Toronto to Vancouver: An Account of ViaRail’s The Canadian

“A relic of the Canadian train network.”

The Canadian
Source: Canadian Train Vacations

There was one thing I remembered when I asked my attendant about the train from Toronto to Vancouver, otherwise known as ViaRail’s The Canadian. He called it “a relic of the Canadian train network.” That was the way he described this retro-style train. A giant sleeper train that takes four days and four nights to travel across 4500km, five provinces and 4 time zones. When I planned a trip to Canada in May 2021, I stumbled across the Canadian as a way of travelling across the country. When my friends in Montreal asked how I was planning to get to Vancouver, they were surprised when I told them by sleeper train. They asked me why I didn’t just take the plane. A four-day trip would take around 5 hours by plane. I would get there in a fraction of the time at a much cheaper price.

The simple answer? I wanted to take the scenic route. With plane tickets getting cheaper and faster train services getting implemented, sleeper trains are becoming less and less common. There was something that seemed so romantic to me about travelling the width of a continent at a speed that allowed me to witness Canada’s natural beauty first-hand.

But as with any romance, there were things that made it hard work, while there were other aspects that made it a worthwhile experience.

What’s Available

The Skycar
Source: First Class Holidays

The Canadian offers a range of ticket services from economy class to prestige class. The prices and what they entail vary greatly. The economy tickets offer a seat for the trip. However, reviews say you should bring a pillow and blanket for the trip. The prestige class includes your own room, a personal concierge, and a private bathroom. The cheapest option is around $500 for a one-way economy escape ticket. ViaRail has deals on this service where some tickets are discounted. For comparison, a standard one-way economy ticket is around $700. There are discounted options for the berth, cabin and economy tickets, but these are usually the first to sell out. The prestige class is just under $10,000. There is no discount option available for the prestige class.

For this trip, I took the discounted upper berth plus package, which was in the region of $1,200. This was $250 cheaper than the standard upper berth ticket. Getting this ticket meant my meals were provided for and I had an assigned seating area which was turned into a bed at night. However, your seating area, should you pick this ticket, is right in the walkway of the train car. Privacy at times can be limited during the day with passengers passing by. In the evening, though, your sleeping area does have a set of curtains for privacy. The seating usually gets turned into a sleeping area while you’re at dinner. Though depending on your attendant, sometimes you can watch the changeover process if you’re curious.

The lower berth is more worthwhile, as you get access to a window next to your bed. I got to sleep here on my last night. Due to fewer passengers on board, this was arranged by my attendant, who told me it was easier to set up than the upper berth. Here, you can lay back and watch the world go by. It also can feel less claustrophobic than the upper berth. It is significantly more expensive though, so weigh up your options.

As for the cabin, you will certainly be allowed more privacy compared to the berth or economy tickets. However, there is one thing to note. In the cabin, there is a chair which is converted into bedding when it is time to sleep. This can mean that you are literally sleeping right next to your toilet, so note to self when considering this ticket.

No WiFi

Skyline Economy
Source: Seat 61

When talking with one of the passengers, I learned that the railway line we travelled on took four years to construct at the end of the 19th century. Back then, it was this railway line that helped Canada develop as a country. The Canadian was originally part of the Canadian Pacific Railways fleet in the 1950s. From the sparse interior to the lack of Wi-Fi, the contraption shows its age. ViaRail does provide Wi-Fi on many of its services. However, at the time I took the train, the Canadian was not one of them. The tickets for economy now state that there is Wi-Fi available. I’m not sure if this service has been updated by ViaRail or is just available in some classes and not others. Whatever the case, the lack of internet can be a pro or con depending on your individual needs. From one perspective, distractions are significantly limited. But if you’re a tourist visiting from abroad, good luck trying to keep in touch with friends and family. Make sure you have a good data plan for your mobile or cell phone. You will get good reception in the prairies of Saskatchewan, but it’s a different story compared to the woodlands of Ontario and the mountains of Alberta and British Colombia.

Download stuff to watch before the trip, and bring a book, as well as a fully charged power bank. If you forget to download something, use a public network at one of the stops you’ll make. Though an inadvisable option, the Wi-Fi network in Winnipeg train station was just strong enough to allow me to download a 13-episode series in the time it took for us to wait to reboard the train. This will help satiate bouts of boredom. Surprisingly though, both cabins and economy offer a personal power outlet. Considering I got the berth plus package, my access was limited to two outlets in one of the lounge cars and a public one in the hallways of the other cars. There are also two in the bathrooms for shaving. If you’re unlucky, there will be a guest guarding one of the public outlets like a hawk.

New Travel Friends

Source: Frontier Canada

That’s not to say it’s all bad. While there are people touchy about electronic access, there are more who are willing to have a conversation. At dinner, you may be sitting with strangers, and the conversation can vary from polite and minimal to overbearingly well-meaning – I had an awkward giggle to myself when I overheard a gentleman from Kansas asking a French tourist if he had ever competed in the tour de France or how often he drank wine. Also, next to the dining car is the skyline car, an area with an open top that shows guests a 360-degree view of what’s around them. It’s usually busy, but if there are some open seats, don’t be afraid to ask someone if you can sit with them. At worst, they’ll say no, and you can both move on with your day. At best, you’ve made a new travel buddy. There are also activities which are provided by the staff to help pass the time, like wine tastings.

Some Issues

Source: Seat 61

Sleeping in a berth – a comfortable one at that – had me feeling like a sailor. It also gave me low-level anxiety knowing the platform I was sleeping on was essentially being held by bicycle chains. Not to mention, the first night was rough – I woke up on three separate occasions. My remedy for this was paying a visit to Tokyo Smoke Exchange in Winnipeg and purchasing some marijuana edibles (which are legal). Sleep wasn’t an issue after that. You aren’t allowed to smoke on the train, but there are occasional stops throughout the trip where you can step off to stretch your legs. Keep an eye on the time during these stops. The Canadian only travels twice a week, and the train will leave without you if you are late.

I’ve read accounts of people exploring the train from start to end as a means of entertainment. However, I’m not sure if these policies changed after the COVID crisis, but there was a member of staff blocking the path to economy and business class, so I had to stay in the sleeper plus section. Due to my ticket, I was also supposed to have access to the bar cars. However, as another possible side effect of the pandemic, this wasn’t available either. You could still order drinks from the staff in the snack room under the skyline car. There are also vintage-style posters everywhere. Upon visits to different bathrooms in different cars, I noticed that there were several different designs. I assumed there was a unique one in each of the car’s toilets, something that only the most perceptive with the weakest bladders would pick up on. Alas, that wasn’t the case.

Top Tier Service

Source: Los Angeles Times

If there is something the Canadian excels at, it is food. I highly recommend getting the plus packages for this alone, as the meals are absolutely stellar. There is a strictly regimented food service where you get your meals in the dining car in groups for this ticket. Additionally, hats off to the staff – hospitality is an under-appreciated trade at the best of times, but to serve food on a vehicle that is consistently moving from side to side takes a special kind of talent. In economy, there is a food cart service that is provided on the train. They also have a snack room under their skyline car. I saw people bringing food on during the long rest stops.

As well as the attendants who live alongside you to help keep you comfortable, the dedication and professionalism of the staff are worth noting. Also, don’t be afraid to chat to them about their experiences – one of the attendants told me of a time when the staff on passing trains would high-five outside the window as they travelled on side-by-side rails until it eventually got shut down for health and safety concerns.

Leg Stretching

Source: To Do Canada

There are a few stops on the route. These have a large range of time when you can stretch your legs. There are short 15-minute opportunities to stretch your legs in towns like Caperol. However, you aren’t allowed to go far from the train during stops like this. But there are also longer stops. We had around two hours of exploring Winnipeg. The staff highly recommend you to take full advantage of these stops. Considering you’re in a steel tube where you regularly rub shoulders with strangers, the chance for fresh air is always welcome. Just hope your train doesn’t get delayed. The train may cut down on these stops to make up for lost time. This is more than likely going to happen, as the train has to stop regularly to allow for freight trains to pass by. The Canadian is not a service you want to take if you have to arrive somewhere punctually. By the time we got to Edmonton in Alberta, it was late, and we weren’t allowed to leave the platform. But should you arrive on time, you’ll get to enjoy many things, like enjoying breakfast in Jasper as you admire the snow-peaked mountains of BC.

The View

The view!
Source: Frontier Canada

The main selling point is the view as you travel through Canada. While a plane ticket is cheaper and more convenient, it doesn’t allow for the same experience. Whether it is looking out your window watching the world go by or having a conversation in the skyline car, the land around you is the highlight of the journey. The urban environment of Toronto surrenders to the thick woodlands of Ontario. The open farmland and prairies of Saskatchewan stretch as far as the eye can see. An acquaintance I made joked that it was impossible to lose a runaway dog there. Then there is the jaw-dropping Rockies in British Colombia. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to see a bear! Also, having a wander through different Canadian towns and cities is a nice immersive experience.


The Canadian in Winter

Though my introduction to ViaRail was through the world of travel YouTubers, the demographic of passengers is geared towards an older clientele. Admittedly, the journey isn’t for everyone – living on a train does take some adjustments, and that time could also be spent seeing what Canada has to offer. Also, ViaRail is currently the only company to offer this service in Canada. However, this is an experience that is very much about the journey and not the destination. If you want to experience a tourist attraction that is slowly fading out of existence and relish the opportunity to travel sans social media, look at ViaRail’s Canadian train.

Leave a Reply