As September rolled around, I prepared to celebrate one of those milestone birthdays - you know, the ones that our base 10 thinking tells us are more important than the year before or after – and I figured that I should try to do something significant to mark the occasion. Of course I quickly decided that the best way to do so would be on board a train; but which one?
After much deliberation, I decided that it would be most enjoyable on board the Ocean – my stand-by train, one that I’ve travelled on so often that it feels comfortable, like a second home (on rails). The plan would be to start off in Halifax on Friday, riding all the way to Montreal, then spending a few hours there before catching a Corridor train back to Quebec City. Then spend the night and next day in Quebec, leaving on Sunday night’s train from Ste-Foy.
This would make for a relaxed and train-heavy long weekend, would get me in to Gare du Palais for the first time, and would still allow for plenty of time to explore and enjoy the old city.
As an added bonus, the train in each direction would be operating with the “Mix” equipment that VIA has been running on one Ocean train all summer – mostly HEP, but with a block of Renaissance cars in the middle of the train (see the previous post for photos of this unique train). I had been very eager to ride this particular setup, so it made the trip even more exciting.
We departed from Halifax under sunny skies, but slightly cooler temperatures than are usual for this time of year. Hurricane Dorian had rolled through Halifax the previous weekend, causing full day delays to trains – we were glad it was well out of the way so as not to interfere with our trip!
Departure time was changed for the summer to 12:45 instead of the usual 1pm, to allow extra time to combine the train before departure, as the long summer consists had to be split to fit on the station platform. However, our train was all in one section – a HEP coach had been removed (coach traffic quiets down after school is back, while the sleepers stay busy with tourist traffic through October), so the train could now fit on the platform. When we departed, I noticed that an extension had been added to one platform to allow access to the baggage car on a slightly longer train.
Check in and the boarding call took place by around 12:20. As we headed out on to the platform, we noted the always impressive Queen Mary 2 in the background, making a Halifax call. It was a decent walk up to our sleeper, the very first of the HEP section, and then we boarded and got settled in to bedroom D of Chateau Rigaud.
|Mixed train in the station - the Renaissance block in the middle does really look rather incongruous with the rest.|
|The Ocean and the ocean liner.|
The consist follows:
VIA 15 – September 13, 2019
6409 F40 Locomotive
6456 F40 Locomotive
8622 HEP1 Baggage
8137 (03) HEP1 Coach
8140 (04) HEP1 Coach
8138 (05) HEP1 Coach
7601 Renaissance Transition Car
70217 (07) Renaissance Accessible Coach
7309 Renaissance Service Car7401 Renaissance Dining Car
7314 Renaissance Service Car
79515 (30) Renaissance Accessible Sleeper
7512 (31) Renaissance Sleeper
7602 Renaissance Transition Car
Chateau Rigaud (34) *Room D
Chateau Laval (35)
Chateau Montcalm (36)
Chateau Dollier (37)
Chateau Marquette (38)
Chateau Bienville (39)
Assiniboine Park (40)
*Line numbers in brackets. Bedrooms in several of the Chateau sleepers were refurbished. Note that the 30-31 numbering on the Ren sleepers is unusual, as the typical line numbering has 30 as the first sleeper and all others sequentially numbered down from 40 at the rear. The coach line numbering is also interesting – the accessible Ren coach has been kept as 07, and the other cars have been numbered from 03. The sequence was complete for much of the summer when a fourth HEP coach was included.
The mixed consist has created some challenges for the crew, working with two different types of equipment. One thing that hadn’t occurred to me before is that the PA systems don’t work between the two types of equipment. Normally, this means that separate announcements need to be made in the Park car. In this case, all on board announcements have to be made 3 times – once in the HEP coaches, once in the Renaissance block, and once in the HEP sleepers!
On walking through the train, I noted that the bedrooms and drawing rooms in several Chateau sleepers were refurbished. This was the case in Laval and Montcalm for sure, but Chateau Rigaud was entirely in its late-90s interior décor. As has been the case on other recent Chateau trips, the sleepers could clearly use some attention and proper refurbishment. Everything worked properly in our car, and the seats and beds were comfortable, but the upholstery is clearly wearing and the cars are looking and feeling old. Having said that, the ride in Rigaud was quite good.
|Partially refurbished drawing room in Chateau Montcalm - not our room, though I wish it were!|
|Refurbished seats in the drawing room of Chateau Montcalm. Several sleepers had this new upholstery and decor, while our car (Rigaud) still had the '90s era blue and pink.|
There was a decent crowd on board from Halifax, and we would pick up more along the way. Still, the train was far from full. This would very much not be the case on the return trip…
We departed “late”, but technically right on the planned departure time of 1pm. As we left town, I was amazed by the treatment we received from CN. Normally the Ocean has to stop to throw one switch heading in to the rock cut, and another near Fairview Jct – on this occasion both were already in the proper position, so we made good time out of downtown. CN 120 had already arrived at Rockingham, and the main was clear as we headed through. As we approached Milford, CN 511 (the Milford-Wright’s Cove gypsum train) was waiting at the mine as we blew past. Even more amazingly, before we reached Truro we *passed* CN 407 at Alton – the Dartmouth-Moncton train was running late ahead of us, so rather than forcing us to slow down and wait behind them as they got in to the Truro yard, they took the siding and let us overtake them. I could hardly believe it…so this is what passenger trains getting priority feels like!
|Departing under beautiful skies.|
|Passing CN 120 at Rockingham.|
|Containers at Rockingham, along the Bedford Basin.|
|CN 511 waiting at the Milford gypsum mine as we blast through.|
|In rather unusual fashion, we're the ones sailing past these autoracks - not the other way around!|
|Now that we've passed, CN 407 prepares to leave the siding at Alton to follow us towards Truro.|
One of the nice things about the Renaissance diners is the availability of 2-person tables, for folks travelling as couples. The other benefit is that the current catered meal service is much more efficiently prepared and served in a Renaissance diner than it is in a HEP diner (or Skyline, as we had in the spring!). Since HEP equipment has become a more regular feature substituting on the Ocean, VIA dropped the on-board cooking that they used to offer on Christmas extras, and has gone to catered meals at all times – so may as well have a Renaissance diner.
Lunch was quite decent. Photos cover the menu and contents, just missing a photo of the mille-feuille (see that in the return trip).
|Renaissance dining car - 4-seater side. Still loving the teal tablecloths, which were introduced a couple of years ago.|
|Salmon nicoise salad, served cold. Enjoyable, though the potatoes were a little odd.|
The late afternoon and evening were relaxed, and we continued to make good time. The views outside were lovely, and a surprising number of leaves had begun to change with the cooler temperatures.
|Quiet in the Park car dome. It would pick up in here shortly, when the first lunch sitting wrapped up, but would never become as busy as on the return trip.|
|Sun on the marshes, heading to New Brunswick.|
|Late afternoon sun on the Tantramar marsh - these views never get old.|
|Refuelling at Moncton.|
|Bogs in New Brunswick. Someday I'll spot a moose here. Someday...|
|Miramichi river sunset.|
|Miramichi river sunset, take 2 - bridge edition.|
|Smoked fish appetizer.|
|Honey pecan chicken - an excellent choice!|
|Chocolate caramel cake - this has been the defacto supper dessert on the Ocean for a while now. Not a bad option by any means, though I do kind of hope they change it up soon.|
The Park developed a quite lively social atmosphere that evening. There was no live musician, but someone put on a selection of Stan Rogers music through a small portable speaker, and a good sized crowd in the rear lounge seemed to be enjoying themselves wholeheartedly. Eventually we made our way back to the room for the night, where I slept reasonably soundly in the spacious and comfortable upper bunk.
Morning arrived with grey skies and a forecast of rain, and I wandered up for breakfast shortly before the last call. As usual, the breakfast in this direction was absolutely superb!
|Stylish breakfast menu.|
|Breakfast options - the french toast options are consistently good, though the eggs also tend to turn out well.|
|Banana bread french toast - superb!|
Arrival in Montreal was on time to the minute.
Heading upstairs, we dropped our bags off at the baggage counter for storage, and headed out to explore a bit of downtown Montreal. After a few hours out in the cool, slightly damp day, we returned to Gare Centrale to board VIA 624. This train was exceptionally busy, and there was a bit of confusion because of a last minute equipment change. Up until a few days earlier, that train was intended to be a mixed consist (LRC+HEP2) with two Business Class cars – we were to be in the second car, Car 91. A few days before the trip we got a notice that this had been changed; the consist would now be all HEP2, with only a single non-refurbished HEP2 club in Business Class service.
Given that the HEP2s are all being refurbished, I was glad to get at least one more chance to ride a club car with the old interior. The cars are 2+2, and while the layout isn’t nearly as nice as the refurbished cars (armrest tables are a particular drawback), the seats are considerably more comfortable.
|It hasn't been called VIA 1 for a long time now, but this iconic branding still graces the non-refurbished HEP2 club cars. I'll be sad to see that logo disappear.|
I foolishly didn’t get a consist for our train. We had P42 #915 leading, and the train was entirely HEP2s. With the exception of our club car, the rest of the HEP2s were refurbished with the new LRC style seats and 50/50 forward/back seating layout. They looked very nice from the outside, but I didn’t get a chance to tour inside.
The train was very busy, in large part due to a host of tour passengers heading to Quebec to board cruise ships. Because there were so many cruise passengers, many people had large suitcases. With no checked baggage service, luggage space on board was sparse. In our car, one bathroom was closed off to be used just for storing bags!
As this is an Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec train, we first had to back out from the station before heading forward across the Victoria bridge. After that the trip was quite uneventful, as many Corridor trains are. The Business Class service was excellent as usual, with a good meal and attentive service. The old HEP2 seats were comfortable, but the inconvenience of the armrest tables and more limited space did make a case for the benefits of the new interior layouts.
|Business class meal - cold option, thoroughly enjoyable, though the armrest mounted tables aren't ideal.|
|Views by Cap-Rouge - I didn't realize just how scenic the first bit of the line is once you leave Ste-Foy.|
|Refurbished HEP2 coach on our train. All of the coaches were refurbished, but not all were in the new scheme.|
The highlights of this trip were undoubtedly the run between Ste-Foy and Quebec, and the arrival at Gare du Palais. The turn at Cap Rouge is actually much more scenic (and tighter!) than I had realized it would be. Despite having left Montreal about 10 minutes late, we arrived at Quebec 11min early.
Gare du Palais is a beautiful station, but it’s also much smaller in person than I thought it would be. The best way I can think to describe it is that it looks like a scaled down version of an ornate, big city train station. It feels more quaint and homey than one might expect. I was thoroughly impressed, and am sad that I won’t have regular opportunities to use that station.
|Inside Gare du Palais. The platforms, ticket office and Business Class lounge are all off to the right.|
|Gare du Palais. Gorgeous!|
|Fountain outside Gare du Palais.|
|Sign for the shuttle to connect with the Ocean, inside the entrance to the station.|
|In the lower streets of old Quebec - a rare moment with a break in the crowds!|
|The Chateau Frontenac - a Quebec icon.|
|Views across the old city.|
On Sunday, we headed to the station in the morning to see about storing out bags for the day. Though we hadn’t booked it initially, we decided to book the shuttle that VIA offers from Quebec to Ste-Foy. Despite being described as a “shuttle”, it’s really just taxis to accommodate however many passengers there are. The convenience is that VIA makes the taxi arrangements, you can store bags for the day at Gare du Palais for no additional charge, and the taxis are timed to arrive at Ste-Foy a reasonable time ahead of the train’s departure. We were told to be back at the station by 8:30 at the latest, as they’d need to get everyone sorted and sent to Ste-Foy ahead of the ~10:30pm arrival of VIA 14.
After an excellent day, we arrived back at the station at 8:30 and picked up our bags from the ticket counter just as the first group of passengers was being ushered out to waiting taxis. We were told another two cabs would be coming for the remainder of us, and we could wait in the Business Lounge until then.