Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Train Beats Plane Between Toronto and Montreal
Thursday, May 31, 2018 -- It's the Orient Express minus the murders. VIA Rail business class between Toronto and Montreal may just be the road warrior's dream travel experience in North America.

Canada's version of the 440-mile U.S. Northeast Corridor is the 336-mile stretch between Toronto and Montreal, the vast nation's two largest metropolises. But Canadian business travelers have a much tastier rail, fly or drive option than Washington-to-Boston commuters.

Hard to imagine that a government-owned and operated railroad can deliver comfort and service that rivals private enterprise air travel on all fronts, even door-to-door speed. On a recent visit, I decided it made no logistical sense to fly between Toronto and Montreal since my meetings were in the central business districts of each town.

While Canada has no high-speed trains like those in Europe or Asia, our northern neighbors have a long and glorious history of passenger rail travel. VIA Rail, the successor to the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railroads, is the latest incarnation.

To try it out, I booked roundtrip business class passage between Toronto and Montreal, a five-hour trip each way. I paid a bit less than C$300, but it can be as low as C$270. My train departed from Toronto's centrally located Union Station at 9:20 a.m. although trains start running as early as 6 a.m. Boarding was a breeze: no lines, no security checkpoints, no hassles of any kind.

Air Canada flies that route 44 times a day with a scheduled flight time of one hour and 15 minutes airtime. (WestJet and Porter Airlines also compete between the two cities.) An advance-purchase roundtrip in coach starts around C$300 for stripped-down basic transportation. But that's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Business class on the same flight costs C$930 round trip. Add in ground transportation costs to and from the airports, security clearances and potential weather delays and downtown-to-downtown elapsed times tend to even out between the transport modes. But you save a lot of shoe leather and dough riding the rails.

In my opinion, VIA Rail's basic rail service outclasses Amtrak. Upgrade to business class and the differences are startling, even when compared to Acela, Amtrak's best service in the Northeast Corridor. For example, VIA's onboard staffers dress and comport themselves like airline cabin crews. On the roundtrip ride, I found them to be welcoming, attentive, responsive and not rigid or perfunctory in performing their routine duties. In my experience, Amtrak's employees seem to be under great pressure from their brass and the bean counters and their service and comportment suffers.

My VIA Rail experience was not without a glitch. I did not pay attention and missed VIA Rail's business class lounges at Toronto Union and Montreal Central stations. Lounge access--free with business class tickets--includes complimentary cocktails, canapés, WiFi, newspapers and comfortable seating. Via Rail's Web site clearly promotes it as a perk, but I was preoccupied and blew the opportunity to relax in semi-style before the trip.

The trip itself, however, was thoroughly relaxing and productive. The business class railcars are almost clubby, with woods and soothing colors. I didn't measure pitch and legroom, but seats were high, wide and handsome. They recline comfortably. It's not quite a private jet on steel wheels, but the messaging is clear: Go business class on VIA Rail and you are pampered.

On an evening train from Montreal to Toronto, a drink in elegant glassware was in my hand a few minutes after I settled in, before we even left the station. Then a smartly attired barman nudged his fully stocked rolling bar though the aisle taking drink orders and mixing them on the spot. He set the libation down on crisp linen covering a spacious table. And this was at my seat, not the dining car.

In fact, I didn't have to leave my comfortable surroundings to trek into a dining car to eat. Dinner was served at our seat, just as if we were in the skies. But it was more like fine dining then what you'll find in flight. (By the way, there is no dining car on VIA Rail's Toronto-to-Montreal runs. Dining cars are only used on transcontinental trains.)

VIA Rail business class meals rival business class cuisine on international airlines. Seafood appetizer, warm breads, a steak, fish or vegetarian option, dessert, the works. Excellent Canadian wines are poured nonstop. After the meals, cordials and Cognacs made their appearance on the trolley.

As we picked up speed, it struck me how smooth the ride was. Canada either pays careful attention to its trackage or the passenger cars are extraordinarily well-maintained. None of that clickity-clack, side-to-side jostling I've grown accustomed to on Amtrak trains.

VIA Rail has a frequent traveler program, VIA Preference, complete with elite levels, bonus earnings, early boarding privileges, free travel awards and priority meal selection. Calories aside, several members with whom I spoke are totally sold on the rail service over the airlines on the Toronto-to-Montreal run.

Chris Connor, sales director of a Toronto-based information management company, commutes twice weekly between the two cities. He's done the math on the time and costs incurred by the two travel modes and chooses VIA Rail.

"It's not even close," he explains. "Planes are delayed 25 percent to 30 percent of the time."

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.