A west bound VIA Rail Canada -Canadian- service from Vancouver, British Columbia to Toronto, Ontario pauses for an extended stop at Jasper in the Rocky Mountains. By User: (WT-shared) Jamesbrownontheroad at wts wikivoyage - Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23303090
Inside one of the Canadian's high level observation cars. There are several of these on every Toronto - Vancouver service.
By Eminoro & Simon Villeneuve - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20683096
Economy coach class on board VIA Rail Canada's 'Ocean' train between Montréal, Québec and Halifax, Nova Scotia, May 2006.
By User: (WT-shared) Jamesbrownontheroad at wts wikivoyage - , CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23303095
Route map of passenger trains that cross Canada.
By User:Al guy - Underlying map data is public domain courtesy of United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics . Route location is based primarily on the Via Rail route map, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1350100
Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, British Columbia; the starting point for an eastbound trans-Canadian train trip.
By No machine-readable author provided. Xanthine Complex assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1964884
Travel Across Canada by Rail
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 plane, 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.
Canada does not have any high-speed railway lines, and much of the infrastructure was built before World War II. In modern times, Canada's railways are primarily used for freight traffic, with passenger services generally given lower priority. The train services listed here are thus not high speed services, but rather are laid back services that primarily cater to tourists with ample time on their hands to enjoy the scenery.
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. Please note that changes regarding schedules, fares and nomenclature are always taking place, so be sure to consult the VIA website for the latest information.
Which direction to travel in
Traveling from one side of Canada to another by train is the perfect framework for an exciting and varied holiday. Traveling 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 travelers 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 Train 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 (October–April) fares are lower than in the high season (May–September) although when traveling 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 calling 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. Tuesdays are always less expensive.
Before: Comfort class - Now: Economy class
Before: VIA 1 class - Now: Business class
Before: Totem de luxe class - Now: Touring class
Before: Silver & Blue class - Now: Sleeper Plus class
Before: Easterly class - Now: Sleeper Plus class
Before: Comfort sleeper class - Now: Sleeper Plus class
Economy class 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).
Upgrades to Sleeper Plus or Business class available for a supplement to Canrailpass holders at the time of booking, subject to availability.
Sleeper classes: Halifax to Montréal
VIA Rail Canada offers sleeper accommodations on the Ocean between Halifax and Montréal throughout the year. All services are now operated by modern 'Renaissance' trains, which have replaced the older 'stainless steel' trains used elsewhere in Canada.
Double bedrooms have two berths and an en-suite washroom with toilet, washbasin, mirror and power outlet. They are lockable from inside and outside, and can also accommodate a child when two adults are in the two berths.
Deluxe double bedrooms are the same as double bedrooms, but with an en-suite shower.
Presentations affording cultural and historical insights of the region through which the train passes are offered, and passengers have exclusive access to the lounges and panoramic section of the luxurious Park car.
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 Plus classes: Toronto to Vancouver
The Canadian is VIA Rail Canada's flagship service, and offers the widest choice of sleeper accommodations on the network. All trains are operated by heavily refurbished nineteen-fifties 'stainless steel' trains. All sleeper tickets are marketed as Sleeper Plus class and access to the luxurious Park Car at the end of the train and include all meals in the restaurant car.
Berths are wide facing banquette seats that convert into cozy bunks at night. A curtain that can be fastened shut separates you from the corridor, and toilets and a shower are near-by. Upper and lower berths priced differently, since upper berths are accessed by a small ladder, and require a certain nimbleness.
Single Bedrooms are one step up from a berth. A wide seat folds down at night to form a bed in a private room, with one either side of the corridor. A sliding door closes off the bedroom from the corridor, and there is a private wash basin and toilet in the room (the toilet is easily covered and does not detract from the room).
Double bedrooms have two beds arranged one above each other at right angles to the side of the train. Each bedroom features two armchairs, a small closet, fan, electrical outlet, private washroom, sink and mirror. The door locks from the inside and there is a shower down the corridor.
Triple bedrooms are like double bedrooms, but with an additional lower bunk and slightly more room.
What to bring
Sleeper passengers should:
...pack one or two lightweight bags with all the clothes, toiletries and personal items (including valuables) for their on board cabin.
...pack items and clothing not required during the journey into separate luggage for the baggage car. It is not possible to gain access to the baggage car between your originating and destination stations.
Unlike the on board 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:
...at least one additional inflatable pillow.
...lightweight soft clothes to change into for sleeping.
...your own ear plugs (the better quality the easier it will be to sleep).
...a small toiletry bag with your personal items.
...wet wipes for easy hygiene.
...bottled water (this can be refilled on the train).
...snacks, sandwiches etc. (although these are on sale on board).
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.
Overview of route and trains
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 Ocean from Halifax to Montréal
The Corridor from Montréal to Toronto
The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver
The times listed may have changed, so be sure to check the VIA Rail Canada website for updates before making travel arrangements.
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 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 or leave Toronto.
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 travelers 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 travelers. 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 kilometers 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 travelers 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.
Traveling 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.
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 traveling. Here are four recommended itineraries, based on the length of time traveling.
The train times that follow may have changed. Check the VIA Rail Canada website for updates before making travel arrangements.
Few travelers 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 travelers 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.
Traveling 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.
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 Wiki travel pages (links listed above). 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.
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 traveling days.
There are multiple different options. You can consider a stop in any of the following major cities (see above links for more information):
For example, for travelers who want to see more the big cities:
Day one in Halifax (all day)
Day two in Halifax (a.m.); dep. Halifax (midday)
Day three arr. Montréal (a.m.); in Montréal (p.m.)
Day four in Montréal (all day)
Day five in Montréal (a.m.); dep. Montréal / arrive Ottawa (p.m.)
Day six in Ottawa (a.m.); depart Ottawa / arrive Toronto (p.m.)
Day seven in Toronto (all day)
Day eight in Toronto (all day)
Day nine dep. Toronto (a.m.); on board the Canadian
Day ten on board the Canadian
Day eleven on board the Canadian
Day twelve arr. Vancouver (a.m.); in Vancouver (p.m.)
Day thirteen in Vancouver (all day)
Day fourteen in Vancouver (all day)
Or, for travelers who want to see more of Canada's west:
Day one in Halifax (a.m.); dep. Halifax (midday)
Day two arr. Montréal (a.m.); breakfast in Montréal; depart Montréal / arrive Toronto (p.m.)
Day three dep. Toronto (a.m.); on board the Canadian
Day four on board the Canadian; arrive Winnipeg (p.m.)
Day five in Winnipeg (all day)
Day six in Winnipeg (all day)
Day seven in Winnipeg (a.m.) dep. Winnipeg (p.m.)
Day eight on board the Canadian; arrive Jasper (p.m.)
Day nine in Jasper (all day)
Day ten in Jasper (all day)
Day eleven in Jasper (a.m.); dep. Jasper (p.m.)
Day twelve arr. Vancouver (a.m.); in Vancouver
Day thirteen in Vancouver (all day)
Day fourteen in Vancouver (all day)
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.
Travelers 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.
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, allowing you more freedom in planning connections.
With an entire 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 travelers, 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 subsidized 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-plus hour crawl to the far north and the Hudson Bay.
And if you're passing through the Rocky Mountains during the winter months, you might like to spend anything from a couple of days to a week in Jasper on the slopes.
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.
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Text: wikipedia.org. Images: Public Domain; http://www.commons.wikimedia.org (unless otherwise specified) and 17 U.S. Code § 107 fair use. References: Lewis, Robert G. The Handbook of American Railroads. New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation, 1951, 2nd Edition 1956. Site Map Contact webmaster HERE.