When traveling through North America, the plane and/or a rental car are usually the common means of transport. In large parts of the continent, local public transport tends to be a niche service, at least when it comes to intercity traffic.
The situation looks a little better in eastern Canada. The state-owned railway company operates a comparatively dense network of train connections on the corridor from Windsor to Quebec. On a trip through the Indian Summer, Travel-Dealz author Peer took the train from Toronto to Ottawa in September. Read below how train travel in Canada differs from traveling through Europe.
The Quebec City–Windsor Corridor
The so-called Corridor (Wikipedia) of the Canadian state railway company Via Rail links the metropolitan regions in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in the east of the country. It runs from Quebec via Ottawa and Toronto to Windsor, right on the American border (not far from Detroit).
The routes are characterized by a comparatively high frequency and high speeds (up to 160 km/h). A further expansion for speeds of up to 200 km/h on separate train tracks (i.e. independent of freight traffic) is under discussion. The routes are currently not electrified, and all trains are diesel-powered.
Besides the Corridor, Via Rail operates other routes and trains such as the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto and the Ocean from Montreal to Halifax. These have sleeping wagons but are offered a maximum of once a day, currently even less frequently.
Today’s trip should only take me from Toronto to Ottawa. A nearly five-hour direct journey, which is currently offered six times a day.
I booked my business class ticket four days before departure for the price of CA$148 (~€102) including taxes. The economy class would have been around €30 cheaper at the time. There is more space in Business Class (comparable to 1st class in Europe), plus you get lounge access at the major train stations and free meals.
Booking via the Via Rail website was straightforward. At the moment, all tickets can even be canceled free of charge. On the other hand, I couldn’t get the Via Rail app to work as I wasn’t able to open the booking mask.
In Toronto, Via Rail leaves directly from Union Station in the center of the city. The historic concourse doesn’t quite match the charm of Grand Central Station in New York, but it’s still impressive (and was recently renovated). Union Station can be easily reached on foot or by metro.
In Ottawa, the station looks very different. There, a “new” station building replaced the original Union Station in the city center in 1966. The new train station is three kilometers southeast of the city center. From here, the journey to the city center usually takes around 10 minutes by O-Train. At the time of my trip, the tram was unfortunately closed (for several weeks) and only a replacement rail service was being operated, taking triple the usual travel time
Via Rail operates its own lounges at Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, and London (Ontario) train stations. These passengers get access:
- Prestige Class passengers
- Business class passengers
- Sleeper Plus Class passengers
- Frequent travelers with Premier status on an Economy Plus ticket or Multi-Pass
Lounge access is available before departure in all lounges and also up to 2 hours after the train arrives in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.
Since I arrived at Toronto Union Station around 45 minutes before the train was due to depart, there was still some time to visit the lounge. The lounge is located in an apparently historical room in the immediate vicinity of the main hall. From there, it takes around two minutes to the departure area.
At the time of the visit at the end of September 2021, the lounge only offered drinks. There was a choice of various juices, soft drinks, and coffee specialties. You won’t find any snacks – so the offer is similar to that of a typical European lounge.
In terms of seating, there are various sofas, armchairs, and long tables with bar stools. Those long tables are ideal for doing some work on your laptop. At first glance, however, I couldn’t find suitable sockets. Since only very few guests stay in the lounge for more than an hour, the offer is quite appropriate. However, as expected, it cannot compete with an airport lounge.
A “boarding” section in a train review? What is that doing here? While traveling by train in North America has some similarities with traveling by train across Europe, there are some differences. One of them is the boarding process.
It is only possible to get to the platform a few minutes before the train departs. The platform is therefore not designed as a waiting area, as in Europe, but actually only serves to get on the train. A first scan of the boarding pass must first be carried out beforehand, and I was surprised when I found a queue with around 100 people 20 minutes before departure:
Fortunately, there is a priority-boarding for business class passengers. This wasn’t signaled anywhere at the train station, but I was able to easily follow other passengers from the lounge through ticket control. So I was one of the first in … the separate seating area behind the ticket control. In economy, the weight of the luggage is also checked, as a business class guest, I was spared the luggage scale.
A few minutes later (20 minutes before the train was due to depart) the path to the platform was opened – and from there I went to wagon 1. Only one of the four wagons on the train was a business class wagon.
Cabin & Comfort
The wagon looked like an interesting combination of an airplane cabin and a European express train. The seats are almost identical to those in many European trains. The seating arrangement in business class is 2-1 (in the modernized cars), while in economy class there are four seats per row.
There are lockable luggage compartments above the seats, which are more reminiscent of an old Boeing 757. Larger suitcases can be stowed at the end of the wagon. There is no extra baggage wagon on trains in the Corridor, but there are on other routes (such as the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto).
Back to the seats: These are quite comfortable for shorter journeys, but can hurt your behind after several hours of sitting on them. So a little more padding would definitely do the seats well. Fortunately, even the longest Corridor connection (Toronto – Montreal) only takes a little more than five hours, which is undoubtedly bearable.
Unfortunately, there are only a few seats at a real table. The others are arranged one behind the other like in an airplane and only offer a backseat table. Seats could not be freely selected when booking tickets. So I was assigned a seat in a row of two with the next seat occupied, and I always had to step over another passenger when I wanted to get up.
The better choice, especially in times of a pandemic, would have been one of the individual seats. However, these were all occupied, as were the seats at one of the few tables.
There are still real curtains at every seat in Via Rail’s trains. The use of this is limited to the sun protection, however, because the light in the cabin stayed on for the entire journey. An effective darkening can only be achieved with the help of a sleep mask.
Food & Drinks
In business class, all drinks and meals are included. The first round of drinks with water, soft drinks, wine, and beer began just five minutes after leaving Toronto. Above all, wine and water were regularly refilled so that no passenger had to get off the train thirsty.
It took some time before the meal was served. It was served 90 minutes after departure in Toronto, so passengers were left empty-handed on short routes. The meals were served using a trolley with the choice between pasta, turkey, or fish.
I chose the turkey breast with rice and vegetables. This was served together with:
- A small cheese platter consisting of camembert and goat cream cheese
- A dessert cream with lemon
- A bland piece of bread (as known from the airplane) with a little salted butter
- A small bar of dark chocolate
I don’t really understand why Via Rail has to serve a boring pre-baked bread roll when there are plenty of good bakeries in major Canadian cities. Otherwise, the food was quite enjoyable, but also forgettable.
The service was attentive and friendly the whole time. I was probably asked if I wanted drinks about five or six times and a water bottle was also handed out.
At the beginning of the journey, there was a short safety briefing as I was assigned a seat at the emergency exit. But this was done in a few sentences because smashing the windowpane is no rocket science. Two passengers per wagon are also given instructions on how to open the car doors in an emergency.
Wi-Fi is available free of charge both in first class and second class. The speed wasn’t great but ok for surfing. In a rural area, I got around 3 Mbit/s downstream and also 3 Mbit/s upstream. Now and then the Internet was briefly interrupted, but overall it worked surprisingly smoothly.
The speed (max. 150 km/h) and position of the train can be tracked live via the internet (or any time on viarail.ca). However, there are no information displays on the train. Otherwise, the entertainment program is limited to regular honking from the diesel locomotive, which are apparently necessary.
There were two sockets between the seats. These are far enough apart so that nothing would prevent them from being used with a power adapter. International sockets, such as those on planes, are not installed by Via Rail.
Masks are required throughout the train and at the stations. These may only be removed for eating and drinking.
As far as punctuality is concerned, Via Rail has at least as bad a reputation as many European train companies. The main reason for this is the frequent stopping to wait for the freight trains driving on the same tracks. On my journey, however, everything went smoothly, we even arrived at Ottawa station nine minutes early.
- App & website
- Food & drinks
- Internet & Extras
For short-term bookings between Canadian metropolises, the airlines sometimes call up astronomical prices. An economy flight from Toronto to Ottawa would have cost me more than € 200 a week before departure, and business class twice as much. The train was therefore a good alternative. Via Rail brought me to my destination quickly, on time, and reasonably comfortably.
One can argue about the added value of Business Class. The product itself is better than at European train companies due to the included meals and drinks. Why the passengers in first class have to sit tightly together while in economy class every second seat remains free is not clear to me. There are also minor flaws, such as not being able to select your seat. In addition, a functioning app can be expected in 2021.