Seniors on the Go: VIA Rail Canada raises the bar on rail accommodations

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VIA Rail Canada

The "Snow Train" crosses British Columbia to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies on an overnight journey. (VIA Rail Canada photo)

VIA Rail Canada's new "Prestige Class" sleeping cars will top all previous cars -- and anything on Amtrak, as well -- in providing the most comfortable and livable long-haul overnight rail accommodations. And the refurbished business-class cars for the busy Quebec to Windsor corridor will equal the best anywhere. That's the overall take-away from last week's press preview in Vancouver and a strong indication that, at least in Canada, rail retains an important niche in the overall transportation scheme.

For me, the highlight of the presentation -- to which VIA Rail invited me -- was the new overnight compartments. They're roomy enough to accommodate a double bed at night and a large L-shaped couch during the day. Each cabin has its own private washbasin and toilet, as well as a private shower. Windows are 60 percent larger than the conventional windows; the room includes a flat-screen TV and minibar. Cabins reminded me of a European river cruise boat: a bit smaller than the typical mega-liner cabin but still fully equipped for extended multi-day excursions. The only other comparable rail cars are on a few ultra-luxury tour trains, such as the Golden Eagle trans-Siberian and South Africa's Blue Train, that typically cost more than $1,000 per person per night.

These new cabins will be available in two types of car: a "Prestige" all-sleeper with six compartments and a "Prestige Park" car containing two compartments, one of which is fully accessible, and a lounge/bar area, plus upper-level vista dome seating. The rebuilt cars are based mainly on the original stainless-steel cars that the Budd Company built for the Canadian Pacific's "Canadian" transcontinental train and delivered in the mid-1950s, augmented by a few similar cars that VIA Rail acquired over the years. They've been refurbished and rebuilt several times over the last 60 years but will apparently go on for many more years to come.

VIA Rail plans to place the Prestige cars into service on its premier train: the transcontinental run, still named the "Canadian." The last official word I received is that service will start in the summer of 2015, with Prestige cars making the full four-night transcontinental trips. I've seen other reports, however, that VIA Rail might introduce them later this year on the key -- and most scenic -- overnight trip segment between Edmonton and Vancouver.

Pricing, says VIA Rail, will be about 35 percent higher than current prices for two-person compartments. All sleeper accommodations include all dining car meals, but Prestige Class will add wine and drinks and preferential dining car seating at no extra charge. Spokespersons at the Vancouver event stressed that, no matter what, and unlike other classes on VIA Rail, Prestige Class will not be discounted.

The new Prestige Class will provide a unique experience for year-round, top-end rail travel in North America. But you don't have to wait for Prestige Class to enjoy an outstanding long-haul rail journey. The current sleeper accommodations are great: Cabins for one, two, three, or four provide comfortable beds at night and roomy chairs during the day, built-in washstands and toilets, with a shower down the corridor. Budget-minded travelers can opt for the older upper/lower berth "section" accommodations that haven't changed much since George Pullman introduced the "Pioneer" car in 1865. The included dining car meals are outstanding, fresh-prepared and feature seasonal specials. Fares for the full four-night journey are highly seasonal; VIA Rail frequently puts them on "sale" at half-off and sometimes offers them at even lower prices as short-term, last-minute "express deals." The scenery -- especially in the Rockies between Jasper and Vancouver -- is terrific. And if you prefer to travel in eastern Canada, rail fans are enthusiastic about VIA Rail's overnight "Ocean" between Montreal and Halifax.

The other refurbished car on display was a business-class unit designed for the busy Quebec-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto-Windsor corridor. With one-two seating and lots of legroom, these cars will give the airlines stiff competition for the many business travelers to Canada's most important eastern cities.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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