One can argue that Canada, as a single national entity, was created as much by the construction of the railways as by any Acts of the British parliament. These railways originally carried people as much as cargo and provided cultural as well as economic links between various parts of this vast country.
Alas, no more - or, nearly no more.
Nowadays, Via Rail deals with what's left of passenger services on the vast Canadian National rail network, used mostly for (and ruthlessly prioritising) freight trains.
Canadian Pacific, which originally opened the Rockies to the visitors, and arguably created tourism in Canada, has no passenger service left at all, with the Rocky Mountaineer tour company running an excursion operation between Vancouver, Banff, Calgary, Jasper and Whistler. This is sold in the form of packages, with hotel accommodation, meals and other add-ons justifying (Or not, as it might be) the huge price (three -four times as expensive as equivalent Via Rail service).
There is also The Northlander, between Toronto and Moosoonee, and a few heritage type excursion operators.
Via Rail is, however, main Canadian rail passenger company and most of this article will deal with their services.
In some areas of the country, notably the so called Toronto-Quebec corridor, which also covers Ottawa and Montreal, the Via Rail service resembles what most Europeans are used to, namely several trains per day, running at least at the speed comparable to driving.
On other routes it's a bit of a rump service run by a rump of a national railway company.
"The Canadian", Via Rail's flagship service, the train with a number 1, which runs cross-country and cross-continent (or almost) between Toronto and Vancouver used to be a daily service with two trains, one on each of the southern (via Calgary) and northern (via Edmonton) routes. There are now three trains a week, covering the northern route only. "The Canadian" is touted as one of the great railway journeys of the world, and, ultimately, and even with all the reservations it probably is, but more despite than because of what Via Rail does.
The other long-distance train is "The Ocean", from Montreal to Halifax, which takes around 20 hours (a he drive takes 14) and has a more modern feel, with new coach carriages (somehow hopefully called Renaissance) and seemed to be a popular service, quite busy both times we took the train.
On both these long distance routes (and to some extent on the shorter Corridor services too) Via Rail operates a bit like an airline: there is boarding time which is usually 30 minutes, and often an hour before the train departs; luggage needs to be checked in (and it needs to happen an hour before the train departs, at last at the stations where there is a longer layover or where the train starts or terminates, and so on. This means that the whole process has a more relaxed feel (you don't end up running for the train 2 minutes after departure time) but it also tends to lose advantages it has over the air travel. Via Rail tends to market its services as a "more humane way to travel" and on many levels it is: the trains (at least the long distance ones, we only experienced one shorter service so I can't comment here) are comfortable, with lots (and I mean lots) of leg-room, ability to recline quite far back, plenty of space for cabin luggage and, in the stainless steel carriages that date to the 50's, footrests. Small (air plane style) pillow and a blanket are provided for those travelling in the night in the economy class.
Most carriages (at least on The Canadian) are sleepers, with two options that vary by the level of privacy but are both vastly more expensive than the economy seats. And by vastly, I mean just that: in Europe, sleepers or couchettes normally incur a supplement that is less than a price of the actual travel ticket. On Via Rail trains, the difference in price between economy seats (commonly referred to as "Coach") and both the sleeper classes is as high as a factor of three. For that, you get a pretty wide berth (and a child is allowed to share a parent's one) as well as all meals (and the restaurant on The Canadian at least is pretty reasonable) included.
All passengers get an access to the Dome car, one with an observation deck an windows that extend up and around - this is particularly good in the mountains, as it allows for viewing on both sides without jumping from one row of seats to the other.
In addition to the Ocean, Canadian and Corridor trains, Via Rail operate an infrequent service to Gaspe in Quebec, a workaday train from Montreal to Seneterre and Jonquerre (also in Quebec) and a summer service between Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert in the northern part f the Rockies and the British Columbia. Finally, there is also the strange train, running three times a week, that links Winnipeg and Churchill on the shores of the Hudson Bay. This is the only train line in Canada that is almost exclusively passenger and actually provides the only land access to parts of the country not accessible by road.
Via Rail sells its tickets online, over the phone and at the stations. I found the people that staff their call centres helpful, friendly and service orientated, while the ground staff at the stations where very often stand-offish, a bit gruff if not to say downright rude and not that helpful at all.
Staff on board train were all (and we met many different crews) great, from the service managers to the stewards and the restaurant staff, they were all good humoured, friendly and helpful.
The prices of Via Rail tickets can easily compete with the Greyhound prices, though to achieve that tickets need to be bought in advance (at least a week in advance for the Super Saver fares). The comfort of the ride is definitely better, but the choice of times and routes, and at least on some routes, the speed, are worse.
All in all, travelling by train in Canada is still possible and certainly quite enjoyable, but the existing service is a sad shadow of its former self. It's hard to think of a better way to cross the vast interior of the country and the continent while seeing what one is crossing in the process, although one needs to either have a lot of money to pay for the berths, or break the journey a few times if travelling in economy seats. The biggest failure is the low frequency of the trains, which means that some parts of the country are always covered by night - notably most of Quebec on the Ocean, a significant part of the Canadian Shield and the scenic ride between Kamloops and Vancouver on the Canadian.