Train travel is a comfortable, convenient, relatively affordable way to get around Canada, though visitors should realize the Canadian rail system has nowhere near the reach, regularity, or overall convenience of, for example, the European rail service. In addition, train travel tends to be relatively expensive in Canada, though this is changing in some of the more major corridors.
VIA Rail is the only major train operator in Canada. It transits across Canada from the most eastern point in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, B.C. in the west. For the most part, it travels across the southern part of the country, where the population is the most concentrated, with occasional forays more north. The busiest VIA Rail route is the Quebec to Windsor corridor, which includes Montreal and Toronto.
VIA does not operate in any of Canada's three territories or the Atlantic provinces of Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador.
VIA Rail has economy and a VIA 1, or business class, sections. Sleeper cars are available on the long routes. VIA's reputation among passengers is average. The most frequent complaints are that trains are late or have to make long stops (often waiting for the freight trains with track priority to pass by). WiFi is available but historically spotty.
Most metropolitan areas in Canada, like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, also have commuter train networks taking passengers from major cities to smaller, outlying cities and towns one or two hours away.
In addition to VIA Rail and local commuter trains, train operators in Canada include those of historic rail cars, novelty trains and special scenic trains, such as the Rocky Mountaineer on the West Coast.
The Canadian VIA Rail network does not always make sense. For example, Calgary does not have a VIA Rail stop even though it is a major hub for people visiting Alberta and British Columbia. In contrast, VIA Rail offers service to rural communities with relatively small populations, like Churchill; however, these, routes are mandatory and government subsidized because year-round alternative transportation is not possible. Many of these off-the-beaten-track destinations can be interesting, worthwhile stops for tourists. Churchill, Manitoba, for example, is famous for its polar bear population.
The major train routes on Canada's West Coast and Prairies are between Edmonton, Jasper, and Vancouver and Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
The Jasper-Vancouver train provides an excellent opportunity to soak in some exquisite Rocky Mountain scenery. An overnight train with glass-domed passenger car is a lovely Canadian excursion.
Translink offers regional train service between Vancouver and its neighbouring municipalities.
Ontario and Quebec have the most active network of VIA Trains, including the busy Quebec City-Winnipeg corridor, which includes the popular run between Montreal and Toronto.
Ontario destinations of interest to visitors on the VIA Rail route include Kingston, Belleville, and Stratford (home to the popular Stratford Festival).
GO Transit is a commuter train between Toronto and localities, including Niagara Falls, Hamilton, and Barrie. GO Trains run regularly 7 days. GO Transit also has a network of buses that run similar routes.
In Quebec, VIA Rail has a route along the Saint Lawrence River that runs from Montreal all the way northeast to Gaspe.
The most common way of getting around the Maritimes (Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia) is to rent a car or join a bus tour. Train travel is not a major means of transportation in this region of Canada VIA Rail, in fact, does not operate in PEI or Newfoundland and Labrador.
Nevertheless, VIA Rail does have a popular overnight train from Montreal to Halifax, with more than 20 stops in between.
Since 1990, the Rocky Mountaineer has been taking passengers through some of Canada's most beautiful landscape while continually raising the standards of rail travel. More than just a mode of transportation, the Rocky Mountaineer offers complete packages that include fine dining, deluxe accommodation and a two-level glass domed coach with full-length windows through which you can take in the glacier-fed lakes, majestic mountains and raging rivers of Alberta and British Columbia.
Canada has a fair number of heritage and novelty trains that are more about the experience than getting from point A to point B.