Fred Frailey Blog

Transformation of the Canadian

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As VIA Rail Canada begins scaled-back winter service on its flagship train, the Toronto-to-Vancouver Canadian, I read a lot of angst online about its future. Starting this month until next April, the train will depart just two days a week rather than the previous three days. Yet I think the future of this train looks pretty secure for at least the next four years. The reason is that the Canadian government has pledged $34 million (all dollar amounts are Canadian) to create an entirely new class of service for this train — I’ll call it Deluxe — and about four years will be needed to know if it succeeds in staunching the train’s losses. If it does, well and good; if it doesn’t, we’ve got a problem.

In late October, at the Railway & Mass Transit Interiors Expo in Boston, Lynn Lefebvre, the product manager for VIA’s long-haul trains, spoke specifically about the Deluxe class, which will operate only during the peak summer months. Initially, probably starting in 2014, Deluxe passengers will occupy the last three cars of the train: two reconfigured sleeping cars and the Park-series dome observation car. The sleepers will be 12 rebuilt Chateau-series cars which are normally used on the Canadian only during peak season. Below you see before and after interior arrangements of these cars. On top is the present configuration: four roomettes, six double bedrooms, three sections, and a shower, maximum capacity 22. Below that is the new design: six identical 75-square-foot rooms for two, capacity 12, plus a small room for the attendant (called the “concierge cabin”).

According to Lefebvre, each of the passenger rooms will feature double beds that pull down from the wall to the outside corridor. There will be en-suite bathrooms with glass-door showers, heated floors, and a hair dryer. Also, upscale duvets and linens, a flat-panel monitor for entertainment (wifi internet service is a later possibility), and a minifridge.

Three Park-series dome observations are being prepped for the Deluxe class. Before and after floor plans are below. As best I can intuit, Deluxe passengers will have exclusive use of this car. It makes sense that they would.

Before: three bedrooms and a drawing room in the front third of the cars, an enclosed under-the-dome bar in the center and inward-facing chairs in the observation lounge.

After: two suites, one of them handicapped-enabled, in front, a reconfigured bar below the dome that will be opened to the corridor and divans in the observation lounge. Below, a rendition of the under-the-dome bar:

I thought to myself, absorbing this presentation, that Deluxe would be a fine way to cross Canada. Then I learned the price of admission: $3,000 per person and up. Well, I’ll have to begin saving my dimes.

Why is all this happening? VIA Rail’s marketing people came to the realization several years ago that the luxury travel market had deserted the Canadian, if indeed it had ever been part of that scene. I’m talking about the 1 percent market, incidentally, the very wealthiest travelers who don’t mind paying top dollar for top service. That may seem like a tiny sliver, but 1 percent of billions of people is still a lot. These are precisely the folks that the Orient Express attracts in Europe and that Pullman Rail Journeys, a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific Holdings, is luring to its new service on the rear of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.

I await with interest this experiment in a three-class Canadian. The economics of this train are terrifying. I calculated a year ago that even run just three days a week, the train was losing $50 million a year. That’s a lot of money. The Deluxe class can contribute almost $75,000 per trip in revenue, or $7 million in a four-month season. Every little bit helps. — Fred W. Frailey

  • We will be making our annual cross Canada trip in 3+ weeks aboard the Canadian, sleeping in one of the sections which are very comfortable berths as we have for the past ten years. So, we have seen a decline in this lovely train but I am not sure VIA analysts got it right about the high end customer. From what I heard, CN pushed VIA to alter the 3 day run to 4 days and when you are running only 3 times a week, the trip becomes a cruise. Then, a "cruise" becomes something different from a train trip & the privileged few demand all the attendant bells and whistles, something the old equipment were just not up to. When the frequency dropped from daily to 3 times and now to two per week and the schedule became so poky to comply with the CN masters, ordinary Canadians & we mid level travelers begin to find it less attractive. Over the years, we have met a wonderful array of fellow travelers aboard the Canadian and it is sad to see such an icon of what made Canada different slowly morph into an irrelevant toy for only the very wealthy.

  • As an acceptable alternative, try the "Ocean".  A lot less time-consuming, and some really neat scenery, any time of the year.  I did it shortly after they put the refurbished Budds back in service, in mid-winter.   With fresh-fallen snow billowing around the train, and a beautiful full moon lighting up the return trip, it was a knockout. Unforgettable!

  • Its sad, but for really good service you have to be very very rich, and while they are a small minority, there are a lot of them. Thats how Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galatic will work, space tourism is very expensive, but there are still enough rich (and willing) people who will gladly pay the price.

    In some ways this isn't ant differnt than the "Grand Tours" of Europe by very wealthy English in the 18th Century, or luxury Trans-Atlantic steamships or Wagon-Lits trains, the Orient Express in its prime was the equivelent of first class long-distance airline service today, at least in price!

    As for me, as a hotel bellhop the best I can do is ride Amtrak and the new Saratoga & North Creek Railway, $50 for "Dome seating" is a price I still can afford.

  • Were I a Canadian, I'd be appalled at this.  Government has no business creating a cruise service for the rich.  If this is what the train needs to be, let the private sector create one, and put the "Canadian" out of its misery.  One would think that Canadians would always want the "Classic Across-Canada Train Trip" to be available for anyone (or at a reasonable price), as crossing the country by train has great historic and educational value, as well as added bonus of linking many smaller communities along the way.  But I'm not a Canadian; As an American, I hope trains like the Empire Builder and Crescent never become such a farce.

  • VerMontanan, the "classic train across Canada" is still there waiting for you and will be when the Deluxe class begins, at the same pre-Deluxe prices and with periodic 50% off sales and last-minute bargains for rooms. What's keeping you from riding it? As one of its most frequent riders across the country, I've developed a strong preference for out-of-season travel on the train, and the more out of season the better.  So unless I save enough dimes, I may never see the Deluxe class service.


  •   My grandson and I made a round trip Toronto to Vancouver and return.  I spent almost all my time in the PARK obs. car.  I would not ride it again if the PARK obs. car were reserved for the 1 percent, excluding the rest of us.  Having said that, the trip was magnificent, especially eating in the dining car, and the crews were exceptionally wonderful.  Pops.

  • The real issue here is can Canada afford to be Canadian.  Ever since the days of John A. Macdonald Ottawa has believed freight and passenger rail service are needed to prevent or at least limit the encroachment of US culture into Canada.  With its much smaller population Canada's rail lines have always been more expensive for the country than ours have.  Canadians have paid for them because their own national culture is important to them but they have not come cheap.  Now luxurious and expensive deluxe service is being offered because VIA Rail believes it will help pay the bill and reduce the burden on Canada's taxpayers.  

    We really should watch this Deluxe class of service and see if it works.  Thank you, Fred, for bringing us this news.  

  • Fred said: "VerMontanan, the "classic train across Canada" is still there waiting for you"


    True, it is if I can work it into my schedule to leave someplace on one of the two days the train runs, or if I don't choose to board at one of the restricted stations (as most of them are) requiring my name be on a train manifest before the train leaves one of the few manned stations on the route.  Actually, that trip is not waiting for me, it's trying really hard to do whatever so I CAN'T ride it.....


    Fred said: "and will be when the Deluxe class begins, at the same pre-Deluxe prices and with periodic 50% off sales and last-minute bargains for rooms."


    Again, the train's not "waiting for me;" Rather, I would be waiting for "periodic" sales, and "last-minute bargains" to ride it.  Of course, not living along the route, it's unlikely that I could position myself for this "bargain" without spending an arm and leg to get there!  And, when Deluxe begins, I would get to pay the same pre-Deluxe price without benefit of the Park/observation car, which, anyway you look at it, is paying the same for less.


    Fred said: "What's keeping you from riding it? As one of its most frequent riders across the country, I've developed a strong preference for out-of-season travel on the train, and the more out of season the better. So unless I save enough dimes, I may never see the Deluxe class service."


    Fred, what's keeping me from riding it is that I want to ride a real passenger train providing a real function.  For the same reason I enjoy the Alaska Marine Highway instead of a Cruise Ship, I appreciate being on a passenger train that exists for all the traditional reasons that passenger trains have been around.  This would be especially applicable to the "Canadian" given its history, and why its current status (deteriorating all the more as "Deluxe" service is introduced) makes it unworthy of the name.


    I understand that it's all about the equipment and the scenery with you.  It's undoubtedly a great trip on the "Canadian" for those who have either complete flexibility or unlimited financial resources or both.  But I think passenger trains are more about people.  As an American, I'm glad part of my tax dollars support a train like the Empire Builder that delivers more people on a daily basis (in season) to Glacier National Park than the "Canadian" does to Jasper, but at the same time is help fuel the Bakken oil development in North Dakota by moving over 100 people daily to and from Williston, North Dakota.  That's what a real passenger train does, and the "Canadian" isn't one.


    I will also say, Fred, that since you're not a Canadian, it is obvious you like riding the "Canadian" because of what the train is (equipment) and not what is does (utility=zero).  I'd really like to hear what value Canadians think the "Canadian" has and if they'd rather have something more like an Amtrak long distance train.  They're the ones (partially) paying for it, after all.

  • Several years ago my space between Vancouver and Toronto was the drawing room (a.k.a. the "Triple bedroom) of a Park car. It was exactly eight paces from the door to the bar... and I have no recollection of how many it was back. It was the very last room on the train and I am very sad to see it replaced by a Standard bedroom. Still, I shall carry my memories of the on board chief, upon boarding, looking at my ticket and saying, "There must be some mistake. This is the room we reserve for the military or royalty." Yeah, and...?

  • As VerMontanan mentions, a train is more than its equipment and I think that was a major attraction of riding aboard the Canadian as it continued to tie together the long and narrow nation of Canada, even as its new political masters sought to make it either stop or be a "profit center."  A common rumor told to me by Canadians is that VIA is spending the little fortune to gussy up the Canadian, show that it can't make money and then sell it at a bargain price, possibly to a private company such as the one which owns The Rocky Mountaineer. You are right, Fred, there are lots of 1% who like to ride such trains. When some guys in Afghanistan overran a US base several weeks ago they destroyed 6 airplanes on the ground, which cost the US $250 million dollars in just those several minutes.....would have operated the Canadian for 5 years! It is up to the citizens of democracies to decide where their fortunes are spent.

  • The floor plan alleged to be of a "Chateau" sleeper appears to be a "Manor" car.  The "Chateau" cars have eight duplex roomettes, one drawing room (triple bedroom), three bedrooms, three sections and a shower.

  • Being a Canadian, and having followed Via since its inception, I think Via has lost its original mission, which was similar to Amtrak's- provide basic passenger rail service to the country. We rode the Canadian and Super Continental in 1980, and the trip was great, the service was better than average for the most part. But Via has made it prohibitive to even buy a coach seat. They used to somewhat compete with Greyhound. Plus most of my trips were Vancouver-Calgary, so that was nixed about 22 years ago. I don't disagree with the deluxe concept, but at the same time, Via, please serve the basic traveller that wants to get from point A to point B

  • My family has been planning a trip from the Toronto area to Vancouver, for a cruise to Alaska.  We thought that The Canadian would be a nice way to go, and see the Rockies up close.  I checked the schedule, and found that the train is scheduled to go through the mountains - some of Canada's most beautiful scenery at night.  If the schedule remains the same, why would anyone pay that amount of money to go through the mountains at night?

    No wonder the Canadian is in financial difficulties.  The view through the mountains is the major attraction of the trip, and if it can't be seen by daylight, why go?

  • Many of the comments on this blog dance around the issue of philosopy.  Philosophy of what government should provide to citizens and foreign customers in the way of passenger service.  The comments are generally thoughtful and thought-provoking.  As I have posted on other threads, passenger service does not make mney anywhere in the world.  That means someone or something must subsidize it if it is to continue in operation.  Everytime I have traveled on the Shinkansen or ICE, I have silently thanked my Japanese and German hosts for subsidizing my travel.  There are persons among us who would not provide any subsidy at all, and who state that any train that required a subsidy should be terminated.  That is a ligitimate view, whether I agree with it or not. There are others who choose to not think about the subsidy and where it comes from, also a legitimate view.  Canadians and U.S. citizens manage to live in open societies where those who "boss" the government and pay the taxes get to make their views known about such things as subsidies.  I am not aware that Japanese or German taxpayers were given a choice.

  • If VIA Rail will return the Canadian to the historic Canadian Pacific line west of Winnipeg and serve the Banff Springs Hotel and Lake Louise area again, it will most certainly become a success story!  The Canadian National route via Jasper just doesn't have the scenic beauty that the CPR route offers.  A combined Deluxe train and Hotel package would certainly help increase the revenues that VIA Rail expects to generate and provide luxury travel equal to none to Europe's Orient Express or Scotland's Royal Scotsman.

    In our Globalized World it will surely attract wealthy travellers from Europe, Russia and Asia alike.  I  certainly hope VIA Rail will consider the Canaidan Pacific routing.  They can only win with such a marketing program if they include Canada's first national park region as a stop-over option.  

    I'm surprised that Canadian Pacific hasn't considered a subsidiary set up as a Limited Corporation to promote luxury train travel along its lines up to now itself.  Sir William Cornelius Van Horne would be proud!  

Transformation of the Canadian