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A once-in-a-lifetime experience
Via Rail Canada
Member Name: jamesontheroad
Via Rail Canada
Advantages: Superb level of service on board, great value budget travel with railpasses
Disadvantages: Infrequent services on some routes; sleeper class costs more than comparable Amtrak service in USA
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!
Summary: An essential North American experience
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