Via Rail: The Canadian: An inhumane way to travel
Toronto to Vancouver on Via Rail.
PLEASE DO NOT SUBJECT YOUR FAMILY TO THIS DISAPPOINTING AND EXPENSIVE EXPERIENCE WITHOUT READING THIS REVIEW!
This trip is antiquated, ill-run exercise in frustration. What Via advertises and what you get are two very different things. They promise a relaxed, luxury vacation and what you get more often than not is a poorly-organized, rarely-on-schedule, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, hope-for-the-best, but-promise-nothing trip into frustration. What Via Rail doesn't tell you is that this trip is not centred around passenger comfort or convenience, for which passengers pay a pretty penny, but the freight train schedules. Like a slow death over several days, be prepared to sit 20, 30, 60 minutes at a time several times a day waiting for a freight train to pass you. Or you can get behind a slow moving freight train and crawl for hours at a time. Then when you finally reach a scheduled stop, you will be either too late to see anything or hurried on and off the train, so Via can make up the time. For people who have saved their money and vacation time, it is very disappointing. A quick check of the comment book in Edmonton will assure you that this is not a rare occurrence, but rather the norm.
Don't bother trying to make any connections such as limo pickup, ferry, airplane or family visits. The schedule is too variable and rarely accurate.We did not make a single scheduled stop, COMING OR GOING, that was on time.
The problem is that despite the fact that Via has padded this schedule considerably to account for frequents delays, they are still constantly behind time. The result is scheduled stops that are whittled down to a few minutes and constantly disappointed passengers. Despite these time grabs, the train continues to lose more time each day until finally you arrive at your destination. We were ten hours late going to Vancouver and two and a half hours late returning. Many passengers were terribly disappointed and said they would never have taken the train had they known that most of their free time was spent sitting idly on the side of the tracks, inside the train, waiting for yet another freight train to pass. They felt cheated and angry.
IT WAS NOT A GOOD START
The first day we waited two hours for a Via train to take us to our connection in Toronto. Finally, we arranged our own limo because we were afraid the timing was getting too tight. In the end, after we complained, Via did pay for the limo, but if we had wanted to go by car, we would have chosen that in the first place and not sat stressing for two hours in a train station. Not a good start to the trip.
We boarded the Canadian in Toronto on a cool spring night in 2011.
The train doesn't look any different than it did when we took it the first and only other time, twenty-five years ago. Luxury? Not really. Just basic. A tiny bathroom-sized cabin with a toilet but no shower, small bar car, small dining room where you wait in line for breakfast (thankfully, lunch and dinner is reserved seating), and a 24 seat panoramic car where you often jostle for a seat. The décor is dated, communications systems broken half the time, and the arrival/departure times are guesses at best. They did put some cozy new duvets on the bed and called it "revamped." Food was decent, but all desserts pre-packed, never freshly made.
We sat waiting for FOUR hours in a little Ontario town with no air conditioning or power while they fiddled with the train. We were told that the problem was that they were making money towing two repaired train cars back from Montreal to BC and although they were causing the train to malfunction, they were not allowed to remove them. Profits first. They had to tow them all the way to BC. People were sweating and looking ill. Via did not feel any need to let us know what was going on. I think they only finally turned the power on because of fear of someone dropping dead of heat exhaustion.
Warning****NO WI-FI anywhere on this trip except in the station at Winnipeg, Jasper and Edmonton and little, if any phone service. Why, when even cruise ships offer these services? Probably money. No television either. No surprise there, but a little annoying when major news happened and we couldn't even get a newspaper.
We got into Winnipeg 2 hours late because of the previous day, so tours were cancelled, disappointing many people, particularly a large group of tourists from England who were shocked by the poor organization of the trip, but we had to leave early to make up the time we lost. We missed a visit with friends, but weren't too worried as we thought we could do it on the way back. (More about that later) Everyone hurried back to the train only to be told that there was another EIGHT-hour delay due to a derailment and we would be sitting there until further notice. (Too late to take tours and we were forced to sit inside the train to pass the time.)
PS: We never actually saw this derailment when we later passed the spot and many other trains passed us as we sat waiting, so there was some speculation that there was a different reason for our delay. Who knows? By this point, we didn't doubt anything. Ill-treatment and lack of information tends to breed suspicion.
While stuck in Winnipeg, I contacted customer service at Via Rail as well as spoke to a customer service person in the station and was basically told; they don't care about our inconvenience. If the train is more than 12 hours late, they will give you a COUPON toward further travel, (like that's EVER going to happen,) but no refund. They said if I wasn't happy, I was welcome to write whatever I wanted on the Internet, which I informed them I would. I want to save others from such a rude awakening on what is supposed to be a "luxury" trip of a lifetime. At almost $700/night/couple, it is poor value for the money. They get away with it because no one bothers to complain and save others from the same fate.
At this time we considered getting off the train and catching an airplane, which we should have done, but we were convinced otherwise by employees who insisted, not only would we be fine, but we would probably end up in Vancouver on time. Big Mistake!!! Take it from me, don't bother asking about the schedule, you will never get a straight answer.
Woke to find we were now TWELVE HOURS late because while we sat waiting in Winnipeg, the snowstorm that everyone knew was coming, finally caught up with us. All night long we would go for twenty minutes and stop for half an hour. It wasn't much better through the prairies all day as we often crawled at a snail's pace. I never did find out why that was, but we no made up time at all.
But the best thing was that because we were supposed to be in Jasper for lunch and we were stuck on the train, they offered us "brunch" instead from 7 am until 1:30 pm. You could only eat once until dinner. You could snack on a few high-calory stale donuts in between if you were hungry, but that was it. The fact that we were stuck on the train all day and had no other dining options did not seem to occur to them.
However, there were no further breakdowns or major problems and everyone were grateful for that. We remained TWELVE hours behind schedule and everyone was very upset about missed connections and holiday plans.
Made it to Edmonton at supper hour instead of breakfast, Jasper at 11pm. Once again, the English tour missed their buses and tours for the day, but much to their relief, got off the train to continue their holiday by bus. There were more than a few jealous passengers who watched them go. As for us, this was to be a romantic cross-Canada vacation to see the Rocky mountains. Would have been nice, but since we arrived so late, we saw NOTHING. Woke up in Kamloops the next morning, with the best views all behind us.
They did add a more modern and updated viewing car to the train in Edmonton; something that did not look like it came from the 1950's. It was nice and spacious and made me wonder why we didn't have it all along. Not much use during Jasper and the spectacular Rockies, however, due to the altered schedule, it was dark.
Well, we should have been in Vancouver at 9 am in the morning. Because of delays, they told us it would be between 2 and 3, then 3 and 4 and then, because we were again stuck following slow moving freight trains, 5pm. You would think that by that time, CN would put our train in first priority to get us to Vancouver. No. Freights first. Lunch was leftover leftovers and, according to the waiter, there was no food for dinner should that need arise. The scenery was lovely, but many of the passengers were too worried about their missed connections in Vancouver to enjoy it. Shame.
In the end, we got behind another slow freight train and crawled into Vancouver at 7:00. No food, not a single snack left on the train, no attempts to pass it or speed things up. The service manager kept coming on and blaming the CN dispatcher, saying he would not allow us to pass. Apparently there is bad blood between CN and Via, something the customers should never be aware of and certainly not subject to. By this time, there was not a pretzel in sight and the staff avoided all eye contact with the passengers. It was clear they had no contingency plan for further emergencies, mechanical, food, or otherwise. No apology from Via, just false cries of "thank you, have a nice day" as we left the train. Trust me, by the look on everyone's face, no one had a nice day and Via rail was not welcome.
As far as we went, we lost a full precious day of vacation with family, not to mention putting our daughter out who took the day off work to meet us at the station. Instead, she sat home all day, waiting for our call.
The only thing good I can say about this trip was the staff. They were helpful and friendly and although they constantly avoided the subject of such poor customer service, it was clear they felt badly about the way we were being treated.
Sure, derailment it a problem for everyone, but why are the passenger trains the last to get through? If this is the case, Via shouldn't advertise first class service. It's an embarrassment to our country for all the foreign visitors who suffered through this trip, never mind false advertising. Most people on the train said had they known that this was the level of service provided, they would never have signed on. There were babies, children and elderly people on this trip and Via couldn't have cared less about their discomfort. While everyone was making the poor parents of a crying baby's life miserable, they did nothing to alleviate the situation. I will NEVER recommend to anyone to put him or herself through this stress where holidays are squandered by a thoughtless corporation and the passenger's time is of no value.
Also, If you think this is a rare problem or I'm just a complainer, I talked to many other very unhappy passengers who assured me that this is becoming what to expect on Via Rail as profits rise and customer service shrinks. The passenger train is a second thought in the larger, more lucrative freight market. A more humane way to travel? I doubt it. This was slow torture. Someone on the train compared it to being Via Rail's prisoner, marched on and off the train at their whim.
Unfortunately, my husband and I had booked to return to Toronto a month later on the train, picking it up in Edmonton. We called Via Rail and were assured that what had happened to us was a very rare occurrence and they offered us a credit voucher for approx. $300 each. This is no way covered the cost of our aggravation, but when they allowed us to apply it to the cost of our trip rather than use it toward future travel (NEVER going to happen), we foolishly agreed to follow our original plans. BTW, Via Rail doesn't tell passengers about the credit voucher (it is 50% of an economy fare, no accommodations), but it is their policy when a train is more than four hours late. You have to call to complain to get it.
We picked up the train in Edmonton at 11:45 pm. Problems immediately with the engine. No power (lights, etc) to the cars. We left an hour late and that lateness grew to 1.5 hours during the night as we stopped and sat doing nothing several times.
In the morning, we were assured this would not be a repeat of our earlier experiences, but our hearts sunk as we sat on the side of the tracks over and over again. Soon we were two hours behind heading to Winnipeg.
As the day went on, our timing continued to worsen, with the same well-used excuses: "CN dispatch poor organization" or" "heavy freight traffic." Seriously??? Why do they keep pretending that is an unusual situation rather than the norm. At Via and CN, freight comes first, the needs of their passengers second. Stop pretending otherwise.
We were supposed to have a four-hour stop over in Winnipeg and dinner with friends that we missed on the way out due to lateness- sorry- foiled again. We ended up with 40 minutes at 10:30 at night! Via seems to think sitting idly on the sides of the tracks for hours at a time is just as good as actually reaching your destinations on time and spending your vacation time the way you planned it. Please believe me when I tell you that you will sit on the sides on the tracks for literally hours each day as you work around one freight train after another.
Day Two and Three:
Honestly, I do not even have the energy to bother giving details. The whole train is disheartened as we do not arrive at a single stop on time or get more than a few minutes at each one to stretch our legs. As usual, we are assured the time will be made up, but as we find ourselves continually sitting at the side of the tracks, even the most naïve of us know this will not happen. We finally arrive in Toronto 2.5 hours late with people scrambling to make connections, most of which are long gone. Another end to a terrible ride. As they scramble to prepare the train for the next group, I shudder for those poor unwitting passengers.
We arrived on the Saturday of the long weekend in Toronto. Our ride was long gone as we were supposed to arrive early and the traffic was terrible. By the time we caught a cab at 12:30, it took us three hours to get out of Toronto and cost us $160 more.
Here is Via Rail's response to my complaint requesting a refund.
Thank you for your email concerning your experience with VIA Rail Canada.
At the outset, please accept our sincere apologies for your overall disappointment with your experience on the Canadian departing on April 28 and May 18. We sincerely regret that your experience failed to meet your expectations.
Please accept our most sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused to you on May 2 due to the delayed arrival of your train 01 into Vancouver. Although on-time performance is a priority at VIA Rail, you will appreciate that mechanical malfunctions and operating difficulties beyond our control can occasionally cause delays despite our best efforts.Train 01 was delayed as a result of a CN derailment at Uno outside of Melville as well as mechanical problems; we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused to our passengers and any negative impact these delays may have had on their travel plans.
We are sorry to learn that your perception of the amenities on board did not properly match your expectations. As reported, you were disappointed with the size of the cabin, lounge in the Park car and that you found the decor was dated, and also that there is no wireless service or television offered on board. As these services are dependant upon the same reception needed for cellular phones, we are unable to provide these services on our Western Transcontinental train at this time due to the very limited receptive zones on this route. We are sorry to learn of your disappointment that brunch was served rather than a breakfast and a lunch, and as reported suitable snacks were not provided to passengers before dinner. Please note that your comments regarding the ammenities and services provided on board have been forwarded to the product manager responsible as well as the managers responsible for our on train services personnel.
We are very sorry to learn that due to the delay of train 01 you were unable to view the Rockies during the daylight hours; we deeply regret the inconvenience caused and negative impact on the enjoyment of your experience.
We are pleased to learn that our employees on board were both friendly and helpful during your trip. Your comments have been forwarded to the managers responsible for our on train services personnel.
We are sorry to learn that train 02 arrived over two hours late on May 21 upon your return to Toronto. As mentioned in your email, after discovering a mechanical problem with one of the cars at Edmonton was removed and delayed departure and further delayed en route by freight traffic. We sincerely apologize that you were delayed on both legs of your trip with VIA.
As a gesture of concern, VIA offers travel credits equivalent to 50% of the value (excluding accommodations) of the affected leg in the case that the Western Transcontinental train is delayed by four hours or more at passenger's destination.
We are sorry to learn of your disappointment with the compensation offered in the form of a 50% travel credit which was exceptionally applied to your return trip on May 18 and reimbursed to your credit card.
We must respectfully decline your request for a cash refund. In the case that a ticket has been used for travel and transportation has been provided cash refunds are never offered. The travel credit offered is a form of service recovery and has no cash value and can therefore not be replaced by a cash refund. VIA offers travel credits as a means to acknowledge the inconvenience caused to our passengers in the case of a delay or service issue and also to encourage future travel with VIA under more favorable circumstances.
Again, thank you for writing and allowing us the opportunity to follow up and address your concerns. It is hoped that, despite your disappointment on this occasion, you will consider travelling with VIA in the future, albeit under more favorable conditions.
Customer Relations Officer
One can argue that Canada, as a single national entity, was created as much by the construction of the railways as by any Acts of the British parliament. These railways originally carried people as much as cargo and provided cultural as well as economic links between various parts of this vast country.
Alas, no more - or, nearly no more.
Nowadays, Via Rail deals with what's left of passenger services on the vast Canadian National rail network, used mostly for (and ruthlessly prioritising) freight trains.
Canadian Pacific, which originally opened the Rockies to the visitors, and arguably created tourism in Canada, has no passenger service left at all, with the Rocky Mountaineer tour company running an excursion operation between Vancouver, Banff, Calgary, Jasper and Whistler. This is sold in the form of packages, with hotel accommodation, meals and other add-ons justifying (or not, as it might be) the huge price (three -four times as expensive as equivalent Via Rail service).
In some areas of the country, notably the so called Toronto-Quebec corridor, which also covers Ottawa and Montreal, the Via Rail service resembles what most Europeans are used to, namely several trains per day, running at least at the speed comparable to driving.
On other routes it's a bit of a rump service run by a rump of a national railway company.
The Canadian is Via Rail's flagship service, the train with a number 1, which runs cross-country and (almost) cross-continent between Toronto and Vancouver. It used to be a daily service with two trains, one on each of the southern (via Calgary) and northern (via Edmonton) routes. There are now three trains a week, covering the northern route only.
The Ocean is the other long-distance train, running from Montreal to Halifax, and takes around 20 hours (a drive takes 14) and has a more modern feel. They even have new carriages in economy class (somehow hopefully called Renaissance) and the train seemed to be a popular service, quite busy both times we took it.
You can thus cross Canada (and the entire continent) by train all the way from Halifax to Vancouver (The Ocean, then a relatively short hop on one of the Corridor trains, then The Canadian).
On both these long distance routes (and to some extent on the shorter Corridor services too) Via Rail operates a bit like an airline: there is boarding time which is usually 30 minutes, and often an hour before the train departs; luggage needs to be checked in (and it needs to happen an hour before the train departs, at last at the stations where there is a longer layover or where the train starts or terminates, and so on. This means that the whole process has a more relaxed feel (you don't end up running for the train 2 minutes after departure time) but it also tends to lose advantages it has over the air travel. Via Rail tends to market its services as a "more humane way to travel" and on many levels it is: the trains (at least the long distance ones, we only experienced one shorter service so I can't comment here) are comfortable, with lots (and I mean lots) of leg-room, ability to recline quite far back, plenty of space for cabin luggage and, in the stainless steel carriages that date to the 50's, footrests. Small (air plane style) pillow and a blanket are provided for those travelling in the night in the economy class.
Most carriages (at least on The Canadian) are sleepers, with two options that vary by the level of privacy but are both vastly more expensive than the economy seats. And by vastly, I mean just that: in Europe, sleepers or couchettes normally incur a supplement that is less than a price of the actual travel ticket. On Via Rail trains, the difference in price between economy seats (commonly referred to as "Coach") and both the sleeper classes is as high as a factor of three. For that, you get a pretty wide berth (and a child is allowed to share a parent's one) as well as all meals (and the restaurant on The Canadian at least is pretty reasonable) included.
All passengers get an access to the Dome car, one with an observation deck an windows that extend up and around - this is particularly good in the mountains, as it allows for viewing on both sides without jumping from one row of seats to the other.
In addition to the Ocean, Canadian and Corridor trains, Via Rail operate an infrequent service to Gaspe in Quebec, a workaday train from Montreal to Seneterre and Jonquerre (also in Quebec) and a summer service between Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert in the northern part f the Rockies and the British Columbia. Finally, there is also the strange train, running three times a week, that links Winnipeg and Churchill on the shores of the Hudson Bay. This is the only train line in Canada that is almost exclusively passenger and actually provides the only land access to parts of the country not accessible by road.
Via Rail sells its tickets online, over the phone and at the stations. I found the people that staff their call centres helpful, friendly and service orientated, while the ground staff at the stations where very often stand-offish, a bit gruff if not to say downright rude and not that helpful at all. Staff on board train were all (and we met many different crews) great, from the service managers to the stewards and the restaurant staff, they were all good humoured, friendly and helpful.
The prices of Via Rail tickets can easily compete with the Greyhound prices, though to achieve that tickets need to be bought in advance (at least a week in advance for the Super Saver fares). The comfort of the ride is definitely better, but the choice of times and routes, and at least on some routes, the speed, are worse.
All in all, travelling by train in Canada is still possible and certainly quite enjoyable, but the existing service is a sad shadow of its former self. It's hard to think of a better way to cross the vast interior of the country and the continent while seeing what one is crossing in the process, although one needs to either have a lot of money to pay for the berths, or break the journey a few times if travelling in economy seats. The biggest failure is the low frequency of the trains, which means that some parts of the country are always covered by night - notably most of Quebec on the Ocean, a significant part of the Canadian Shield and the scenic ride between Kamloops and Vancouver on the Canadian.
We split the journey across Canada into several legs, as much to break the trip (there is only so much time one can sleep in an economy seat) as to see the places in between. The first stop falls in Sioux Lookout, a tiny municipality of five thousand people about 4 hours' drive north from Thunder Bay and six hours' drive east from Winnipeg.
The Canadian leaves Toronto at 10pm.
The journey between Toronto and Sioux Lookout takes almost thirty hours (which is quite a long time to cover the less-than-a-thousand miles between Ontario's capital and one of its westernmost towns). We are travelling in economy class, or "coach", rather than in one of the sleeper carriages that the train predominantly consists of. But there is none of the condescending attitude that you encounter on other major train journeys towards the passengers in the cheapest class (as it was for example on Australia's Indian-Pacific). In fact, once you get on the train, the somehow officious attitude that ViaRail ground staff quite consistently show changes completely. The people who run the train are helpful, friendly, down to earth and sensible, making the journey just that little bit easier.
The train consists of old (call it "classic") stainless-steel carriages. The economy car is open plan, with rows of seats in 2+2 setup on both sides of the central aisle, mostly facing towards the direction of travel. At the both ends of the carriage there are sets of four seats of which two face the opposite way, reserved for larger groups and families travelling together. We get one of those, but as the carriage is by no means full, we make ready to claim more spaces.
There is plenty of room: the seats recline quite far back, and each has an extendible footrest - the amount of legroom is pretty good in the standard seats too, and the arms-rests in between fold up so you can stretch across if the train isn't busy.
We are given pillows and blankets, which, in addition to our own sleeping bags and fleeces, make for quite a comfortable pallet, and after the initial excitement we all, somehow, sleep.
When we wake up the next day, the train has passed the industrial heartlands of eastern Ontario (it leaves Sudbury around 5am) and we are already deep into the seemingly endless landscape of the Canadian Shield. A boreal forest of pine, fir and birch stretches interminably around us, broken only by a glimpse of an occasional lake. The day is dull and grey, and the desolate stations we occasionally pass seem no more than logging or fishing camps. When we arrive in Hornepayne, the wind is howling and a freezing rain falls diagonally against our faces as we walk along the platform (i.e. a strip of hardened gravel by the track side) to stretch the legs. It's horrible. I'm loving it.
When the train departs Hornepayne, we go to the Dome Car, an observation carriage which has a fast-food buffet in the lower section, and a domed, glass-roofed viewing area upstairs. The food selection in the buffet confirms the Canadian fascination with processed dairy, as the sandwiches on offer are: cheese, ham and cheese, egg and cheese, and beef and cheese. I am eerily reminded of the SPAM sketch, and settle for pot noodles (or a local equivalent) and a burger.
The view from the top is similar to the view form our carriage (it's in the mountains that the Dome seat is worth its weight in gold), but the change of indoors scenery is always welcomed. We meet people as we always do, other tourists, backpackers, people travelling for work and for family reasons. There is a woman from Sioux Lookout that can't understand why we would even think of going there (this is a bit discouraging, but we remember that the main idea was simply to break the journey). There is a guy travelling over thousand miles to meet his virtual family from Second Life. There is a girl with a son of our younger's age which is great because they can run up and down the carriage shrieking and jumping, annoying the other passengers but giving the parents a break.
In the evening, we decide to send Mum and Daughter for the sit-down dinner (the sleeper travellers have food included, we have to pay an extra 30 CAD for a three-course meal) to save money and save embarrassment in the posh company from the upper sleeper classes.
We order one dinner between us, but "with chef's compliments" we actually get two, which to be honest is more than we can eat, but as the food is rather lovely, at least by train restaurants' standards, we manage somehow. The cheesecake is the best I ever had in our travels in Canada, anyway.
As the day comes to the close, the rain stops and the sky clears to a deep, purplish blue, painted with golden and red streaks towards the west. The lakes gleam darkly as we - this time literally - ride into the Canadian sunset.
We arrive at one in the morning and when our hosts' friend turns up (they are not here and in addition to leaving a key for us and the flat for our use, they delegated a friend of theirs to be our contact point) and takes us to our couch, we can only crawl into the beds and sleep. The next train is due in two days' time, and this time it's only eight hours to Winnipeg.
In Canada, the passenger rail service is known as "Via Rail". Via Rail's "Canadian" train runs three times per week in each direction between Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia. It is a three day, four night journey through a wide cross-section of Canada's terrain. I travelled this route in August 2010 riding in a single bedroom between Toronto and Jasper, Alberta. After a couple of nights in Jasper, I boarded the train again, in economy class this time, for the 16-or-so hour trip to Vancouver. This was my second trip across the country on the Canadian, but my first in over 30 years. Some things have changed in that time (and generally not for the better), but the kindness, service and attention that the on-board staff pay to guests has remained of the highest caliber. Likewise, the food served in the dining car is on a par with the very finest restaurants, in spite of the need to prepare it in a tiny, rocking and shaking kitchen.
Boarding the Train in Toronto
The train departs from the impressive and historic Toronto Union Station. It is best to arrive at least an hour before the train's 10:00pm scheduled departure, especially if you have bags to check. If you need to pick up your tickets, this can be done in the great hall, after which you can proceed to the boarding gate area.
Sleeping car passengers go to a counter where they meet with their dining car steward. Here, reservations are made for either the early or late sitting for lunch and dinner the next day (breakfast is served on a first-come, first-served basis). Once this is done, you are invited to proceed to the Panorama Lounge - a comfortable quiet lounge near the boarding area which offers complimentary coffee, juice, soft drinks and light snacks. Just a note - if the train is full, this lounge is a bit overcrowded immediately before boarding.
Roughly 30 minutes before departure, sleeping cars are boarded a couple at a time. You are asked to go to your cabin where your cabin steward meets you, goes over a few safety issues, then invites you to proceed to the nearest dome car for welcoming champagne and Hors d'oeuvre.
My train left right on time as I enjoyed my champagne, proceeding under the CN tower then heading north through the city. A second glass of champagne is served as the train proceeds north of the downtown core. At one point just north of Toronto, the train backs a short distance to switch tracks, then proceeds forward again on the way to Northern Ontario.
After the second (third) glass of champagne, you stagger back to your sleeping accommodation. A bit of champagne combined with the (as yet) unfamiliar rocking of the train is a bit of a dicey combination.
The rail cars are vintage equipment from the mid 1950's. Constructed of stainless steel, they were built to last - and have. They have developed a few squeaks and rattles over the years, but have been wonderfully maintained and updated, and appear today essentially as if they were new. Via may want to consider some installing better controls in the dome cars for air conditioning - our train was like a refrigerator which the car attendant did his very best to correct by turning the heat on. I'm not an expert on how heating and cooling systems run on railway cars, but energy is never free and if the only way to counteract air conditioning is to turn on heat, then the energy cost is being paid somewhere.
The sleeping cars offer three different options. You can book a berth (either upper or lower, or if travelling as a couple, one of each). By day, these consist of two facing seats, and by night fold down into an upper and lower bed, with thick curtains between the berth and the public walkway. There are two washrooms immediately adjacent to the berths (for a total of 6 people). Often, berths are used by the onboard crew so are frequently left in the nighttime configuration, since these people are working all day.
The second option is a cabin for one (which I occupied). This is a small, but cozy private compartment by day with a single seat. It has its own toilet and sink. By night, the bed folds down, and takes up essentially the entire compartment - including covering over the toilet.
Lastly, there is a cabin for two which is a private room with an upper and lower bunk. A private toilet is located in a tiny separate little room, and a sink is in the main compartment. By day, two folding chairs take the place of the beds. The room also has a small closet area. For a premium charge, a cabin for two can also be booked by a single person.
If travelling with the family, it is possible to combine two adjacent cabins for two by opening a wall. This creates a cabin for four people with an upper and lower double bed. The same cabin can also be booked as Via's "Romance by Rail" suite, with just the lower bed set up.
In addition to these three options found in the regular sleeping cars, on each train there is one cabin for three. I have never actually seen one of these, but from the Via web site, it appears to have upper and lower bunks, plus an additional single bunk. In the day time, in addition to the standard two folding chairs, it also has a bench or couch. This is located in the last car of the train, and usually appears to be booked many months ahead of time.
Each of the rooms (but not the berths) has a standard power plug. There is one shower in each sleeping car. If you want to peek out the window from bed when you wake up in the morning, the lower berth, the cabin for one, and the lower bed in the cabin for two are adjacent to a window. All windows have a shade that can be pulled down.
If you are travelling in economy class, you get a comfortable seat with ample leg room. There is a foot rest which pulls out from beneath your seat, and a power plug on the wall beside each pair of seats. Groups of 4 facing seats are available for families travelling together. The term "Comfortable seat" is relative if you are travelling all the way across the country - no seat is truly comfortable after three and a half days.
Onboard Service and Activities
While sleeping car passengers can certainly sit in their rooms during the day if they wish, many other options are available. For every third sleeping car, there is a car with an upper level dome, offering a panoramic view of the scenery. One staff member is assigned to this car and he/she gives attentive service to guests. Bar service is available here - it's a bit expensive but it is a premium location so no complaint about this. In the lower level of some of these cars, there are several tables, and a selection of cards and board games. Sporadically, some trains offer entertainment in this car. There is also a "Park Car" at the very back of the train. While offering the same type of observation dome as the other cars, the lower level of the park car contains two lounges with comfortable seating - a great place to relax, meet people and watch the scenery go by. Each of these observation cars also offers complimentary coffee, muffins, cookies and fruit throughout the day.
Economy class passengers have access to a similar dome car. No complimentary snacks, but light meals, drinks and bar service can be purchased. Friends who took the trip a couple of years ago told me of a café service for economy class passengers where reasonably priced meals could be purchased. Sadly, Via seems to have done away with this. Economy passengers now have the option of going to the dining car (tremendous food, but very expensive if travelling with a family), or eating still rather expensive and not very good sandwiches/wraps etc. purchased in their dome car.
I mentioned the dining car above, and that it is rather expensive for economy class passengers. But to those in sleeper class, where meals are included, the food is exemplary. The dining car consists of tables for four people, so singles and couples are normally seated with fellow passengers. You get to know the people on the train over the few days of the trip, and chatting across the dinner table is an excellent way to learn about your fellow travelers. The menu changes every day and generally offers four main dish selections, including one vegetarian item.
The menu includes suggested wine pairings, but sadly, and to rather the embarrassment of the onboard Via staff, the recommended wines are no longer sold by the glass. It seems that an arbitrary corporate decision to not offer these wines has detracted from the dinner experience offered to Via's guests, embarrassed the on-board staff, and made itself the topic of negative conversation onboard. One would think that Via could at least reprint the menus to eliminate the recommendations if they choose not to offer the wines.
But with or without an appropriate wine, the meal was delicious, and was always followed by an equally delicious desert. The staff are kind and polite and never rush guests at their meal, but it is important for guests to remember that dinner is served in several sittings. They politely and eloquently ask guests to enjoy a meal, then return to the other areas of the train to allow the next group to enter.
The Scenery and the Stops
In 1979 when I previously rode this train, it took a different route. At that time, it skirted the shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, then proceeded through the southern prairies to Calgary, Alberta, followed by Banff and Lake Louise, then via Kicking Horse Pass and the spiral tunnels and on to Vancouver.
Now, it takes a more northerly route both in Ontario, and in the mountains. North of Lake Nipigon in Ontario, there are trees, with the odd swamp surrounded by trees, interspersed by a few lakes surrounded by trees and a couple of rivers lined with trees. I love trees, but these were trying even my patience.
The route change was due to a political mandate during the term of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He cut Via to the bone, eliminated many routes and made the few remaining ones almost unworkable. The train is also forced to stop on sidings very frequently to allow for the passage of freight trains, causing the total travel time from Toronto to the west coast to be longer than it was in the 1930's. However, the exemplary quality of the onboard service almost made me wish for the train to be late. Staff on the train more than make up for the inadequacies of the railway.
Approximately every eight hours, the train makes an extended stop. At these stops, the train is serviced - food and water is put on, a new engine crew takes over, etc. At these stops, passengers are welcome to step off of the train (although are generally asked to leave the platform and go into the station to allow vehicles to access the train for servicing). The stops are usually about 45 minutes to one hour in duration.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, there is a scheduled stop of four hours. There are various activities available here, including a bus tour of the city and a boat tour on the river. In place of the organized tours, we decided to wander around "The Forks". Named for the point where two great rives come together (the Red and the Assiniboine), The Forks consists of land once in railway use, but what were once the railway yards have been turned into park land, and former railway warehouses now house various shops and restaurants. To reach the area, simply exit the station through the rear door and turn to your right.
After stretching our legs at The Forks, we next visited the Winnipeg Railway Museum, located right in the station. This museum displays assorted vintage railway equipment and artifacts.
Exiting through the front doors of the station places you on Main Street, a few blocks from Portage Avenue - the traditional central intersection of Winnipeg. Indeed, the four hour stop at Winnipeg represents the perfect amount of time disembark and see a little of this wonderful city.
In Winnipeg, the staff on the train disembarks, and a new crew gets on. I was happy to offer a tip to the disembarking crew for the great work they did in the first portion of the journey.
After Winnipeg, the trees give way to rolling prairie. Surprisingly, this actually represents a somewhat more interesting landscape than the endless trees of Ontario. Fields of grain, corn, sunflowers and other cereal crops line the tracks. The train passes through small towns, by grain elevators, and rotting stations from the glory era of the railways. It also continues to frequently sit on sidings to make way for passing freight trains.
On our trip, we passed forbidding black clouds a few hours outside of Winnipeg. Watching the news a after our arrival at Jasper, we saw that these clouds had dumped a deluge of rain on that city causing significant flooding.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is passed by night, and early in the morning, the train arrives at Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton has a unique station which is on a siding, so the train has to back in. At Edmonton, the train picked up an additional car. Called a Panorama car, this was a completely glass-roofed observation car which was placed near the middle of the train. This car offered an expanded viewing area for sleeping car passengers.
The train then leaves Edmonton, and after a bit more prairie, the first foothills of the Rocky Mountains begin. Small at first, before long these foothills grow into truly majestic mountains. Passing through a couple of towns and following the valley of the Athabasca River, the train soon reaches the resort community of Jasper, Alberta. A 90 minute stop here allows through passenger to explore a bit of the town. We left our train in Jasper to spend a couple of nights at a local hotel and see some of the sights. We rented a car for two days right at the station, and greatly enjoyed visiting several short hiking trails in the area. We also had some good food in Jasper (but not as good as on the train).
Two days later on August 15, we boarded the next westbound train for Vancouver. When we arrived at the historic Jasper train station, another train was just leaving - heading for Prince Rupert BC. I very much look forward to taking this trip one day, but in another action by Via Rail corporate management seeming designed to annoy and dissuade any potential customers, the westbound train was leaving for Prince Rupert just shortly before a train from the east arrived - making a connection impossible.
We also listened to the Jasper Station Nazi, barking orders on the loudspeaker. I find there is one individual of this type at nearly every one of Via Rail's major stations - one employee who sullies the reputation of the great majority of Via Rail employees who are exemplary at what they do. I used to laugh at one individual in Ottawa who was especially noticeable in this regard, and prior to leaving on this trip, I would swear I saw his twin in Toronto Union Station. But, the bad comes with the good and there are many good employees to counter the odd individual like this.
For this last portion of the trip from Jasper to Vancouver, a journey of about 16 hours, we decided to save a few dollars and ride in economy class. I already mentioned above my thoughts about the removal of a decent economy class food service.
The coach was not crowded - indeed the seats across the aisle from us were empty, so we could scoot over to get pictures from that side of the train when the mood struck us. We also visited the dome which gave a good panoramic view just like the dome in sleeper class. The mountains were spectacular, but all too soon the sun had set. I did not sleep well in the seat, but I chose the economy class and am not complaining about this. As seats go, these were very comfortable with tremendous amounts of leg room. In the night by moonlight, the Fraser River could be seen parallel to the track. I spotted the famous Hell's Gate, lit by floodlights.
A couple of rows behind us, one of the train staff had set up a little working area. I think he was the boss in some way as he was talking on his radio to the engineer, etc. No problem with that, and no problem through the night, but early in the morning his cell phone, or radio or something started emitting a very loud ringtone, repeatedly. He then started complaining to one of his coworkers about some inequity in the jobs he had been assigned, and so on. I'm sure the staff I encountered earlier in my journey had certain complaints about the way they were treated, but they kept them to themselves - this individual aired them for the passengers to hear. He is the only individual I encountered on board the train who I have anything negative to say about.
The train arrived in Vancouver, basically on time. The train backs into the Vancouver station, then splits in two and the front half backs into an adjacent track so that people don't have to walk as far. Full marks on the sentiment, but given that splitting the train took a good 20 minutes, the 2 minute walk would have been preferable. After three days of seeing the sights in Vancouver, we flew back to Toronto.
In Sleeper class, this is a trip of a lifetime. In spite of corporate and political efforts to destroy the viability of Via Rail, their employees make it work. I would definitely ride in sleeper class again. As far as economy class goes, I would fly or take the bus first.
In recent years, Via has undertaken a round of "de-branding". Most trains once had names, invoking the romance of rail travel. Now, only the Canadian and one other train, the Ocean from Montreal to Halifax, retain a name - all others are just numbers. The premium service class on the Canadian was once known as "Silver and Blue Class", replaced by "Sleeper Class". I think we know there is a sleeper - "Silver and Blue" invoked some emotional response (or, perhaps a feeling of being spoiled) - "Sleeper" does not. The premium service on shorter distance trains was once branded as "Via 1", but has since been replaced by "Business". Again, the special has been replaced by the obvious.
Via has recently offered 75% discounts for travel on various trains, including the Canadian - I travelled on one of these deals from Toronto to Jasper. But from the point of view of people who paid full price, they must feel like suckers - spending 4 times what most people on the train paid. At 75% off, Via cannot possibly recover costs and at the same time, alienates individuals who did not receive the discount. Perhaps in place of money losing discounts, a more modest price reduction for everyone, combined with proactive marketing, may be appropriate.
But even with the management deficiencies, the exemplary work of the vast majority of onboard Via staff, combined similarly exemplary work by some station staff, do rescue Via Rail from corporate incompetence and make The Canadian worth travelling on. I do strongly recommend a trip in sleeper class to anyone wishing to see Canada. Perhaps, some day, Via Rail as a corporate entity will start actually trying to be successful in what they do, and give their onboard staff some support and assistance in their valiant effort to make this train the trip of a lifetime.
A trans-continental train journey on VIA Rail will be one of the most memorable journeys that you will take in your lifetime, and its arguably the best way for someone to discover Canada's scale, landscape and people. I've traveled coast to coast on VIA Rail in Canada and on Amtrak in the US, and it is sometimes helpful to compare the two services together.
Like Amtrak, VIA Rail is a complex organisation that is halfway between being a commercial operator and a state-run public service. VIA Rail, however, offers a much higher standard of service than Amtrak, but charges proportionally more on those routes that are targeted primarily at tourists. The current route map is a shadow of the rail service that once existed in Canada, but it is very well patronised and very popular.
Broadly speaking, services can be divided as follows: western services include the famous 'Canadian' that runs three times a week Vancouver-Jasper-Edmonton-Winnipeg-Toronto and the 'Hudson Bay' that runs north from Winnipeg to Churchill. A couple of diesel railcar services operate on Victoria and in Northern Ontario. The busiest, fastest and most heavily used business routes are in the 'corridor' between southern Ontario and Québec: trains on this route are the closest equivalent to European intercity trains or Amtrak's north-east corridor, operating fast and comfortable routes between Windsor, Sarnia, Kingston, Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Québec City. Eastern services are limited to the 'Chaleur' (Montréal-Gaspé) and 'Ocean' (Montréal-Halifax), which like western trains are targeted more towards tourists. A few additional state-supported trains run from Montréal into remote regions of northern Québec.
On those routes that are popular with tourists, on board service is very good, with heavily refurbished stainless steel fifties railway carriages and very comfortable bedrooms and suites. The 'Canadian' is the flagship service, with restored observation cars throughout the train and full service restaurant and café cars. In the summer time the train can be very long to cope with demand. A beautifully restored aerodynamic lounge and observation car usually sits at the tail end of the train for sleeper passengers.
Other trains offer different levels of service, so check the VIA Rail website to understand what each train offers. For instance the 'Hudson Bay' uses the same restored carriages as the 'Canadian', but the restaurant car offers a slightly less expansive menu and there's no observation car.
The 'Ocean' operates six times a week between Montréal and Halifax. It is exceptional to the VIA Rail standard in that it uses modern railway carriages originally built for a still-born sleeper service that would have operated between the UK and Europe through the Channel Tunnel. These trains are marginally less comfortable than those on the Canadian, but the route is a wonderful trip and in summer time features an enhanced sleeper service with on-board guides and wine tasting.
Many tourists take advantage of VIA Rail rail passes (see the VIA Rail website) for a set number of days travel in a month period. An alternative is the North America Rail Pass, sold in conjunction with Amtrak for a month of travel in both Canada and the USA, provisional only on you making journeys in both countries and crossing the border at least once. These include all travel in coach/economy/seated class, which on longer trips is great value for covering a lot of ground. Seated 'Comfort' class on long distance trains offers a reclining seat with footrest, blanket, pillow and amenity kit, although not showers. In this respect, VIA Rail can offer both luxury high-end travel and bargain basement accommodation on the same train. Compare the seated coach class to Greyhound, and you'll have a fantastic trip: with room to move about, meet other passengers and eat good food, you'll have a great trip whichever class you're in.
My personal recommendation is to go the whole way, coast to coast, and if time allows, to divert to Churchill on the 'Hudson Bay'. Be sure to take some good books, though, because the train takes about forty hours to reach the northern most point on the VIA Rail network. However you'll see northern Manitoba's tundra and maybe even the northern lights and Churchill's seasonal polar bear population!
We are just back from taking VIA rail from Vancouver to Halifax and back again (with a 2-week break in the Maritimes). For the 3-night trip between Vancouver and Toronto, book early (like at least 6 months prior to your trip), for fall colours in the forests travel in early to mid-October, for animal viewing travel in May or in the fall for the best viewing between Jasper and Banff (get off at Jasper and take bus tour to Banff). Wonderful trip and highly recommended, but expect delays as VIA does not take priority over the freight trains (we were over 4 hours late at both ends of the trip). Pack a small suitcase (there's no place to store a large one, so just check the larger one(s) in for your destination and just take the smaller bags on board for use on the train). For those travelling as a couple, if you can afford it, book a 'drawing room' - there are only 4 of them on board and they are much more spacious (i.e. no bunk beds). If you book a double sleeper, tell the attendant to just leave the lower bunk down during the day and put the upper bunk up - this way you have a nice 'sort of' settee and you can take a daytime nap if desired. No locks on the doors and none needed - everything was certainly safe left in our room. The food was very good and service was excellent between Toronto and Winnipeg (crew change here). The service could have been better between Vancouver and Winnipeg.
Do NOT expect a spacious room - expect a submarine-sized room - this is a train, not a hotel on wheels. Lots of fun with tourists from around the world. We had a terrific time and will be doing it again, this time from Winnipeg to Churchill Bay to see the polar bears.
My boyfriend and I went to Canada in the summer and as he is a bit of a train addict (I know - I wonder why as well) we decided to see Canada by rail. This review will be partly about the service etc you can expect from Via and partly about our specific journeys with the company. Just to warn, this is a long review, but I hope it's helpful. Oh and just for reference its pronounced vee-a
WHAT IS VIA?
Via Rail is Canada's national passenger train company. It runs trains through most of Canada's regions except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Labrador.
FARES AND SERVICES:
There are two classes on Via trains, Comfort Class (economy) and Via 1/sleeper/silver and blue (1st class - name depends on the particular train). For shorter journeys I would definitely say that paying extra for first class is not worth it (see later in review). However, if you're spending the night on the train, try to upgrade to sleeper if you can - you will be so grateful by the time you reach your destination!!
There are obviously lots of different fares for various different routes. I'll use some examples for some of the routes we travelled. All prices are in Canadian dollars.
A single from Montreal to Toronto costs around $110 in comfort class.
The main part of our journey was on the Canadian, train number 001. This train runs from Toronto through to Vancouver with various stops along the way. If you go all the way it costs around $490 off peak (22nd Oct - 31st May) and around $650 for peak time (1st Jun - 21st Oct) for Comfort Class. For Sleeper Class (Silver and Blue on the Canadian) it costs around $840 for a berth and $1270 for a room off peak. At peak time this rises to around $1120 for a berth and $1689 for a room.
Via does offer various discounts, including student, senior, child and early booking.
When we went we decided that we would get a rail pass. We ended up getting a North American Rail Pass (NARP) which covered any train on Via Rail and Amtrak. This worked out to be a fantastic deal. The NARP gives you 30 days unlimited rail travel on any Via or Amtrak train. It costs $1149 at peak time and $815 off peak. As two students we paid $1034 and this applies to seniors and children as well. To get this fare as a student you do need an international student card (ISIC) - they will not take a NUS card.
If you just want to travel within Canada you can buy a rail pass just for Via which costs $827 at peak time and $523 off peak. However this only lets you travel on 12 days within a 30 day period.
The rail passes only cover comfort class. I was not exactly relishing the thought of spending 3 days on a train from Toronto to Jasper sitting during the day and at night. My Dad (bless him) said he would pay for us to upgrade for any parts of the trip where we had to sleep on board the train. The upgrade fare for the Canadian (a total of 3 nights) was $1159 for both of us (student rate). This was for a berth although we were later put into two single bedrooms for no extra cost. So in total we paid $1613 each for all our travel. When you consider that the fare for the Canadian on its own would have been $1120 each on its own - we thought that this was an absolute bargain.
As a note - this can be a bit of a risk because you can only book an upgrade 21 days before you travel but definitely worth it.
As well as giving us a bed our upgrade also gave us all our food inclusive - more about this later - but wow!
The trains in Canada are not frequent. In fact the amount of trains compared to over here is pretty bad. The Canadian goes three times a week from Toronto (and from Vancouver back the other way). Trains go every day between Montreal and Ottawa, Ottawa and Toronto and Toronto and Niagara Falls. You need to make sure that you print all the schedules off the Via website so that you can plan your time around these. Turning up at the station is not an option really as there may not be a train for another two days!
BEFORE WE LEFT THE UK:
My boyfriend booked the passes online through the Via website, rather than going through a third party in the UK. We were then contacted by Via via (lol!) e-mail. A lovely lady called Stella told us all the information that she needed (passport numbers, student numbers) and then proceeded to book us tickets on the one Via train and the one Amtrak train that we needed to secure the passes. She was very helpful and continued to help us with any questions that we had. From this experience I would have to say that Via's customer service, as far as their sales department was concerned, was fantastic.
Our first experience of Via rail was travelling from Montreal to Ottawa. We went Comfort Class for this part of the journey. We had prebooked our ticket for this before we left the UK. When we got to the station in Montreal we went to the Via desk to collect and pay for our passes. This should have been a fairly quick process but the other half had forgotten to ring his bank to say he was going abroad and they put a stop on his card when they saw the amount he was trying to put through. Huge fuss about ringing the bank and eventually putting it on my card but the man behind the desk could not have been more helpful, phoning the bank etc.
Via trains and Canadian stations work slightly differently to over here. Instead of hanging around on the platform waiting for the train, you have to queue up in the main station hall, then go through one by one, down escalators to the train.
So we were off, other half very excited about being on the train - I humour him. There was nothing magical about this part of the journey; it just felt like a normal train ride. However, I will say that the seats are so much more comfortable than economy class in the UK. They recline and have their own little table.
Being students we did not purchase any food from the on-board service, which is normally very over-priced, so I can't comment on this. We took our own food on board and this did us just fine.
Our next journeys with Via were Ottawa to Toronto and Toronto to Niagara Falls return. These were again fairly standard trips, with great service and comfortable seats.
THE MAIN EVENT:
For us the main event was the trip across Canada. After an early start, which involved packing the essentials for three days into a smaller suitcase, we headed off to Toronto station. When we arrived we took our suitcases to the check in desk and deposited them - a huge relief after lugging them across the city to get there. We then headed to the Silver and Blue Lounge, which we had access to because of the upgrade on this part of the route. Here you could help yourself to a newspaper and various drinks and snacks. It was not a huge lounge but it was certainly better than queuing up for an hour to get onto the train.
We then headed on board. We were directed to our carriage and from there our bedrooms. We had been booked into two berths but were upgraded to two single rooms at no extra cost because they needed the extra berths. Our rooms were, well, tiny! I mean really tiny! There was a sink in the corner, with a toilet next to it. There was then a seat opposite the toilet, built in. Where is the bed I hear you ask? Well it's in the wall. You pull the handle and as if by magic it descends from above the seat. It then clips down. All very neat and compact, and everything you need. Only problem that I could foresee was that the bed covered the toilet, so if you woke in the night with that nagging feeling, you have to get out of bed, unclip it, push it into the wall and then put it all back down again when you've finished. All in all quite a fuss but not a huge problem.
When we got to our rooms we found a little welcome pack which consisted of a towel, shampoo, conditioner and soap. Nothing fancy but a nice touch. Then our cabin attendant, Shannon, came to see us. She told us that how to put our beds down, where to find everything. I know that they're paid to be friendly but Shannon, and the other staff that we met, we all really nice, without too much of that fake 'Have a nice day now' attitude you get in the States.
Having got rid of our bags in the cabin we went exploring. There is no lock on the outside of the cabin door so take your valuables with you. We headed up through the dining car, and the entertainment car, to the dome car. This car has to be the iconic image of Via. The car is on two levels, the lower with a small seating area with large windows, and the upper level having the roof made almost entirely of glass. The views from here were spectacular. However, because it has the best view, it is very popular and you really need to get there early to bag a seat. Some people left their things on the seats while they were having lunch or dinner, which really irritated me as there were nearly always people on the lower level, waiting to go up.
We managed to bag a seat in the dome straight away, which was great, we could see everything as we pulled out of Toronto and said goodbye to the CN Tower. We were then presented with champagne and some nibbles to welcome us on board - I could get used to this! These we brought round by Kevin, our barman, who was always around. He brought the drinks (alcohol was not included in the price) and ran the entertainment car. He was great and would spend his time chatting to us quite happily - again that feeling of friendliness without the 'over the topness' you can get in the States.
In the entertainment car you could help yourself to tea, coffee and orange juice as well as biscuits and fruit. In the morning there were muffins and yoghurts for those people who did not want to go to the dining car for breakfast.
Then about four hours out of Toronto, BANG. Everyone felt the train jolt, and then come to an emergency stop. We all looked around, confused. For a little while there was no explanation. Then we heard someone over Kevin's walkie talkie say that we had hit a car - bloody hell we thought. A couple of minutes later there came an announcement over the tannoy asking for a doctor. Unfortunately it was too late; the car's driver had basically been killed on impact. He had apparently tried to beat the train, ie crossed the crossing before the train got there. The level crossing had lights but no barrier. Thankfully, Kevin said it was very rare.
We all felt pretty horrible about this, but it should not be in any way a deterrent from taking the train across Canada - yes it was tragic but it was dealt with well by the staff. However, we had to wait for about four hours while Via investigated the crash so we had a huge delay. This only got worse, as we were already late, and a lot of Canada only has single tracks, we spent a lot of time waiting in sidings. By the time we got to Jasper we were over eight hours late - not great. It did mean that we got an extra meal on the train which was good as the food was great.
So onto the food. Breakfast was run on a first come, first serve basis, as was lunch on the first day. However, normally you have to make a reservation for first, second or third sitting, which was for lunch and dinner. We always tried to take second sitting, which was at the most civilised time, around 12.30 for lunch and 7 for dinner.
I have to say that I was hugely impressed by the food on the train. There were a couple of dining cars, each with its own kitchen. The kitchens were absolutely tiny and the amount of cooking that went on in them amazed me. For breakfast we had juice or cereal to start and then a choice of four hot options. These included eggs benedict (yummy), French toast and full cooked. There was also continental breakfast for those who preferred that. For lunch there was a choice of three meat and one veggie dish. The ones we had included beef burger and quiche. Dinner was soup and salad and then again three meat and one veggie meal. This was followed by desert or cheese and biscuits. Some of the dinners that we had were beef, stuffed chicken breast and bison (other half had this but I tasted it and it was very nice). Drinks (apart from juice with breakfast and water) were not included. We were given a free glass of wine each by our restaurant manager (I changed mine to a lager which they were very happy to do) due to the delay. If you want to buy a drink the lagers were around $4 per can. Each table in the dining car seats 4 people and you are placed with different people every meal time. This is good as it means you chat with all the different people and you learn interesting things. Most of the people were a lot older than us (many people do this trip in retirement) but this was fine as they were all very chatty and we didn't miss having people our own age. Overall the food was a very high standard, especially when you consider the number of people and the size of the kitchen. We also went on Amtrak and the food on Via was far, far superior. On Amtrak the best you could hope for was a greasy burger. The service was also very good, with the staff being nothing but friendly.
And so to bed. We headed off to our rooms and pulled down our beds, making sure that we used the 'facilities' first (no fuss in the middle of the night for me!). I got into the bed and it was actually quite comfortable. With earplugs at the ready I settled in and prepared for what I thought would be quite a restless night. I actually slept a lot better than I thought I would. It was not as restful as in a bed that wasn't rocking, but in the morning I did feel fairly refreshed. The next night was even better. We also had the experience of sleeping in the berths which was just as comfortable and I would say that it really isn't worth paying the extra for the door (unless you really value your privacy). Obviously when you have a berth you have to share a loo, but at least this means you don't have to undo the bed to have a wee!
One of the main reasons for taking the train across Canada is to look out of the window and admire all that this beautiful country has to offer. When we started out we saw one of the Great Lakes out of Toronto. After a time we were in prairie country. We saw a lot of this because of the delay. You would normally not see as much as it would be night but we were there in the day because of the delay. We then went through the lakes. This part was spectacular. The lakes were so beautiful, you feel spoiled and there gets a point where you feel almost complacent (another lake, really I've seen twenty in the last hour, how different could it be). This is terrible to admit but for the most part we really appreciated what we were seeing. You then enter the Rockies. The train slows down and climbs up, winding round the mountains. The most disappointing thing on the train was that we did not see any animals - even when we were in the mountains. When travelling through the Rockies you see Mount Robson (the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies) and many rivers. Again this is breath-taking.
On the train there was an entertainment car. Here you could play games which were provided by Via. There were activities such as bingo, where you could win small prizes (and yes I use my key ring every day!). There were also quizzes. The activities depended on who was running the entertainment car (in our case Kevin - who was great). They also showed movies in the entertainment car.
Right, last couple of points. Everything on the train was bilingual (French and English) as per Canadian law. There was a shower in each sleeping carriage, and there was never a queue when we went so either we were really early or really late! This was small but adequate and had a tiny dry space by it so that you can change in there.
I would recommend this trip to anyone who wants a trip of a lifetime. It was the most amazing holiday I have ever been on and the train played a big part in that. Canada itself was a great country and I really want to go back. Via provided us with great service, and absolutely delicious food. I thought that the price for the passes was quite reasonable and the upgrade was an added bonus. I would recommend an upgrade if you can afford the extra as the food was so good and having a bed really makes a difference. The views are second to none. It would be suitable for any age, there were plenty of people with kids/grandchildren on the train, along with a few our age (in early 20s) and older as well. Highly recommended and well worth doing. Made my summer!
Thanks for reading xx