Canadian Travel Series: Riding The Rails In VIA Business Class
I've always loved travelling by train - I find it relaxing in a way air travel just can't match - and in a career with a lot of travel on the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, I find it's often a less-expensive, more-convenient alternative to flying. So, on a recent business trip between all three cities, I took the opportunity to pull together photos and a detailed explanation of what you can expect when using VIA Rail to get around this part of Canada.
First of all, some background: Canada's quite different from most other developed nations when it comes to rail travel, because our population is thinly spread out along a border spanning over 5,000 km. VIA runs a long-haul, multi-day sleeper train that runs the whole width of the country, but almost all the city-to-city commuter rail is limited to the central area known as the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor. In this densely-populated area, VIA Rail runs medium-speed trains only; high-speed rail is often proposed, but even if they started building right now we'd be lucky to see it by 2030.
Home to roughly 15 million people, this is also one of the highest-volume commuter-air markets in North America; before COVID, Air Canada, Westjet and Porter each ran dozens of non-stop flights a day on the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal triangle.
With this in mind, VIA Rail markets itself hard as a commuter option for business travellers, and focuses its message on convincing business travellers that taking the train is nearly as fast, more enjoyable and offers far more productive working time than schlepping out to the airport, clearing security, waiting to board, taxiing and then getting forty minutes of work done before it's time to return tray tables to the upright-and-locked position.
In practice, they deliver on a lot of this, but not all. In all three cities, the train stations are located closer to downtown than the airports are; rail travel doesn't require airport-style security screening, and aside from the 5-10 minute boarding process from lounge to train, you can be seated and working throughout the entire trip. Timing-wise, the train is honestly faster downtown-to-downtown than flying, when travelling between Ottawa and Montreal; I've found it to be about even on Ottawa-Toronto, and slightly slower for Montreal-Toronto, but exactly as VIA claims, a lot more of the time is productive on a train.
On its commuter trains, VIA offers Economy and Business classes similar to airline seating, but with more space at each seat. Very much unlike airlines, VIA's Business fares don't cost much more than Economy; on a sample trip from Montreal to Toronto next month, Economy and Business fares start at $49 or $121, respectively, while Air Canada or Westjet each want $105 and $385, respectively.
The difference is much wider for last-minute tickets; a VIA Business fare for Montreal-Toronto leaving tomorrow morning will still only run you $200-250, while Air Canada's Business fares for the same time-frame *start* at $1,100.
Given the small cost difference, and my height, I'll pay the small premium for VIA Business pretty much every time, but on this summer's trips I collected photos of both Business and Economy seating for comparison, starting with Business class shown here:
Seating is allocated by party size; if I'm travelling alone, I'm able to call VIA and request a single seat with an airline-style table tray, shown in the first photo at left; when we travel as a group of two, three or four, we're generally able to request group seating around a shared table, which is great for turning a train ride into productive meeting time, but... also means your train ride might turn into a 4-hour meeting. Don't say I didn't warn you!
Next, we have the Economy cabin; certainly smaller, but still a huge improvement over any Economy airline seat I've ever encountered.
In both cabins, seating is reasonably modern and comfortable; not as nice as you'll find on a brand-new Air Canada Airbus 220, but miles ahead of what's offered on a 20-year-old Air Canada Airbus *3*20.
While the lounges at Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa have all seen capacity and service reduced by COVID, all three offer comfortable seating as well as complimentary WiFi, soft drinks and coffee. You'll find none of the at-your-seat catering offered in a Maple Leaf Lounge, but to be fair, there's also really no such thing as a four-hour layover either, so we'll call it a wash.
As you might expect, VIA's Business Class fares are fully catered, including hot meals and a decent selection of beer, wine and soft drinks. Shown here, two different meals from a recent trip. It's roughly the kind of catering you'd expect to find on any major airline, though from past experience VIA is sticking to the pre-wrapped elements as a COVID precaution rather than just lazy service, and fair enough.
I've found the wine selection to be a bit hit-and-miss; on today's trip, they were pouring from bottles of reasonably-well-known Canadian wines, while on a previous trip we were offered only single-serving bottles of Dan Aykroyd-branded cabernet merlot that was... definitely made from grapes of some kind.
Back in Economy, catering is not included, but there's a buy-on-board service similar to what you'd find onboard most airlines, at fairly reasonable prices:
VIA leans hard on the idea that you can be seated and working productively throughout your rail journey. Having travelled with them off and on for years, and frequently in the past six months, I have to say that this claim only rings half-true; while it's great not to burn time waiting for airport security, waiting to board an aircraft, waiting to take off etc, VIA's onboard WiFi is so consistently inconsistent that I've given up using it altogether. I still get work done, but rather than lose connection every five minutes on VIA's WiFi, I simply tether to my phone, which never cuts out, but also runs the risk of racking up hefty data charges.
This is normally the part where I do some version of "to be fair...", but there's nothing to defend here. VIA's just plain dropping the ball on this, and they've had years to get it right. Meanwhile, we're years past the point where it became possible to work productively on WiFi on a Dreamliner six miles above the South China Sea, so I'm sort of past hearing excuses about "service areas".
VIA's service is professional, friendly and comfortable, the food's decent, and the whole offering is undeniably convenient, but VIA's overall offering to the business traveller simply shoots itself in the foot until they manage to start delivering solid, stable WiFi throughout a two-hour train ride.
I'll continue to choose them over Air Canada or Westjet, particularly on Ottawa-Montreal, but I'm never going to be entirely happy with it until my cellular provider doesn't have to take over delivery of a service VIA promised, at my expense.