Canadian vs. Coast Starlight: Which is the better train?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I began toying with this thorny question yesterday, presuming my own conclusion about the two long-distance trains I have ridden most recently. The more I thought about it, however, the less certain I became about the outcome. So follow along, and let’s see where our thoughts lead us. I will use eight criteria. Feel free to add your own, and please chime in.
Esthetics. Hands down, this goes to the Canadian. To step inside this immaculate, 56-year-old equipment is to walk into a time machine. To watch the train round a curve from the rear dome is breathtaking. Against that, the Coast Starlight is just another Superliner train. Esthetics are an intangible. Maybe they don’t matter to you. They do to me.
Scheduling and passenger convenience. The Coast Starlight wins this one. The Canadian’s schedule was lengthened from three nights to four nights out a couple of years ago simply to add more recovery time. Frankly, that’s one night too many. VIA Rail should have argued harder with host railroad Canadian National to operate the train more reliably on its former schedule. The Starlight is scheduled to serve Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle at convenient hours. There’s not much about it that I would change, even if I could.
Food. If you simply compare dining car menus, the Canadian offers more variety, with lunch and dinner entrees that change daily. But the Starlight offers sleeping car passengers a similar cuisine in the Pacific Parlour Car that is every bit as delicious. And at the most basic level, the Starlight wins the hamburger test. Its hamburger is a classic rendition of the ageless American sandwich. The Canadian’s “angus burger” is . . . how do I begin? Let me just say that if you call it a “burger” but the customer can’t pick it up and eat it, you ought to call it something else. Bottom line: I declare a tie in the Kitchen Department.
Scenery. I’m going to give it to the Coast Starlight. The Canadian goes around the mountains more than it goes through them. Personally, I like to see the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but I guess my tastes are unusual. And the lake country of Northern Ontario bores me after eight hours. In contrast, the Coast Starlight is a scenic delight almost from one end of its journey to the other.
Cost. I comparison-priced a double bedroom on the Canadian to a deluxe bedroom on the Starlight, based on the same departure date in early November, and then calculated a cost per mile. For the Canadian, the price comes to 94 cents a mile in Canadian dollars for a refundable ticket, and 86 cents for a discounted ticket. The Coast Starlight costs (are you ready for this?) 33 cents per mile. When you price the Canadian in U.S. dollars, the cost difference is even more striking. You get way more bang for your buck on the Starlight.
Hospitality. Amtrak’s long distance trains need on-board service directors. The Canadian has them, and I think it makes all the difference in the attitude of employees to those they are paid to serve. To put it another way, graciousness, courtesy, and service with a smile is luck-of-the-draw on the Starlight, but what everyone gets on the Canadian.
Comfort. Have you ever seen the mattress used on the open-section berths of the Canadian? And, oh, those pillows. You could think you are in your own bed at home. Mattresses in the bedrooms are almost as comfortable. Compare them to the slender slab that Amtrak calls a mattress in its Superliner cars. You may as well sleep on the floor. The Canadian provides a comforter at bedtime, the Coast Starlight a threadbare blanket. There are other ways to measure comfort. How many places can you go to relax onboard, other than your room? On the Canadian, any one of the four dome cars on this train and the glass-roofed lounge that shuttles between Vancouver and Edmonton, Alta. On the Starlight, either the Sightseer Lounge or the Pacific Parlour Car. The Canadian is the clear comfort winner.

Railroading. What makes a train so enjoyable to me is the chance it provides to watch a railroad at work. You can do so far easier on the Canadian. You encounter far more Canadian National freight trains on the Canadian than you do Union Pacific or BNSF Railway freights on the Coast Starlight. As for where you watch a railroad at work, what can compare to a Budd-built dome car? The answer is, nothing can.
And the winner is . . . . The Canadian, but by a hair. By my criteria, it is superior in four categories, the Starlight in three, and the two trains tie for food. There are some things about both services that neither Amtrak nor VIA Rail can change. You cannot move the Cascades to Saskatchewan, for instance, or bring back to Amtrak trains the dome cars it so casually retired many years ago. But just improving the quality of on-board service a little bit, perhaps through better supervision (and thicker mattresses), could make the Coast Starlight a clear winner, in my opinion.
But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours? — Fred W. Frailey

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