The lowdown on Prestige

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 17, 2016

Half a dozen years ago, the folks at Via Rail Canada asked what was needed to attract the 1 percent crowd to their flagship, the Toronto-to-Vancouver Canadian. That is, the 1 percent of us with the most money, who can have about any travel experience they want. Back then, they weren’t getting these people. Well then, they decided, let’s create something that will cost the big bucks but will leave people thinking they got something really impressive in exchange. Thus was born, in 2014, the Prestige class.

The reaction of railfans to Prestige has been mono-dimensional. Does this mean, they asked, we can’t ride in the Park car, the train’s signature sleeper, bar lounge, dome observation? Via’s people wrestled with this same question, veering this way and that, but finally concluded that making the Park car the exclusive playground of the Prestige customers wasn’t worth the fight. Besides, there always seems to be, in any season, room for everyone who wants to be there.

As for the Prestige class experience, I’ve been slowly tilting from disinterest to ambivalence to keen desire to experience it myself. And so I have, and on my own dime, no less.

Before I answer the question you all must be asking, let me describe what you get as a Prestige customer. Via took eight little-used Chateau-class sleepers and four Park-class observation cars and remade them into something rather unique in North American. Each of the Chateau cars has but six suites (plus a cubbyhole for the attendant, who usually sleeps in a vacant double bedroom elsewhere). Each Park car has one suite for the disabled and one other identical to those in the Chateau cars (in addition to the lounge, dome and so forth).

I carefully computed the size of each suite in square footage, then cluelessly threw away the paper that contained the numbers and gave away the book that contained the information the numbers are based on. But each suite is almost twice the size of a double bedroom. It has an enclosed bathroom and its own shower. Windows are supersized. By day, a leatherette divan runs across two sides of the room. By night, a full-size Murphy bed comes down, giving room enough to let two people play footsie. There’s a fridge that your attendant will stock with the booze and wine you desire. When you get bored, you can watch movies on the flat-screen monitor. In the Park car dome, the attendant will entertain you from time to time with stories about the train that are largely true. As with all the folks in the regular sleeping cars, your meals come with the ticket, and no two menus will ever be the same. Oh, lest I forget: When you check in, you get two taxi vouchers to take you to the restaurant of your choice and get you back to board the train that evening.

And what will impress Amtrak customers most of all, in four and a half days I heard not one single squeek signifying loose doors, appliances and so forth.

So, you’re dying to know: Is it worth $8,085 Canadian—approximately $6,200 U.S. when I made the booking—one way to enjoy all this? (Bear in mind that’s the price whether there is one of you in the room or two.) And my answer is silly boy, of course not. But doggone, it is one fine experience to enjoy. I lucked out and got the one regular suite in the Park car, and I’ve never been so genuflected toward in my life. The staff does everything but lay palm leaves on the floor in front of you. Would you like something to drink, Mr. Frailey, I’m asked in the dome? Your room made up? May we leave the rest of the bottle of that wine in your room? I wish I had asked, impromptu, for a locomotive ride; it would probably have been instantly arranged by the train director, the bosses in Montreal never being the wiser.

I asked every Via employee I saw how the Prestige service is selling, and the answer is, very well. It began with one Chateau car and is now at two, which is the maximum available during the warm season when the train runs triweekly. On my train, all 14 rooms were occupied. And based on my experiences aboard luxury cruises, I think Prestige patrons get an experience comparable to what the 1 percent would expect at sea—the whole thing seems very cruise-competitive, down even to the price.

The reason it wasn’t worth $8,085 to me is simply that I don’t ride this train for the soft downy pillows and obsequious treatment. I ride it to look at the mountains and prairie and lakes outside the train and the living, breathing freight railroad we share tracks with, Canadian National. I can enjoy both of these whether I ride Prestige or book a bargain-basement upper berth in the section part of a Manor-series sleeper (and by the way, the mattress in an upper berth is half again thicker than that on a Prestige bed).

All that said, I enjoyed the heck out of the Prestige experience. It was fun having all that room, all that attention but also all that privacy. I paid my way from my slush fund, which is composed of my earnings writing for Trains. I wish you were paid the big bucks, too, and could join me in Prestige on my next journey across that great country. Mr. Wrinn, please keep those nickels and dimes coming.—Fred W. Frailey

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