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Why is it better to explore Canada by train instead of stepping onto a plane and disembarking a few hours later? The answer is one simple word that’s synonymous with the Great White North – scenery.
Summer or winter, there’s always a spectacular vista to drink in. Snow capped mountains, pristine lakes, and fields of green grass and wild flowers swaying in the breeze.
Sure, I could have jumped on a plane in Ottawa and kicked back for an hour and a half before being safely deposited on the outskirts of Toronto. But that’s a missed opportunity.
I first got the idea to explore Canada by train from my dad, who went on a big trip with my aunt and uncle before cruising over to Alaska.
They did a few legs of the trip on the Rocky Mountaineer train and the holiday snaps they brought back from the rail journey were breathtaking. I was hooked from that moment and was just biding my time until I’d get my own chance to experience it myself.
EXPLORE CANADA BY TRAIN
More than 12,500 kilometres of railway tracks traverse Canada, hitting almost all of the country’s major cities. The government-owned VIA Rail service doesn’t just offer your usual commuter-style train service.
VIA Rail’s train carriages include sleeper, dining, luggage, and economy or business cars to meet the needs of a wide array of travellers.
The railway has been an integral part of travel through Canada since 1867, although the number of passengers dropped with the introduction of the car and, later, passenger planes. But in 1977 the government created VIA Rail with the mission of reducing costs and improving service.
The second service that allows you to explore Canada by train is Rocky Mountaineer. It’s specifically aimed at travellers, offering more than 65 vacation “packages” across four different rail routes.
Rocky Mountaineer is a privately owned ‘luxury’ train trip company, that has been placed in the top 10 Best Rail Experiences in the World, as well as countless other awards. You can choose between gold and silver leaf service, which basically determines the type of carriage you’re in and whether you get a private dining room.
Still not convinced? I’ve got 10 reasons why you should explore Canada by train right here for you.
I could wax lyrical about the clear blue lakes, the towering mountains (even the rocky ones), the feats of engineering such as bridges and sky scrapers, or the forests of upright trees.
But the best way to tell you about the beautiful scenery is to show it to you. So get ready to scroll through a few nice photos. The extra sunny ones are my dad’s from his trip from Vancouver to Kamloops with the Rocky Mountaineer.
The somewhat chillier snaps are from my journey from Ottawa and Toronto during February, which is apparently the coldest time of the year.
The countryside was covered with a thick blanket of snow, interrupted only by bare trees, farmland and half-frozen rivers. Oh, and the beach. There’s something slightly disconcerting about seeing snow and the ocean in the same vista.
It feels as though plane seats are continually shrinking so that I can hardly contain my relatively-compact frame within the confines of the “personal space” I pay to occupy.
Let’s face it, if you bring a small carry-on to stuff beneath the seat so you don’t have to worry about finding overhead locker space, you’re going to confine your leg room even more than it is.
And when you’re stuck in the middle seat of a row there’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be fighting for armrest real estate on both sides.
Not on a Canadian train. Depending on the length of your journey, VIA Rail offers some very comfortable-looking dining and sleeping cars. As well as the day carriages with enough glass for you to properly see the sky.
Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountaineer stops at comfortable (and gorgeous) hotels for the night so you are almost guaranteed a quiet, restful night’s sleep. The seats are spacious, and the windows either cover the ceiling, meeting at a ventilation strip, or wrap up to give you a quarter view of the train’s top.
It’s Environmentally Friendlier
We all know that hopping on a plane blows out your carbon footprint and driving yourself to a destination isn’t the most environmentally friendly way of travel either since it’s another car on the road instead of pooling resources.
Even for the short journey that I took from Ottawa to Toronto, catching the train instead of flying can make a huge environmental difference.
Of course the longer the trip, the bigger the emissions, so if you’re looking to explore Canada in an environmentally responsible way, the train could be your best bet. Public transport is a great alternative to having all of those people sitting in cars, individually sending exhaust fumes into the atmosphere.
Work While You Travel
This is where VIA Rail really comes into its own. I was able to work a full day while travelling to my next destination. Travelling mid-week for work can be a bit of a pain because, inevitably, you’re going to be needed when it’s most inconvenient to you. Whether it’s driving, standing in line at security, or up in the air on a plane.
When I booked my Ottawa to Toronto train trip for midday on a Wednesday I was a little worried. What if the promised WiFi didn’t work? Or my laptop battery ran out? What if the bandwidth wasn’t good enough to allow conference calls?
Frankly, I should have stayed on the train longer. The internet there was way better than the Furnished Apartment that was advertised for business travellers.
Connecting to the WiFi was simple with the instructions provided and I didn’t have a drop out the entire five hour trip. I even put the connection to the test with a couple of conference calls while I worked. Each seat features a power outlet for you to recharge as well.
I booked an economy seat, which was fine for my purposes (and budget) but there are also business carriages with more amenities that you can take advantage of.
Is Air Travel Quicker to Every Destination?
Sure, the flight is relatively short compared to a train journey, but what about all those other parts involved in flying? There’s the time spent filling in all your details and scanning your ID 5 times at the self-check-in console.
Then you have to wait in line to drop off your baggage. Give me a train any day over the rigmarole of airport security. Slowly snaking through lines that just seem to eternally fold back on each other, finally reaching the front in a flurry of shoelaces, zips, belt buckles and laptops. I spent an hour just in the Toronto Airport security line.
After that it’s the long walk to the gate and waiting for boarding, waiting for the plane to take off, and sorting through bags after you’ve landed.
Dodging all that hassle and waiting time was a no-brainer for me.
From City to City
Airport transfers are usually a perk thrown into hotel stays because, let’s face it, airports are usually a fair way from city centres or the places you want to get to for work or a holiday.
If you’re not lucky enough to be staying at a hotel with free transfers, you’ll have to work out bus, train or taxi transport to get you there.
That means spending extra money to get to the airport. The best thing about train travel is that you leave from a city centre and you usually arrive in a city, making life that little bit easier.
Apart from city to city service, trains usually go where planes don’t have routes or airports, and where driving means navigating country roads that aren’t as well maintained.
VIA Rail has more than 450 stations across the country and it goes places that you can’t get to by car, like Churchill, Manitoba – home of the polar bears in spring and beluga whales in summer. A plane ride to Churchill will set you back at least $1300. But the train journey, which takes two days because the constant freezing and thawing of the ground affects the tracks, starts from $207.
So if you’re penny pinching or just can’t fathom the idea of spending an extra $1000-odd to get to Churchill and the wildlife a few days faster, the train is definitely the way to get there.
Speaking of penny pinching, vacations can be expensive, and forking out extra money just to get to your destination might not be part of the plan.
Especially when it’s money that could be spent experiencing a new country or city. Train travel is not always going to be the most economical way to get somewhere. Sometimes it’s the most expensive way to travel.
But not always, so it does pay to do your research (as in the case of getting to Churchill in Manitoba above). It can save you a fat wad of cash and give you more spending money to play with at your destination. And don’t discount the opportunity that train travel gives you. Break up your trip and stop at a few stations along the way to experience towns and cities that you hadn’t planned on seeing.
If you’re looking to explore Canada by train as part of a bigger international trip, don’t start to worry about the amount of luggage you’ll be carrying and whether it’ll fit on the train.
From personal experience, I can tell you that VIA Rail has baggage racks to accommodate both big and small bags, so that you don’t have to worry about fitting them in awkwardly next to you. They’re easy to use and easy to get your luggage into and out of. I tend to travel heavy, especially in winter because I need a tonne of layers to keep warm, and my huge bag easily fit into the baggage racks.
As for the Rocky Mountaineer, passengers are allowed two suitcases each with a combined weight of 30kg (66lb) and no one item of luggage can weigh more than 23kg (50lb).
I nearly died of shock when my train rolled out of Ottawa station at EXACTLY 12pm. Sure, it was slated to leave at that time, but you know how public transport is. You’re more likely to leave late, especially if you’re catching a plane. My flight from Toronto to San Francisco left an hour and a half late, for example.
So I was surprised when we boarded the train and it left exactly on time. I feel like that never happens any more and so I was probably more impressed than I should have been. It gave me the impression that the trains run like clockwork. Which is not a bad impression to have at all.
It’s also gives you peace of mind if you’re exploring Canada by train and have connecting trains to catch.