Friday, 4 August 2017

The Canadian: On-board Tour

The Canadian: An on-board tour of the train

Step on up, and let's take a tour on board! Don't mind the snow...

Now that my official Cross-Canada trip has been documented, I thought I’d put together one last post to take a tour through the train, and show you what it’s like on board VIA Rail’s Canadian. Part of the idea behind the trip report blog was to give people an idea what the trip was like, and a big part of that is actually showing off the amenities of the train itself. I originally thought about just dropping these photos in along the way, but I decided it would make more sense to put them together as a separate piece that could be accessed more easily, like my separate post for the Canadian consist.

Let’s begin with an overview: VIA Rail’s Canadian operates using a fleet of Budd-built stainless steel passenger cars, most of which were originally built for Canadian Pacific in the early 1950s. CP first launched The Canadian, with its brand new fleet of stainless steel streamlined passenger cars, in 1955. It’s amazing to realize these very same cars are still in service today, albeit on a different route (VIA’s Canadian follows the route of CN’s Super Continental, rather than the traditional CP route). They were all rebuilt in the early 1990s and were upgraded to be powered and heated by electricity produced in the locomotives, called “Head End Power” or “HEP” (pronounced “hèp”, not “h-e-p”). At the same time they were given a new VIA designation as the “HEP1” fleet. Prior to that they had been heated by steam produced in the locomotives; a hold-over from the days of steam engines, early passenger diesels had steam generators on board to produce steam that was piped along the train to radiators in the passenger cars. Electricity was produced by axle-mounted generators recharging large batteries.

There have been many small interior modifications to the cars over the years, including new upholstery and carpets, modifications to the layout of the Skyline dome cars, the addition of showers in the sleeping cars, and the removal of some archaic features like the little cubbies to leave your shoes out for shining, and more recently the ashtrays. Yet amazingly, the overall interior design and layout is virtually identical to the way the cars were when they were built. This provides for a fantastic opportunity to really get a flavour for what long-distance train travel has been like for the last 60 years.

These cars look pretty darn good for equipment pushing over 60 years...

Having said that, most of the cars don’t look or feel that old. The majority of the fleet has been further refurbished within the last 5-10 years. The Manor sleepers, Diners, and many Park cars and Skylines have been refurbished with new upholstery, carpets, and furnishings. Then there are the all-new Prestige class rebuilt cars, which are a whole other story. Unfortunately the coaches, Chateau sleepers, and many Skylines remain in their ‘90s getup, and many are starting to look rough.

Now, to the train itself! On board The Canadian there are three classes of service:


1. Economy: This is the bare bones version of train travel. You have a seat, and access to the Skyline dome/lounge car. That’s it. Seating is not assigned, so it's first come first served.

2. Sleeper Plus: Formerly called Silver and Blue Class and then Sleeper Touring, VIA has settled on the rather puzzling Sleeper Plus designation. It’s puzzling, because you’d think the “Plus” indicates that there must be a normal non-plus sleeper option. There was on the Ocean, though that has been removed, but not on The Canadian. In any case, in Sleeper Plus you can be in a variety of sleeping car accommodations where you have your own space, a bed for the night, access to a shower and the Skyline and Park cars, and all of your meals are included in the dining car. Those accommodations are expanded on below.

3. Prestige Sleeper Class: This is VIA’s newest addition to The Canadian’s service offering. Using completely rebuilt Chateau and Park series cars, Prestige is the ultimate luxury option on the train. You get a massive room with a full double bed, giant window, en-suite bathroom with shower, and a dedicated concierge. You also get all kinds of little extras, all of your meals (plus alcoholic beverages) included, and exclusive access to the Park car during much of the trip in the peak season. It also costs a small fortune (go ahead, look it up…prepare to be stunned). Amazingly, this class has tapped into a particular tourist market and has become an astonishing best seller for VIA, routinely selling out far in advance for the summer months. It also makes them a healthy profit, and has fundamentally changed the revenue/cost equation for this train during the peak summer season.


So with those classes explained, let’s work our way through the cars on the train. The Canadian is typically marshalled with a baggage car right behind the locomotives (off limit to passengers, and just used to carry checked baggage), then the coaches for the Economy section, followed by a Skyline dome/lounge car. After that the rest of the train varies. There will always be at least one dining car, usually one or more additional Skylines, the sleeping cars, and finally the Prestige Chateau(s) and Park car at the very end. Trains can vary from as few as around 10 cars in the off season up to as many as 30 cars in the peak season. Let’s make our tour starting from the front, with the Economy coaches:

COACHES:

An example of a HEP1 coach from the outside. This is an ex-American model, as evidenced by the fluted letterboard, squared off door, and the window arrangement with short windows.

This is the Economy section. Most of these are ex-CP Budd coaches, but VIA also has a bunch of cars from various American origins that were rebuilt in the early 1990s to match the ex-CP cars. You’d hardly know the difference inside unless you’re looking for it. The windows are the only real interior giveaway, as the American layout is slightly different and the windows aren’t as tall.

The seats are large and comfortable, with half a mile of leg room. They also have a leg rest that folds out from under the seat, and combined with a generous recline, this makes them pretty nice to sleep in (as seats go). I’ve slept in these coaches quite a few times on the Ocean, and I like them – certainly better than the Renaissance coaches that currently operate on that train.

Luggage can be stowed in the overhead rack, or in small luggage racks at the end of the car. As with any class of service, larger bags can be checked and will be carried in the baggage car to your final destination.

The Economy section on my trip. Only one coach on this train, and it was quite well used. As you can see, many people get themselves settled in and make their seat a comfortable space for the trip.

An overview of an empty HEP1 coach. This is a photo I took a while ago inside one operating on the Ocean.

There is also a large fold-down tray table on the seat backs, and electrical outlets at every seat (I think this should be in all of the coaches by now, but I’m not sure – I know it was being added slowly over the years). These coaches have seating for 62 passengers, and on The Canadian will largely be occupied by people travelling shorter distances, rather than the full trip. Some seats are configured as 4-person facing pairs, and in fact any seating pair can be configured that way as needed, since the seats can all be turned. VIA used to provide pillows and blankets for passengers in Economy, but they dropped that several years ago and now you have to bring your own.


SKYLINE CAR:

A Skyline car, viewed from the outside. 
This is the dome lounge car for coach passengers, and is the one car they have access to other than the coaches. During the peak season, there will typically be at least one or more additional Skylines farther back in the train for Sleeper passengers, so that everyone has a dome and lounge not too far from their car. On my train there were two Skylines – the first one, behind the coaches, was accessible to coach passengers. The second, behind the first sleeper section and ahead of the Diner, was for sleeper passengers only.

The Skylines have a small lounge area at the front end, and a larger café style area at the opposite end. That section was originally set up with more coach seating when the cars were built for CP, and VIA changed it to a café in later years. In the past, this end of the car was sometimes used as dining space instead of a dining car on quiet off-season trains.

Lounge section in a Skyline.

Lounge section in a refurbished Skyline. 
Café section in a refurbished Skyline, looking forward. 

Rear of the café section. On the left is a TV screen sometimes used to play movies, and on the right is a showcase of souvenirs that are available to purchase on board. 
The front end of the café section in a non-refurbished car. Note the old look on the chairs, and tables with printed on checkerboards. Just ahead of this section is a small counter with hot water. This could be used as a coffee/tea takeout area as well.

In the middle of the car is the raised dome section, with stairs up at the front. These domes were originally oriented the other way around, but were turned by VIA in later years, largely so that the café section would be facing towards the sleepers if it was being used as a dining space. When the seats were turned, the last row of dome seats (now the front row) could not be turned, as this would leave those passengers stepping off into the abyss of the stairwell. So instead, the first row was left backwards and a 4-seat facing pair was left, with tables installed. This makes for a nice place to play cards, but some people complain that it removes the best seats in the dome.

Dome section in a non-refurbished Skyline. 
Seats in a refurbished Skyline. Note the new upholstery, as well as the darker paint on the dome section similar to what is seen in the Park cars. Photographed on the Ocean back in 2012.

Underneath the dome is a small kitchen area and a takeout counter for snack service. This is often the only food service Economy passengers have access to, as they can only enter the dining car when it’s a bit quieter and there is extra space.

Walking down into the hallway from the lounge - the takeout area is on the left through the first door, and the kitchen is through the second door. This setup isn't really ideal, because this hallway tends to get blocked up when people are waiting for food.

The kitchen in the Skyline. This can actually provide pretty decent meal service, and is sometimes used on some other trains to replace a full diner in the off season (The Canadian tends to still have a diner all the time, regardless).

Take-out menu for Economy passengers when I was on in April. 
At the back of the first Skyline is this sign, informing Economy (formerly called Comfort class) passengers that they are not permitted to go farther back on the train unless they are going to the dining car. Access to the dining car is only available when there is excess space, mostly in the off-season.

Some of the Skylines have been refurbished recently, while many have not. The photos above show the difference between the two.


DINING CAR:

The dining room in dining car Acadian, looking forward.

Depending on the particular train, there may be one dining car or there may be two (and in rare instances three), and their position in the train can vary. Typically, they are positioned behind one of the Skyline cars. The dining car is the restaurant on wheels, and provides full meal service throughout the trip for Sleeper Plus and Prestige class passengers.

The restaurant section of the dining car is towards the rear, with seating for 48 passengers each sitting, in a combination of tables with chairs and booths. At the front end of the car, a corridor to the right hand side provides access forward to the next car, and on the left side is the kitchen. It’s a pretty compact space, and it’s amazing to realize that such incredible meals for so many people can be prepared in that space! VIA employs chefs on board The Canadian, and they do a spectacular job.

Entering the dining car from the front end, this is the hallway alongside the kitchen area. The door to the right is an access to the kitchen, and the door on the left is a small access door to load supplies. 

The kitchen in dining car Acadian, photographed when it was running on the Ocean several years ago. It's amazing what meals can be produced in such a tiny space, especially for so many people!

The dining cars have all been refurbished in recent years, and look really stunning. The etched glass partitions in the cars are still there from when they were built.

Tables in dining car Acadian, set for dinner.

SLEEPING CARS:

A Manor sleeper, as seen on the Ocean at Moncton, NB. 

VIA has two different types of stainless steel sleeping cars: the Manor series, and the Chateau series. The two cars are very similar, and both feature the same basic types of accommodations: open sections or berths, roomettes, and bedrooms. Both series have three open sections, while the Manors then have 6 bedrooms and 4 roomettes, and the Chateaus have 3 bedrooms, a 3-person drawing room, and 8 roomettes in a staggered upper-lower level (“duplex”) layout. There are some small differences (Chateau and Manor roomettes have slightly different layouts), but overall they are very similar. The biggest difference these days is that the Manor cars have all been refurbished and are really quite nice inside, while the Chateaus were last updated in the ‘90s and are showing their age.

VIA primarily uses Manor sleepers on The Canadian, while the Chateaus are used on the Winnipeg-Churchill train, as well as the Chaleur when it was running, and the Ocean at Christmas time when it makes some extra runs with stainless steel equipment. They are also subbed in on The Canadian in the summer peak, as well as sometimes on the end of the Ocean when it is Renaissance-equipped.

Every one of VIA's named cars has a plaque like this inside describing the history behind the name of the car. This one was inside my sleeper, Brock Manor.

I’m only going to look at Manor sleepers here, because that’s all I actually rode on my trip. Let’s work our way through the car:


Open Sections

Entering a Manor sleeper from the front, you pass the washrooms and then come to the three open sections. 

These are located at the front end of the car, next to the washrooms. VIA currently brands these as “upper berth” and “lower berth”. This is one of the oldest styles of sleeping car accommodation out there. By day, you have a facing pair of bench-style seats (quite comfy) – the person with the lower berth assignment gets the forward-facing seat. By night, the seats fold down to form a lower berth, and the upper berth drops down from the ceiling. Heavy curtains cover the outside to provide nighttime privacy, and a ladder provides access to the upper berth. The upper has no window, but funnily enough actually has the largest bed of any accommodation on board these cars.

Open section in daytime configuration. The seats are quite comfortable, and they're wide enough that you don't have to bump legs with the person sitting across from you. 
Berths set up in night-time configuration, on the right. Heavy curtains cover the space and provide privacy. Not shown is the ladder used to access the upper berth.

You can book just one berth individually, in which case you will be seated across from someone you don’t know, or you can book the pair of them for two people. These are the least expensive accommodations (upper being cheaper than the lower), as they have the least privacy. But they still include all the other Sleeper Plus amenities, and are a comfy way to travel. Section 3 is a little more private, as it has the wall from the shower area across from it, but you lack the view out the other side. In 1 and 2, you have people across the aisle, but you can also see out both sides of the train.


Shower

When you're on a train for 4 days, a shower can sure be nice! Someone has added their artistic touch to this one.

There are no showers in the rooms themselves, but there is a common shower in every car. It’s pretty simple – a door leads into a small changing area, and then there’s the shower stall itself. It can be a challenge to shower on a moving train, but it’s something you get used to and a nice thing to have! One downside is that the showers drain directly onto the tracks (unlike the toilets, which go to a retention tank), which can mean that sometimes the drains freeze up in the winter.

Looking into the shower room.


Bedrooms: 

Down the hallway in the middle of the car. The bedroom doors are along the left.

In the middle of the car there are 6 bedrooms. These are sold as “Cabin for 2”, and are intended for two people travelling together. You can book a bedroom alone, but you will pay a significant single occupancy surcharge to compensate for the fact that you have taken up space that could have been sold to two passengers rather than one. The bedrooms are all down one side of the car. Bedrooms B, D and F are all forward facing, while bedrooms A, C, and E are backwards facing. This doesn’t necessarily matter that much, it just changes the orientation of the room.

In its day time setup, each bedroom has two large, comfy chairs, which can be moved and positioned however you like. There is a toilet, a sink with vanity, luggage storage space, and a small coat closet by the door. There’s also a vent and fan to keep the air fresh. The room has a solid locking door, but you can’t lock it when you’re not there, as it doesn’t have a key from the outside.

Day time setup in a Manor bedroom.

The toilet. 

Sink and vanity.

Luggage space.
Coat closet by the door.

At night, the chairs fold away and one bed folds down from the wall, then another pulls down from the ceiling. A small ladder provides access to the upper bunk. The beds are set up cross-wise, unlike the berths and roomettes that are all oriented along the length of the train. Most of the rocking motion on the train is side to side, so in many ways the cross-wise orientation actually provides a less rocky sleep.

Night time setup with lower bunk down.

Nighttime setup with upper and lower bunks.

Bedrooms A through E are all the same size, but bedroom F is notably larger, due to the way the car is set up (note that this is not the case for bedroom D in the Chateaus, despite appearing that way on car diagrams).



A "do not disturb" sign outside bedroom F. VIA provides these in each room (they say "please make up the room" on the other side), and they are made to hang on the square bedroom letter label next to the door. 



Roomettes

Daytime setup in a Manor roomette.

VIA sells these as “Cabin for 1”, and they’re probably the ideal, cozy accommodation for a single traveller. I say cozy, because they really are. There’s no pretense about these being super spacious, but I really like them. They’re all the space I feel like I need, and over the course of a 4-night trip they can get to feeling really homey. They’re more expensive than a berth, and comparable to the per-person price for two people travelling in a bedroom, but much cheaper than a single person taking a bedroom.

There are 4 roomettes in the Manor sleepers, two on each side of the hall at the rear end of the car. The ride nearer the end is often rougher and noisier, so Roomettes 3 or 4 are the ideal ones to go for.

By day there is a decent sized, comfy seat, with a sink and mirror, a luggage storage space up above, a coat rack, and a vent and fan. There’s also a toilet…yes, a toilet. It has a cover/lid that doubles as a nice footstool. It’s a little odd and I found I used it pretty sparingly, as there is a full bathroom at the end of every car, but there are times when it’s nice to have.

Roomette seat. Comfy, and close to double the width of a coach seat.

Coat hooks, storage pocket, lighting and air controls, and fan.

Sink and other amenities. You can see the curtains to the right, as the sliding door is open. The bed is cut out through the lower section to fit around the sink, so it gives you space to stand up near the door.

Toilet, with padded cover that makes a nice foot stool. To the left, you can see the latches that hold the bed down.

Luggage space up above, and a shower bag (with towels) hanging on the left.

By night, the bed folds down from behind like a murphy bed, and latches down into place. One of the nice things about the roomette is that unlike the bedrooms or berths, you can actually put the bed down yourself. This gives you more flexibility to decide when you want it up or down, and you don’t have to wait for the attendant. Of course the attendants will still change the sheets every day (as they do in each type of accommodation).

To pull down the bed, you turn the handle...

...and fold it down from the wall. This opens up a bit more space at the head end, as well as another little storage pocket.

Nice, cozy bed all made up for the night. 

As you can see, there's some space by the sink to stand up while still in the room, thanks to the bed cutaway. This is a key difference from the Chateau sleeper roomettes. 

The roomettes have a sliding door and also curtains, so you have two options to block yourself off from the hall. One of the nice things about the Manor roomettes is that there is a cutaway in the bed to clear the sink, and this actually provides just enough space to stand up next to the bed with the roomette door closed (it’s tight, but possible – unlike the Chateaus, where you really can’t do that). This makes it possible to pop the bed up in the night to access the toilet, should you need to do that.

There is of course a large window with shade, so you can enjoy the night time view from your bed, or close the shade and keep it dark. There are also multiple lighting options to go from fully bright to subtle and moody.

I love the roomettes, and would happily travel in one any time. The Chateau roomettes are nice too, and I particularly like the upper level duplex ones, but the Manor roomettes feel more spacious and have a slightly nicer overall setup.


PRESTIGE CHATEAU:

Chateau Maissoneuve from the outside at Melville SK. Note the six massive windows that replaced the series of smaller windows on the original cars. You can still see in the letterboard where the upper windows for the duplex roomettes were located. The other side just has a series of smaller windows along the hallway.

Ah, Prestige Class: VIA’s latest attempt to appeal to the high-end tourist market, and an attempt that has paid off extremely well. The Prestige Chateaus are former Chateau sleepers that have been rebuilt beyond recognition. They ripped out the berths, bedrooms, and roomettes, and just put in 6 giant bedrooms, plus a small roomette for the dedicated attendant.

I must say, while I could never justify spending the kind of money they want for Prestige, there is no denying that these refurbished cars are gorgeous inside. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo inside one of the rooms, though I did get a look. There are photos available on VIA’s website, and I recommend you go check them out. I've included one of their publicity shots below.

I did get some photos in the hallways, and even that is something beautiful. The soft padding on the walls and the gentle lighting make these feel luxurious even just walking through.

Entering the Prestige Chateau. The mini-roomette for the attendant/concierge is through the curtain on the left. 

The hallway - like everything inside this car, it's beautifully done. The wall panels between the windows and doors are padded, which makes it easy on the body as you inevitably get tossed into the walls by the rocking and swaying of the train.

Doorways. In an act of kindness towards passers-through, the doors are recessed so it's harder to get caught on the handles as the train bounces and sways. Note that Prestige passengers have a key card to unlock the doors from the outside.
Night-time setup in a Prestige room. How's that for a bed?! The day time setup features an L-shaped couch. The door is to the right, and the bathroom, shower, TV, and fridge, are all directly behind the photographer. Publicity photo from VIA Rail Canada.


PARK CAR

Prestige Park car at Melville, SK. As with the Prestige Chateau, note the massive windows near the front end. These are only present on one side of the car. Other external changes include the charcoal grey letterboard, the new drumhead sign, and the removal of the marker lights.

Since The Canadian was launched in 1955, the Park series cars have been the undisputed show piece of the train. Always bringing up the tail end, the Park cars originally featured a washroom, 3 bedrooms, a triple bedroom/drawing room, a lounge and bar under the dome section (dubbed the “mural lounge”), a tail-end lounge (the “bullet lounge”), and a dome section up top. Most of the Park cars are still in this configuration, and the ones operating on the Ocean and occasionally on the Winnipeg-Churchill and Jasper-Prince Rupert trains still are. However, the 4 that typically run on The Canadian were rebuilt along with the Prestige Chateaus.

They now feature one normal Prestige room and a fully accessible room, as well as a washroom, a completely revamped bar under the dome, a redesigned bullet lounge at the tail end, and the same dome section up above. They also have had their vestibules modified to incorporate a wheelchair lift, and now have a powered sliding door at the end rather than the traditional push/pull swinging door.

Wheelchair lift fitted in the vestibule. For general use at low-level platforms, the end vestibule on the adjacent Chateau is used.

New sliding door at the end of Glacier Park. No matter how many times I saw this, I never quite got used to it.
As you walk through the end door, a sliding door provides direct access for wheelchairs to the accessible room. The public bathroom is on the left.
New bathroom in the Prestige Park. They've removed the little window, which is kind of a shame.

Fancy sink in the refurbished bathroom of the Prestige Park. Definitely easier to use than the old ones.
Looking down the hallway in the Prestige Park. The first door is another access to the accessible room, and the next door is for the one standard Prestige room in this car.

The new bar under the dome in the Prestige Park. Note the warm white LED strip lighting around the rail. There was quite a lot of this through this car, and it really added to the atmosphere.

Looking the other way in the new bar area. The high mounted bench and barstools provide a view out of the high windows.

Drink cooler. The drawings on the left were part of a drawing contest for the kids on board my trip.

A picture of the driving of the last spike on the CPR. I'm not sure if the different Parks each have different images, or all the same.
The bullet lounge in the Prestige Park. Just gorgeous. The main lighting is the warm white LED strips around the floor, as well as some other moody lighting. There are individual reading lights (controlled by a button next to the power outlets) for each seat. The couch style spaces are wide enough that it feels very comfortable to sit next to something else, even when you're a larger person.

Coffee and tea, next to the stairs up to the dome. 

Looking up into the dome.

Seats in the dome. The first rows are marked as reserved for Prestige passengers.

The dome in a refurbished original-layout Park car, on the Ocean. The Prestige domes look virtually identical, apart from the removal of the small hooks along the walls that were used to hand paper garbage bags. 

Some people were outraged by the major changes made to these cars, and I was originally not so thrilled about it either - but I have to say after travelling in one, I am absolutely blown away by how nice they are. Like the Chateaus, the overall interior atmosphere and look is really refined and just gorgeous. I love the new bar setup – it makes that space feel more open, and one of the main highlights is new seating that is actually up at the height of the small windows in that under-dome section. The bullet lounge now has couch-style seating, which I found comfortable and more spacious than I expected. There are now actually cup-holders and areas to set things down, and the lighting is a huge improvement – more subtle mood lighting, plus individual reading lights if you need to see better. It just makes for a far more relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere in the evening. The dome itself is unchanged, but admittedly there’s not much that could be done to improve that!

The only downside is that the cars are reserved for Prestige only during sections of the trip (not yet the case when I travelled), which is a shame. However, the actual new layout and interior work they’ve done is amazing.


Other: PANORAMA CAR:

One of the glass-roofed Panorama cars parked at Vancouver's Pacific Central station.

I didn’t have one of these on my train because they don’t start running them until June, and even then they only run them between Edmonton and Vancouver. However, I was fortunate enough to tour a pair of them in Vancouver.

Inside a glass-roofed Panorama car in Vancouver. These run on the Canadian between Vancouver and Edmonton in the summer.

These cars have full wrap-around windows, and are treated like the other observation cars in that they are public lounge type space rather than actual passenger seating. They are only accessible to Sleeper Plus and Prestige passengers. These three cars were built by Colorado Railcar using old VIA baggage cars as a base, and were originally intended for a Florida excursion train. They then ended up with BC Rail before coming to VIA Rail in the early 2000s.

If you travel on The Canadian between June and October, you'll have one of these on the western-most part of your trip.


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So there you have it: for those of you who’ve never travelled on VIA’s long-distance trains, now you have an idea of what to expect. The train is a really special way to travel, and VIA’s classic stainless steel equipment provides an excellent experience that hearkens back to an older age of travel, while also sprucing things up for the modern day. There’s really no better way to travel across this amazing country.

That also officially brings to a close my blogging about my Cross-Canada trip! With no more train trips planned for at least a little while, it might be a bit before I get back to posting more on here. However, I do have lots of old trip reports from travels on the Ocean and in the Corridor, so I may dig up some of the more interesting ones and re-post them on here when I have the chance. 

Until then...


The sun rises through the mists behind VIA #1, as viewed from the back window of Glacier Park.



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