Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: The Train

The Canadian is supposed to provide the most beautiful rail travel views in Canada and arguably, one of the more scenic routes around the world although I bet there are many comparably beautiful routes. Operated by the Crown Corporation, VIA Rail, this train travels through the Canadian Rocky Mountains with termini in Vancouver and Toronto. Major stops of interest along the way include Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg. If you travel end to end, you would spend well over four days on the train. That is, assuming that the train runs on schedule. More on that later.

At its peak, I hear that the train can be as long as 33 cars! This includes a steam engine, some Economy class cars, dining cars, many more sleeper cars, and viewing cars (to watch the scenery pass, in comfort). The cheapest option of travel is Economy class, where you essentially get a seat but you have no access to the remainder of the cars. The other travel options all fall within the Sleeper Plus class; the cheapest option becomes the upper berth (think the upper bunk of a bunk bed).

More expensive are the lower berth, cabins for 1/2/3, and family suites. Once you are in the Sleeper Plus class, you have access to all of the cars, including the Panorama car. This special car is glass-enclosed and the seating is very comfortable, making it my favourite spot on the train to hang out in. Unfortunately, the Panorama car is only available between Vancouver and Edmonton…what does this mean? Well, during that stretch through the Rockies, the Panorama car is situated almost as the middle car of the entire train…then in Edmonton, it gets removed (so obviously if you were going from Toronto to Vancouver, the Panorama car would get added to the train in Edmonton). I was asleep when this happened in Edmonton and I have no idea how this actually gets done.

Panorama car

When you travel with VIA, you can include one stopover in your itinerary without additional charge. I chose to take a break on my Canadian rail journey by stopping at the half-way point (between Vancouver and Ottawa) in Winnipeg. When booking my train tickets, I realized that I had to spend either 2, 5, or 7 days in Winnipeg based on the (in)frequency  of The Canadian. Not bad, as I soon learned that there is actually tons to see and do in Winnipeg, especially during the summer. Yes, I am guilty of stereotyping the entire Prairies as “boring” without having visited any part of it before.

I mentioned train schedules earlier. The portion between Vancouver and Winnipeg takes about 48 hours. You can imagine that the train is slower going up the Rockies and is faster going across the flat Prairies. However, another huge factor that affects the train schedule is the railroad itself. The Canadian National Railway, or CN, owns and operates the railroad that VIA Rail uses. CN runs freight across the country and freight equals money; each minute that freight is just sitting on the tracks is costing somebody somewhere some money. Therefore, the freight trains get priority use of the railroad. I’ve learned that it isn’t unusual for The Canadian to be delayed, although I also hear that it’s possible for it to be early to its final destination. My arrival into Winnipeg ended up being 7 hours delayed (rumour has it the worst delay was 24 hours) due to a combination of waiting for freight trains to pass and a signal failure. That is to say, never assume that the train schedule is accurate!

Back to the train itself….

Sleeper cars plus a dome car (see the last car of the train)

There were three dome cars on the train that I was on: one at the end plus one beside each dining car. The bottom level of the dome car is a lounge area while the upper level is the scenic dome. You get a great view of the entire train from the dome!

Example of the lower level of a dome car
Upper level of the dome car

The dining car is very well tended to by the dining car attendants. White table cloths, real utensils, space to move around, and a great view. Remember when plane travel used to be this nice? To be efficient, the dining car has community seating, which means that unless you come as a party of four to every meal, you will be seated with fellow passengers. It’s a great way to meet people and hear their stories…and in the worst case, it’s an awkward hour you spend with a few other people. I should stress that when it comes to attitudes, travelling by train feels completely different from travelling by air; everybody on the train is super friendly and attentive while people on planes generally seem to be grumpy, unhappy to be there, and uncomfortable. It probably helps that there is no WiFi on the train (only available inside major train stations) and most people lose phone signal for a decent chunk of the ride. Yes, remember those good ol’ days when you didn’t have mobile devices to keep your attention and you had meaningful conversations with strangers, played games, read books, or just watched the scenery go by?

A view into the dining car

Each of the sleeper cars are laid out fairly similarly. There are a few berths, spacious bathrooms, a shower (which surpassed my expectations), and cabins (private rooms). Surprisingly, the washrooms on board do not smell at all! I have no idea how they achieve this but I found it to be quite remarkable. There is also a tap in each car that supplies cold potable water. Bring your reusable water bottle!

Row of cabins in a sleeper car (and yes, the hallway is narrow)
View of the nighttime set-up of the berth, plus the adjacent washroom

And that, my friends, was my home for almost 5 days.

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