Riding the Rails in Canada

Written by  Allan Lynch

Canada wouldn’t exist if not for railways. British Columbia made a railway connection a condition for joining the rest of Canada. Without a railway link there was a fear of annexation as well as a movement for the then colony to join the United States.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was created to complete the task and in so doing created a great travel legacy of coast-to-coast rail service complimented by a chain of iconic properties, like the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau Frontenac, Royal York and others.

The CPR’s successor service is VIA Rail ( Via provides coast-to-coast rail service from Halifax (Nova Scotia) on the Atlantic to Vancouver, British Columbia on the Pacific. It is currently investing $162 million in all aspects of the business, from refurbishing rolling stock, enhancing amenities for mobility-challenged passengers to improved ticketing.
VIA’s busiest route, with over 2.3 million passengers, is their corridor service, operating between Quebec City and Windsor (Ontario, across from Detroit). This route caters not only to leisure, but business passengers who have found it a competitive alternative to air service once travel time between city centers and airports, and advance time for airport security are factored in. Consequently, this route offers business class cars with priority ticketing and check-in, more on-board space, new menus, greater personalization and complimentary Wi-Fi.

For the leisure traveler, VIA Rail has bundled Canada into four rail destinations: Ontario and Quebec, The Great Western Way, The Maritime Way and The Adventure Routes. The Western and Maritime Ways are their transcontinental services. “The Ocean” operates in the east, while “The Canadian” travels the west. Both trains offer a full compliment of services, including dome, dining and panorama cars, live entertainment and a choice of Economy, Sleeper Plus and Prestige Class accommodation.
Economy provides passengers with a reclining seat with table tray and meals and drinks for purchase. Sleeper Plus has one-, two- and three-person cabins with an armchair, sleeping berth and shower access. Prestige provides a larger room with leather sofa, flat screen TV, single or double fold out beds and in-room bath with shower. The top two services include priority boarding, activities for children, access to the panorama car and meals in the dining car.
Via’s two most popular Adventure Routes are Winnipeg to Churchill (two days, two nights, with Economy and Sleeper Plus service to see Northern Lights, polar bears and whales), and Montreal to Jonquiere (a 300-mile, single service train popular with outdoor enthusiasts who explore the Saguenay Fjord and cycle to Quebec City to take the train back to Montreal).

For the luxury traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer is Canada’s pre-eminent experience.
The Rocky Mountaineer (, which turns 20 in 2019, is an adjective-depleting three-season experience operating on four routes that involve Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops, Quesnel, Jasper and Banff.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a like a rolling resort. Trains travel during the day so guests don’t miss any of the mountain scenery. The seamless service ensures that Enroute and at their destination property guests find their luggage waiting for them in their hotel room.
They have two classes of service: Silver and Gold Leaf. The Gold Leaf is provided in 72-passenger dome cars, with large, business-class like reclining leather armchairs on the upper level, and a 36-seat dining room below. Each dome car has a three-chef culinary team preparing meals from scratch. The dome cars are elevator equipped and offer a covered outdoor platforms so guests can get better photographs of the bear, elk, deer, bighorn and mountain sheep found along the tracks. When wildlife are spotted, the train slows down for a better look.
The Mountaineer’s Silver service is provided in a single-level car with panoramic windows. Meals are plated at the guest’s seat.

Other Rail Options
Among Canada’s several smaller, specialty rail services are:
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway (WPYRR), a narrow-gauge railway built in the rollicking days of the Gold Rush. In June it was sold to Carnival Corporation for $290 million. The WPYRR travels the 66-mile between Skagway, Alaska, and Carcross, Yukon. Among its nine travel options are several hiking and camping packages that would appeal to adventure travelers.
In Ontario’s Sault St. Marie area the Agawa Canyon Rail Tour offers a 119-mile, one-day trip, with a 90-minute stop, into a 500-ft deep river canyon popular with artists. The company sells short overnight packages.
For the diehard train junkie, the Kettle Valley Steam Railway provides the hiss of history in an afternoon experience in B.C.’s wine country.
For corporate clients, the 32-passenger Royal Canadian Pacific in Calgary is available for private charter. This the former Royal train used by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill. Rates average $8,000 per person.
Whatever the season, interest and budget, Canada’s rail companies offer more than transportation, they offer experiences and some are the destination.

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