Travelling across Canada by train has long been on my bucket list. What better way to experience just how big and diverse my home country is than slowly by train? This experience, although affordable in economy class, is not cheap if you want any sort of comfort. This made me sceptical that my Canadian train review would ever leave the station.
This scepticism was squashed with Canada’s 150th birthday and me wanting to cover as much of the country as possible. With VIA Rail being the only option to travel the country by train, I pulled the trigger. This is my Canadian train review.
What is The Canadian Train?
Disclaimer: I feel with any review where I have any sort of negative experience I should point out that it is usually because I hold the service to a higher standard, usually due to cost or similar services I have reviewed. This was the case with my Canadian Train review. Also note, my VIA rail Canadian train review is not the result of sponsorship with VIA. To support my site please consider booking your VIA Rail Canadian train tickets through my affiliate links.
Connecting a Country
The Canadian train is an appropriate name given that it covers the country on the very rail line that united it in the first place. To get the western province on board with joining Canada, the railroad was key to convincing them. It took 10+ years to survey and, impressively, only four years to complete.
In the end, the 4,500 KM’s of track connects Ontario to British Columbia and crosses 5 provinces, 670 bridges, and travels through dozens of tunnels and mountain passes along the way.
In 1885 the railroad was finished and began a new era for a new country. To aid in settling the west and the vast new country, the Canadian government gave away land to new settlers. The rail line was key in bringing people from the piers of Halifax to the Prairies.
Once settled, the rail remained a vital lifeline, connecting these new settlements with the world. Today that lifeline is still intact for many small communities along the way. This was evident for me with seemingly middle-of-nowhere stops where everything from snowmobiles to coffins were loaded and unloaded.
What Types of Service Is There on The Canadian Train?
Tickets on The Canadian range from Economy to Sleeper Plus to Prestige Class. The prices vary wildly in between.
During my trip, VIA Rail was offering a promotion for unlimited train travel in economy to students for just $150 dollars. The first-class offering in Prestige Class costs $4,000+ and that is just a one-way ticket. The latter does include all your meals, drinks, access to the Park Car, and a comfortable room with a private bath but that is one helluva gap $$$ wise.
I opted for a lower berth in Sleeper Plus, the middle-of-the-road service, for a few reasons:
- At ~$1,200 it was $1,000(!) cheaper than a private cabin.
- It includes all meals.
- It includes access to showers, to the Panorama Car, and Prestige Park Car
Essentially, it is first class service minus the private room and bath. It turned out to be a great deal.
During the day the beds convert to bench seating, usually while you’re at breakfast service, and then back in the evening during dinner service. As noted in my 10 Things VIA Rail Doesn’t Tell You About “The Canadian” But Should post, the upper and lower birth are in the hallway meaning you are essentially in a walkway.
Although a bit concerned at first by this discovery, I’m happy to report that with the curtains drawn the experience felt very private and super cosy. Also noted is the upper birth does not have a window, thus a cheaper rate by a couple of hundred dollars. I’ve heard it can feel very disorienting and claustrophobic so consider this if you are looking to save.
I truly enjoyed my lower birth window. Waking up to see where we were in Canada each morning was a pleasant surprise and watching Canada go by while reading in my bunk was a great pass time.
After spending an awesome weekend exploring Kingston Ontario, I arrived by train to Tronto‘s Union station. Concerned about sleeping in a hallway, something I only discovered while leafing through a pamphlet about The Canadian train, I asked at check-in about upgrading to a private room. In a tone that could only be interpreted as “are you really going to make me check on something you have no intention of paying for?” I was told it would be an additional $1,400.
I politely passed and made my way to the lounge. Inside staff seemed frantic. The train, although not uncommon, was very late. So with a few hours to kill before my Canadian train review departed I decided to check my luggage and explore.
At baggage check, I asked what time they closed and was told not to worry, “we are here until your train leaves.” When I came back at 12:15 when our very delayed train was finally boarding I was surprised to find my bag all by itself out in the open. When I walked up to it I received attitude from the clerk I had spoken to earlier.
“You’re lucky, I was just about to leave.” I smiled remembering our previous conversation and would have left it at that but then was told: “next time make sure you pick up your bag 30-minutes before you leave or you will not get it.“
I get it. I held her up but was not told I had to be there 30-minutes prior. It was also not the warm welcome I was expecting when I was about to depart on such an epic (and expensive) trip.
Sadly, this type of “I don’t give a f@ck” attitude would pop up throughout the trip. I came in with an attitude that I should expect more. This was the wrong attitude to have.
What Is it Like on Board The Canadian Train?
I shrugged off the odd attitude and enjoyed a very relaxed and laid back trip. My days onboard The Canadian were filled with enjoying Canada going by. I would be rocked awake and would eagerly peel back the curtain to take in the view. If the train happened to be stopped (which is frequent given The Canadian has to give way to freight trains) I would head for the shower to avoid a bumpy wash. There was never a wait for this.
That said, the ride is surprisingly smooth in comparison to other train trips I have done. This is thanks to the thorough eyeballing the wheels get after each journey. This includes wheel levelling and grinding down any rough edges to provide the smoothest trip possible.
- READ MORE: My 2nd Class Train Trip in Thailand
I would then hit the breakfast dining car with friends made onboard followed by enjoying the complimentary coffee and view from the domed Skyline Car. With four days of no Internet, this meant no distractions. I was free to relax and truly enjoy Canada going by. From the Wheat Kings and endless fields of the Prairies to the bogs of the Canadian Shield, it was a slow yet incredibly scenic way to see the country.
I spent the afternoons napping or having cocktails in the Park Car. There I taught a Guatemalan immigrant about Canadian culture – hello Caesars, euchre, and The Tragically Hip.
This schedule stays true up until Edmonton with the addition of the Panorama Car. This makes the journey from Jasper to Vancouver that much more scenic, however, I was partial to the view from The Park Car as:
- The seats are on the upper level giving a better view.
- It’s above a bar.
There are activities onboard each day and include educational talks and performances by musicians. The activities seemed a bit forced on staff that did not want to host them however the musicians were great.
Where Does The Canadian Train Stop?
The Canadian is first and foremost a method of transportation from A to B. Stops are few and far between and never clear on how long. The only exceptions are in Winnipeg where the crew changes, Edmonton with the addition of the Panorama Car, and Jasper.
Depending on whether the train is on time or not, stops are not consistent in length. If long enough, there is a tour is an option in Winnipeg. On my trip we were running behind so I set off on my own a self-guided tour of Winnipeg.
Jasper only offered enough time to stroll the main drag and stop for a flight of beer at Jasper Brewing Company. This is unfortunate as there is much to see and do in the area.
NOTE: VIA Rail does offer stopover options and would highly recommend for those expecting to see more than the train on this trip. Jasper, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Kamloops are good options.
What Is The Food Like on The Canadian Train?
Meal service on this Canadian train review, although a bit confusing at first, get people fed in an efficient way. At the beginning of your trip, you select a seating time which stays the same for the duration of your trip. Meals are surprisingly good, although I am always impressed when food of any quality can be pushed out on a train, plane or river cruise. Meals included many regional dishes which was a nice touch and I never left hungry, day or night.
The service itself was a bit lacking. Plates were often slapped down in a messy heap and on several occasions, I could see staff wiping off silverware with the table clothes. Nothing crazy but again, for the price paid I expected more.
The odd lacking service continued in the bar car. Although the staff was more than happy to assist in the Prestige Park Car, the Skyline Bar Car, not so much.
One night while drinking in the Prestige bar I purchased a round at last call for my new friends and took a bucket of ice to the observation deck of the Sky Line Car for a view of the wildfires in British Columbia. Not even one beer in the attendant working that car accused us of bringing the beer on board and made us finish the drinks or she would take them away. It was shocking to me to see this, again because of the ticket price.
Over breakfast the next day I got a better understanding of why the service fell short on this Canadian train review. While dining with a tour guide who used to work for the Rocky Mountaineer, Western Canada’s premier train service, he pointed out that VIA Rail is a subsidized and a unionized company. The Rocky Mountaineer is not.
Interesting and sad if that is the heart of these service issues on this Canadian train review. Also, I can’t help but feel that because there is no competition to The Canadian, the staff does not have to bring their best. That could just be me…
Would I do it again?
Despite the many shortcomings I experienced on my Canadian train review, I’m happy to say I would do it again. Yes, the staff could have been better and the trip could have been more than getting from A to B but the overall experience is something so incredibly Canadian that it only inspired and strengthened my already strong love for my country.
I arrived at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver refreshed and energized by the trip. I rode the rails that united a nation, something very few people have done.
Perhaps my next journey will be in Prestige Class or Economy and I will have a different take on the experience but the takeaway should be that there will be another Canadian Train experience for me. There truly is no better way to see the diversity of Canada’s vast geography…and no other company to take you.
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