My great train ride across Canada.
July 16, 2007 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of traveling across Canada by rail. I have never been to Canada, ridden on a train, or traveled alone before, so advice requested. Also, Amtrak?

Perhaps it's a leftover from a girlhood reading Anne of Green Gables books, but I've always liked the idea of traveling across Canada by train. And since I've decided to take a break from the daily 9 to 5 scene, I will now have all of September to spend indulging my whims. So, a few questions: How boring are the long-distance rides? What can you do on the train besides look out the window? Are the train stations in safe, accessible locations, or creepy and sketchy like the Houston Amtrak station?

Also, Amtrak and VIA offer a North American pass good for 30 days for what I think is a reasonable price. Should I take advantage of it to get to and from Canada on Amtrak from Texas? Amtrak's reputation is less than sterling, and I'm guessing I'd be pretty train-fatigued before I actually get to Canada, so I could always take a plane to and from Canada and use their limited, 12-day rail pass instead.

Any additional advice is more than welcome. Thanks in advance!
posted by lychee to Travel & Transportation around Canada (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
VIA is pretty decent and going through the Rockies by train is gorgeous. But apart from that, training through Canada is pretty boring. I had friends who were taking VIA from Montreal to Vancouver. They were SO bored that they got off in Winnipeg and flew the rest of the way out west. But if you like trains and can read without suffering from motion sickness and have lots of time, why not?
posted by meerkatty at 6:46 AM on July 16, 2007

I've heard the Montreal to Vancouver leg can be dull, but I took VIArail all over eastern Canada last year and loved it. I chose to fly to Vancouver though, and it was pretty cheap and I flew early in the morning to get a good view. I would have loved to have travelled through the rockies by train also but time and esp. MONEY did not permit.

Elsewhere in Canada I found the train stations to be safe and well signposted with heaps of helpful folks around. I did a few legs on Amtrak in the US, and that was much dodgier all round. OK if your only intention is getting there.

The key for me was taking heaps of short journeys rather than one big hit. Travelling in the daylight is a great way to see the countryside and get a feel for the region, though you do lose some of your tourist time. Could you try similar small journeys by train and maybe fly part of the way? I found airfares pretty cheap.

Also, for what it's worth I was travelling alone and completely made it up as I went. All worked out fine, I'd repeat the trip again in an instant.
posted by kaydo at 7:07 AM on July 16, 2007

This is the way to travel across Canada by rail.

How boring are the long-distance rides? What can you do on the train besides look out the window? Are the train stations in safe, accessible locations, or creepy and sketchy

Boring? Well much of the trip across Canada will be across flat plains. Yes, boring. Bring a book for this. It is beautiful, but perhaps too much of one beautiful thing. The mountains will be awesome, truly. Train stations in medium to larger cities are often creepy, but usually safe nonetheless. Really small cities out in the boondocks have safe, kind of cool and retro stations, but they usually lack even basic services outside of a restroom and drinking fountain.
posted by caddis at 7:17 AM on July 16, 2007

The Man in Seat 61 covers Canadian rail travel in near-scary detail, as he does with every other country in the world with a railway track in it somewhere.
posted by randomination at 8:13 AM on July 16, 2007

Getting to Canada by Amtrak may be even more challenging than getting across Canada. My only experience was trying to go from Toronto to NYC by train... it's 12 hours each way. With lots of waiting at the border. So I didn't do it.

I would suggest flying to Vancouver and going east until you get bored. The Rockies are the best part, from a scenery point of view.

The ride itself is pretty boring. If you like watching the scenery roll by for 16-some hours, go for it. Bring a few books. Having said that, I've slept on trains a few times in my life and there iss something really fun and old-fashioned about it. Flipping down the bunks after dinner and the rhythmic sounds of the train at night.

There's really just one train to speak of in that area, The Canadian, which takes you as far as Toronto. Past Toronto you'll have a few more choices, as there are a lot more stops in the east.

If you want more the the "Anne" axperience, take the Montreal-Halifax train in "Easterly" class. It doesn't actually go to PEI, but you might be able to get off in New Brunswick somewhere and take the ferry over or a bus over the bridge.
posted by GuyZero at 8:14 AM on July 16, 2007

I took Amtrak from Los Angeles to Boston a few years ago and it was a great experience. Half the e is the people you meet on the train, and I am not a 'talk to strangers' type, but I had a lot of fun. While it wasn't Canada much of the central US is also flat plains but that doesn't make it any less pretty / interesting. I would say go for it!
posted by bcnarc at 8:15 AM on July 16, 2007

Oh, and most Canadian train stations are pretty clean and safe, although the smaller ones will be pretty quiet. Some are located right in town, like they are in Europe, some are located farther out of town and would require a cab ride to anywhere worth seeing. But VIA trains are so under-utilized that the stations are, at worst, deserted.
posted by GuyZero at 8:15 AM on July 16, 2007

I was lucky enough to cross canada in VIA's first-class "Silver & Blue" service. You get sleeper bunks, retro 50s cars (nicely redone), a bullet-shaped bar car with panoramic view in the back, and your own sightseeing roof-bubble car.

The roof bubble car is the best part of the whole trip, you will be glued to your seat through the rockies. Northern Ontario is pretty scenic as well. The prairies... well, I slept through most of those.

An option I know is available is to get off the train in the Albertan Rockies at Banff (or wherever it stops, I forget) and sightsee for a few days before getting back on. Highly recommended.

Beware taking the trip with cheap fare - you will get an airplane-style reclining chair to sleep in for three days. Grubby.
posted by anthill at 8:21 AM on July 16, 2007

I took the Amtrak from NYC to Montreal and back, twice in two years. They were both among the worst travel experiences of my life: broken toilets and 18+ hour delays waiting on the track, both times.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:22 AM on July 16, 2007

Via Rail stations are generally safe and provide good access to the city they serve (and are generally tied in to the local transit system in larger cities), at least in Eastern Canada.
posted by ssg at 8:25 AM on July 16, 2007

Jasper, that's where it stops. I would plan a trip to maximize daylight hours between Vancouver and Jasper in the Rockies, which is difficult.

Going east, you leave Vancouver at 5:30pm and get to Jasper at 12:30 the next day. Going West, you leave Jasper, AB at 3:30pm and get into Vancouver at 8 the next morning. Either way you spend way too much nighttime in the mountains, missing out on incredible views!

I'd recommend taking the trip East->West, just for the slightly better schedule: you can stay up late easier than waking up early. Travel in June/July will have much more daylight hours to sightsee with.
posted by anthill at 8:29 AM on July 16, 2007

I took Silver & Blue service from Vancouver to Toronto and I loved it. The food is excellent and I slept so well! I had a lower bunker. They get a window at night, unlike the upper bunks.

I would only do the cross country train ride in sleeper service. Otherwise it's just too much. Your food is paid for and you get someone turning down your bunk to sleep at night, access to showers, etc.

The prairies can be dull, and so is northern Ontario. The mountains are nice. However, you're just as well off to fly into Alberta then take a nice tour bus into Vancouver, and maximize the views. Good luck!
posted by Salmonberry at 8:37 AM on July 16, 2007

I took the Amtrak from NYC to Montreal and back, twice in two years. They were both among the worst travel experiences of my life: broken toilets...

Me, too -- it was a horror. But in my experience, Amtrak and Via are quite different. Especially with stuff like broken toilets and nit-witted employees.

Nthing train stations in Canada = safe, quiet; smaller towns, nice, dull. Montréal's, IIRC, is pretty central; Ottawa's is not -- but it'd be a cheap quick bus to downtown.

I went from BC to Ontario by bus (idiot, yes) years ago, and despite the bus thing, it was a worthwhile trip. Dull can be charming, and I got a lot out of just paying attention to what was out the window.
posted by kmennie at 8:43 AM on July 16, 2007

I took the Amtrak across the US 10 years ago. I left Houston went to Chicago, DC and Seattle. I planned it months in advance. The Houston train station is not great and it is very small. You won't have any problems if you go during the day. When I went my train was delayed from LA due to fires on the east coast and I had to wait around for several hours. Bring something to read and a snack. I went coach the entire trip. I could not afford a sleeping car. The seats are pretty comfy but if you are riding coach then you should bring a travel blanket, inflatable pillows (neck and back) plus ear plugs and eyemask would be good.
Don't expect the trains to always be on time. The food is not bad and most of the people I met were really nice. Choose the window seat if you can. You can use it to lean against to take a nap.
Bring books, music, and a journal. The observation car is really nice and they show movies in there at night.
If you have questions you can email me (in my profile)
posted by nimsey lou at 9:00 AM on July 16, 2007

I have to second Kmennie and Blazecock Pileon-- I took Amtrak between LA and SF, and it was definitely the worst travel experience of my life (and I've done hairpin mountain trips on 3rd world buses that had to be shared with livestock).

The Amtrak trip was scheduled to take 9 hours and took 14- and no one apologized or anything-- this seemed to be SOP. They also ran out of food in the canteen around the 3rd hour, and we were not given any opportunities to stop and get anything in any stations along the way. All throughout the trip, announcements about the first class activities were announced over the loud speaker for all of us to drool over (including the warm cookies and wine tasting in the observation car).
By 5:00 we were absolutely starving (having left around 9) and grumpy. The announcements over the loudspeaker kept saying that reservations would be available in the dinner car, and that staff would be coming through our cabin to take requests for reservations-- and they never came. Around 8:00 we went down to the dining car and (along with a mob of other angry starving people) were told that all the reservations were taken and we could not be served. I asked for the manager, and explained our situation. He was entirely unsympathetic, apparently we were supposed to ignore the loudspeaker and go down to the dining car to put our names on a list. When I wouldn't take no for an answer he physically backed me out of the car and closed the door in my face. In front of all the passengers happily chowing down and staring at me.

So, I wouldn't personally recommend any Amtrak trips. I supposed it might be better if you went first class, but honestly, having been treated so horribly by the staff, I would never want to give Amtrak my business even if I was guaranteed a great experience.
posted by paddingtonb at 9:41 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

A much better Rockies train trip is the Rocky Mountianeer unfortunately at a premium price. But the travel is in the day time and you stay in hotels rather than on board train so you get to walk around in Banff, Lake Louise and Kamloops. If you take this route let's arrange a mini meetup in Kamloops.
posted by Mitheral at 10:26 AM on July 16, 2007

The Amtrak trip was scheduled to take 9 hours and took 14- and no one apologized or anything-- this seemed to be SOP.

It's not their SOP—it's the freight railroads'.
posted by oaf at 10:53 AM on July 16, 2007

I have taken several long-distance trips with Amtrak. Bring books, non-perishable food (I usually bring some crackers, a 2-liter bottle of ginger ale, and a fifth of whisky - if VIA is anything like its cousin to the south, cafe car prices will be steep), and, if you have it, a laptop. Don't know about VIA but Amtrak's cars have scarce power outlets. It's worth finding the seats with access, and you might want to bring a power strip or cube tap with you. Second the recommendation to getting a window seat; the scenery is better that way and being able to lean against the wall is quite helpful. Bring comfy socks. Maybe get a bottle of no-rinse shampoo, and bring some hand cleanser. Getting up every now and then to walk around the train is a good idea; keep the blood moving. Have fun, and take pictures!
posted by jtron at 1:18 PM on July 16, 2007

The Via train that runs from Halifax to Toronto has electrical outlets in every seat. Very handy for laptop + DVDs / AVIs.
posted by maxpower at 1:34 PM on July 16, 2007

I did Toronto-Vancouver last year and loved it. Admittedly I was part of a private group with live music onboard (Roots on the Rails) but I LOVED the train travel part of the journey and think that if I was travelling alone I would have enjoyed it just as much. But then, I find something enjoyable about sitting watching the world go by. Add an iPod and a good book and I'd be very happy being by myself. Other, more sociable, people would almost certainly find people to pass time with in the dining, bar or observation cars.

As anthill said, the Silver & Blue service, if you can afford it, is quality train travel. The food is excellent. You can choose between a bunk or (as I had) a small private room with seat, wash basin and toilet and a bed that folds down for nighttime. Showers in each car. Attendants to help convert your room/bunk.

I hope to do the journey again someday and break it into a longer trip with stop along the way. If I wasn't able to do Silver & Blue I'd definitely break the journey into smaller parts as I can't imagine sleeping in a standard seat for multiple nights would be much fun.

As others have said, there are good routes from Toronto East. I've been as far as Quebec City on the train and would love to go out to Halifax some day.

The majority of city stations are close to or right downtown (Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Jasper, Vancouver). Edmonton may be close, but it was so cold I didn't linger long off the train so didn't get a sense of where I was. Saskatoon I think we were at in the middle of the night. However, there are also several much smaller communities along the way where it's worth getting off the train to get a feel for what smalltown Canada is like (e.g. Sioux Lookout, Melville). All stations are totally safe and non-scary.

You do have to learn to not worry too much about schedules. You can be an hour late into one station and an hour early into the next. It's all dependent on whether freight trains get in the way.
posted by valleys at 2:06 PM on July 16, 2007

When I went from DC to Seattle it took 3 days in coach. As was said... get up and walk around and bring snacks. I made a quick friend that got me into a sleeping car so that I could take a shower.
posted by nimsey lou at 7:26 PM on July 16, 2007

If your budget is a factor, you can book yourself into the cheapest seat and upgrade to a berth, roomette, or bedroom if one is empty between bedtime and breakfast. It's far cheaper than reserving one for your whole trip, but it does depend on availability.

The best thing about rail travel is that you don't have to look at billboards, RVs, or fast food restaurants. There are interesting people from all over the world to talk to. If you're passing through a boring area (cough) (Ontario) you can read a book. VIA food is pretty good stuff, and you can even check out the menus in advance.

Traveling through the Rocky Mountains by rail is beautiful and unforgettable. There are tunnels and cliffs and a billion trees, and views 99% of the rest of humans never get to look at.

If you have the chance, do go. I recommend flying into Canada and starting your train journey when you arrive. It's easier to get through the border hoops that way.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:21 AM on July 17, 2007

Not sure when you're planning on going, but be aware that a strike by VIA workers could be days away.

Saskatoon I think we were at in the middle of the night.

The station's at the edge of the city, and you may have to cab it anywhere.
posted by evilcolonel at 7:13 PM on July 18, 2007

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