Story by Graeme Lottering
I’ve recently had the pleasure of riding the rails from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA Rail. The total trip time is approximately four days, but I recommend scheduling some stops to make the most of the trip. Because passenger trains yield to freight on the rails, there might be unexpected delays so buy your return flight after you’ve arrived at your last stop. Here are 10 tips that can help you get the most out of your VIA Rail journey.
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1. Be Prepared
You’ll want to pack a blanket and small pillow if you are travelling in economy. There are blankets available to buy on the train, but trust me, you’ll be much more comfortable with your beloved “Star Trek” snuggy. Pillows and blankets are provided in sleeper accommodation, along with all the free coffee you can drink. And don’t forget some slippers! They don’t permit you to go between cars shoeless, and this will make short trips into the next car much easier if there is someone in the bathroom.
In economy, the bottom of your seat can fold out to create a surface most people could sleep on, and with your chair back all the way, it’s quite comfortable — especially if you’ve brought your own blanket. In Prestige class, if you have a sleeper, it will most likely be folded away as soon as you leave for breakfast. It’s a good idea to talk to your attendant about when you would like your sleeper cleaned up. Some couples arranged a deal to keep the top bunk up as a midday nap nook. Regardless of where you are seated, I do recommend going to bed relatively early and waking for the sunrise. You will see some of the most beautiful sunrises veiled in mists hovering above Northern Ontario lakes, or reflecting off the vast oceanic cloudscapes of the prairies.
3. Make Friends
VIA trains go through isolated territory, and it’s not often you get a cellphone signal. So put away your phone, forget your social media, and pay attention to your travel buddy. You will most likely meet new people when you are seated in the dining car. This is a good chance to suss out which other travellers know the same card games as you. Bringing a variety of compact games (dice, cards, etc.) allows you to make new friends and to stay entertained during the trip. For this reason, I suggest bringing shareable snacks and sweets. This combination will almost certainly make you the most popular person on the train.
There are no showers in economy, so if you are going cross-country, be sure to bring some wetnaps or washcloths, so you can refresh yourself during the day. This is important since no amount of games or food will persuade a stranger to hang out in the dome car if you smell like human onions.
5. On-board Entertainment
VIA has a neat program called “Artist on Board,” which places a musician on the train. On our train it was Madeline Tasquin, a sweet Quebecoise girl whose whimsical folksy style seemed to appeal to all members of the audience, from kids to adults. Since this is a bilingual service, her songs naturally slipped back and forth from English into French. She even rallied the polylingual audience by asking them to whistle together, breaking the barrier of language and uniting travellers from all over the world in birdsong. These artists can be found performing in the stations whenever the train stops long enough for riders to disembark.
6. The Dome Car
One of the most wonderful experiences is sitting in the dome car when you pass a grandiose natural wonder like a sublime waterfall, or immense valley. Some crew members will come up there to explain intricate historic or geographic details, which are not mentioned over the PA system. As we were crossing from Jasper to Vancouver, Joel Dione, a jovial VIA staff member, entered the dome car, holding up a $10 bill, showing the One Canadian, the very same train we were on passing through the exact same valley shown on the currency. Detailed attention like this reminded me of the quality service you get on the train.
7. The Crew Members
If you are travelling cross country, the crew will change several times. I recommend introducing yourself to them. They often have very interesting stories, and some crews will go out of their way to assure you have everything you need. We got very attached to some of the crew members, and there was even a reluctant farewell sung at dinner once by the service manager, Fabien, whose guitar skills warmed up the crowd in the most delightful way. Obviously, every crew is different, but they all have your best interests at heart.
The train stops at Winnipeg for a few hours. VIA organizes a convenient tour to some landmarks as well as Assiniboine Park. This is a wonderful way of seeing a bit of Winnipeg and making the best of a layover. If you are more inclined to do your own thing, there is an extensive market next to the station, where you can get a variety of souvenirs and meals, or just refill your snacks. Winnipeg’s recently finished Museum of Human Rights is a towering achievement in architecture, and a great learning experience. There is also the Railway Museum tucked away inside Winnipeg Station. As a rail buff, I found this fascinating. You can get a real hands-on look at some of the first steam engines that helped build the tracks through the mountains, as well as watch a scale model of the One Canadian cruise over tall wooden bridges.
9. The Prestige Experience
The upgrade to Prestige might be well worth it. You can use the Prestige Lounge, stocked with a variety of free beverages, and some hors d’oeuvres, snacks, and fresh fruit. The first leg of your trip in Prestige will kick off with a Champagne starter in the lounge car at the very back of the train. You have access not only to your own bed, but also to the panorama car, free food in the delicious dining car, as well as an interesting mix of activities arranged by the VIA staff. For us, we had movie nights, a games night, as well as beer and wine tastings. You will want to check a few of these events out.
10. The Dining Car
Without a doubt the single best experience on the VIA train is the dining car. Each meal just kept topping the last one. In fact, I had better meals on the train than I did at the fanciest restaurant in any city I’ve ever visited. The chef plans the meals so that local ingredients are used to make these delicious meals from the regions you pass through. So you might eat Alberta beef near Edmonton, but elk when you go through the mountains, or salmon as you approach Vancouver. These meals seemed to act as anchor points for your daily routine, and in a very Pavlovian way, I became extremely excited before every trip to the dining car. The meals are truly superb, and are not to miss.
MORE ABOUT VIA RAIL CANADA
Fares: Prices vary based on season and time of booking. You can expect to pay about $850 for a one-way economy fare from Toronto to Vancouver in the spring.