Difference between revisions of "Across Canada by train"
Revision as of 22:45, 1 March 2012
Canada is the second largest country on earth, yet with a population of just 32,780,000, it has just the thirty-sixth largest population. The sheer size of the country, which spans 9,984,670 km² (3,854,085 sq mi) and six time zones means that vast areas of Canada are either sparsely populated or completely uninhabited. While most Canadians choose to travel between major cities by aeroplane, there still exists today a continuous series of connecting train services from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and a trans-contintenal journey on the passenger trains of Canada remains one of the greatest railway journeys in the world. This itinerary explains how to book, travel and experience the scheduled passenger rail services that exist between:
This itinerary covers 6,351km (3,946 miles), crosses eight Canadian provinces and passes through some of North America's most vibrant and exciting cities. Whether experienced from the comfort of a private sleeping compartment or in the sociable and affordable seated coaches, it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that demonstrates Canada's social and geographic diversity, from sea to shining sea.
Whom to travel with
A handful of private luxury train operators offer exclusive rail tours, however most passenger rail services in Canada are provided by VIA Rail Canada , the state owned Crown Corporation that provides national passenger rail services. This itinerary uses only the services of VIA Rail Canada.
Which direction to travel in
It is recommend that you should decide whether to start your trip in the west (Vancouver) or in the east Halifax (Nova Scotia). Check the timetables of the trains you'll be riding on to see how this affects the arrival times in towns and cities you want to stop off in. Otherwise the decision is largely yours, although many travellers express a preference in going from east to west, since this follows the direction that European settlers populated the country and rewards you after the seemingly endless prairies with the breathtaking Rocky Mountains.
Additional side trips by train to other destinations are possible at various points along the trans-continental route. See the Rail travel in Canada page for more information on these other routes.
When to go
Canada's train services run throughout the year, although in some cases with reduced frequencies and shorter trains in the low season. Low season (October–April) fares are lower than in the high season (May–September) although when travelling during the winter months you should remember that shorter daylight hours will significantly affect your sightseeing opportunities from the train. Be aware that while summer can be warm and pleasant, winter temperatures in central and eastern Canada plunge below freezing point - sometimes to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius or below. A winter train trip can be fun, but you may find it hard to leave the nice warm train when you arrive at intermediate stations.
For many independent passengers, spring and autumn are the most convenient times to travel, when the climate is comfortable and when low-season fares are available at either end of the high season booking period.
How to book
VIA Rail Canada has an excellent website  that provides travel information and online ticket sales in several languages. Within North America, you can contact VIA Rail Canada by telephoning 1-888-VIA-RAIL.
Tickets and rail passes
Fares in the low season (16 October to 31 May) are less expensive than those in the high season (1 June to 15 October). Advance booking is recommended for all tickets and passes.
'Comfort' (coach / economy) class
'Comfort' class gives you a comfortable reclining seat in an open coach with either one or two seats either side of the aisle. An amenity pack, pillow and blanket are provided, and it is reasonably easy to sleep comfortably during the night. Older passengers or those who might experience discomfort sleeping in a reclining seat may prefer to travel in sleeper class (see below).
It is therefore much better value to purchase a Canrailpass  which permits the holder up to twelve days of travel in a thirty day period. If that thirty day period covers both seasons, then the pass is priced at the high season rate.
Sleeper classes: Halifax to Montréal
VIA Rail Canada offer two different classes of sleeper accommodation on the Ocean between Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Montréal throughout the year, with an enhanced sleeper class called 'Easterly Class' during the high season. All services are now operated by modern 'Renaissance' trains, which have replaced the older 'stainless steel' trains used elsewhere in Canada.
Sleeper classes: Montréal to Toronto
Sleeper classes: Toronto to Vancouver
The Canadian is VIA Rail Canada's flagship service, and offers the widest choice of sleeper accommodation on the network. All trains are operated by heavily refurbished nineteen-fifties 'stainless steel' trains. All sleeper tickets are marketed as Silver and Blue class and access to the luxurious Park Car at the end of the train and include all meals in the restaurant car.
What to bring
Sleeper passengers should
Unlike on board the services of Amtrak in the U.S.A. Comfort Class (coach) passengers on VIA Rail Canada are provided with an amenity kit to make passing the night in coach a doddle. This includes a pillow, blanket, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask and ear plugs. However you might like to supplement this with:
Again, luggage that has been checked into the baggage car cannot be accessed during the journey, so pack a smaller bag with everything you'll need during the trip.
Overview of route and trains
This itinerary presents a journey that travels from east to west, however it is quite possible and equally enjoyable to make the journey in the opposite direction. The three trains that make up the basic coast-to-coast route are:
The train times that follow were retrieved on 2 June 2010. Check the VIA Rail Canada website  for updates before making travel arrangements.
The Ocean  departs Halifax every day except Tuesday at 1:48pm. The train travels overnight to Montréal, arriving at 09.05am the following morning. In the other direction, the Ocean departs Montréal every night except Tuesday at 6.30pm, arriving in Halifax 5.10pm the following afternoon.
Both east and west bound trains are scheduled to operate over the most scenic parts of the route during the day time, so you will travel through most of Québec along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river by night. Bear in mind the late night departure or early morning arrival if you want to leave the Ocean at Charny for the bus transfer to Quebec City. Perhaps the most scenic part of the route is east of Matapédia, where the train splits or joins three times a week with the Chaleur train to Gaspé. The line immediately east of Matapédia enters the province of New Brunswick and then follows the south shore of the Baie de Chaleurs, offering splendid views across the water to the receding coastline of the Gaspé Peninsula. Heading west, this is in the late evening; heading east, this is in the early morning, and makes for a spectacular distraction to breakfast in the restaurant car.
The Corridor  is the broad name given to the collection of intercity routes that connect Montréal, Ottawa, Brockville, Kingston, Belleville, Oshawa, Toronto and other destinations in southern Ontario. There are multiple daily departures on modern tilting trains that carry 'Comfort' (coach / economy) class and 'VIA-1' (first / business) class. There are no more overnight or sleeper services. Ottawa is served by direct trains from both Montréal and Toronto, but is not on the route of direct services between the two cities.
The landscapes of southern Quebec and Ontario don't make for a particularly scenic route, but the route is the fastest in Canada and offers a rapid cross section through some of the country's most important industrial manufacturing cities. You'll catch glimpses of Lake Ontario just as you approach / leave Toronto.
The Canadian  departs Toronto at 10:00pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (and from Vancouver at 8:30pm on Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays), arriving in their final destination city three days later.
The thrice weekly departures of the Canadian are likely to be the most important factor to consider when planning your coast to coast trip.
Many travellers will agree that the Canadian's primary selling point (the vast distance that it covers; 4,466 km or 2,775 miles) can also be its weakness. The train takes more than a day to cross from Toronto to the border with Manitoba, largely covering the distance through a repetitive scenery of lakes and forests. While exceptionally beautiful, this landscape can quickly become boring, so it's a good part of the journey in which to get to know your fellow travellers. Note that like virtually all VIA Rail trains outside the Quebec - Ontario corridor, the Canadian can on advance notice be stopped at any point along its route, whether its at an actual station, named halt, milepost or simply a given number of kilometres from the last city. Canoes, bikes and other equipment can be carried in the luggage car, allowing you to take advantage of northern Ontario's vast landscape for outdoor activities.
Almost immediately after leaving Ontario, the Canadian enters the prairies and will not leave them until the Rocky Mountains emerge a full twenty four hours later. European travellers in particular might find this part of the trip to be the least beautiful, but possibly the most symbolic part of the trip. The sheer scale of Canada becomes undeniable as the train picks up speed over dead straight stretches of track that cross the bread basket of the country. Small communities and the occasional farm flash past, but it could well be the enormous skies that catch your eye the most.
Travelling across Canada by train from east to west makes the most sense when you first catch sight of the Rocky Mountains. After two days crossing the largely flat and forgettable landscapes of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the scale and grandeur of the mountains is incredible to behold. The schedule of both the east and west bound Canadian are designed to ensure that you get the best possible daylight hours for viewing the mountains between Edmonton and Kamloops.
Coast to coast, it is possible to make the journey from Halifax to Vancouver on board just three different trains, and in as little as five days travelling. Here are four recommended itineraries, based on the length of time travelling.
The train times that follow were retrieved on 2 June 2010. Check the VIA Rail Canada website  for updates before making travel arrangements.
Few travellers choose to do this journey straight through, not only because it can be quite hard work in coach class, but because it misses out on the opportunity to experience so many different and exciting cities. However, seasoned travellers who already know Canada well and who have limited vacation time (or just a hankering to ride the train) may relish the sound of this near-non-stop trip.
To complete this trip in the shortest possible time, you should leave Halifax on Monday, Wednesday or Friday (arriving in Vancouver on the following Saturday, Monday or Wednesday respectively). In the opposite direction, you should leave Vancouver on Sunday or Tuesday (arriving in Halifax on the following Friday or Sunday respectively). Catching the Friday train out of Vancouver will require an overnight stay in Montreal.
Travelling westbound, you'll have a few departure options from Montreal to Toronto. Consider which city you would like to spend more time in before making your selection. A late departure will allow you to have lunch in Montreal while an early departure will allow you to have dinner in Toronto.
For travelling in the opposite direction, the journey can take about the same length of time if you leave Vancouver on a Sunday or Tuesday. There is only one train option between Toronto and Montreal if you want to avoid an overnight stay in Montreal.
If you leave Vancouver on a Friday, an overnight stay in Montreal will be required as the Ocean doesn't depart from Montreal on Tuesdays.
If you have just a week of holiday allowance, it's possible to combine the basic coast to coast itinerary detailed above with one extended layover. Again, this itinerary is probably better suited to those who have already visited Canada before, so the choice of which city to stop off in is largely up to you. Bear in mind that any stop on the route of the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver would necessitate a stop of at least two, if not three days, because of the frequency of service of the Canadian. This applies in both directions.
Therefore, a seven day itinerary would probably be best expanded on the five day itinerary above by adding extra days in just one of the following cities:
You can find out more about each one on their respective travel pages. All four offer excellent public transit systems and compact downtown cores that can easily be explored on foot. With just two days, you would be well advised to research ahead, and be realistic about what you expect to see and do in the time that you have.
Fourteen daysCanada can reasonably manage. The shorter itineraries suggested above are for the serious train fans, since after one or two days on board, you are likely to want a break off the train. Remember the Canrailpass is valid for twelve days of travel in any thirty day period. Days when you are not on board a train don't count towards your final total, but that if you depart a city at 8.00pm one day and arrive at 8.00am the next day, you will have used two travelling days.
There are multiple different options. You can consider a stop in any of the following major cities:
For example, for travellers who want to see more the big cities:
Or, for travellers who want to see the more of Canada's west:
As before, it is recommended to decide what interests you the most and which cities you would like to see, remembering that if you alight from the Canadian (between Toronto and Vancouver) at any stop, you will have to spend two, if not three days there until the next train comes through.
Travellers who want to visit the western and prairie cities of Canada as part of this two week itinerary may find themselves choosing between:
It is recommended to carefully research your choice, and to consider when and where you will be arriving. Both the east and west bound Canadian trains call at Edmonton and Winnipeg during the daytime, but both services arrive at and depart from Saskatoon in the very early hours when you'll be dependent on a taxi and a hostel or hotel that will let you check in during the middle of the night. Saskatoon rail station is approximately 8km (5 miles) from downtown. Similarly, Edmonton station is approximately 10km (6 miles) from downtown with no public transit between the two. Winnipeg station is located almost in the heart of downtown.
The basic fourteen day itineraries above can easily be expanded with longer stopovers in the cities and destinations that interest you the most while still only using a twelve day Canrailpass. You might find it helpful, however, to purchase some extra days. Up to three extra days are available on a Canrailpass (see price information above), allowing you more freedom in planning connections.
With a whole month to spend, you could easily consider riding some of the other trains operated by VIA Rail Canada, such as the Chaleur to Gaspé (although eastbound to westbound and westbound to eastbound connections with the Ocean at Matapédia are inconvenient). Quebec City is another excellent destination for rail travellers, and it's close to the route of the Ocean between Montréal and Halifax (Nova Scotia) with transfers available. The basic day required for sightseeing in the nation's capital Ottawa could easily be extended to two or three allowing time to see the city's impressive museums. Further west, any three of the cities of Winnipeg, Saskatoon or Edmonton make great bases from which to explore the vast prairies, although you're likely to need to hire a car if you want to cover any real ground. During the summer months they're also essential stops on the festival tour, as each city puts on their own lively Fringe Festival. During the winter months, an essential detour from Winnipeg is on board the government subsidised Hudson Bay train to Churchill, where there are extensive opportunities for polar bear sightseeing. Beware though: the Hudson Bay runs over tracks that are bedded on the permafrost, so it's a forty hour crawl to the far north and the (frequently frozen) Hudson Bay.
Rail travel in Canada is incredibly safe. The only precautions to take relate to personal belongings and valuables. While it is almost always safe to leave your possessions at your seat while you go to the restaurant or observation car, don't advertise valuable and easily stolen items such as personal music players or computers. To be really safe, check your luggage into the baggage car. Theft from luggage while it is in the care of VIA Rail is unheard of, and you'll be reunited with your bags when you reach your destination.