In October 2014, I traveled across Canada with my father on Via’s Train 1, the Canadian. The Canadian is undoubtedly one of the most scenic train rides in the world. It spans North America from Toronto to Vancouver, traveling a total of 4,466 km (2,775 miles) through four time zones and five Canadian provinces. It’s currently the longest route for any passenger train in the Western Hemisphere (and the longest anywhere in the world outside of Asia).
The Canadian is like a second home for my father; he’s traveled on it about 20 times starting in 1964. He wanted to share it with me as a last father-son trip before I settled down. The Canadian departs two or three times per week in each direction, depending on the season. Our train was scheduled to depart Toronto westbound on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 at 10:00pm. Dad planned a stopover in the Canadian Rockies (which was to prove the highlight of the trip) before catching another westbound the rest of the way to Vancouver.
A Transcontinental Route
The Canadian‘s route traverses a wide variety of beautiful terrain, from the Canadian Shield in Ontario, to the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, and the forests of British Columbia. Other trains like the Rocky Mountaineer (a privately operated train that covers similar terrain in western Canada) and Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder have their share of spectacular scenery, but can’t match the Canadian in terms of terrain variety or overall time spent with jaw dropping views.
In 1955, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) introduced the Canadian as its premier new transcontinental train, replacing The Dominion. Segments originating in Montreal and Toronto combined at Sudbury, Ontario before heading west. During the 1970s Canadian railways, like those in the United States, tried to shed their unprofitable passenger trains. Via Rail Canada took over operation of the Canadian in 1978.
In 1990, Via changed the route between Sudbury and British Columbia to follow the Canadian National (CN) tracks. Ironically, this was the same route previously used by CN’s Super Continental, competitor to the old CPR Canadian from 1955-1978! This route was considerably further north than the old Canadian route. Though the new route passes through very scenic parts of the Canadian Shield in Ontario, higher population areas along Lake Superior (notably Thunder Bay) lost service. Both routes serviced Winnipeg, Manitoba. West of there the Canadian‘s new route was also further north, servicing Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Jasper instead of Regina, Calgary, and Banff.
The entire journey (about 82 hours) takes four nights. Travelers doing the entire ride at once will spend three full days on the train unless they choose to stretch their legs in Winnipeg and Jasper while the train is serviced. (They may also be able to walk the platform at a handful of briefer station stops.) The majority of stations along the route are flag stops, meaning that unless someone has purchased a ticket in advance, the train will breeze through without stopping.
As of fall 2015, westbound trains depart Toronto at 10pm ET and arrive (if on time) in Vancouver the morning after the fourth night of travel. Eastbound trains depart Vancouver at 8:30pm PT and are scheduled arrive in Toronto the morning following the fourth night on the train.
Vintage Rolling Stock
The train has changed surprisingly little during the past six decades, aside from the locomotives. Via Rail Canada uses the same streamlined, stainless steel Budd railcars that the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased in the 1950s, albeit with modernized interiors. Still, as a brochure in the Streamliner Memories collection makes clear, if a 1950s rider on the Canadian were transported to today’s train, they’d probably feel right at home. The final cars on each train, the Park cars (built 1954) are particularly distinctive. Each is named after a Canadian national park.
The Park cars feature a bar and lounge area on the lower level and a dome with seating area on the upper level. Their rounded ends were once common on streamliners in the United States, a design which eventually fell out of favor because the cars could only be placed at the end of the train. In the middle of the train are additional lounge cars with domes known as Skyline cars.
I’d previously ridden in two other Budd lounge cars that were also manufactured during the 1950s and are now a part of Amtrak’s fleet. The first was the ex-Great Northern “Ocean View” (built 1955) that is used on various trains, such as the Adirondack during the fall foliage season. Unlike the Canadian‘s domes, Ocean View’s dome is the full length of the car. The other time I rode a Budd lounge was when I’d traveled on the Coast Starlight. The five ex-Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad lounge cars that Amtrak refers to as the Pacific Parlour cars (built 1956) are arguably superior in comfort (easy chairs on a swivel) to the Park cars but lack the unobstructed views forward and back offered by the domes on the Canadian.
Economy or Sleeper Plus?
There are several different types of accommodation for the journey. The cheapest is economy. The reclining seat is on par with domestic first class on airlines, but it’s probably not anyone’s preference for spending a journey that can last almost four days! Economy passengers have access to a Skyline dome car but not the Park car, and meals cost extra.
There are a variety of sleeper accommodations. The most basic are the berths, upper and lower. These berths are separated from the corridor by curtains rather than doors. In addition to the berths, there are “cabins” of various sizes with doors and private sinks/toilets. In the cases of what Via calls “cabin for one” (roomettes), the toilet is not accessible in night configuration without pushing the bed up. Additional sleeping options like cabins for three or four may be available depending on the train configuration, and there are Via’s new “Prestige” rooms which are particularly large and expensive.
My father slept by himself in a larger “cabin for two” (bedroom) while I had a lower berth a little further down the car. (So much for father-son bonding!) He explained that he wanted me to experience the journey the same way he did on his first Canadian trip fifty years earlier, in 1964. Actually, according to him, the berths or “sections” were the standard in sleeping accommodations prior to World War II.
During the day, the berths have facing seats which are converted into bunks at night. The berths don’t have doors but “heavy curtains” that can be buttoned up from the inside. Since the journey is rather long, it’s a relief that Via’s mattresses and pillows are a lot more comfortable than Amtrak’s. In night configuration, the lower berth has the window.
I was happy to find that unlike the roomettes and bedrooms in Amtrak’s sleeping cars, it is possible to sit up in bed without clunking your head. Due to the stopover in Jasper I ended up with different berths on two legs of the trip.
Some tips for the berths:
- I found that the berths closer to the center of the car were preferable, as the door slamming when people entered or exit the cars woke me up when I was sleeping in a berth at the end of the car.
- The berths have a shared toilet. Obnoxiously (especially for all of us semi-germophobes out there), when using the sink it seems that water pressure would not be enough to prevent the stream from running down the wall of the basin. However, I found if both the hot and cold water levers were depressed simultaneously, the pressure would be high enough to make the stream enough to wash hands without having them against the side of the basin (ew!).
- Oddly, unlike Amtrak, Via apparently has a policy against converting the berth to sleeping mode before a certain hour in the evening (5pm as I recall). This is inconvenient for those who want an afternoon nap. I can only speculate that the policy is due to potential inconvenience if, say, the upper berth passenger wanted to sleep while the lower berth passenger wanted to sit. However, the attendant apologetically followed the policy even when there was no upper berth passenger!
- The sleeping car attendants supply a bag with toiletries and towels for the shared shower room. They also leave chocolates during turndown service. One night I didn’t see the chocolates and assumed that I simply hadn’t gotten any this time. Unfortunately, I woke up to find the chocolate melted onto my sleepwear; they’d apparently been jostled under the covers by the motion of the train!
- There is one shower room per sleeping car, shared among all the passengers since unlike Amtrak, Via’s bedrooms don’t have a private shower. Pressing the plunger gives you about 20 seconds of water and it takes a cycle to warm up.
- The lower berth is preferred because it has a window, doesn’t need a ladder to enter it, and has more storage space in night configuration. If traveling alone, remember that a stranger may be issued the other berth above or below yours.
Dining on the Canadian
Passengers in the sleeping cars get complimentary meals. Snacks and soft drinks are also available for free in the Skyline and Park cars. The snacks are rotated throughout the day (like muffins in the morning). Generally the food is better on the Canadian than on Amtrak long distance trains and is served on real plates instead of plastic. As I recall, the menu had four choices per meal including one choice without meat. The menu also changes each meal (unlike on Amtrak where, on train rides longer than 24 hours, the dining cars serve the same items at dinner, for instance, as they did for dinner the previous evening.)
Series on Via Rail Canada’s Canadian
Introduction to Via Rail’s Canadian
Night of Departure and Day One (Across Ontario by Train)
Day Three (Across Alberta by Train: Edmonton to Jasper)
Day Three—journey resumed after stopover in Canadian Rockies—and Day Four (Across British Columbia by Train: Jasper (Alberta) to Vancouver)