Taking the train in Canada – all you need to know

Canada has an extensive rail network and some spectacular rides. However, with the bulk of the system given over to freight and most Canadians preferring to travel long-distance by car or plane, trains outside the eastern corridor cities of Toronto and Montréal are little used compared to countries in Asia or Europe. 

It wasn’t always so. Annual ridership on Canadian trains peaked at 60 million in the 1940s with numbers declining sharply in the 1950s as car ownership became more common. Today, around 5 million passengers a year use 500 weekly trains (excluding commuter trains) operated by the government-run Crown Corporation, Via Rail. Several more deluxe journeys are run by private companies, headlined by the legendary Rocky Mountaineer, a veritable five-star hotel on wheels.

A long freight train follows the tracks through an incredibly scenic lakeside and mountain location
Freight takes priority on the rail network, which means delays for passenger trains are common © Mike Danneman / Getty Images

Trains can be slow

While the overall quality of service on the Canadian rail network is high, especially if you opt for business or sleeper classes, the trains, in comparison to Japanese bullet trains or France’s TGVs, are slow. Obligated to yield to the requirements of freight, which makes up the bulk of the country’s rail traffic, passenger trains can spend long periods of time waiting on the sidelines and are often late.

An exception is the fast intercity trains between Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal that zip along the eastern corridor route in just over five hours.

VIA Rail runs most services

The bulk of the rail network is run by VIA Rail, with a handful of private companies operating special lines, mostly for tourist purposes. There are also several services overseen by US company Amtrak that shuttle across the international border to Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal.

VIA Rail has two named trains, the cross-continental Canadian – one of the world’s great rail journeys – that links Vancouver and Toronto, and the Ocean that carries passengers between Montréal and Halifax in Nova Scotia. The corporation also operates five Scenic Adventure lines geared towards a mix of tourists and rural dwelling locals who utilize the trains’ flag-stops (where the service stops by request only, often in the middle of nowhere).  

Outside of VIA Rail, various commuter lines operate in the vicinity of Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal. All log significantly higher passenger numbers (up to 100 million per year in total). Vancouver has the West Coast Express, Toronto has GO Transit and Montréal has Exo.

The VIA Rail network doesn’t extend to Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador. Nor does it serve the territories, although the Yukon maintains the privately-run White Pass and Yukon Route tourist train that travels in summer between Carcross and Skagway, Alaska.     

VIA Rail carriages are generally good quality with large reclining seats and power outlets, even in economy class. The long-distance overnight trains are particularly spacious with passengers also getting access to a skyline car with a special dome section for panoramic views. Food and drink can be purchased at an on-board cafe. The veteran Canadian train still uses its original stainless-steel coaches inaugurated in 1955.

Sleeper plus class is available on the Canadian, the Ocean and the Winnipeg–Churchill services. Passengers may choose between open berths or one- or -two-bed private compartments. Apart from the Winnipeg–Churchill service, overnight trains also include access to a special restaurant car, offering three meals per day (included in the ticket).

A step up from sleeper plus is prestige sleeper, only available on the Canadian, which delivers deluxe hotel-style accommodation with private bathrooms, a comp mini-bar, TVs and access to a private bullet lounge in the so-called “park car” at the back of the train.

The daytime trains in Canada’s eastern corridor offer either economy or business class. The latter includes meals and extra baggage allowance.

Montréal and Toronto are major rail hubs for commuters

Trains in Canada are nowhere near as busy as countries in Europe which – in the case of the UK or France – deal with over one billion passengers a year. Notwithstanding, occupancy is noticeably higher in the rail corridor between Québec City and Windsor, particularly between Montréal and Toronto, the two major hubs. Outside of this, people tend to take trains mostly for scenic journeys, and they are little used by commuters.

A person nudges their head out of a train window in an open carriage to see the mountain scenery
The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury ride between Vancouver and Banff © Richard Jacyno / Getty Images

Scenic trains are mainly used by tourists

The five Scenic Adventure routes are the Jasper–Prince Rupert (the Skeena) in BC, the Winnipeg–Churchill in Manitoba, the Sudbury–White River in Ontario, and the Montréal–Senneterre and Montréal–Jonquière routes in Québec. Some services such as the Jasper–Prince Rupert line are particularly quiet attracting a mere 7000 passengers a year.  

Several private companies supplement VIA. The most celebrated is Rocky Mountaineer whose swanky trains run between Vancouver and Banff or Jasper. The “First Passage to the West” route is the only passenger train to utilize the original Canadian Pacific Railway tracks (the nation’s first cross-continental railway completed in 1885) and passes through the legendary Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park.

Of a similar bent is Royal Canadian Pacific whose trains lay on cruise-ship-like luxury on multiday excursions with nights spent in hotels between and around the Rockies. Neither company has sleeper services. You are put up in hotels instead.

There are two private rail routes in Ontario, the Algoma Central Railway providing access to northern Ontario wilderness, and the Ontario Northland that operates the Polar Bear Express five times a week.

The White Pass and Yukon Route between Carcross (Yukon) and Skagway (Alaska) dates from 1900 and follows the trail once trampled by feverish prospectors en route to the Klondike gold fields. Diesel trains pull vintage parlor-style carriages.

Book early for the best-value tickets

Canadian trains are very reasonably priced for what they offer, particularly when compared to buses and planes. Of Canada’s three main modes of public transport (air, bus and train), the railway is easily the most comfortable.

June to mid-October is peak season, when prices are about 40% higher. Buying tickets in advance can yield significant savings (up to 30%). The earlier the better. Book online using the official VIA Rail website. Alternatively, you can buy tickets at stations or by phone on 1-888-842-7245.

Seat reservations are highly recommended, especially in summer, on weekends and around holidays. During peak season, some of the most popular sleeping arrangements are sold out months in advance, especially on long-distance trains such as the Canadian. The Winnipeg–Churchill train often books solid during polar-bear season (around late September to early November). You can choose a specific seat in advance.

It’s possible to upgrade from economy to business class on day-trains and sleeper class on overnighters, although the price is over twice as much.

The domed glass roof of a viewing carriage on a train. People stand up from their seats to get a look at the mountain scenery they're passing through
Prices are higher in peak season months of June to October © Ric Jacyno / Shutterstock

Limited discounts are available

Discounts are available for children under 12 (50%), Hosteling International members (12.5%), Canadian military (25%), Indigenous people (33%), Canadian Automobile Association members (up to 20%), and groups of ten or more. Children under two travel free. Bring all relevant ID when traveling. There are currently no rail passes on Canadian trains, but frequent travelers can sign up for “VIA preference” and collect points towards future trips. Fares are discounted on Tuesdays.

The price of a train ticket is comparable with the cost of car hire and fuel

Canada, like the US, is a car-oriented country. Plenty of Canadians, especially in the west, go their whole lives without using an intercity train. It’s easy to rent a car in Canada and the road network is far more comprehensive. However, trains emit less carbon per person (55kg of CO² compared with 104kg for a car) and are marginally quicker on the fast intercity routes in the eastern corridor. Car hire costs about the same as a train ticket once you factor in fuel. 

Most urban train stations in big cities are close to the downtown cores with good onward transport connections. Additionally, most large stations have a car-rental desk.

Onboard facilities are generally good

All VIA Rail trains have some form of onboard food provision from cafes and trolleys on daytime-routes to restaurant cars on the overnight Canadian and Ocean trains. There are toilets on all trains, and they are generally kept clean. Free wi-fi is available on most trains, although it can be patchy in some areas.

VIA Rail baggage rules are similar to airplanes. You can bring a carry-on of up to 23kg for free. Checked luggage is C$25 per bag. Small folding bikes are classed as carry-on luggage. All other bikes incur a C$25 checked baggage fee.

Canadian trains might be slow and scant compared to European counterparts, but they are generally more comfortable, from economy going up through business and sleeper plus to prestige class. Blankets and pillows are provided for overnight travel. Extra coziness can be procured in business class in the southern Ontario/Québec corridor and sleeper plus class on the Canadian and the Ocean. For the ultimate in luxury, book prestige class on the Canadian.

Station facilities vary

Urban stations are usually situated in or close to city centers and usually have a few food and drink outlets, although they’re a long way from the mini-airports common in European cities. Toronto and Montréal have special lounges for business class passengers. Rural stations are invariably small with limited staff. Some are merely flag-stops. 

A heritage train hugs the cliff edge in a mountainous area
Trains between White Pass and Yukon use carriages dating from the 1880s © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Here’s our pick of Canada’s best train routes

The Canadian

Canada’s most famous train navigates a monumental cross-continental route that takes four days to cover 4466km (2775 miles) between Vancouver and Toronto with stops in Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. The scenery is an unending nose-to-the-window collection of the nation’s ever-changing ecosystems, from the Rocky Mountains to lonesome prairies to the lakes and forests of the Canadian shield. Traveling west allows longer stops in Jasper and Edmonton.

White Pass and Yukon Route

This is a short but spectacular journey that traverses the precipitous slopes of White Pass in the footsteps of the Klondike gold rush. The heritage railway uses original parlor carriages dating from the 1880s. Grab a perch on the outside viewing platform as you descend into Skagway.


Canada’s most northerly passenger train service chugs arctic-wards across pancake-flat prairies and scattered boreal forest providing the only overland connection to the polar-bear watching hub of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay.

The Skeena: train number 5

Cutting through the heart of British Columbia, VIA Rail’s train number 5, formerly known as the Skeena, offers an epic two-day voyage between Jasper and Prince Rupert that incorporates coniferous forest, rolling farmland and snow-dusted mountains. Locals use the line’s numerous flag-stops en route. A highlight is the view of the imposing southeast face of Mt Robson, an hour west of Jasper.

First Passage to the West

The crème de la crème of Canadian train rides is operated by the Rocky Mountaineer who lay on services as spectacular as the scenery with gourmet breakfasts, expert guides and leather seats. Of the three routes, this is the original and most popular running between Banff and Vancouver with an overnight in Kamloops.

Book ahead with accessibility needs or special requirements

All trains are accessible for wheelchairs and have washrooms with grab-bars. Most stations have wheelchair lifts. Passengers who can’t make it to the restaurant-car may be served meals in their seat. Service dogs are welcome on trains and can occupy an additional seat at no extra cost.

Book well ahead for accessible facilities and cite any special requirements in advance as space may be limited. For more information, see VIA Rail’s accessibility page.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top