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Crossing Canada by Train - VIA Rail and The Canadian

Updated on August 2, 2016
Take the train from Toronto to Vancouver
Take the train from Toronto to Vancouver | Source

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 | Source
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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

Source
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. | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

Service With a Smile

Fabian the singing waiter serenaded his guests.
Fabian the singing waiter serenaded his guests. | Source

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 | Source

Lunch on the Train

vegetable soup, hummus plate, decadent chocolate-caramel cake
vegetable soup, hummus plate, decadent chocolate-caramel cake | Source

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 | Source
room for one
room for one | Source

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 | Source
the activity car
the activity car | Source
the train hallway: barely room for one
the train hallway: barely room for one | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source
Saskatchewan from the train
Saskatchewan from the train | Source
British Columbia from the train
British Columbia from the train | Source

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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    • profile image

      Joanne M Olivieri 4 years ago

      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!

    • Eco-Lhee profile image

      Eco-Lhee 4 years ago from Alberta, Canada

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

    • profile image

      anndango 4 years ago

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

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • Eco-Lhee profile image

      Eco-Lhee 4 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      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!

    • Athlyn Green profile image

      Athlyn Green 4 years ago from West Kootenays

      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.

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      Ah, good point! I'll add subtitles.

    • innerspin profile image

      innerspin 4 years ago from uk

      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!

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • Rock_nj profile image

      John Coviello 4 years ago from New Jersey

      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!

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      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?

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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!

    • SkeetyD profile image

      SkeetyD 4 years ago from Barbados

      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

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      Another question:

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

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 4 years ago from California

      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!

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

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

    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 4 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      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.

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      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!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      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

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 3 years ago from Canada

      @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!

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 3 years ago from Sunny Florida

      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.

    • theluckywriter profile image
      Author

      Stephanie 3 years ago from Canada

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

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 3 years ago from United States

      Love beautiful Canada!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      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

    • profile image

      angelica 7 months ago

      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?

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