California Zephyr vs. The Canadian

I have received emails from two different readers, each wanting to know how the California Zephyr compares to VIA Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian. I’ve traveled on both trains multiple times, and both have much to offer.

The Zephyr is a two-night trip from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area; the Canadian now takes three nights to complete its journey between Toronto and Vancouver.

The scenery is a little more varied on the Zephyr’s route with farmland, plains, mountains and desert. There’s farmland and fields of grain on the Canadian’s route and a lot of wilderness. But while the Rockies and the Sierras on the Zephyr’s route are certainly imposing, the Canadian Rockies are even more impressive. That said, on both routes, Mother Nature is the star.

With snow-capped peaks now visible, the westbound Canadian, skirts a lake. Jasper,Alberta, is 30 minutes up ahead.

Both trains make a lot of stops—35 for the Zephyr, about 60 for the Canadian, including a number of “flag stops” where the train only stops by pre- arrangement.

The Zephyr uses bi-level Superliner coaches and sleeping cars; the Canadian uses rebuilt classic stainless steel single-level coaches and sleepers.

The Zephyr features a standard bi-level Superliner dining car—tables for four on the upper level, food preparation below. Several choices on the menu for each meal, but the menu only changes every 90 days and is the same in dining cars on almost all of Amtrak’s overnight trains. Meals are included in sleeping car fares; in non-pandemic times, coach passengers are welcome in he diner, but must pay for their meals. 

The Canadian’s dining car is single-level divided into two-thirds seating and one third food preparation. Dining car meals are included in fares paid by sleeping car passengers. The menu has fewer choices for each individual meal, but offerings change each day. Food preparation and presentation are of good restaurant quality.

The Zephyr consist includes a Sightseer Lounge car, with booths and seating on the upper level for viewing in the plexiglass dome; drinks and sandwiches and beverages are available from a snack bar on the lower level

The last car on the Canadian is always the round-ended lounge car that features an upper level plexiglass dome for viewing and two separate lounge areas, one with tables and bar service. Each of these beauties is named for one of Canada’s national parks and is for sleeping car passengers only.

A final bit of advice: If you have a choice, take the Zephyr westbound from Chicago so the spectacular climb up into the Rockies out of Denver will be during daylight hours. Likewise, I prefer the westbound Canadian  because the scenery keeps getting better the farther west you go.

Bottom line: both of these trains are well worth the time and money.