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What to expect riding Via Rail during Covid

Posted inCanada Travel Tips

Updated December 2022: Passengers are no longer required to be fully vaccinated to travel on Via Rail Trains. Masks are not mandatory – only encouraged. The biggest change is in seating – Via trains are now operating at full capacity with assigned seating. You will likely be seated next to another passenger; staff are pretty accommodating if you want to move to an empty seat.

I’ll be leaving this original post up as a snapshot of train travel during the pandemic circa summer 2021. The latest Via Rail covid policies can be found here. Bon voyage!

Are you thinking of travelling across Canada by Via Rail?

I’ve taken Via Rail trains four times since the pandemic started. And I’ve found that riding Via Rail during Covid is easy, pleasant, and safe.

In general, I prefer to take trains within Canada. I don’t drive. I get anxiety in airports. It’s easy to work on trains as you get from a to b. And I am happy to look out at rolling scenery of trees, rivers and lakes. During the pandemic, when international travel has been off the list, I’ve been grateful that Via Rail is an essential service. I’ve been able to visit my friend in London, Ontario, go skate the Ottawa Canal, and getaway to Montreal for the weekend.

Via Rail during Covid is different though. Here are some things you should know before you go.

Via Rail train in the Canadian rockies
Photo by Damien Dufour via Unsplash

Cancellation is easy and free

One thing that keeps people from booking travel at the best of times is worry that they will lose money if they need to cancel. Thankfully, Via train tickets are fully refundable right now. No cancellation fees. No questions asked. My friend and I bought tickets to Ottawa in the spring, and then Ontario extended lockdowns. No problem, we got all our money back in two clicks – there’s a link to cancel in every ticket, regardless of your fare class.

Note that Via stopped this flexible cancellation policy in May 2022.

Not everything is running

Via has reduced the number of trains running during the pandemic. So if you are used to travelling at a specific time or day of the week, you might need to be more flexible. For example, The Canadian, our famous 4-day Toronto to Vancouver train, is only running once weekly in each direction. But I’m not sure why you would take it right now anyway since the scenic dome cars and comfy lounges are still closed.

Riding Via Rail train wearing a mask
Train travel fashion, circa 2021

Masks are mandatory. And enforced.

The on-board announcement is very clear: if you do not wear your mask, and properly, you will get kicked off at the next stop. Maybe it’s the tone of voice. Maybe it’s that fact that it’s said in two languages. But it works. On Via Rail during Covid you must wear a mask on trains and in stations. Yes, you can take it off to eat or drink in your seat. Briefly. I have witnessed full compliance on all of my trips. Nobody trying to “sneak” having it down around their chin. Nobody using a bandana or face shield. Everyone acts like a grown up. Who doesn’t want to be kicked off a train.

Pack your own snacks

Yes, there is food for sale on Via Rail during Covid. But unless you’re travelling business class, which includes a meal you can pre-order to dietary preference/restrictions, you’ll be limited to what snacks are left on the cart when it finally gets to your seat, and I’ve found these pandemic trips have less than usual. If like me you’re vegetarian, you take your chances they’ll have anything you can eat at all. So I bring my own food. I also feel self-conscious about how long it takes to eat since you are not wearing a mask during that time.  Maybe try not to pack a three-course dinner. Oh, and depending on the route, they may or may not take cash, they may or may take all credit or debit cards. Check forms of payment before you go. Also note that alcohol sales have been suspended.

Sign in a Via Rail train station during covid 19

You’ll probably get two seats

While airlines went back to selling the middle seats on planes pretty quick, Via is still trying to make it so you don’t have to sit next to someone you’re not travelling with. They are limiting the number of seats sold, and theres no more reserved seats.

On every train I’ve taken during Covid it worked like this: board and pick any available window seat. The aisle seats are blocked off, to give more distance between staff and passengers walking through the aisles and seated travellers. If you are two to four people together, you can sit at the tables for four. I love this system and prefer it to a reserved seat anyway. Note that while this may be common, and implied, the free seat beside you is not guaranteed. Via Rail says “if you are travelling on one of our busier trains, you may be seated next to another passenger.” I have not seen this yet, I’ve only seen staff trying to accommodate everyone spread out.

The wi-fi is much better

Half the passengers equals less people logging on to the same Via Rail wi-fi network. In the past I’ve found the train wi-fi unreliable. Now, I could actually get work done the entire ride on these trips.

View from a Via Rail train in Quebec
At the end of my work day on-board, my view arriving in Montreal…

You will carry your own bags

Most people do this these days anyway. But you’ll be dragging your own luggage up and down any steps to the train yourself on Via Rail during Covid. Baggage assistance from staff is limited to those with disability or mobility issues. I travelled with an arm injury and should probably have requested assistance in advance because it was literally a pain to manage this on my own and I missed that extra helping hand. Related: there’s no checked baggage service on some routes including Quebec City – Windsor. And bad news for cyclists – they’re not taking bicycles on board.

Provincial border restrictions? Honour system.

Throughout the pandemic, different provinces have closed or restricted their borders to out-of-province travellers. Via doesn’t enforce or even ask about this when you’re buying tickets or crossing borders on their trains. They link to the guidelines and remind you of the rules but it’s your decision.

It’s crowded getting off

Every time we reached our destination, it seemed that everyone’s patience for social distancing disappeared. It’s like on planes when everyone stands up to get their overhead luggage even though you’re not going anywhere. What’s the freaking rush? Some folks will go line up near the exit as you approach the station. And nobody seems to notice or care that they are all of a sudden standing nose-to-tail for no good reason. If you want more elbow room just wait for them all to disembark and then grab your own luggage and go.

Liisa poses on the dome car of a Via Rail train
Throwback pic. Dome cars are closed right now but look how nice they are! Hope to get out West and see this view soon.

There’s still going to be that one annoying lady who overshares loudly on a business or family call for like an hour.

And she’s probably sitting right behind you. It’s nice to know that even during Covid times, some things never change.

Got a question for me about the Via trains during Covid? Comment below….

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