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Just Back: Lunch with Via Rail

December 9, 2010 By: Jena Tesse Fox

We just came back to our offices from a lunch with Ali Macaraeg (senior manager, sales & marketing – Americas) and Pierre Santoni (senior director, domestic and international sales) of Via Rail Canada, who brought us up to date on the latest from Canada’s major rail network.

The history of Canada is intertwined with its railway system, Macaraeg said, pointing out all the luxury resorts (and towns) that grew with the train tracks. The resorts couldn’t attract guests without a way to get there, and the trains needed a place to bring people. (Think the Fairmont Banff Springs, which was built between spring of 1887 and 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, a precursor to Via.) Tickets on sightseeing trains include one free stopover in any city along the line, even if the trip would normally only take a day. Jasper is the most popular stopover point, and Macaraeg said that it’s one of his favorite places: “It’s small, rustic, and there’s no McDonalds,” he quipped.

Santoni offered some specific numbers about Via’s business for this year: U.S. web sales are up more than 35 percent, and tour operator sales are up more than 50 percent. (Due to new legislation restricting visas from Mexico, however, Mexican sales are down 80 percent.) Three new stations are in the works, with more along the way, and the company is spending several million dollars to refurbish other existing stations. One billion dollars have been earmarked for the Toronto Union Station alone, which sees half of all Canadian train passengers pass through its walls.)

Sleeper cars and dining cars are also being refurbished to a classic art-deco style, and new luxury bedrooms are being designed for some upcoming sleepers. Nice touch for gourmands: As the cross-country trains pass through each province, the cuisine served on board changes to match the local fare.

Macaraeg said that he doesn’t believe Canada will ever get a long-haul high-speed train system due to the cost and the landscape. Santoni, for his part, said that a high-speed network is theoretically possible, but investments in the project should have been made 20 years ago if it were going to get going now. Still, Santoni argued, these trains are not for people who are in a hurry. It can take hours to fly between cities, but days to get there by train. “We’re not competing with the airlines,” he said. “This is a landcruise.”

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