January 31, 2011

[Cultural Geography] On The Canadian

PART I (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Travelling ‘Comfort’ Class on VIA Rail’s Cross-Country ‘Land Cruise’, and More…)

Welcome to The Canadian
VIA Rail is a crown corporation that owns and operates Canada’s only national-level passenger rail service. It is possible to travel across the country, on ten core route lines, which stretch from West Coast to East Coast, and as far north as Churchill, Manitoba. The majority of VIA’s passenger traffic occurs within the busy  ‘corridor’ between Québec City and Windsor, where journeys take place within a few hours and the trains (at present) offer free wireless internet service. The corridor sees multiple trips per day, and covers a region which serves as home to over half of Canada’s population.

However, it is quite a different experience to travel the multiple-overnight journey between Toronto and Vancouver. This cross-country journey is one of 4,466 kilometers, and is typically completed in over 82 hours (more below on why it takes so long). The Toronto-Vancouver line is called The Canadian, and it travels through numerous small towns and some bigger cities along the route, with planned rest stops in Capreol (near Sudbury), Hornepayne, Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper and Kamloops (and sometimes other smaller towns if the train is ahead of schedule). The Canadian departs three times a week (leaving from Toronto at 10:00pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; and leaving Vancouver at 8:30pm on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

 Figure 1: VIA Rail Route Map

I have travelled on The Canadian four times (one trip between Toronto and Edmonton at the end of 2009, returning in the beginning of 2010; and the other between Toronto and Vancouver at the end of 2010, returning in the beginning of 2011). By no means does this make me an ‘expert’ – if you travel on The Canadian you are bound to meet others on board who regularly travel on this line (though typically not the entire length of the journey). However, having spent nearly two weeks of my life on this line, having spoken with other cross-country travelers, and having done a bit of additional research, I’ve learned a thing or two about this specific passenger rail experience. If you are considering taking the Canadian you may find some of this information useful (I encourage skipping the boring parts by using the subheadings below). 

Why do they take the train?
There are many reasons why one may decide to take the train between various towns or cities along The Canadian route, as opposed to driving, taking the bus, or flying, even though the latter three options are typically quicker. I’ve encountered many reasons when asking fellow passengers why they decided to take the Canadian, and classified these reasons into six archetypes:
  • The Tourists: VIA’s corporate strategy is to make The Canadian a ‘land cruise’ – a quaint, early 20th Century style, romantic journey across the country, enabling those on board to view the impressive vistas of Canada’s diverse landscapes. As such, the train, which is typically made up of just over 10 cars, is extremely ‘classed’ – with the tourism-focused elite class passengers in one section of the train, and the ‘lower class’ regular passengers in the other. One gets the impression that VIA makes the most profit from those ‘elite class’ travelers, many of whom – it seemed to me – were wealthy international or domestic tourists hoping to see the Rockies or the vast Canadian prairies. While the line typically carries two cars for economy class (ironically called ‘comfort class’) – which each hold up to 62 seats – the majority of the train’s cars are designated for the elite ‘Silver and Blue Class’ only [there is actually a sign on the door to the dining car which reminds comfort class passengers they are only allowed through if they have reservations for the dining car]. There are different types of Silver and Blue cars, also known as the ‘sleeper cars’ (which may give you a hint as to what you’re not reasonably expected to do in the economy class cars). Both the Manor Cars (each individual car is named after an influential Canadian of British origin) and the Chateau Cars (each named after an influential Canadian of French origin) typically hold up to 20 passengers. These elite cars provide different types of sleeping arrangements, ranging from private single, double and triple bedrooms, and less private berths (which are separated from the hallway by curtains). The sleeper car passengers have access to on-board showers and typically have all their meals included in their fare. They also have a private ‘dome car’ known as the Park Car (each car is named after a Canadian National Park), which offers an upper-level scenic dome. While economy passengers also have access to a dome car, the elite Park Car is located at the rear of the train and contains a bar and a rounded panoramic ‘bullet’ lounge, where passengers are treated to free coffee, wine and cheese tastings and other entertainment. This is about all I will say about travelling first class (which I have not yet had the luxury of doing)… such elite class tickets typically cost many thousands of dollars per passenger. Of course, some tourists with smaller budgets may opt for the comfort class. I have met a number of younger ‘backpacker’ types wanting to see Canada who have not had the budget for a sleeper car. 
  •   Hassle Free Travelers: The next type of passenger I would call the ‘hassle free traveler’. This includes a number of different types of people. In some cases they may hate the extreme busyness and claustrophobic character of airports, or the sardine-packed nature of buses and planes; or perhaps they are not keen on having to ‘think’ about their travel, as one has to do in a vehicle. They like the idea of being able to sit back and relax, drink, walk around, not be bound by seatbelts and directions. I have met some hassle free travelers are genuinely afraid of flying or even driving long distances (especially in winter). While automobile and air travel is harrowing during a winter storm, the train seems to do just fine in a snowfall.

    Remote Small Town Travelers: Sometimes The Canadian is literally the easiest way to get to or from a remote town. Many travelers from small towns in Northern Ontario or the Prairies seem to fit this description. For example, I met two travelers (siblings) who were taking the train from Toronto back home to a small town located two hours North of Sioux Lookout, simply because it was the easiest option. Another common short stint includes the leg between Edmonton and Jasper. By law, the train is required to stop anywhere along the route that a passenger desires (as long as the request is made in advance), so sometimes travelers wanting to go into the remote deep woods might take the train. 
  • Discount Travelers: In Canada, the train is typically an expensive mode of travel. However, in some circumstances it can be relatively economical. VIA’s CanRail pass, for example, offers 7 trips within a span of 21 days for under $600 [$520 for students; $590 for adults; NOTE: these were the conditions at the time of writing – they have changed since 2009 and are apt to change again in 2011]. This can make a cross-country open-jaw trip much cheaper than air travel. Other discount travelers include those with special discount rights (such as CN employees – the relationship between VIA and CN is described below). I met one traveler who had worked for CN for decades, and when he retired acquired an impressive full discount travel pass with VIA. Finally, there are the lucky passengers who have got last minute discounts on the web. VIA posts its express deals online every Thursday morning between midnight and 3am. Deals are typically offered for various travel routes in the ensuing three weeks (so if you’re flexible this is likely the cheapest and best way to travel). The deals aren’t only for economy tickets; they also often include berths in the off-season (which I have seen for exceptionally low prices – in one instance as little as $300 per passenger, including two berths and all meals included!). The train is also an affordable option for families – and there seem to be quite a few parents with younger children willing to brave the comfort class accommodations over long distances. Parties of three or more are seated in two facing seat pairs (see ‘sleeping’ section below), which can offer two parents a space to put up their feet. 
  • Outside the Box Travelers: There are always those travelers with particular quirks – there are some who take the train because it offers a rare opportunity to ‘disconnect’ from the humdrum of busy every-day life in society for four days. This disconnection offers time to sit and think, or do other time-consuming projects that just wouldn’t get done otherwise (there are a lot of knitters on the Canadian); this category of traveler also includes train fanatics, as well as adventurous types who like the idea of trying something new. Here I might also include travelers with pets: Although it costs $50 per trip to bring a dog on The Canadian, many travelers seem to prefer this option to airplane baggage compartments. At any train stop dog owners are allowed to take their dogs for a brief walk to get some exercise (though see the warning about bringing dogs below). Finally, some people take The Canadian when they are moving to another city, because the train offers each passenger to carry up to 6 bags (I met a woman who was moving all of her closest possessions, which included her bike, from a small town in Saskatchewan to Vancouver).
  • Environmentalists: A small sample of the people I’ve talked to on The Canadian turned out to be taking it for the same reason as me – to yield a lower carbon footprint than the alternatives of air and automobile travel. Typically train travel is far more efficient than taking the train or driving. There is no doubt that rail travel in VIA’s corridor is more efficient (in terms of emissions) than automobile or air travel. This may be why VIA Rail has recently picked up the tagline “A Green Choice”. However, there can be exceptions, and I have been wary lately of whether The Canadian is actually as efficient as it is made out to be. At least once along the trans-continental journey you can see a large fuel truck pull up to the two locomotive engines to pump them full of diesel. This is reminiscent of a fuel truck filling up an airplane while docked at the airport. The Canadian typically uses two locomotives – one to haul and one to provide power and as a back-up – each locomotive is (usually) carrying a General Motors F40PH-2D engine – a 16 cylinder, 3000 horsepower, diesel-electric locomotive. These motors consume a lot of diesel, especially considering that they produce power for electric heating, air conditioning, cab lighting and power outlets for the entire train. Another woman I met on the train informed me that the train ‘idled’ for the full four hours while it was parked in Winnipeg’s Union Station. I’ve yet to do the calculations, but because the majority of the train’s cars are designated for elite passenger (and therefore less passengers are carried per overall train weight) it is very possible that the per passenger emissions on The Canadian, at present, are as high (if not higher) than bus travel [when I finally do the calculations I’ll be sure to post them here]. 

Figure 2: The Canadian with Three Locomotives
Think of the diesel! Photo from Cal Murray's Flickr Account

(Lack of) Speed
As mentioned above, the train travels at a slow average speed. While the F40PH-2D locomotive can reach speeds of 145 kilometers per hour, The Canadian typically does not travel that fast. Often (approximately once every few hours during the entire four day trip), the train will come to a complete stop alongside the tracks and wait. “Wait for what?” you might ask… and herein lies the story of VIA Rail’s present sad state of affairs (of which I will discuss in more detail in a future post)…. We wait for freight trains to go by. As VIA Rail’s travel guide, Canada by Train, written by Chris Hanus and John Shaske, suggests, some freights are “up to two miles long. Usually their size exceeds the length of siding tracks enabling trains to pass each other. Inevitably, the mammoth freights are given priority and passenger trains must wait on siding tracks until it is clear to continue” (120). However, there is a simpler reason why VIA is required to wait on the side of the tracks – it doesn’t own them! The freight companies own the tracks. As a CN employee told me, VIA currently rents track time from CN, thanks to a 3-year contract worth $60 million (this is obscene considering the legacy of CN as a nationally owned rail enterprise, now bilking money from the Canadian taxpayer for VIA’s mediated rail access).  This is one of the main reasons why The Canadian is so slow. Given the 82 hour journey and the distance of 4,466 km, the train travels at an average speed of 54.5 km/h (this, of course, includes stops). Freight shipments, meanwhile, are guaranteed to travel from Vancouver’s port to Chicago in no more than 48 hours – it just goes to show how much of a priority is passenger rail in Canada!

For the so-called comfort class, VIA’s sleeping arrangements are, by far, the WORST part of the journey. The seats recline to about 45 degrees, and an angled stool unfolds from under the seat. Light sleepers out there will have trouble getting some shut-eye! When the train is full, sleeping is difficult and at best uncomfortable. When the train is not full, however, a somewhat restless sleep can be attained by finding one’s own pair of seats and folding the body into various configurations. I never sleep well the first night of a journey on The Canadian, but luckily, because I am so exhausted and tired on the second night, sleep comes easier, regardless of the uncomfortable arrangements and all the stimuli (shaking cars, the loud humdrum of the train, the constants overhead lights, etc.). On my most recent journey I asked one of the attendants if she’d every seen passengers sleep in the main isle. She answered that she has seen just about every possible inch of the train taken for a sleeping location. After a few days on the train, many travelers are just pining for a flat place to lie down… a few odd places may provide such a space, aside from the main isle: The large overhead baggage shelves, the rectangular baggage storage area at the back of each economy car, the café car, and the dome car (by lying across the dividing aisle) – the VIA attendant confirmed she had seen passengers trying to sleep in all of these locations.

END OF PART I (Stay tuned for Part II)


  1. once only traveller23 December 2011 at 14:32

    we traveled from vancouver,bc to halifax,ns. Our 2 person cabin with shower was ok except when the train hit dips in the tracks. On one occation my wife was sent flying off the top bunk against the wall as she was trying to get in bed. Meals were great, showers were a challange, the staff were wonderful.. The train from Montreal to Halifax was an embassisment. Pourly built, cabin doors would not close, beds were sloped downward so much that the only way to stay in bed was to take blankets and pillows to slop the mattress into the wall of the cabin so you could actually stay in the bed.

    Another very annoying part was that during rain showers the observation car windows were so dirty that you could not see out of them. One would assume that for the cost of the ticket via rail could have bought some rain away fluid from Canadian tire for .50 cents and kept the windows clean

    As a Canadian I was quite concerned about the total lack of simple maintence not provided for our world wide visitors. Quite embarrising..

  2. Thanks Once Only....

    If anyone else out there has any anecdotes (or tips) of VIA's cross-country journey, please post a comment!

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