I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘how can I dish out vague comment praise in the hope that my clunky spam link for Memphis Personal Injury Attorneys will slip through the net?’ But some of you might also be wondering where I’ve been, right? Well as this wee mini series of posts is about to bludgen you into realising with all the deft subtlety of an Acme anvil about the chops, I’ve been on a tour of eastern Canada. My journey around what one local tourism rep referred to as the ‘Axis of Tourism sans Niagara’ took in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec City over 12 nights.
I travelled by train naturally and stayed in 4 rather spiffing Fairmont Hotels, with le grand concept being to re-live the old fashioned glamour and romance of touring around this part of the world they way it used to be done, staying in the original hotels, built for the railways. My trip came about by winning the Montreal prize in the Weblog Travels Blogging Comp last year and was extended thanks to the largess of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Quebec Tourism, Via Rail and Fairmont Hotels.
Forthcoming posts will fill you in on my japes in each city but first off I wanted to report back on the journey itself. I’m a firm believer in the maxim that travel is as much about the journey as it is the destination, which should start the moment you step out of your front door. And rail travel generally makes this experience a pleasurable one to savour, or at least in comparison to flying or driving. I travelled business class with national operator Via Rail and am much relieved to say that more than lived up to this expectation.
What you get in Via Business Class
I should start by saying that I wouldn’t normally opt for business class and it would take a lot to persuade me that the additional investment is worth making on fairly short journeys, but then again a lot is what you get with Via.
On the 5 trains I took each had a single coach for business class (usually Coach 1) with sufficient luggage racks at each end and overhead lockers above each seat. Seats were broad and square (rather like those on Eurostar) with small adjustable, head cushions, a decent amount of leg room and reclined to a good enough angle for napping comfortably. Only 1 or 2 had proper tables to work at with most equipped instead with lap tables which retract into a slot between the two seats. Not a problem for me but it could annoy some business travellers who plan to work on larger laptops.
Staff I encountered were unfailingly polite and friendly, most helped us with our luggage and helpfully pointed out our coach. Many smiled and (whisper it) actually looked fairly happy doing their jobs. Those who took the escalator test passed it too. I suppose you want me to explain? Oh OK then. My partner’s epilepsy means that we need to avoid escalators when we travel, often the stairs or lifts are readily apparent but sometimes there may not be stairs or a regular passenger lift so we have to confuse staff by asking if there’s another way of getting down (most of the stations we used had subterranean platforms and concourses) usually by using the goods lift or what have you. It’s always a good test of how well the staff cope with a minor customer curve ball!
Food & Drink
Let’s not beat about the bush, this is the reason why you’re likely to plump for business class with Via. The on board catering is impressive, especially the lunch sitting. At this you can expect a four course meal including choice of bread, three imaginative main course options and after dinner chocolate, plus all the Canadian wine you can slosh away (no, me neither, but it was perfectly palatable). Oh yes plus soft drink upon departure and a bag of ‘Urban Mix’ spicy rice cracker type stuff. (What’s urban about it I have no idea, but thankfully I discovered no bits of pavement rubble.) We took 5 journeys in under 2 weeks and in that time only had one menu repeat. And it’s good quality food to boot.
I’m not much of a breakfast person but it struck me as less impressive. On one journey we had fairly carb heavy, traditional Canadian fry up fayre of bacon, hash brown with maple syrup, on the other a slightly odd combo of cheesy scrambled eggs, roast potatoes and boiled courgettes. A little heavy for 7.30am in my book!
Meals were served at our seats which was fine for these relatively short journeys but on a longer trip of maybe 8 hours or more I’d prefer to have access to a dining car.
Punctuality & Reliability
Obviously my experience here is limited to 5 journeys, but only one of these was delayed. Our Montreal to Toronto train was about 25 minutes late departing, apparently because of a delayed train coming from Vancouver, which made up some time en route, so that we arrived just 10 minutes late. Few rail operators cover journeys of this length in a country so big, so that’s pretty good going I think. None were delayed by the snow or ice, as they would inevitably be with the same conditions back home.
Via offer free Wi-Fi in Business class so naturally I gave it a whirl. I used an old Ipod touch to tweet for an hour or two and had no problems really. I think the signal dropped once but returned within a few minutes.
Panorama Lounges & Stations
Your ticket also gets you access to the stations’ Panorama lounges, where you can take advantage of free hot and cold drinks, comfy sofas and free newspapers. Some have massage chairs. This in itself is not much of a perk, there is nothing especially panoramic about them, in fact some are fairly gloomy places to sit and you might actually prefer to wait in the station concourses, which seemed very clean, safe with adequate seating, plus all the amenities provided in the connecting underground malls. The stations also seemed oddly quiet to me, especially for major cities like Montreal and Toronto. Perhaps domestic ridership is low during the winter months.
Fares & Value
To give you some context let’s look at the cost difference. Looking at the journeys I took at similar times of day it seems that a business class fare adds around $50 to the cheapest economy fare, sometimes doubling it. It’s worth noting that there are several levels of fare discounts for business fares too. Here’s a few examples:
Montreal – Toronto, April 22 2011 AM
Supersaver Economy fare: $107
Supersaver Business class fare: $155
Quebec City – Montreal, April 20 2011 AM
Economy Special fare: $50
Supersaver business: $95
Obviously train travel is seldom cheap in the west, and Canada’s no different, but for around £100 you can enjoy the same length of journey as say Edinburgh to London with all the comforts of first or business class for roughly the same cost as travelling in standard class here, pretty good value considering the excellent quality of service and food on board. When I return to Canada rail will definitely be my first choice. I’ll just have to keep hoping that they hurry up and build that transatlantic rail tunnel soon!