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VIA Canadian – Route, Equipment Consist & Service

VIA Canadian – Route, Equipment Consist & Service

Observations on VIA Rail Canadian based on a May 2011 trip from Toronto, ON, to Jasper, AB.

By Bob Black

Data are from VIA System timetable and personal observations.  Notes refer to comparisons with Amtrak, and can be found at the end of this report.


-    The Canadian runs tri-weekly for 4466 Km (3085 miles) between Toronto, OT and Vancouver, BC, via Winnipeg, Edmonton, Jasper and Kamloops.  Westbound Train 1 departures are at 2200 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with scheduled arrival in Vancouver about three days and 12 hours later (0942), for an average speed of 36 MPH.  Eastbound departures are at 2030 on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday with arrival Toronto at 0930.  Train 1 is scheduled in Winnipeg (1342 miles) at 0800 on the second day, leaving four hours later after servicing at 1200.  Arrival in Jasper (2486 miles) at 1400 on the third day also includes a 90 minute servicing stop, including dome washing when weather permits (Note 1).

-    Track: The route between Toronto and Jasper is predominantly single track with passing sidings and frequent meets with freight trains. 

Crews said that maximum speed for passenger trains in Canada is 70 MPH, below the US standard of 79 MPH on track without automatic train stop (Note 2).


-    Train consist: On an early May Thursday, the pre-departure consist and order in Toronto station was as follows:
2 EMD F40PH diesel locomotives/1 baggage/2 coaches/1 dome/1 diner/1 dome/7 sleepers/1 dome/1 diner/3 sleepers/1 “Park” round end dome observation car. 

At Edmonton a single low level “Panorama” observation car (similar to the upper level of an Amtrak lounge observation) was added midway between the seven sleepers.

This car and the locomotives were the only units that did not appear to be former Budd built stainless steel equipment (a.k.a. “Heritage” cars).

-    Seasonal consist sizing:  Conversations with the crew indicated that train consist size varied from a low of six cars in winter to 24 in summer.  The Park observation car runs year round.

-    Equipment

•    Coaches: The coaches appeared to be well maintained Budd built stainless steel Heritage equipment with new interior seating.

•    Sleepers: Although the Budd origin of the sleepers was evident and they maintain their basic configuration, VIA has made some improvements on the basic design which actually made them better. 

o    Layout: All the sleepers I saw had four roomettes, six bedrooms, and three open sections (the fourth section has been rebuilt into a shower with an adjacent dressing room). The bedrooms have been rebuilt so that during the day the upper berth (which unlike the initial design is the same width as the lower) is retracted straight up into the ceiling.  Then the lower berth – which is attached by a hinge arrangement to the corridor wall – pivots upright from a horizontal to vertical position against the wall for daytime stowage.  The mattresses appear to be about six inches thick, and based on three nights experience I think they are more comfortable than the originals.


Collapsible chairs are provided for daytime use in the bedrooms.   The mirror and recessed wash basin face the berths, and there is a fold-up counter arrangement that covers the sink when not in use, allowing it to serve as additional counter space. There is an adjacent annex for the commode. 

The three open sections convert to two berths for use at night as initially designed.  There were one or more section berths in use in each sleeper. All sleepers had new or upgraded systems (e.g., HVAC); with new control panels and digital indicator lights which could be easily observed from the corridor. 

o    Capacity: sleeper capacity with roomettes/bedrooms/sections would be 4+12+6, or 22 per car (Note 3).  

•    Domes: all domes in the sleeper section had the as built seats under the dome, and tables on each end with a combination of built in and portable seats.  The cars appeared to be non-revenue cars (i.e., seat space was available to all passengers and not sold), and had an attendant who provided food/beverage service and travel commentary.

•    Diners: Also Budd built, with ten tables and four portable chairs each (Note 4).

•    Park Dome Observation: These cars, which are round end observations designed to be the last car in the train, are all named after parks in Canada, giving them their generic name. 

Although quite well maintained, with limited bedroom accommodations and a below dome cafÈ with an attendant, I can add nothing new about this equipment…it’s all been said.  


-    Crew composition: Reportedly, engineers and conductors do not work for VIA and travel in the locomotive.  The on board train crews include sleeper attendants, lounge (dome) attendants, and dining car staff (5-6) including cooks and servers.  When we boarded, our bedroom was made up with the berths down, and our sleeper attendant went through the car and gave passengers an individual briefing on their accommodation.

-    On-board crew totals:  staffing appeared to be 1 attendant per sleeper, 1 per dome, and 5-6 per diner.  This would bring total staffing to approximately 24-26 for this consist, which with 22 passengers per each of the 10 sleepers would equate to about nine passengers per crew person, not counting coach passengers and those few in Park car bedrooms (Note 5).

-    Seniority: Due to the wide variation in consist size (winter- six cars; summer-24 cars); on-board crews are routinely furloughed in winter.  It reportedly takes about ten years seniority to hold a job without being furloughed.

-    Attitude: The crew members I encountered (and crews changed in Winnipeg) were uniformly service oriented, courteous and conversational.   As a group, they appear to understand they are fortunate to be employed, perhaps because there are limited alternatives available to them.  Many have some college education and like to travel; our dome attendant had spent the month of February vacationing in Bali, Indonesia. 

-    Crew change (Winnipeg): The on board crews all changed when we arrived in Winnipeg at 0800 on the third day for a scheduled four hour train serving stop. Reportedly there are crews based in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Their transfer was smooth and seamless to the passengers, who were allowed to leave the train and go into town. 

-    Meals: Food was excellent, prepared on board from scratch and served on china.  The portions were adequate but not immense, lunch and dinner menus varied slightly, and an extra effort was made to ensure a visually attractive presentation. There were three scheduled seating’s for lunch and dinner.  All meals were included in the ticket price so I have no cost data for what a coach passenger might pay. 

-    Price: ticket cost for two passengers traveling Toronto-Jasper in a bedroom with all meals included was $3400 (prices higher in summer), which worked out to about 68 cents per person per train mile. Discounts are available in May for early reservations (Note 6).

-    Segregation of sleeper passengers: as noted above, the first passenger cars were two coaches, followed by a dome and a diner and then seven sleepers.  The glass door on the rear of the diner has a clear message etched in the glass: “SLEEPING CAR PASSENGERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT.” 

The coaches appeared to be comfortable long distance coaches, and sleeper passengers were told they could go anywhere on the train. 

-    Clientele: The vast majority of sleeper passengers appeared to be non-Canadian residents, with many from the US, Britain, and former British Commonwealth countries and Europe. 


-    Winter: The vestibules had a removable railing on each side of the end door, about three feet above the floor and parallel to the tracks below, providing additional support for transiting passengers and also acting as a deterrent to those who might want to get closer to the side door window.


On departure from Toronto, each vestibule had a small broom with an ice pick on the opposite end of the handle, apparently to help crews keep the vestibules clear.  Although I have often heard that VIA has no equipment freeze-up problem in the winter, conversations with the crew indicated this was untrue. They said that Canadian winter operations were very difficult, and they were often plagued with frozen toilets and vestibules which made their lives difficult.  However, the train normally continues to run (reduced to about a six car consist), even though the average overnight winter temperatures in Winnipeg routinely go to -20 deg F, with wind chills approaching -50 deg F. 

-    Equipment condition: Overall the condition of the Budd equipment was impressive. 

The exterior surfaces shined like a new dime, the trucks were in good repair, and all passenger car interiors had obviously been overhauled, upgraded and improved to varying degrees, as further outlined above in my discussion of the sleepers.  Many cars had new electronics systems panels installed, and the domes were clear and did not leak.  The only exception I took to the interiors was that the carpet in one dome was nearing the end of its useful service life and just beginning to become threadbare, but the average passenger would not have noticed this. 

Comparative notes vis-a-vis Amtrak

Note 1: As a comparison, the Amtrak Empire Builder (Train 7/8) takes approximately 46 hours to cover the 2206 miles between Seattle and Chicago, at an average speed of 48 MPH. However, there are no extended service stops (such as the four hours in Winnipeg for the Canadian) along its route.  Also, Amtrak runs daily while the Canadian runs tri-weekly, but the lesser frequency does not seem to affect ridership.

Note 2: The low average 36 MPH speed is probably a result of the single track and service stops.

Note 3: By comparison, Amtrak Viewliner sleepers have a capacity of 34 and a bi-level Superliner sleepers capacity is 44.  With one sleeper attendant, there are some apparent trade-offs between service levels and productivity, particularly on a bi-level. 

Note 4: The VIA portable chairs are more inviting and user friendly than the four person dining table booths found on Amtrak diners, which are reportedly a requirement of FRA/NTSB to improve crash worthiness.

Note 5: an Amtrak Capitol Limited (Train 29/30) between Washington-Chicago with two sleepers* (2), a diner (5), a lounge observation (1), and three coaches (1), has a total onboard crew of 9, which with a passenger capacity of 310 approximates 34 passengers per crew person, a ratio over three times greater than the Canadian. 

*One sleeper attendant is assigned to both a Superliner sleeper (capacity 44) and an adjacent transdorm sleeper (revenue capacity 12), potentially 56 passengers for that attendant.

Note 6: The Amtrak Empire Builder runs 2206 miles between Seattle-Chicago, and the Amtrak website lists June ticket cost for two passengers traveling Seattle-Chicago  in a deluxe bedroom with all meals as $2063, which works out to 46 cents per person per train mile, about 70% of the VIA price of 68 cents per mile.

Final note: anyone considering travel by either The Canadian or the Rocky Mountaineer cruise train would do well to buy a copy of Canadian Treasures by G. Doughty on Amazon for more background, specific detail and photos.

We booked this trip with Train Travel Consulting, ,  experienced agents for both VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak.

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