Categories: TransportationTravel

Rail travel in Canada

Canada has a large and well-developed railway system that today transports primarily freight. There are two major publicly traded transcontinental freight railway systems, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. Nationwide passenger services are provided by the federal crown corporation Via Rail. Three Canadian cities have commuter train services: in the Montreal area by Réseau de transport métropolitain, in the Toronto area by GO Transit, and in the Vancouver area by West Coast Express. These cities and several others are also served by light rail or metro systems. Only one (Toronto) has an extensive streetcar (tram) system. Smaller railways such as Ontario Northland Railway and Algoma Central Railway also run passenger trains to remote rural areas. The Rocky Mountaineer and Royal Canadian Pacific provide luxury rail tours for viewing scenery in the Canadian Rockies as well as other mountainous areas of British Columbia and Alberta.

Canada has 49,422 kilometres (30,709 mi) total trackage, of which only 129 kilometres (80 mi) is electrified (almost exclusively part of urban rail transit networks). Canada uses 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) (standard gauge) track for the majority of its railway system. The exceptions to this are small lines isolated from the main North American rail network used in resource industries such as mining or forestry, some of which are narrow gauge, and the streetcar and heavy-rail subway lines of the Toronto Transit Commission which use a broad gauge of 4 ft 10 7⁄8 in (1,495 mm).

Although trains are not nearly as ubiquitous and convenient a mode of travel in North America as in Europe or East Asia, they remain popular with some travelers because of the spacious design of the cars, the scenic routes, and the overall comfort of the train ride. Some people prefer to take trains because they do not require long waits at security like at airports, or because they are uncomfortable with flying. Unfortunately, unlike their European counterparts, passenger trains in Canada outside the urban cores can often be off-schedule, sometimes up to several hours late. Train rides in Canada often take much longer than car rides and plane rides, but, when the service is running well, the unique experience can trump the long ride.

All trains will have coach seats. For longer rides many trains have sleeper rooms. The price of these rooms depends on the quality – whether or not there is a sink, or a private shower/toilet. You will pay a considerable supplement for sleeper car service in addition to the regular fare.

The development of railways in Canada largely mirrors that of its southern neighbour, the United States. Railways once formed the backbone of Canada’s long distance transportation system, and played a significant role in forming the Canadian federation, as railways enabled people and goods to move relatively quickly from the main population centres in Toronto and Montreal to major seaports along the coast such as Vancouver and Halifax. However, with the advent of private car ownership and commercial air travel following World War II, passenger railway lines in Canada went into a rapid decline from which they never fully recovered. Today, the Canadian railway system lags behind much of the rest of the developed world, and is primarily used for freight. Nevertheless, there has been a revival of sorts in rail transport since the beginning of the 21st century, and in the densely populated Windsor-Quebec City corridor, rail transport today is relatively reliable and typically as fast as driving yourself, especially when traffic is taken into account.

Canada’s railway system primarily transports freight, and freight has priority over passenger rail-line use. Therefore, passenger trains are sometimes delayed. The country’s two major railway companies, Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, turned over operation of their passenger services in 1978 to the state-owned VIA Rail Canada, which was designed with the American role model Amtrak in mind. In addition to VIA Rail, a few smaller railways in remote areas of Canada also offer passenger service. Montreal (AMT), Toronto (GO), and Vancouver (West Coast Express) have commuter rail. A large number of companies offer excursion services primarily geared towards sightseeing and tours; in Calgary an expensive, seasonal private tourist train to Vancouver is the only scheduled intercity passenger rail.

VIA Rail has been subject to widely varying political priorities as much if not more than Amtrak in the US. Significant funding and service cuts were sometimes followed mere years later by an exact reversal of policy and vice versa. The current Trudeau government has announced grand plans for railways and even a potential high speed rail line along (parts of) the Windsor-Quebec corridor, but as of April 2017 no more than talk has come of this. Provincial initiatives seem to have similarly gone nowhere.

For travel within Canada, the passenger rail system is (for the most part) a monopoly. For long distance travel, it can cost more time and money to travel by train than to fly; for short trips, it’s usually cheaper to take the bus. Outside the Windsor-Quebec corridor, trains can be considered to be more hotels on tracks rather than a practical way to get from city to city. These trains offer comfortable seats or sleeping accommodations, unique scenic views, and meals at a premium price, if you have the extra time for the experience. Within the Quebec City – Windsor corridor, VIA Rail is more comparable to air travel; train travel will still take more time than flying, but taking the train in this region can be significantly cheaper than flying, considering baggage fees and taxi fares to and from suburban airports.

In a few remote regions, such as Churchill in northern Manitoba, rail has been left in service as it remains the only terrestrial means to reach a remote community. Conversely, a growing list of destinations (such as Prince Edward Island and the island of Newfoundland) have lost all rail service and rely instead on the Trans-Canada Highway or other road, ship or air transport.

Peak periods
The peak periods for most rail companies in North America are somewhere between March/April and September; however, you should check with the rail company. In the off-peak season, prices drop significantly on most carriers.

Passenger rail companies
VIA Rail Canada The one remaining national network, federally-owned and subsidized but still not inexpensive. Cross-country passenger service in three mainline segments Halifax-Montréal, Montréal-Toronto-Windsor, Toronto-Vancouver.
Rocky Mountaineer Vacations Privately-owned, runs daytime sightseeing tourist trains from Vancouver-Banff-Calgary and Vancouver-Jasper. As there are no sleeper cars, a two-day trip incurs one night’s hotel stay.
Ontario Northland Railway This railway, owned by the province of Ontario, operates the Polar Bear Express tourist train (Cochrane-Moosonee) in the remote northern part of the province.
Canadian National Railway (CN) turned its passenger services over to VIA Rail in 1978, but acquired the Algoma Central Railway in 2001 and operates passenger services on this line, most notably the Agawa Canyon Tour Train.
Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) turned its passenger services over to VIA Rail in 1978 (and most were eliminated in 1986), but inaugurated its luxury Royal Canadian Pacific service in 2000. A limited six-day, five-night 31-passenger tourist train with 19 restored staterooms using 1919-1931 era rolling stock, this Calgary-Vancouver luxury run is niche marketed at typically $8000/person; passengers must be 18 or over.
Amtrak operates trains from the U.S. To Canada on three lines. From Seattle to Vancouver on the Cascades; from New York to Toronto on the Maple Leaf; and from New York to Montreal on the Adirondack.
Tshiuetin Rail Transportation, ☏ +1 418 962-5530, toll-free: +1 866-962-0988, ✉ 10-12 hrs of spectacular scenery from Sept-Îles to Schefferville, an otherwise-inaccessible mining community in northern Québec. This line is owned by three First Nations (Aboriginal) groups. This line does not connect to the rest of the North American rail system (updated Feb 2017 | edit)
GO Transit, ☏ +1 416-869-3200, toll-free: +1-888-438-6646. GO Transit operates 7 commuter rail lines radiating from Toronto serving municipalities within and near the Greater Toronto Area. The Lakeshore West and Lakeshore East lines operate every day from 6AM to 1AM between Burlington and Pickering. Three other lines have limited mid-day service to Unionville (Markham), Aurora and Brampton. Other GO rail destinations have only rush-hour, peak-direction service. (updated Feb 2019 | edit)


VIA Rail Canada
Sleeper cars are available on some of VIA Rail’s long-distance services. Some long-distance trains also feature a dining car where you can purchase meals during the journey. Meals in the dining car are typically included in the ticket price for sleeper car passengers.

Related Post

The Quebec-Ontario Corridor is a network of VIA Rail train routes extending from Quebec City in the northeast to Windsor in southwest Ontario. The Corridor offers comprehensive intercity passenger service to many cities including Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, Brantford, Kitchener, Sarnia and Windsor. The Corridor has more than 30 trains operating in either direction on weekdays, and is popular with business travellers and tourists due to fast services that are, in most cases, as fast downtown-to-downtown as commercial airlines. The routes between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are VIA’s busiest and most frequent; they also have the largest discounts (such as “Escape” fares) if booked well in advance. Besides economy class, trains also offer business class with complimentary meals and alcoholic beverages. Both classes offer complimentary wi-fi and seat power outlets.
The Canadian is VIA Rail’s classic, transcontinental train from Toronto to Vancouver. Trains run two-three times a week each way, and stop at many smaller cities on the way, including: Sudbury, Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper and Kamloops. The full journey takes 4 days between Toronto and Vancouver with overnight travel. The train can be very expensive but then it is also effectively a travelling hotel with restaurant. To reduce the cost, consider VIA’s “deals” on sleeper accommodations 2–3 weeks before travel that can reduce the price by 75 percent. “Escape” fares also provide a deep discount. The trains contain both sleeper berths and cabins, as well as reclining economy seating. Three meals per day are cooked in the train’s dining car. These are included in sleeper fares and are available for purchase for economy passengers.
The Ocean has three departures a week make the journey from Montreal to Halifax via Riviere du Loup, Mont Joli, Campbellton, Moncton and Truro. The train operates with modern European Renaissance cars, famously purchased by VIA Rail when planned sleeper services through the Channel Tunnel from Great Britain to mainland Europe were cut. A trip takes 33 hours between Montreal and Halifax, travelling overnight.
The Winnipeg–Churchill train (formerly called the Hudson Bay) connects with the Canadian in Winnipeg and takes travellers from the south to the far north of the province of Manitoba, with three departures a week to Churchill via The Pas and Thompson. Native-owned Keewatin Railway Company operates a subsidized connecting service from The Pas to Pukatawagan which reaches isolated native communities in that region of Manitoba. The train to Hudson’s Bay is popular with winter tourists who travel north to see Churchill’s population of polar bears and tends to sell out early. A trip takes 2 days between Winnipeg and Churchill, travelling overnight. This route reopened December 2, 2018 after a long closure due to washouts.
The Jasper–Prince Rupert train (formerly called the Skeena) connects with the Canadian in Jasper National Park and operates to Prince Rupert. From Prince Rupert one can take ferries to Alaska or Queen Charlotte islands. A trip takes 33 hours between Jasper and Vancouver. The train makes an overnight stop in Prince George where passengers must book a hotel room.

Fares, passes & discounts
VIA Rail offers discounted fares to youth and seniors:

Youth (12-25) and students (ISIC) get 30% off economy class, 10% off sleeper class, and 10% off multi-day passes (note: this includes the student discount)
Seniors (60+) get 10% off economy class.

Additionally, passengers may be entitled to unadvertised discounts on top of these fares by being a veteran or member of the Canadian Forces, or through membership to some organizations and professional/alumni associations. At 2014, Hostelling international members are also eligible at 10% discount from Viarail.

“Escape” fares offer heavily discounted, non-refundable VIA Rail tickets that are available in limited quantities with various conditions when purchased in advance. These also have a 50% exchange penalty. For example, a May 2019 trip from Toronto to Montreal would cost $49 “Escape” versus $114 regular “Economy”. Seats at “Escape” prices are limited in number available per train, and tend to sell out earlier than higher priced seats.

VIA Rail offers “Sleeper Plus Class Deals” on overnight trains. These large discounts for sleeping accommodations are available only to a certain city on a certain train and day, and there are many such discounts listed.

Canrailpass are valid on any train and route that VIA Rail operates and allows the holder one seat in Economy class (upgrades are limited). The pass allows passengers seven, ten or unlimited one-way trips (with one stopover per trip allowed) within a 60 day period.

Special stops
VIA Rail offers hikers, kayakers and residents of remote regions the option of special stops at almost any point on several rural routes, as long as passengers purchase their tickets and specify their exact destination 48 hours in advance. This is not available on all routes: most importantly, the Quebec-Ontario corridor is excluded, as are the prairies west of Winnipeg. Please consult the link for more information on stops that are permitted.

From the beginning of June to the end of October, VIA rail now allows cyclists to bring their bikes as is aboard trains running in the Corridor to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, London, Windsor (Ontario), Jonquiere, and Senneterre. There is a fee of $20 plus tax for each direction of travel and you must check your bicycle at the baggage counter one hour before departure. After that, you are not guaranteed a space for your bike. Upon arrival at Toronto, Ottawa, London, Windsor, or Montreal, the train crew will bring your bike to you at the baggage claim area in the station. At all other stops, you might have to go to the baggage car to retrieve your bike. Do not leave any equipment (i.e. pannier bags) attached to your bike when you check it in. These must be checked in separately. Check the VIA rail website for train schedules with bike racks.

Amtrak international trains
There are three international trains that are operated by Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail company, with connections to VIA Rail trains in Canada. These trains must be booked with Amtrak, except for the Maple Leaf which can also be booked with VIA Rail. Each train has a scheduled customs stop of about 1-1¾ hours at the international border.

The Maple Leaf, jointly operated by Amtrak and VIA Rail, runs between Toronto and New York City once a day in each direction stopping at Aldershot (Burlington), Niagara Falls (Ontario), Buffalo (connection to Chicago via Amtrak), Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, among other stations. Scenic features along the route are the Niagara Gorge, the Finger Lakes region, and the Hudson River Valley. The trip from Toronto Union Station to New York Penn Station takes 13½ hours.
A partial trip from Toronto to Niagara Falls (Ontario) takes 2 hours; it is possible to travel with this train to Niagara Falls in the morning and return to Toronto in the early evening. VIA Rail “Escape” fares are not available for The Maple Leaf, even though the train can be booked with VIA Rail.
The Adirondack connects Montreal to New York City via Schenectady and Albany. Scenic features along the route are Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley. The trip from Montreal Central Station to New York Penn Station takes 11 hours.
The Cascades connects Vancouver to Seattle. The trip from Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station to Seattle King Street Station takes 3½ hours.

Canadian National Railways
Agawa Canyon Tour Train This train tour provides access to a vast wilderness region from Sault Ste. Marie to Hawk Junction (near Wawa.) Day trips run daily from mid-June through mid-October. A passenger train service connecting Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst ended in 2015.

GO Transit
Niagara Weekend GO Train Service. GTA commuter rail operator GO Transit offers year-round weekend train service between Toronto Union station and Niagara Falls (Ontario). There are 3-4 trips per day on Saturdays, Sundays, and most official holidays. These trains feature special bicycle cars which have bike racks on the lower level and seating on the upper level. You can recognize them by the bicycle decals on the sides. There is no additional charge to bring your bike aboard and space is given on a first-come-first-served basis. These trains make intermediate stops at Exhibition (Toronto), Port Credit (Mississauga), Oakville, Burlington, and St. Catharines.