Canadian culture is pretty complex. Other than free universal healthcare, being polite, and milk in bags*, we have a lot of trouble putting our finger on what defines us as a nation.
This of course is exacerbated by the fact that our country is ridiculously huge (the second largest after Russia!) and as a result many Canadians have not thoroughly explored their home and native land.
Especially young Canadians.
Traveling in Canada isn’t exactly cheap. Gas is expensive, cars are expensive, getting a driver’s license in the first place is expensive… and it’s not like there’s a ton of options for public transit once you get out of the cities either. It should then come as no surprise that young Canadians, with our much higher student debt and generally lower purchasing power, are beyond elated when given the chance to explore the country on the cheap.
Via Rail was surprised.
For those who are unaware, Via Rail was offering a special promotion for Canada’s 150th birthday. For 150$, anyone between 12 and 25 could travel all across the Via Rail network, throughout the month of July, in seats normally priced at the Escape rate. The same pass typically goes for 700$, so this represented nearly a 80% price cut. Older students with ISIC cards were also eligible.
Canadians from coast to coast flooded the Via website until it crashed, just like we did with the 2016 Census, and the site continued to be unresponsive until tickets ran out. I had 16 browser tabs of the site open, on 2 computers, and set up an auto-redialer on my phone that called them over 1000 times, to no avail.
Despite my failed attempts, the dream of traversing the 49th parallel on the rails of the north was ignited! Destination: the biggest, most beautiful backyard!
However, in its stupor Via Rail didn’t respond too well to its sudden surge in popularity.
The year of Confederation.
The maximum number of Canada 150 Youth Passes that could be sold in order to ensure that everyone could access seats at the Escape rate, because other solutions such as converting Economy and Business seats to Escape rates, or adding cars to the trains, or extending the promotion period over more than just a single month are obviously impossible.
“Silly millennials!” – Via Rail probably
I feel like this whole campaign is simultaneously the best and the worst piece of marketing I’ve seen in a while.
On one hand:
- It managed to unite the nation’s youth in a viral and culturally resonating moment.
- It showed that people still want to travel by rail, and likely got a bunch of people interested in the idea.
- It sold out nearly instantly.
On the other:
- It exposed a total lack of preparedness, as the site crashed and Via added a ticket limit to their sale just hours after it started.
- It emphasized the fact that rail travel is generally ridiculously expensive in Canada.
- It insults our intelligence. I’ve taken the train before, and tons of seats are empty. Everyone I know who’s taken the train says the same thing. “Not enough seats” is an excuse.
- The Escape fare seats don’t include beds… or showers… which is kind of a problem if you want to go from Montreal to Vancouver within a reasonable amount of time without smelling like a swamp.
I’m kind of annoyed, but I still feel like every Canadian should take the train from Halifax to Vancouver (or the other way around), at least once in their life.
I think I’ll save up for the sleeper train first though 😉
*milk in bags is common in most of Canada, except the western provinces. This cultural void may or may not be filled with tumbleweed.