Transformation of the Canadian

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, November 2, 2012

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

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