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Crossing Canada by Train - VIA Rail and The Canadian

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

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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.

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