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Crossing Canada by Train - VIA Rail and The Canadian

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Take the train from Toronto to Vancouver

Take the train from Toronto to Vancouver

The Canadian: Travel Aboard VIA Rail's Train From Toronto to Vancouver

There's something almost unbearably romantic about seeing Canada by train: the slow pace, the clacking sound of the wheels on the tracks, the stunning vistas in every window. Riding the rails from Toronto to Vancouver really is the experience of a lifetime.

If you're considering embarking on this epic cross-country journey, then read on for tips, photos and suggestions.

The Train From Toronto to Vancouver

VIA Rail's The Canadian train departs from Toronto's Union Station three times a week (twice a week in the winter) at 10 PM. You start your trip with champagne in the dome car—a toast to the start of your journey—and then you spend three days traveling through stunning scenery that can only be seen from the train.

Time is strange on the train. It's both short and long, filled with conversation and quiet contemplation. The hours fill with napping, reading, gazing out the window and chatting with friendly strangers. It's quiet and it's slow, but it's anything but boring.

My sister, my parents and I took the train from Toronto to Vancouver in late September 2011. Here are some of the highlights of our experience, along with some tips for anyone else considering taking this trip.

The Canadian runs between Toronto and Vancouver: route traced in red

The Canadian runs between Toronto and Vancouver: route traced in red

Accommodations on the Train

Train travellers can choose from several options:

Economy class:

  • reclining seats; shared washrooms; food for purchase

Sleeper class:

  • upper and lower berths with curtains; convert to seats during the day; shared washrooms; food included
  • cabins for one, two or three; convert to sitting area during the day; private washrooms; food included

While sleeper class is obviously much more expensive than economy class, it's well worth the cost. If you keep an eye on the VIA Rail website for deals and specials, you can sometimes get heavily discounted sleeper class fares—my sister and I got ours for 75% off. It was even cheaper than a full-price economy ticket would have been. It's easier to get discounted fares for berths and for single cabins than for double cabins.

Sleeper Class Cabins Aboard the Canadian

train-across-canada
The view from the hallway. Most of the time, that window was filled with awe-inspiring vistas. And so, of course, I took this picture while a freight train was passing.

The view from the hallway. Most of the time, that window was filled with awe-inspiring vistas. And so, of course, I took this picture while a freight train was passing.

Cabin for One

My cabin for one was tiny, but perfectly comfortable. A wonder in small spaces! I loved my little pod. During the day, there was a toilet (tastefully hidden beneath a padded bench), a sink that folded into the wall and comfortable seating. At night, the bed folded down from the wall, covering the bench and the toilet. I found the bed very easy to fold down and back up again, even when I woke up in the middle of the night and needed to use the washroom.

A few tips:

  • Pull down the blind before using the toilet, especially if it's dark out and your light's on. Trust me on this one. I had my thumbs looped into my waistband, about to pull down my pyjama bottoms, when I glanced up. And saw a long line of cars stopped at the railroad crossing. With nothing to look at but me.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, open your blind and look outside. The stars are astounding. When you want to sleep again, close your blind. The first night I was woken up several times by the light of passing trains.
  • Via Rail provides bedding, towels, soap, shampoo, lotion, mouthwash and earplugs.
  • There are shared showers, although you might have to wait your turn.
  • Doors lock from the inside, but not from the outside. You have to trust your fellow passengers.
  • My parents were in a double room, and my sister and I were in facing rooms. We all agreed that two facing single rooms are roomier and more comfortable than a double room - for the same cost. Getting down from the top bunk in a double room can be a bit harrowing.
  • Pack lightly. Space is at a premium. Bring layers; some cars are very warm, while others are cold and drafty.
  • Room attendants are very helpful and accommodating. Staff changes in Winnipeg, so you should tip in Winnipeg and again in Vancouver.
nice and cozy

nice and cozy

Food on the Train

The food on the train was fantastic. Lunch and supper included soup, salad, main course and dessert. Even better than the food were the views.

The dining car

The dining car

Service With a Smile

Fabian the singing waiter serenaded his guests.

Fabian the singing waiter serenaded his guests.

A Few Tips

  • You will be seated at tables of four. If you're traveling alone or with one other person, you'll get a chance to talk to new people at every meal.
  • There are four choices for each meal: two meat, one fish/seafood and one vegetarian. If you have any special dietary needs or preferences, the kitchen staff is very accommodating.
  • The first dinner seating is at 5:00, the second one is at 7:00 and the third one is at 9:00. You sign up for the first day's mealtime in Toronto before boarding, and then you'll have a few chances throughout the trip to sign up for the other days. If you can, ask for the second meal seating. The third one is late, especially at supper time. We had the last seating one night, and I found that eating such rich food after 9:00 at night made it hard to sleep.
  • No one gives you strange looks when you take pictures of your food.
  • Except for Sunday brunch, breakfast is served until 8:30 AM. If you're usually a late sleeper, tough. Honestly, it's not worth staying up late and sleeping in on the train, since there's really nothing to see at night.
  • Snacks, tea and coffee are available 24 hours a day.
  • You don't have to tip the wait staff at every meal. We tipped once in Winnipeg (when the staff changes) and again in Vancouver. The wait staff pools and shares all tips.
  • Alcoholic beverages are available at extra cost.

Breakfast on the Train

fried eggs, hashbrowns, toast, tomato juice and tea

fried eggs, hashbrowns, toast, tomato juice and tea

Lunch on the Train

vegetable soup, hummus plate, decadent chocolate-caramel cake

vegetable soup, hummus plate, decadent chocolate-caramel cake

Supper on the Train

onion soup, pear and pecan salad, grilled tofu skewers, maple cream cheesecake

onion soup, pear and pecan salad, grilled tofu skewers, maple cream cheesecake

room for one

room for one

The Train

There's no need to park yourself in your room all day. There are lots of other cars that you can visit: the skyline cars (domed glass cars with a great view), the activity cars (fully equipped with games, cards and puzzles), the lounge, the dining car and the panorama car (from Edmonton to Vancouver).

the panorama car

the panorama car

the activity car

the activity car

the train hallway: barely room for one

the train hallway: barely room for one

A Few Tips:

  • If you're claustrophobic, you might find walking through the train a bit stressful. The hallways are long and narrow, and the pitching train sometimes throws you a bit off balance. Still, I recommend walking the whole train at least once, if only for the odd feeling of sameness and closeness. (The whole train? 24 cars—if I counted correctly—and about 13 minutes from one end to the other.)
  • Go to the activity car when leaving a major stop (Toronto, Winnipeg, Jasper) for a free champagne toast.
Melville, Saskatchewan, has the most amazing old car graveyard. We took photo after photo of junky old cars until the train whistle sounded about 20 minutes later. One couple was left behind. They had to catch up to the train in a taxi. Don't do that

Melville, Saskatchewan, has the most amazing old car graveyard. We took photo after photo of junky old cars until the train whistle sounded about 20 minutes later. One couple was left behind. They had to catch up to the train in a taxi. Don't do that

Stops Along the Way

The train stopped at least a few times each day, for as little as five minutes or as long as three hours. There was time to wander around Winnipeg and Jasper. The other stops were pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

A few tips:

  • Get off for some fresh air whenever you have the chance!
  • If you're from overseas, please don't judge Canada's towns and cities by their train stations. No, really.
  • Jasper is absolutely beautiful. An hour and a half wasn't long enough. Winnipeg, on the other hand? Well...

Time to Unplug

There is no WiFi on the train, which means long stretches without internet or cell phone access. Don't fight it; just relax and enjoy. If you're having withdrawal pangs, the stations in Winnipeg and Jasper have WiFi.

The View From the Train

Really, there are no words to describe it.

Alberta from the train

Alberta from the train

Saskatchewan from the train

Saskatchewan from the train

British Columbia from the train

British Columbia from the train

As far as I'm concerned, taking VIA Rail's The Canadian train across Canada belongs on everyone's bucket list!

Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by me or by my family members.

Comments

Greg Booher, Wisconsin on July 31, 2017:

I too love rail travel. I recently traveled to an extremely remote site to go fishing in Ontario near Timmins. The train actually stopped and let us off along the tracks where we boarded a small boat to go to our fishing camp at Shenango Lake. That is the good comments. I have been on two trips and both times the train in both directions was way late. On July 29th we waited all night along the tracks. This just continue to happen. In total on the last trip we waited a total of 17 hours on the train.

angelica on October 21, 2016:

How much it cost for me and my two daughters ( 8 & 16) ? My elder one it is in wheelchair, does it is any problem for this?

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 29, 2014:

luckywriter,

Great hub. Loved the read. Voted up and away on this in-depth subject that I love: Riding the rails, either hobo-style or legally.

Actually, a few years ago, a mayor friend of mine were talking about hoboing a train from his town to the next.

As it turns out, I was in a bank in my hometown the next week and I believe it was a sign for us to do this venture because in the bank was an employee of that train system that runs through his town.

I asked the employee what would happen if the train company were to catch us.

He laughed and said that is unlikely. They do not have security guards like the did in the old days and if you were caught, you would pay a small fine because hoboing a train is just a misdemeanor.

Wow.

Hmmmm.

I am still dreaming.

I cordially invite you to check your fan mail and then read a couple of my hubs and then become one of my followers.

I would love that.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Avery/ from Hamilton, Alabama

vibesites from United States on August 23, 2013:

Love beautiful Canada!

Stephanie (author) from Canada on August 13, 2013:

@KoffeeKlatch Gals, I hope you do it! It's definitely a highlight of all my travels!

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on August 07, 2013:

My husband and I have been talking about taking a train trip. Now that I've read you're article I can't wait. Thanks for sharing.

Stephanie (author) from Canada on June 19, 2013:

@billybuc, it really was an amazing trip! And as for the bathroom - which was, by the way, also the bedroom - I figure it's something that people need to know, even if it isn't in the tourist brochures. Ha!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 19, 2013:

What a great trip that would be. Hey, look at all the comments...well deserved for a very good hub. Love the tip about pulling the blinds in the bathroom. LOL

Stephanie (author) from Canada on April 17, 2013:

Thanks for the feedback CrisSp! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. I highly recommend the train trip. It's been one of the best travel experiences of my life so far!

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on April 17, 2013:

Wow! This is definitely on my bucket list. Been talking about this for a long time and how I very much want to experience via rail with my family. Been to VA from TO via Air Canada where you see nothing but clouds although I love flying.

Thanks for taking us along with you through this hub. Voting up and very interesting.

Stephanie (author) from Canada on April 05, 2013:

@tirelesstraveler, glad you enjoyed it! Although...the bathroom tip was serious business. No laughing matter. Ha!

Judy Specht from California on April 04, 2013:

Nearly died laughing at your tip about closing your blind at night when you use the toilet.

This is indeed on my bucket list. Great Hub!

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 24, 2013:

3 nights - leaving at 10 PM from Toronto and arriving in the morning in Vancouver. Thanks for asking...I'll have to add that info to my hub.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 23, 2013:

Another question:

How long is the duration of the trip (1 way)?

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 23, 2013:

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

SkeetyD on March 22, 2013:

I want to thank you for publishing this hub. It was packed with useful information, experience and lovely pictures. I can see that a lot of effort went into this hub and I appreciate your great work

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 21, 2013:

The pictures turned out well for the most part! The photos that I uploaded here were taking through the glass while in motion. I imagine that someone with better skills and/or equipment could take some stunning photos. Nothing can do justice to what you see with your eyes though. Some special spots - like a waterfall that can only be seen by the train - were announced via speaker to the whole train. Other commentary - info, stories, points of interest - depended on the staff. We spent a lot of time in the lounge, and there were some staff members who really went out of their way to share stories. It was a really wonderful experience!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 21, 2013:

Very nice. I never knew that Via train, that I see departing from Union Station every morning for Montreal, has a trans Canada line also. The cars look neat and you have done an excellent job even on warnings side hahaha. Besides, the pictures are awesome too.

The sleeping quarters do look intimidating for claustrophobic people though :-)

Two questions though:

(1)How did your pictures come out through the glass?

(2) Is there commentary or announcements if there is some special natural attraction nearby that one could see outside?

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 21, 2013:

Thanks for reading! The dome car really was spectacular. Of course, my camera battery died while we were going through the rockies. Ha! In the end, though, I almost think that was better...I got to just see and experience, instead of focusing on taking photos.

John Coviello from New Jersey on March 21, 2013:

I did the cross Canada VIA rail trip a while back and I have to agree that it's a great way to see such a beautiful country. Western Ontario with its lakes is pretty and the Canadian Rockies are just spectacular. We got off in Jasper and spent a few days in the Rockies. Loved the dome car, especially while going through the Rockies. Wow! Nicely written Hub and great supporting photos and videos!

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 20, 2013:

It was a great trip...highly, highly recommended. The train was not as empty as it looks...it's just that there are so many places to spread out.

Kim Kennedy from uk on March 20, 2013:

The panorama car looks fab for viewing the scenery. I notice the train didn't seem too crowded, which is a good thing. Great information, the trip sounds wonderful - lucky you!

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 20, 2013:

Ah, good point! I'll add subtitles.

Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on March 19, 2013:

What a wonderful Hub. I've always thought a train trip across Canada would be interesting. I found myself wondering where those photos where taken.

The food looks amazing.

Eco-Lhee from Alberta, Canada on March 15, 2013:

I grew up in Montana took the train a couple of times to Minneapolis, train left at 4 in the morning so it was always dark in Glacier, North Dakota was a great place to see, but very flat.. loved it every time I went. It is a great way to travel! This hub brought back memories. I would love to travel Canada that way too!

Stephanie (author) from Canada on March 15, 2013:

Joanne - thank you! My first vote ever! ;) I highly, highly recommend train travel. It really is the most human way to travel.

Eco-Lhee - Highly recommended! It's definitely a highlight of my life so far.

anndango - Agreed! I love the train. Ah, but you missed the best part - riding through the Rockies. Next summer, I'd like to take the train from Halifax to Toronto, so that I can say that I've crossed the whole country by rail.

anndango on March 15, 2013:

I traveled on the train years ago from Edmonton to Moncton and back. You have to experience it at least once in your life!

Eco-Lhee from Alberta, Canada on March 15, 2013:

This is something that has always been on my bucket list, great hub and great information! Thank you for sharing!

Joanne M Olivieri on March 15, 2013:

You know I have never traveled by train but after reading this article and all of your helpful photos and tips it is very appealing. Voted Up!