I love trains. I love the clacking down the tracks, the freedom to move around with ease, the cheap as dirt Business Class options where you can spread out and work with relative privacy. Plus there is just something old-timey about trains.
Which is why I opted to travel from New York City to Toronto, Canada by the Amtrak-ViaRail service.
Taking the train to Toronto (from new York) takes around 12 hours or so, not as fast as flying, but still makes good time. Amtrak runs the USA side, but at Niagara Falls, the service switches over to Canada’s ViaRail. At Niagara Falls, you get out to do Canadian customs. While going through this check, the food, the crew, and the service name changes, but your train stays the same. Which means, if you reserved Business class, you can get your same seat back!
According to my one and only trip into Canada by train, (of which 3/4 was on Amtrak and only the last few hours on Via Rail), what were feelings on it?
- The bathrooms are clean and stocked, although it takes a bit for the tanks to refill, so if 2 or 3 people try to use the bathroom in quick succession, the toilets wont flush properly. Wait 2 to 3 minutes and they will flush again. This is just how the trains work.
- The seats are comfortable and roomy. Even in regular class you have ample space and can easily recline without bothering the person behind you. There are only a couple of seats per side too. Economy seats feel like Business or First Class Seats on most planes.
- Business Seats are spectacular. One side of the Business car has 2 seats, the other side are solo. So you can easily sit with a friend or by yourself. Each seat has its own outlet and table (for food and/or a laptop), and you can lay back almost flat. There is also a ton of storage room above you and on the floor in front of you. Grab the seats at the front and end of the car for extra space.
- There are big, beautiful, almost floor to ceiling windows throughout the train. They are perfect for gazing on the forests, open fields, small towns, and sometimes just vast nothingness along the route. This does add to the serenity of train rides. However, these windows don’t open and are usually a bit too scratched or dusty to take good photos through. I wish I could have opened a window and smelled the fresh, nature air.
- They serve your basics – coffee, teas, juices, soda, sandwiches, cup of noodles, candy, chips, and salads. Their panini sandwiches are surprisingly good, although $8 each. If you ride business class, all non-alcoholic drinks are free too.
- The crew is amiable and courteous. They help with any questions you may have, and if they aren’t walking around checking on you, they are staying visible in the dining cart ready to attend your every need. The café attendant is like a ninja with his attentiveness. You may not see him in the cafe car, but the second you finish deciding what you want, there he is, suddenly standing in front of you, smiling, ready to serve. He’s like if Harry Potter and Mr. Belevedere had a love child.
- Amtrak has decent WiFi. You may not be able to stream HD movies on it, but I had no problem surfing around social media and looking up companies or facts about Toronto. The pages may take a few seconds longer to load, but it is by no means painful or annoyingly slow. It was great to be able to live-update my train ride on social media, but I may also have spent more time playing on Facebook that I should have.
- Once we hit the Canada border, the train changes over to Via Rail service. The train itself stays the same, but the crew, food options, and WiFi all change. The crew is just as friendly, and they take both Canadian and USA dollars.
- ViaRail has more food options: more coffees, cheese options, and healthier snacks. But no Cup of Noodles or panini sandwiches. ViaRail definitely has a more French or European feel to their food choices.
- The other major change on ViaRail is the WiFi. Which stops working. ViaRail actually does have Wifi on their trains, but the train I was on was an Amtrak train – which are only wired to connect to USA internet providers, so it stops working upon entering Canada. This meant the last couple hours of my trip I got more writing done (and took a quick nap). I would like to see Amtrak and ViaRail come together on their mixed-train routes to provide service throughout the trip.
- The crew of Via Rail seemed cheerier, and was having fun chatting with the passengers that wanted to chat, while leaving those who wanted to work or nap alone (I did a bit of both). But I did experience the Canada team at the beginning of their shift, and the USA team on the last part of their shift. So moral and energy was obviously better on Canada’s side.
Note: I really didn’t get a full Via Rail experience, because I was on an Amtrak train that happened to ride a Via Rail line for only a few hours. I would like to cross Canada by Via Rail and really get to experience the full Canadian Via Rail experience.
I really enjoyed the train ride to Canada and would love to do more long-train travel trips. It’s very relaxing and peaceful. You get to see the countryside while retaining the ability to kick back and let someone else drive you. The seats (especially in business) are comfortable and roomy. There is food, drinks, internet, and clean, large bathrooms. Trains may not be as fast as planes, and you may not be able to stop or open a window to get fresh air like with a car, but if you have the time, and want some scenery while still being able to get some work done, trains are a great way to travel.
It’s usually only a few tens of dollars (or less) more to upgrade to Business Class, and totally worth it if you can. There are usually only a dozen business seats per train, so you should reserve business class when booking your ticket. You also get more personal service (drinks and food brought to you, you are paid more attention to), all the things you hear about on First Class flights but can’t afford, you can do for a great price on the train. (Sometimes you can book Business Class day of too, which I have done multiple times between Maine and Massachusetts. If you didn’t or couldn’t book it ahead, always ask at the ticket window day of trip).
Trains are definitely one of my favourite ways to travel.
Have you taken trains and what do you think about them?
About Dani Blanchette
I am a freelance travel and music photographer and creator of GoingNomadic.com.
I love music, food, and exploring cities without guidebooks. I’ve flown a helicopter, hitchhiked down the east coast USA, and once snuck into the back of a zoo (in Serbia) and pet a lion.
I am always up for an adventure, and sometimes I videotape them.