To travel around Canada by train with VIA Rail is a dream trip for train lovers. It is also the only coast to coast train service in Canada; beginning in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and stretching all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia. Its rail lines emerge like small veins on our country’s massive landscape, travelling across 8 provinces.
The scenes outside the train window gradually change as you journey from the Maritimes into Quebec and across the Canadian Shield, through Boréal plains and forests, across prairies filled with golden fields of canola and corn, and over the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Of course, short trips into northern Canada offer just as much landscape diversity. Travel through small towns and some of Canada’s largest cities. Mingle with your fellow passengers and stop off the train for a breath of fresh air whenever possible.
Travelling around Canada by train can be fantastic, but our nation’s railways are not without controversy.
a brief history
The desire to experience the stunning and serene landscapes of Canada was created, mostly, by railway companies, such as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail), in the late 19th century.
The concept of a coast-to-coast railway was, to Sir John A. Macdonald (Prime Minister of Canada 1867-1873 & 1878-1891, a racist and white colonizer who created the residential school system in Canada), a way to help unify Canada. Building a railway spanning across the Canadian shield, prairies, and the Canadian Rocky Mountains was an audacious idea, but Macdonald was determined. Plans were adjusted, however, when a year later, in 1873, Macdonald and several other high-ranking officials were embroiled in the Pacific Scandal, resulting in Macdonald and the Conservative Party being removed from power.
Alexander Mackenzie, his replacement, and a liberal made the decision to tackle the railway in sections, and in 1875 tracks were being laid between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Three years later, Macdonald returned to power and pushed harder than ever for the railway to expand west to the Pacific coast. He was aggressive and single-minded, and anyone who was not white suffered greatly.
“…Macdonald effectively gave himself near-autocratic control of the prairies, including supervision of Indian affairs and the Northwest Mounted Police
“Indian matters … form so great a portion of the general policy of the Government that I think it necessary for the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, to have that in his own hands.” Macdonald wrote in 1881.
In government archives, Daschuk found ample primary evidence showing that Macdonald’s Indian agents explicitly withheld food in order to drive bands onto reserve and out of the way of the railroad. A Liberal MP at the time even called it “a policy of submission shaped by a policy of starvation.”
Source: National Post, Here is What John A. Macdonald Did to Indigenous People, August 28, 2018
Having driven the Plains First Nations into reserves and away from the railroad, thousands of navigational engineers (navvies), mostly from Europe, were employed to build the railroad, along with 17,000 workers from China. The majority of the Chinese workers came from impoverished villages in the south of Guangdong Province. To them, western Canada was a place where riches could be found. That, however, was rarely true.
Pay equity among the navvies and Chinese was non-existent. The navvies were paid $1–$2.50 per day, while the Chinese workers were paid $0.75–$1.25 per day and tasked with the most dangerous jobs (explosives for clearing tunnels, etc.).
Around 600-800 Chinese labourers died while working on the railway, their bodies buried into the railroad, their fate unknown to their families back in China. When the railroad was complete (it took around 5 years), the survivors did not have enough money to return to China. Their contracts stipulated that they would be returned to China upon completion, but those terms were never honoured. They were simply abandoned. Left to work in laundries, restaurants, and menial labour jobs.
[This article on Chinese restaurants in Canada is an excellent read on Chinese migration across the country after the building of the railroad, and a good reminder that Chinese food and culture is an important part of Canadian food and culture.]
The railway was completed in the west, railways were purchased in Ontario and Quebec from the Quebec government, and by 1885 a rail network from Quebec City to St. Thomas, Ontario was established. Within 4 years, raw materials and goods were being transported across the country by the Canadian Pacific Railway Co (CP Rail). It was around this time that CP Rail began building grand railway hotels to encourage tourism along the railroad.
The first of these châteauesque was the Banff Springs Hotel, which opened its doors in 1888. It was followed by Château Lake Louise in 1890, Château Frontenac in 1893, and the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in 1929. Thousands of passengers explored the country’s pristine rugged landscapes by train; Banff, Lake Louise, and Quebec City are among the railway’s most popular destinations.
In the early part of the 19th century, the sleeping car train porters were black men. It was one of the only jobs available to them. They were immigrants, many from the West Indies, some from the United States., and the lifeblood of luxury train tours in North America. They carried luggage, folded down and made beds, and shined shoes.
Similar to the Chinese workers who helped build the railway, black train porters earned very little and relied on tips to survive. They rarely slept. Catering to the needs of the white passengers, who would call them ‘George‘ or ‘George’s boy‘, never by their real name. George Pullman, an American industrialist, was known for helping to create luxury sleeping cars, and later, the addition of dining cars in the United States. He hired former slaves as train porters. They may have been “fee”, but they were stilled treated as servants by the rich white passengers.
The porters were intelligent and educated, and they fought for their right to be promoted, and to have a better life in Canada, from within. It wasn’t until the 1960s, after a lot of hard work and activism, that black train porters were granted permission to be promoted to a conductor position on the train. [Read more about Canada’s black train porters in this book by Cecil Foster. This interview is quite good as well, give it a listen!]
In the mid-1950s two transcontinental trains were operating in Canada. The Super Continental (Montreal–Vancouver via Toronto, Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Regina, Banff), operated by Canadian National Railway (CN Rail), and The Canadian (Toronto–Vancouver via Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper), operated by CP Rail. Of the two routes, The Canadian was considered superior with its domed cars and sleek design.
When VIA Rail took over the passenger routes operated by CN and CP Rail in 1978, it continued to operate both routes, however, profits declined due to more people travelling by air, and the Trans-Canada Highway. By 1990, not only had the Super Continental train stopped running, but The Canadian was moved to the old Super Continental tracks, and instead of offering daily service, it was now operating three times a week (twice a week in the off-season).
train routes in canada
While The Canadian route is still VIA Rail’s crowning jewel, it’s not the only train route they operate. In fact, if you want to travel across Canada by train, you will need to book tickets on The Ocean, Ontario-Quebec, and The Canadian routes. While travelling around Canada coast to coast is a spectacular adventure, shorter trips can be just as spectacular.
So, let’s take a few minutes to break down the various routes you can explore with VIA Rail. Let’s start with the three main routes: The Canadian, The Ocean, and Ontario-Quebec.
toronto – vancouver
The Canadian continues to operate on the Super Continental tracks, departing from Toronto and travelling to Vancouver via Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Jasper. This route runs 3 times per week for 6 months (high season), and twice a week the rest of the year.
classes: economy, sleeper plus, and prestige
amenities: Dining cars with food for purchase in economy class. Dome cars with panoramic views. Dinning, activity and dome cars for sleeper plus and prestige class passengers.
food: Included for sleeper plus and prestige passengers.
duration: Toronto – Vancouver without stopovers is 4 nights/5 days.
halifax – montreal
The Ocean departs Halifax, Nova Scotia and travels to Montreal via Moncton, Miramichi, Campbeltown, Matapédia, Rimouski, and Quebec City. The train runs on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday from Montréal and Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from Halifax.
classes: economy, sleeper plus
amenities: Free wifi in services car. Dining car with food for purchase for economy class, as well as a full service dinning car for sleeper plus passengers. Park car for sleeper plus.
food: Included for sleeper plus passengers
duration: Halifax – Montreal without stopovers is 1 night/1 day
quebec city – windsor
Also known as the Québec – Windsor corridor, this is a commuter line with stops in Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, Kitchener, and Niagara Falls. The train runs daily, with services beginning as early as 5:25am in some cities.
classes: economy, business
amenities: Free wifi throughout the train
food: Included for business class passengers. Food for purchase for economy class passengers
duration: As a commuter route, duration varies
winnipeg – churchill
Used as a commuter line in Manitoba, this train travels through boréal plains and forest, then into arctic tundra. The journey to Churchill takes 2 nights/ 2 days. Services include a dining car with food for purchase for economy passengers. Meals are included for sleeper plus passengers.
jasper – prince rupert
The journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert, via Prince George is absolutely stunning. This is a touring class train, so passenger classes are economy and touring. Services include dome and park cars, meals are included for touring class passengers. Train runs 3 times per week June–September.
sudbury – white river
Experience the beauty of Northern Ontario on this 8.5 hour train journey to White River. Perfect for a mini getaway. There is only one passenger class, economy, and food is available for purchase. That being said, it’s probably best to bring your own snacks.
Travel to the regions of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Abitibi-Témiscamingue. The scenery is jaw-dropping. All seats available are in economy class, and food is available for purchase. Absolutely stunning in autumn when Quebec’s fall foliage is in full effect.
train classes with via rail
Before we talk about fares, deals, and passes, let’s talk about passenger classes when you’re travelling Canada by train with VIA Rail, so you know which is best for you and your travel style.
Economy is offered on all trains, however, the level of comfort differs on each line. Older train cars, generally used on the Ontario–Quebec route, can feel a little confined and tight. In the new economy class cars, there is more legroom and movement options.
On the other routes, seats have more recline pitch and are more comfortable to sit in over long periods of time.
Tip: if you’re sitting in a four-seat section (two seats that face two seats) and nobody is sitting across from you recline both seats and you can lay down flat for overnight sleeping.
business / touring
Seats in business class are wider, have more space between each seat, and better recline pitch. Passengers in business/touring have lounge access in train stations and enjoy priority boarding. All meals and drinks are included in the cost of a ticket.
Business classes is available on trains on the Ontario-Quebec route, and touring class is available on Jasper–Prince Rupert route. Touring class passengers also have access to a panoramic dome car, as well as the park car at the end of the train.
There are several different types which vary depending on the line you are travelling on. All passengers travelling in a sleeper class have access to Panoramic Lounges at various VIA Rail stations as you travel Canada by train. Here is a breakdown:
berth – This is ideal for a solo traveller and the most economical option. Berths are beds during the night (separated by a curtain), and a bench during the day. This is not a cabin. People will be walking by on their way to their room or another train car. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on The Canadian, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.
cabin for One – This is a great option for a solo traveller who wants the luxury of a private space. All cabin classes come with a fan, air-conditioning, a sink, a private toilet, drinking water, pillows and bedding, and outlets (I was impressed with the quality of the duvet covers in sleeping class). Cabins for One are small, so during the day your bed is a chair, and at night you bed is either lowered down or pulled out from the wall. At night, you are able to lock your door from the inside. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on The Canadian, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.
cabin for Two – A cabin for two consists of upper and lower beds which are replaced with chairs during the day. The cabin comes with a bathroom with a toilet and everything else that is included in a cabin for one. The room is cosy, and the beds are quite comfortable. Note: the beds on The Canadian are bigger than those on the Ocean line. Ask for an ‘F’ cabin on The Canadian if you want a little more space. Cabin for Two is also available on the Winnipeg–Churchill route.
cabin for Two with Shower – Basically this is the same as a cabin for two, but the bathroom has a showerhead. If you’ve travelled to Asia you’ll be fine, if not… you’ll be fine too, just embrace the fact that you’re going to shower beside the toilet. Note: This type of cabin is only available on The Ocean.
cabin for Three – If you’re a family with small children than a cabin for three is a great choice. The cabin is very spacious during the day and comes complete with three beds for during the night. The amenities are exactly the same as a cabin for two. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on the Canadian line, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.
cabin for Four – A cabin for four is basically two cabins for two where the wall between the cabins has been removed. The amenities are exactly the same as a cabin for two. Note: This type of sleeper is only available on The Canadian, and the trains from Winnipeg – Churchill.
Brand new for 2015, Prestige class is available on The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. This is an ultimate luxury class for VIA Rail, with newly renovated cabins featuring a modular L-shaped leather sofa, private washroom with a shower, LCD TV, and a dedicated concierge. Similar to the Sleeper Plus class, all meals are included with Prestige class fare. That being said, Prestige also includes the cost of alcohol and snacks, which is available for a charge to those in Economy and Sleeper Plus classes. Passengers in this class can enjoy a small bar area and are closest to the train’s park car, and a panoramic dome (Sleeper Plus passengers are also able to enjoy the park car and panoramic dome car in Prestige Class.
24-hours in quebec city
Planning a quick stopover in Quebec City during while travelling across Canda by train? Here is a wee guide on what to see, do, and eat during a brief stay in one of the oldest cities in Canada.
fares, deals, and rail passes
Travelling around Canada by train does not have to be expensive. You can, in fact, find pretty good deals if you make time to do some planning and research. Here are some of the ways you can save and travel with VIA Rail on a budget.
finding a deal
Tuesday’s are fare sale days with VIA. Known as escape fares, this is the best day of the week to find deals. You do not have to travel on a Tuesday, you just have to buy your tickets on a Tuesday! If you’re looking for ticket deals for long-distance train travel, check out the express deals found here. These deals are especially good if you are able to be flexible with your travel plans.
There are a few train passes to choose from when travelling around Canada by train. Here is a breakdown of the passes currently offered with VIA.
- youth pass – This pass includes 6 credits (one-way trips) over a 6-month period. This pass is for economy class, but you can purchase business class tickets at a 25% discount. This pass is valid on the Ontario-Quebec route. Pass price depends on the zone ($239–399 CAD). Youth are 12–25 years of age.
- leisure pass – This pass is the same as the Youth Pass, however, it is for adults (26+ years of age). Prices range from $299 – $449 CAD.
- canada pass – Travel Canada by train and explore every route and station with this pass. Choose from 6 credits, 12 credits, or unlimited credits. The pass is valid for 15, 30 or 60 days, and for economy class seats. Pass prices range from $649 CAD (6 credits over 15 days) to $1,518 CAD (unlimited credits over 60 days).
- multi-pass – Used mostly by business travellers, this pass is for the Ontario-Quebec route. Choose your zone and how many ticket credits (10, 20, 50, or 100) purchased. With this pass, ticket validity is 180 days (6 months), and prices begin at $799 CAD in economy or $1,399 CAD in business.
- commuter pass – As the name implies, this pass is made for those using VIA to commute to work. Valid on the Ontario-Quebec route, simply select your commute zone, and train class. The pass includes 20 travel credits which are valid for a 30-day period.
food onboard via rail
Let’s talk about food when you’re travelling around Canada by train. The food available varies depending on which route and class you’re travelling. Anyone travelling in an economy can purchase food in a service car, but the food is a little pricey ($2 CAD for a can of soda, or a small bag of chips, $7 CAD for a heated meal). Sleeper Plus passengers (Winnipeg–Churchill, The Ocean, and The Canadian), as well as Prestige class passengers (The Canadian), have their meals included in the price of their ticket. The best food can be found on The Canadian, which offers gourmet meals cooked onboard each day by a trained Chef.
My advice? If you’re travelling in economy class bring non-perishable snacks and some beverages. Honestly, even if you’re in sleeper class on the Winnipeg–Churchill route, you should bring snacks as the train has been known to run out of food.
here are some snack ideas:
- Nuts & granola bars
- Cured meats
- Fruit like apples, oranges, plums, etc (things that keep well)
- Water, juice, or soda
Basically, budget $10 – $15 CAD per day for snacks and food if you plan to bring your own. Cheaper and more filling that way.
travelling with pets
VIA Rail has a strict pets policy. Dogs and cats are permitted to travel in passenger cars on some trains, however, there are some regulations that must be met (more on this policy here). In terms of animals travelling in the baggage car, there are some strict regulations to follow. For instance, only cats, dogs, and small rodents (hamsters, rabbits, etc.) are permitted to travel in the baggage car, as long as they have proper cages. Pets, however, are not permitted in the baggage cars from June 1st – September 30th due to heat and poor train ventilation. To learn more, read their policy here.