Across Canada by train

This article is an itinerary.

Understand

Canada is the second largest country on earth, yet with a population of just 32,780,000, it has just the thirty-sixth largest population. The sheer size of the country, which spans 9,984,670 km² (3,854,085 sq mi) and six time zones means that vast areas are either sparsely populated or completely uninhabited. While most Canadians choose to travel between major cities by aeroplane, there still exists today a continuous series of connecting train services from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and a trans-continental journey on the passenger trains of Canada remains one of the greatest railway journeys in the world. This itinerary explains how to book, travel and experience the scheduled passenger rail services that exist between:

This itinerary covers 6,351km (3,946 miles), crosses eight Canadian provinces and passes through some of North America's most vibrant and exciting cities. Whether experienced from the comfort of a private sleeping compartment or in the sociable and affordable seated coaches, it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that demonstrates Canada's social and geographic diversity, from sea to shining sea.

There are many other passenger rail services in Canada. Information on all other rail services in Canada can be found on Rail travel in Canada page.

Prepare

Whom to travel with

A handful of private luxury train operators offer exclusive rail tours, however most passenger rail services in Canada are provided by VIA Rail Canada, the state-owned Crown Corporation that provides national passenger rail services. This itinerary uses only the services of VIA Rail Canada.

Which direction to travel in

Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, British Columbia; the starting point for an eastbound trans-Canadian train trip

Travelling from one side of Canada to another by train is the perfect framework for an exciting and varied holiday. Travelling both ways is not: the vast landscape of the country will become infinitely less interesting if you have to turn round and go back again.

Decide whether to start your trip in the west (Vancouver) or in the east (Halifax). Check the timetables of the trains you'll be riding on to see how this affects the arrival times in towns and cities you want to stop off in. Many travellers express a preference in going from east to west, since this follows the direction that European settlers populated the country and rewards you after the seemingly endless prairies with the breathtaking Rocky Mountains, but the decision of which way to travel is yours.

Additional side trips by train to other destinations are possible at various points along the transcontinental route. See the Rail travel in Canada page for more information on these other routes.

When to go

Canada's train services run throughout the year, although in some cases with reduced frequencies and shorter trains in the low season. Low season (OctoberApril) fares are lower than in the high season (MaySeptember) although when travelling during the winter months you should remember that shorter daylight hours will significantly affect your sightseeing opportunities from the train. Be aware that while summer can be warm and pleasant, winter temperatures in central and eastern Canada plunge well below freezing - sometimes to as low as -30 degrees Celsius or below. A winter train trip can be fun, but you may find it hard to leave the nice warm train when you arrive at intermediate stations.

For many independent passengers, spring and autumn are the most convenient times to travel, when the climate is comfortable and when low-season fares are available at either end of the high season booking period.

How to book

VIA Rail Canada has an excellent website that provides travel information and online ticket sales in several languages. Within North America, you can contact VIA Rail Canada by telephoning 1-888-VIA-RAIL.

Tickets and rail passes

Fares in the low season (16 October to 31 May) are less expensive than those in the high season (1 June to 15 October). Advance booking is recommended for all tickets and passes.

'Comfort' (coach / economy) class

'Comfort' coach class on board VIA Rail Canada's 'Ocean' train between Montréal, Québec and Halifax, Nova Scotia, May 2006.

'Comfort' class gives you a comfortable reclining seat in an open coach with either one or two seats either side of the aisle. An amenity pack, pillow and blanket are provided, and it is reasonably easy to sleep comfortably during the night. Older passengers or those who might experience discomfort sleeping in a reclining seat may prefer to travel in sleeper class (see below).

The cheapest available single (one way) ticket (a 'Supersaver') from Halifax to Vancouver starts at:

Season Adult Senior (60+) Child Student
Low $808.84 $739.86 $401.85 $719.34
High $1,040.82 $955.32 $520.98 $742.14
Season Adult Senior (60+), Child, Student Adult additional days (max. 3) Senior (60+), Child, Student additional days (max. 3)
Low $523.00 $471.00 $45 $41
High $837.00 $753.00 $71 $64

Upgrades to sleeper or VIA-1 class available for a supplement to Canrailpass holders at the time of booking, subject to availability. All prices quoted in Canadian dollars and last updated 21 December 2006.

Sleeper classes: Halifax to Montréal

VIA Rail Canada offer two different classes of sleeper accommodation on the Ocean between Halifax and Montréal throughout the year, with an enhanced sleeper class called 'Easterly Class' during the high season. All services are now operated by modern 'Renaissance' trains, which have replaced the older 'stainless steel' trains used elsewhere in Canada.

Sleeper classes: Montréal to Toronto

Overnight sleeper services between Montréal and Toronto have been discontinued. You should travel by day, spending at least one night in Toronto or Montréal before boarding your next train.

Sleeper classes: Toronto to Vancouver

The Canadian is VIA Rail Canada's flagship service, and offers the widest choice of sleeper accommodation on the network. All trains are operated by heavily refurbished nineteen-fifties 'stainless steel' trains. All sleeper tickets are marketed as Silver and Blue class and access to the luxurious Park Car at the end of the train and include all meals in the restaurant car.

What to bring

Sleeper passengers should

Unlike on board the services of Amtrak in the United States Comfort Class (coach) passengers on VIA Rail Canada are provided with an amenity kit to make passing the night in coach a cinch. This includes a pillow, blanket, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask and ear plugs. However you might like to supplement this with:

Again, luggage that has been checked into the baggage car cannot be accessed during the journey, so pack a smaller bag with everything you'll need during the trip.

Get in

Depending on which side of the country that you start your transcontinental train trip in, see either the Halifax (Nova Scotia) or Vancouver pages for information on getting in.

Overview of route and trains

Route map of passenger trains that cross Canada.

This itinerary presents a journey that travels from east to west, however it is quite possible and equally enjoyable to make the journey in the opposite direction. The three trains that make up the basic coast-to-coast route are:

The train times that follow were retrieved on 2 June 2010. Check the VIA Rail Canada website for updates before making travel arrangements.

The Ocean

The Ocean departs Halifax every day except Tuesday at 1:48pm. The train travels overnight to Montréal, arriving at 09.05am the following morning. In the other direction, the Ocean departs Montréal every night except Tuesday at 6.30pm, arriving in Halifax 5.10pm the following afternoon.

Three days a week the Chaleur (Montréal - Gaspé train) is coupled to the Ocean and shares locomotives the for part of the trip between Montréal and Matapédia.

Both east and west bound trains are scheduled to operate over the most scenic parts of the route during the day time, so you will travel through most of Québec along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river by night. Bear in mind the late night departure or early morning arrival if you want to leave the Ocean at Charny for the bus transfer to Quebec City. Perhaps the most scenic part of the route is east of Matapédia, where the train splits or joins three times a week with the Chaleur train to Gaspé. The line immediately east of Matapédia enters the province of New Brunswick and then follows the south shore of the Baie de Chaleurs, offering splendid views across the water to the receding coastline of the Gaspé Peninsula. Heading west, this is in the late evening; heading east, this is in the early morning, and makes for a spectacular distraction to breakfast in the restaurant car.

The Corridor

The Corridor is the broad name given to the collection of intercity routes that connect Montréal, Ottawa, Brockville, Kingston, Belleville, Oshawa, Toronto and other destinations in southern Ontario. There are multiple daily departures on modern trains that carry Economy class and Business class. There are no more overnight or sleeper services. Ottawa is served by direct trains from both Montréal and Toronto, but is not on the route of most of the direct services between the two cities.

The landscapes of southern Quebec and Ontario don't make for a particularly scenic route, but the route is the fastest in Canada and offers a rapid cross section through some of the country's most important industrial manufacturing cities. You'll catch glimpses of Lake Ontario just as you approach / leave Toronto.

The Canadian

The luxurious streamlined Prince Albert Park on the end of The Canadian.

The Canadian departs Toronto at 10:00pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (and from Vancouver at 8:30pm on Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays), arriving in their final destination city three days later.

The thrice weekly departures of the Canadian are likely to be the most important factor to consider when planning your coast to coast trip.

Many travellers will agree that the Canadian's primary selling point (the vast distance that it covers; 4,466 km or 2,775 miles) can also be its weakness. The train takes more than a day to cross from Toronto to the border with Manitoba, largely covering the distance through a repetitive scenery of lakes and forests. While exceptionally beautiful, this landscape can quickly become boring, so it's a good part of the journey in which to get to know your fellow travellers. Note that the Canadian can on advance notice be stopped at any point along its route between Sudbury and Winnipeg, whether its at an actual station, named halt, milepost or simply a given number of kilometres from the last city. Canoes, bikes and other equipment can be carried in the luggage car, allowing you to take advantage of northern Ontario's vast landscape for outdoor activities.

Almost immediately after leaving Ontario, the Canadian enters the prairies and will not leave them until the Rocky Mountains emerge a full twenty four hours later. European travellers in particular might find this part of the trip to be the least beautiful, but possibly the most symbolic part of the trip. The sheer scale of Canada becomes undeniable as the train picks up speed over dead straight stretches of track that cross the bread basket of the country. Small communities and the occasional farm flash past, but it could well be the enormous skies that catch your eye the most.

Travelling across Canada by train from east to west makes the most sense when you first catch sight of the Rocky Mountains. After two days crossing the largely flat and forgettable landscapes of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the scale and grandeur of the mountains is incredible to behold. The schedule of both the east and west bound Canadian are designed to ensure that you get the best possible daylight hours for viewing the mountains between Edmonton and Kamloops.

Itineraries

Coast to coast, it is possible to make the journey from Halifax to Vancouver on board just three different trains, and in as little as five days travelling. Here are four recommended itineraries, based on the length of time travelling.

The train times that follow were retrieved on 2 June 2010. Check the VIA Rail Canada website for updates before making travel arrangements.

Five days

Few travellers choose to do this journey straight through, not only because it can be quite hard work in coach class, but because it misses out on the opportunity to experience so many different and exciting cities. However, seasoned travellers who already know Canada well and who have limited vacation time (or just a hankering to ride the train) may relish the sound of this near-non-stop trip.

To complete this trip in the shortest possible time, you should leave Halifax on Monday, Wednesday or Friday (arriving in Vancouver on the following Saturday, Monday or Wednesday respectively). In the opposite direction, you should leave Vancouver on Sunday or Tuesday (arriving in Halifax on the following Friday or Sunday respectively). Catching the Friday train out of Vancouver will require an overnight stay in Montreal.

Travelling westbound, you'll have a few departure options from Montreal to Toronto. Consider which city you would like to spend more time in before making your selection. A late departure will allow you to have lunch in Montreal while an early departure will allow you to have dinner in Toronto.

EAST to WEST
Cities The Ocean Corridor (option 1) Corridor (option 2) Corridor (option 3) The Canadian
Halifax (NS)
(Mon, Wed, Fri)
d. 12.15
Montréal (QC)
(Tue, Thu, Sat)
a. 09.05 d. 10.00 d. 11.45
Not Sat.
d. 15.30
Toronto (ON)
(Tue, Thu, Sat)
a. 15.47 a. 16.46
Not Sat.
a. 20.31 d. 22.00
Vancouver (BC)
(Sat, Mon, Wed)
a. 09.42

For travelling in the opposite direction, the journey can take about the same length of time if you leave Vancouver on a Sunday or Tuesday. There is only one train option between Toronto and Montreal if you want to avoid an overnight stay in Montreal.

WEST to EAST
Cities The Canadian Corridor The Ocean
Vancouver (BC)
(Sun, Tue)
d. 20.30
Toronto (ON)
(Thu, Sat)
a. 09.30 d. 11.35
Montréal (QC)
(Thu, Sat)
a. 17.10 d. 18.30
Halifax (NS)
(Fri, Sun)
a. 16.20

If you leave Vancouver on a Friday, an overnight stay in Montreal will be required as the Ocean doesn't depart from Montreal on Tuesdays.

WEST to EAST
Cities The Canadian Corridor (option 1) Corridor (option 2) Corridor (option 3) Corridor (option 4) The Ocean
Vancouver (BC)
(Fri)
d. 20.30
Toronto (ON)
(Tue)
a. 09.30 d. 11.35 d. 15.15 d. 17.00 d. 18.35
Montréal (QC)
(Tue)
a. 17.10 a. 20.16 a. 21.43 d. 00.01
(early Wed)
Overnight in Montreal, QC
Montréal (QC)
(Wed)
d. 18.30
Halifax (NS)
(Thu)
a. 16.20

Seven days

If you have just a week of holiday allowance, it's possible to combine the basic coast to coast itinerary detailed above with one extended layover. Again, this itinerary is probably better suited to those who have already visited Canada before, so the choice of which city to stop off in is largely up to you. Bear in mind that any stop on the route of the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver would necessitate a stop of at least two, if not three days, because of the frequency of service of the Canadian. This applies in both directions.

Therefore, a seven day itinerary would probably be best expanded on the five day itinerary above by adding extra days in just one of the following cities:

You can find out more about each one on their respective travel pages. All four offer excellent public transit systems and compact downtown cores that can easily be explored on foot. With just two days, you would be well advised to research ahead, and be realistic about what you expect to see and do in the time that you have.

Fourteen days

Union Station, in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba

With two full weeks, the possibilities of the Canrailpass open up, and you can reasonably make two, if not three stops en route. A two week itinerary is probably the shortest that a first time visitor to Canada can reasonably manage. The shorter itineraries suggested above are for the serious train fans, since after one or two days on board, you are likely to want a break off the train. Remember the Canrailpass is valid for seven or ten days of travel in any sixty day period. Days when you are not on board a train don't count towards your final total, but that if you depart a city at 8.00pm one day and arrive at 8.00am the next day, you will have used two travelling days.

There are multiple different options. You can consider a stop in any of the following major cities:

For example, for travellers who want to see more the big cities:

Or, for travellers who want to see more of Canada's west:

As before, it is recommended to decide what interests you the most and which cities you would like to see, remembering that if you alight from the Canadian (between Toronto and Vancouver) at any stop, you will have to spend two, if not three days there until the next train comes through. An exception to this is possible in Jasper, where you have the choice of two alternative connections to Prince Rupert with Via and to Vancouver with The Rocky Mountaineer.

Travellers who want to visit the western and prairie cities of Canada as part of this two week itinerary may find themselves choosing between:

It is recommended to carefully research your choice, and to consider when and where you will be arriving. Both the east and west bound Canadian trains call at Edmonton and Winnipeg during the daytime, but both services arrive at and depart from Saskatoon in the very early hours when you'll be dependent on a taxi and a hostel or hotel that will let you check in during the middle of the night. Saskatoon rail station is approximately 8km (5 miles) from downtown. Similarly, Edmonton station is approximately 10km (6 miles) from downtown with no public transit between the two. Winnipeg station is located almost in the heart of downtown.

One month

The basic fourteen day itineraries above can easily be expanded with longer stopovers in the cities and destinations that interest you the most while still only using a twelve day Canrailpass. You might find it helpful, however, to purchase some extra days. Up to three extra days are available on a Canrailpass (see price information above), allowing you more freedom in planning connections.

With a whole month to spend, you could easily consider riding some of the other trains operated by VIA Rail Canada, such as the Chaleur to Gaspé (although eastbound to westbound and westbound to eastbound connections with the Ocean at Matapédia are inconvenient). Quebec City is another excellent destination for rail travellers, and it's close to the route of the Ocean between Montréal and Halifax with transfers available. The basic day required for sightseeing in the nation's capital Ottawa could easily be extended to two or three allowing time to see the city's impressive museums. Further west, any three of the cities of Winnipeg, Saskatoon or Edmonton make great bases from which to explore the vast prairies, although you're likely to need to hire a car if you want to cover any real ground. During the summer months they're also essential stops on the festival tour, as each city puts on their own lively Fringe Festival. If you want to get off the beaten track (and are prepared to do some serious pre-trip planning) take a detour from Winnipeg on board the government subsidised Hudson Bay train to Churchill, the world capital of polar bears, beluga whales, and various other transient arctic critters. Beware though: the Hudson Bay runs over tracks that are bedded on the permafrost, so it's a forty+ hour crawl to the far north and the Hudson Bay.

And if you're passing through the Rocky Mountains during the winter months, it would be foolish not to spend anything from a couple of days to a week in Jasper on the slopes.

Stay safe

Inside one of the Canadian's high level observation cars. There are several of these on every Toronto - Vancouver service.

Rail travel in Canada is incredibly safe. The only precautions to take relate to personal belongings and valuables. While it is almost always safe to leave your possessions at your seat while you go to the restaurant or observation car, don't advertise valuable and easily stolen items such as personal music players or computers. To be really safe, check your luggage into the baggage car. Theft from luggage while it is in the care of VIA Rail is unheard of, and you'll be reunited with your bags when you reach your destination.

Go next

Depending on which side of the country that you start your transcontinental train trip in, see either the Halifax (Nova Scotia) or Vancouver pages for information on getting out.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, March 15, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.