“Via Rail/A More Human Way to Travel?”

By Robert K. Stephen on June 10, 2011

VIA’s slogan currently reads, “A More Human Way to Travel”. Is this true? I decided to test this a bit further on a recent Toronto to Montreal VIA 1 round trip.  A human way to travel means to be treated like a human as opposed to, well let’s say to be innovative, cattle…..you know serve those human needs with comfort, a smile, amenities, food and drink which by the way is the glue that keeps humans talking and interacting with each other wherever they may be! I have been treated humanely lately with Porter Airlines on my trip to cover the New York 2011 Wine Expo but can a train trip on VIA 1 deliver the goods? From a cost perspective VIA had a bit of a head start making me feel a bit more human with its price being half that of the major airlines albeit this was a very short notice booking. Can a 4 1/2 hour train trip rival a one hour flight? To start with there is no long check in when you travel VIA 1. There are no long security line ups. You are in the train fast and you leave it the same way unlike the airplane where there is a tortured queue to embark and disembark. You are saving time, aggravation and stress. Remember folks, time is not everything. Stress, stress and more stress with plane travel out of major airports. Shoes off, belt off, empty pockets, shoes back on, belt back on, fill up pockets, show passport (and for that matter private body parts in a scan) onto plane, wait on runway, wait to taxi to arrival gate…etc. so many tiring and aggravating steps! 

The VIA 1 Lounge in Toronto’s Union Station is far from impressive being dark and cavernous with only one washroom and its obvious consequence being a line-up. Unlike Porter’s airy, bright and cheery Toronto Island departure lounge (with more than adequate washroom space) there is no food to eat nor spring water to drink, just calorie laden pop and fruit juices with coffee and tea. The sink in the Toronto Panorama Lounge looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. The VIA1 Lounge in Montreal is better lit, perhaps too well lit reminding one of a hospital waiting room and again nothing to eat. At least the sink is clean but the ventilation system is rattling and only one bathroom with a waiting line.

The train leaves exactly on time from both Toronto and Montreal! The coach to Montreal is clean and comfortable despite its dowdy brown colour scheme. There is loads of legroom and a big fold out table to work and eat on. The return coach to Toronto is a dark green ancient cavern with grime encrusted windows and insufficient room for a laptop and the reading lights are not functioning.  A welcoming snack consists of the usual packaged crunchy type things. Full bar service follows. This is followed by more packaged snacks. The menu is then handed out and it’s looking pretty interesting and the fact you receive a menu so you can choose what you want to eat is better than a perfunctory mass airline response (assuming of course you get any food at all), “We have pasta and chicken tonight…oh sorry we are out of chicken”. The menu is collected after your choice is conveyed to the attendant and then another drink cart rolls by. Matters are indeed looking at bit more human. Here is the menu on the “to Montreal” trip;

Appetizer: Grilled Portobello Mushrooms with roasted red pepper coulis.

Main Courses: There are three choices;

1. Maple Butternut Squash Jumbo Ravioli served with béchamel sauce and roasted squash.

2. Roasted Tilapia served with shrimp and lobster sauce, green beans, Roma tomatoes and artichokes.

3. Pork Tenderloin stuffed with winter fruit served with roasted fingerling potatoes, asparagus and sweet bell pepper medley.

Dessert is Apricot Melba.

On the trip to Toronto the menu is as follows;

Appetizer: Tomato and Feta Cheese and Basil Olive dressing with fresh cucumbers and chopped black Kalamata olives.

Main Courses: The three choices are;

1. Baked Pasta Pinwheels stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and Asiago cheese and served with Alfredo and marinara sauces.

2. Grilled Atlantic Salmon served with Chardonnay cream sauce, olive oil and lemon, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, baby carrots and broccoli.

3. Grilled Madagascar Peppercorn Chicken Breast served with egg fettuccini, fresh broccoli flowerets and baby carrots.

Dessert is praline almond and raspberry cake.

 The food is free. The wine is free. The food is less tasty than the menu hints at. The “to Montreal” appetizer tastes a bit tinny. The main courses are a notch better than one would expect on a transatlantic economy flight on Air Canada or Air Transat although the salmon is dry and overcooked. The Peach Melba looks as if it has been prepared in a mass airline kitchen in some large non-descript North American airport. In fact it’s a bit frightening in all its red glory. The praline and almond cake is noveau inspiring and not bad. At least the food is a pleasant distraction. And oh the horrors of a tray left for half an hour with no room for the laptop exists on the train as with the plane. So given the food is not going to bring you back will the wine do so?

I had the Jackson-Triggs 2008 Black Reserve Merlot both coming and departing from Montreal, which in the pre-dinner bar service, was served in a plastic cup and a generous pour at that unlike the laughable thimbleful of wine Air Transat serves in its economy class on the flight I took with to Madrid last summer. It’s garnet in colour with aromas of nuts, rhubarb and mocha. On the palate some rhubarb, raisin pie, dark chocolate, charcoal and coffee. For a Merlot this has some pretty good traction on the palate and has medium length but after a bit its taste gets a bit tiresome. ( Jackson-Triggs  2008 Black Reserve Merlot, VQA Niagara Peninsula 750 mL, Robert Rating 86/100, LCBO #00109959, $13.95, tasted on board and at home and not available at the SAQ). The white wine, yet again, a Jackson-Triggs product being Sauvignon Blanc Black Series 2009 Sauvignon Blanc is pale gold in colour having none of the razor sharp acidity of a Loire Sauvignon Blanc or the tropical luminescence of a South Island Zealie and sits in the middle with aromas of pear and baby powder mixed with vanilla wafer cookies. There is acidity but it is unfocused and there just for the sake of it. Disciplined acidity is the hallmark of great Sauvignon Blancs. On the finish it flounders badly being decimated by the feta. A good sauvignon does wonders with feta. The slightly intriguing aroma saves this wine but it limps in with a very low score. (Jackson-Triggs 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Black Series, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 750mL, Windsor Square rating 80/100, LCBO 00058438, $13.95, tasted at home with a Greek Salad not available at the SAQ)

I spend a half hour talking to Akbar the “to Montreal” attendant after the dinner service. He tells me that VIA 1 is all about service. Just come on in and you’ll be taken care of he says. Lots of snacks, food, pre-dinner, during dinner and post dinner drinks with two rounds of chocolates thrown in. He says VIA 1 travellers are happy people. They pull out their laptops, have a nice meal, snooze or watch the world go by. In fact after VIA1 introduced a sale recently Akbar said many of the “Comfort Class” (love those names eh….like Air Canada’s Hospitality Class) now travel VIA1. You really have to see the logic here with low stress travel, lots of fancy sounding food, free flowing drinks and with service right to downtown you should consider VIA1. I can’t argue with Akbar on this point. The VIA 1 service (although not its food or wine) equals that of Air Canada’s executive class. So the food quite doesn’t deliver, the choices in wine  are limited but the happy laid back passengers and the sincere attempts a servicing are making some major airlines looking really quite pathetic with the “economy service”….moo! Remember fellow travellers when you fly those short haul flights (Porter Airlines excepted), no free food, no free wine and no time to do much of anything. With VIA 1 the passengers really do have looks of contentment on their face and a good many are very loyal repeat customers moving away from the mass airlines shake down for passenger’s wallets and change purses for a drink and food. Will the airlines ever realize how demeaning and hated their charge for food practices are? Check out VIA 1 prices against economy class on a Canadian airline on your next trip. Akbar and VIA1 are eager to convert you. I am not entirely convinced, given Porter Airline’s Toronto lounge which is far from a hospital waiting room in design and Porter’s service ethic. The dowdy VIA 1 Panorama Lounges and some of the coaches are a real turn off. But against Air Canada or West Jet I’ll certainly vote for VIA 1.


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