd dinner sitting, in dining car B). Make sure you get one for your next meal. Each evening, they will announce over the PA system what times each dinner sittings will be.

Dinner Reservation

Tips

Tips are pooled amongst the crew. The Via Rail crew onboard are friendly, courteous and helpful. They make PA announcements when the train passes interesting locations, such as the potash mines in Saskatchewan, the Pyramid waterfall in the Rockies, and some elk grazing near Jasper. Note that there is a complete crew changeover in Winnipeg.

Hygiene

Each [Sleeper Plus] car has two shared bathrooms and a shower with an adjoining change room. These shared bathrooms are used only by the [Sleeper Plus] class passengers of which there will only ever be six at the most (six sleeper berths, three pairs). The others in the car will have either 1-person, or 2-person cabins which all have their own private toilets/wash sinks.

They provide towels, soap and shampoo. Hot water is comfortably hot.

See index for all entries in this blog.