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A Complete Guide for Traveling by Train in Canada
Canada’s trains helped to form the country as we know it today. Rail transport was vital to provinces, including British Columbia, joining what would become Canada in the 1870s. However, railways in Canada date back to the 1830s, just ten years after the first trains in the world were constructed in the UK.
Today, Canada’s rail network is a sparse one when compared to Europe’s web of interconnecting lines. The country’s tracks were laid down primarily to transport goods rather than people, and freight traffic still has priority over what are often single-track lines.
The popularity of trains in Canada relies largely on the incredible views that can be had through large picture windows from comfortable seats in special observation cars. Some of these views can only be seen by train, with no way of reaching these locations by road.
Train companies in Canada
Since 1978, almost all of Canada’s long-distance passenger rail lines have been under the control of VIA Rail Canada, a semi-autonomous part of the country’s department for transportation. Canada’s only truly national rail operator, VIA Rail has a network that features 450 station stops along 8,000 miles (12,500 km) of track.
VIA Rail’s services include the transcontinental Canadian route between Toronto and Vancouver via Winnipeg, where there are connections to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world. The Ocean route connects Montreal in Quebec with Halifax, Nova Scotia, while there are also a number of commuter rail services in the big cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Other passenger rail services also exist, and are primarily aimed at the leisure market ensuring you’ll find spacious comfortable seating and an excellent array of onboard facilities.
The Rocky Mountaineer service operates in Canada’s southwest, with a loop connecting Vancouver to the slopes of Whistler and Jasper as well as a spur to Banff, known for its annual mountain film festival.
Ontario Northland, meanwhile, runs services to some of the remotest parts of the province. Operated by the Ontario authorities, its main route connects Toronto with Moosonee. It operates the Polar Bear Express too.
Although the Canadian National Railway (or CN, hence CN Tower in Toronto) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) were brought together to create VIA Rail in the late 1970s, both companies have been reborn as separate entities and are running a small number of services independently of VIA Rail. CN runs the Algoma Central Railway and CPR the Royal Canadian Pacific.
The last major rail operator in Canada to be aware of is the United States-based Amtrak. Although it does not operate any services solely within Canadian territory, Amtrak does operate several cross-border services, with its trains arriving into and departing out of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, from where it’s only a short train ride to Niagara Falls. Its services are generally run by VIA Rail staff on the Canadian side of the border, with a swap to or from Amtrak staff on entering or leaving the U.S.
Popular train destinations in Canada
There are plenty of exciting destinations to spend a few days before or after traveling by train in Canada. Check out our top picks below.
A lively multicultural metropolis on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto is the provincial capital and Canada’s unofficial capital of cool. Its most famous landmark is probably the CN Tower, named after the Canadian National rail company. Other attractions include the Royal Ontario Museum and the landscapes of Scarborough Bluffs.
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A city of museums, Vancouver in British Columbia is a relatively modern city with a neat gridwork of streets, making navigation simple. The Maritime Museum details the importance of the sea to this port city, whilst the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia has both a commanding position and an excellent introduction to the cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations.
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One of the oldest cities in Canada, Montreal was founded in 1642 on Mount Royal, a three-peaked hill. Its center lies on Montreal island, where you’ll find plenty of atmospheric streets with cobblestone paving and attractive historic structures. Its former port has been converted into a recreation area run by Parks Canada.
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The national capital and seat of government, Ottawa is part of the province of Ontario. Its ‘golden triangle’ is the focal point for shopping and culture in the city, with the National Gallery of Canada just one of the attractions that shouldn’t be missed.
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Quite different from the other Canadian cities on our list, Nova Scotia’s Halifax lies among fantastic landscapes, some of which can be enjoyed from the three-kilometer harbor walk. A place to relax and unwind, its café culture is second to none, while it also has its fair share of smaller live music venues and places to delve into the city’s heritage.
Find all train routes to Halifax
Scenic Train Routes in Canada
Experiencing the majesty and natural beauty of Canada is one of the top reasons for taking to the rails, whether you’ve got just a few hours or are looking to enjoy several days of train travel. Here are our picks for the three most scenic train routes in Canada:
Toronto to Vancouver
VIA Rail’s Canadian has largely lost its use for transporting people across the country with the advent of air travel. However, it continues to run between two or three times per week for the pleasure of those who want to take in Canada’s most impressive panoramas. Crossing the country from Toronto to Vancouver and vice versa, it has the reputation as one of the world’s best scenic train journeys, taking in Jasper National Park and the Rocky Mountains along the way. Taking 86 hours, or three nights and four days, this 4,500 km journey is also the only service that now crosses the Canadian prairies.
Vancouver to Banff
Rocky Mountaineer’s self-named train journey offers a taste of the Rockies without the need to spend three days on the rails. Based in Vancouver, the train is best known for the route to Banff, which has previously held the title of the best train journey in the world because of the countless mountain views passengers enjoy.
Toronto to Niagara Falls
Meanwhile, the Maple Leaf makes the journey through the maple trees of southeastern Canada from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Using Amtrak’s Amfleet cars, this is a charming journey of approximately two hours, with a service each morning and return early evening. Go Transit has also entered the market on this route. Its double decker trains provide better views from its top-deck, although its departure times can be a little unfriendly outside of the peak summer period when there are usually several services per day. When you travel along this route in the fall, you get to see the foliage at its best, though each season offers something uniquely different.
How to book train travel in Canada
VIA Rail operates like an airline in that the earlier you book your ticket, the cheaper it’s likely to be. Peak season for rail travel in Canada is between the Easter holidays and September, meaning this is when tickets sell out the quickest. It’s easiest for most people to make their reservations online, with international debit and credit cards accepted. If you book your VIA Rail trip online on Wanderu.com or using the Wanderu app, you are able to easily cancel or modify your trip from your Wanderu account. Just keep in mind that modification fees may apply. You can also make reservations at any train station in Canada.
The cheapest fares are those which are non-refundable (i.e. if you don’t make it on the train, you lose your money). They are called Escape fares, and can be exchanged with a fee of 50% of the ticket price (or CAD $20, whichever is more) each way plus any difference in ticket cost. They are also limited in number, and can sell out quickly on popular routes.
The next grade up of tickets is simply known as Economy. They are similar to Escape fares except that refunds and exchanges are charged at 25% of the ticket cost or CAD $20. Economy Plus tickets provide more flexibility. They are fully refundable and exchangeable for free. You will have to cover the difference in any ticket cost. Our guide on how to cancel or change a VIA Rail ticket has more information about the rules and fees associated with canceling or modifying your VIA Rail train ticket.
Business fares act in the same way as Economy fares except for business class seats, whilst Business Plus offers complimentary refunds and exchanges.
Tickets for VIA Rail services can be purchased as far as seven months ahead of the departure date. Assuming they haven’t sold out, tickets can be purchased up until departure.
Tips for finding deals
VIA Rail offers travelers in Canada the CanRail pass. Discontinued but then relaunched, it allows a pass holder an economy class seat onto any train in the country, although you do need to make prior reservations at no extra cost.
Reservations for CanRail passes can only be made when Escape and Economy fares are still available. The pass is valid for seven one-way trips of any length, and it’s even possible to make a stopover without it counting as two separate rail journeys. The seven one-way trips need to take place within the same 21-day period. It is also only available for seats, and not sleeper berths, limiting its use on longer journeys for most.
Discounts are also available for youth (12-25 years of age) and senior (60+) travelers. Youth ticket holders are entitled to a huge discount of 30% off standard ticket prices, as well as 10% off sleeper berths and advertised multi-day pass prices. Seniors are limited to a 10% discount on standard fares.
Types of train services available in Canada
Economy class seating (for Escape, Economy and Economy Plus tickets) are found on all VIA Rail services in Canada. Even though it is the most basic option available, most first-time passengers are pleasantly surprised by the standard and quality of Economy class seats, especially compared to similar trains in Europe and the United States.
The equivalent of First class on VIA Rail services is Business class, which is used by both business people and leisure travelers equally. For shorter journeys, Economy or Business class will be more than adequate for most travelers.
Certain long-distance trains in Western Canada and the Maritimes region also have Sleeper Plus class, giving ticket holders use of a one- or two-person sleeper berth with ensuite washroom and exclusive use of the train’s shower room. If you’re traveling alone, expect to share a two-person sleeper with another passenger. Meals are included as part of the ticket price, and passengers are also able to enjoy the train’s special observation cars. The seating here operates on a first-come first-served basis.
If you’re traveling between Vancouver and Toronto, there is also the option of Prestige class. Ticket holders get a premier cabin with a leather sofa which is converted into a double bed. It contains a private washroom with shower, while a personal concierge is on standby throughout the journey should you need anything. Three-course meals in the dining car are also included, alongside alcoholic drinks and unlimited non-alcoholic drinks, kicking off any vacation in Canada from the first minutes after departure.
Getting to the train station in Canada
VIA Rail recommends passengers get to the train station at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time. If you need to collect your ticket or are checking in additional baggage, you should aim to arrive around an hour before. Smaller stations will only open 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival of a train.
Larger stations are well equipped with information boards and places to grab something to eat and drink. They are not hard to navigate. Signage is usually in both French and English. Business class, Sleeper Plus and Prestige passengers are able to make use of the business lounge prior to boarding, which offers complimentary snacks and Wi-Fi.
Train stations are usually centrally located within towns and cities, making reaching them relatively easy. For example, in Toronto, Union Station is linked to the rest of the city by the Yonge (Yellow) line of the city’s subway system.
Other cities generally have buses that connect with the train station, as well as taxis and ride share services like Uber/Lyft. Ride shares can be up to 50% cheaper than a traditional taxi, but that depends on where you are going and when. It’s always best to plan how you will get to the train station in Canada ahead of time to avoid problems or delays.
Getting on the train in Canada
Canada’s train carriers, which include Amtrak-operated services from across the U.S. border, require passengers to present original official photographic ID when boarding. Photocopies won’t be accepted. If you’re coming from abroad, the easiest thing to use is your passport. Other forms of ID that are accepted include Canadian and U.S. driving licenses and military IDs.
You will also need to show your ticket before boarding. While etickets shown on smartphones and other devices are accepted, it’s always a good idea to have a printed backup copy just in case. When purchasing your ticket, ensure the name is the same as on your ID – just as you would when buying a plane ticket. For all the extra information you may need, you can check out our specific ID requirements guide.
Buying an Economy class seat provides travelers with a spacious reclining seat and a good amount of legroom. There is also the opportunity to purchase refreshments while on board from the café car, which is set up a little like a fast-food restaurant. It’s also possible to upgrade to a Business class seat where refreshments are provided, assuming seats are available.
Since late 2019, only credit and debit card payments have been accepted onboard trains, meaning you cannot pay for items with cash. Cross border services accept U.S. dollars while in the States, but not Canadian dollars at any point in the journey. The availability of onboard restrooms means you can enjoy as many drinks as you like without worrying about the consequences.
The other main difference between Economy and Business class is that Business class seats, usually in a dedicated car all of their own, are wider and more comfortable with even greater legroom. Additional perks include access to business lounges at larger stations before departure and complimentary food and drink. You’ll receive a breakfast, lunch or dinner served with hot drinks, soft drinks, and local beers and wines at no additional cost.
If crossing the border between Canada and the United States, you should also be prepared for getting off the train with your luggage for immigration checks. It’s a simple procedure but something to be aware of. Prior to boarding you should also make sure you receive a tag for each of your bags (heading south from Canada) or visit the specially designated desk when heading north from the U.S.
Trains are fitted with passenger power sockets, and are also advertised as having complimentary Wi-Fi, although this will probably be significantly slower to load websites than by using any data allowances you may have on your cellphone contract.
It’s also worth noting that because passenger services in Canada continue to come second to freight services, and the fact that speed is generally not the greatest concern for passengers looking to enjoy the scenic beauty of the country, trains on longer run overnight and multi-day trips can end up several hours late at their final destination.
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