Monday, 6 May 2019

A weekend in Montreal, and another Stainless Ocean




Silver and blue has once again become a common sight on the Ocean. Our train clips along at Oxford Jct. Photo by David Morris.

At the end of March my partner and I were headed up to Montreal for a Saturday night concert. Coming from Halifax, a Saturday night event works perfectly with VIA Rail’s current Ocean schedule (one of the few things that is convenient under the post-2012 3/week schedule). The train leaves Halifax Friday afternoon, arriving in Montreal at 10am on Saturday. Then the return trip is Sunday evening, getting you back to Halifax by supper time on Monday. You couldn’t plan it much better than that, and at this time of year, when driving or flying can be unreliable (an April 9th snow storm in Halifax this year was a good reminder of that!), the train is a pretty reliable option.

After Christmas, one set of HEP (Budd-built stainless steel) equipment had stayed on the Ocean until early February. Unlike previous winters, the substitution did actually end then rather than being extended out until nearer the peak season. Even if it had been extended, I realized that it would be on the opposite rotation and our train in both directions would be Renaissance. Ah well – as I discussed in my last report, the Renaissance equipment does have a lot of features I like, so it would still be a pleasant trip.

Much to my surprise, another unexpected incident just over a week before our trip changed all of that. On March 20th, VIA #15 had left Truro and was up to track speed near Belmont NS, when they collided with “debris” on the tracks. It turned out that a CN work crew was preparing for rail replacement along that section of track, and had laid down piles of tie plates (heavy, metal plates that sit between the ties and rails, and through which the spikes that hold the rails in place are driven) *between the rails*. This is not historically standard practice – tie plates are usually laid down outside of the rails, where they can be picked up by track work equipment but cause no potential issues for trains running over them. Apparently CN changed this practice recently. One VIA crew member suggested it was to try to make it harder for potential vandals or thieves to see the piles of metal while they were waiting to be installed. Whatever the reason, it turns out this practice was not without its issues.

Earlier in the year a VIA Rail corridor train near Brighton ON struck similar “debris”, which ruptured the locomotive’s fuel tank, broke passenger car windows, and nearly hit a CN employee who was nearby at the time. The cause was ultimately revealed to be tie plates, similarly stacked between the rails, which were lifted up and thrown around by the forces of the fast passenger train passing over top.

In the case of the Ocean at Belmont, the tie plates caused extensive damage to the train. There was no derailment and fortunately no injuries, but the second locomotive’s fuel tank was ruptured and spilled fuel, windows were apparently broken on one car, and there was extensive underbody damage along the entire length of the train. Cables were ripped out, air lines were damaged, and water tanks were ruptured. Passengers were ultimately evacuated and bussed, with the train cancelled from that point onwards. It would take several days before the train could be repaired enough to even move it back to Montreal.

With one Renaissance set out of service, VIA had to act quickly to ensure that the following day’s #14 could leave from Montreal. A set of Budd/HEP equipment was hastily pulled together, using mostly cars that had been on the substitution at Christmas and through January. This train left Montreal on the evening of March 22nd, and it quickly became apparent that it would be staying on the Ocean for a while.

So what did all of this mean for our trip? Well, it meant that our previously scheduled Renaissance trip would now be HEP equipment in both directions! I certainly wasn’t going to complain, though I must admit that I’m starting to be a little baffled by my record of ending up with HEP substitutions!

We had already booked in Renaissance sleeping car accommodations in both directions, so the substitution now meant that we would be re-assigned to HEP accommodations. These substitutions can be complicated – Renaissance cars have only bedrooms (“Cabin for 2”), while HEP sleepers (in this case Chateaus) have only three bedrooms, a drawing room (“Cabin for 3”), roomettes (“Cabin for 1”) and upper and lower berths. VIA generally tries to re-accommodate people to bedrooms (hence why I’ve ended up solo in HEP bedrooms on a couple of my previous trips), but they also usually fill the drawing rooms as well with some couples with existing bookings.

Much to my surprise and excitement, I discovered that for #15 we had been re-assigned to Car 38 Room A, the drawing room of Chateau Dollier! For those not familiar with these rooms, they are the largest rooms in the classic Budd-built HEP equipment. Chateau sleepers and Park cars (as originally built) each have one per car. The day time setup features two chairs and a large sofa, with the largest window of any traditional sleeping car room VIA offers (the new Prestige cars on the Canadian have larger windows). At night, the sofa folds down to form one bed and two bunks lower in front of the window, running in the direction of travel. When occupied by only two passengers, the two lower bunks can be lowered meaning that nobody has to climb a ladder to bed. Photos and more details will follow as we get to that part of the trip.

On the way back we would just have a standard bedroom, though we ended up with the best one in the Chateaus – Room B, which is perfectly centered in the car and has solid walls on either side, offering slightly better soundproofing than rooms C and D.

So with all of that context, let’s move on to the trip itself! On a chilly and overcast March 29th we made our way to the station. No bags to check on this short trip, but we did need to pick up tickets. Upon arrival we noticed the station was very quiet, not surprising for this time of year. As we took our new tickets and checked in at the sleeper check-in counter, we discovered that the load was very light – only 6 passengers in the sleepers leaving Halifax, and only 13 in coach! We would of course pick up plenty more people along the way, but this highlighted that we really were in the midst of one of the quietest travel times of the year.

Our train awaits!
Heading out to the platform we saw our silver and blue train awaiting us. A much more compact version of the train I rode at Christmas. The one extremely unique feature of this particular train was that just like its massive Christmas counterpart, it featured 3 domes – but no dining car! VIA has a shortage of dining cars at the moment, with some off to RailGD for refurbishment, and others out of service due to maintenance issues. So there wasn’t one available to add to this train. Fortunately there is another option, which actually works very well on quiet off-season trains – the Skyline car.

When VIA inherited the Skylines from CP, they were set up with a lounge in the short end and coach seating in the long end. VIA ultimately reconfigured these with a café area in the long end, with six four-seater tables. They reconfigured the space under the dome to add a galley to provide takeout snack service for coach passengers, and the small kitchen that once served the "coffee shop" could be used to cook and prepare meals. They also turned the seats in the domes so the cars could operate with the café section at the rear, facing the sleeping cars. The idea with this setup was that it could be used on the Canadian and other trains in the off-season, allowing them to use it in place of running a full dining car.

At Christmas time the second Skyline on the Ocean was used as overflow space in addition to the dining car, on account of the enormous passenger load on at least one train leaving Montreal. On this trip it would be the sole provider of meal service, acting in place of a full diner just the way it was intended to be used. With light passenger loads the lower capacity wouldn’t be a major issue.

Here’s the consist for our train leaving Halifax. Keen eyed observers who’ve followed my blog may note that a lot of this equipment was on the massive Christmas Budd set from a few months ago.

VIA 15 – March 29, 2018


6448 F40 Locomotive
6453 F40 Locomotive
8622 HEP1 Baggage
8137 (03) HEP1 Coach
8138 (04) HEP1 Coach
8516 Skyline Dome (Economy Service)
8501 Skyline Dome (Dining Car Service)
Chateau Laval (36)
Chateau Brulé  (37)
Chateau Dollier (38) *Room A
Chateau Bienville (39)
Assiniboine Park (40)


*Line numbers in brackets. None of the cars on this train were refurbished.


We boarded the train and made our way into our enormous room. There really is nothing else on the train that quite compares to a Chateau drawing room, especially when travelling with only two passengers. I had previously travelled in one with two others, and it was very comfortable for three – but for two it was just downright luxurious.


Here are some photos of the day time setup.

 

A Chateau drawing room, with its unmistakable pink wallpaper still (mostly) intact. On the left is the door to the hallway. Next to that is the large closet, and to the right is the door to the en-suite toilet, followed by the vanity and sink.
Looking in to the en-suite - compact, but still plenty of room.

The large closet, with plenty of space for coats and bags.

Next to the couch is another surprisingly spacious cabinet, with space for shoes or boots, or anything you might like.

The sofa, with ample space for two or three people.

In addition to the sofa there are two moveable chairs.
Another perk of the drawing room is the enormous window - almost the size of a full coach window, and the largest in any sleeping car room by a substantial margin.
At check-in we were informed that there would be no formal sittings for lunch – we were told to go when we were hungry, and there would ultimately be a last call. As we got underway there was an announcement that coach passengers were welcome to come for meals, they just needed to ask the coach attendant to make a reservation. There were at least several coach passengers who took advantage of this in either direction on our trip.

As the train started moving from Halifax right on time at 1pm, we headed straight to the Skyline to have our lunch. Despite having a small kitchen, the meals were still the usual catered provisions used on the Renaissance trains. As those who’ve followed my postings will know, these meals are routinely excellent, and not at all what many would expect from pre-prepared affairs. The presentation obviously helps, and there is always something to be said for the atmosphere of enjoying a meal on the train – even if not in a full dining car! Lunch was very enjoyable, and I’ll let the photos (and captions) speak to that.

 

Skyline tables, set for lunch.

The Skyline café decked out as the diner. The teal tablecloths work quite well with the pink and light green colours on the chairs. This is looking forward, so the small kitchen is just ahead, accessed by the hallway that swings to the left.

Looking to the back. The Skyline only has 6 tables, so capacity is more limited than a full diner. Perfectly adequate for a quiet train like this.

This is the small kitchen/galley underneath the dome in the Skyline. VIA is still using the Ocean's normal catered meals, which just need to be reheated and plated, so most of this kitchen wasn't being put to use. Meal service was slower than usual, as the oven can only heat so many meals at once.
Fish chowder. This has been moved to the lunch menu, after having been a dinner staple for years.

I neglected to photograph the menu for this lunch, but I believe this was branded as a chicken "schnitzel". The sort of pickled potato salad was odd, but the rest was lovely.

A maple cake, for dessert.
We made excellent time through the afternoon, and picked up more people along the way. We had stops at Truro, Springhill Junction (a rarity!) and Amherst, but rolled right through Sackville. We were early by Moncton, where we made our normal long stop for re-supply, re-fueling, and a stretch and smoke break for those on board. We spent much of the afternoon in the Park car dome, enjoying the view as we snaked along through the varying Nova Scotia landscape and into New Brunswick.

 

The Park car's bullet lounge, with selection of teas and fruit.

The mural lounge below the Park car dome. A comfy place to relax.

Up into the dome.
Our train arrives at Amherst, with a group of passengers waiting to board. Photo by David Morris.

Our train at Amherst. We were in the Park car at this point, and I was in the bullet lounge as I noticed David taking this photo - but I can't quite see myself here! Photo by David Morris.
Leaving Amherst, we duck under the Trans-Canada highway and head out onto the marshes.

Straightening out on the marsh.

This curve, as we come to parallel the highway, is always a highlight of this part of the trip. Unfortunately the gloomy March day didn't make for the most exciting photo.

Looking across the Tantramar marsh, with its always captivating mudflats.

Ice scour and the strong tidal action make for some fascinating mud formations.

This mud landscape always looks interesting at low tide, and never quite the same.

Refuelling as more passengers board at Moncton. The snow melt made for a sizeable puddle to jump across...

Double domes at Moncton.




Waiting for departure at Moncton.

The new Avenir Centre has really changed the landscape around the station.

I enjoyed this - the French translation of VIA's "The Future is on Board" slogan seems particularly well suited here, as the banner speaking to "l'avenir" shares the frame with Moncton's Avenir Centre.
The snow pile nearly obscures the VIA sign at Miramichi. Halifax had surprisingly little snow through this winter, but the same could not be said for northern New Brunswick!

There were three sittings for dinner. This was a bit unusual for this time of year, but no doubt had to do with the limited capacity of the Skyline café. It was still a small crowd, but by Moncton there were plenty more people on board. Sittings were at 5:30, 7, and 8:30pm. We initially planned to go for 7pm, but upon realizing it was quite full (as were we, after a good lunch earlier!), we decided to wait for the 8:30 sitting. Only a few others were there for that sitting.


Just like lunch, supper was very enjoyable.

 

Dinner menu. Some familiar offerings, but the menu changes regularly enough that it's never exactly the same.

Dinner settings in the Skyline, a slightly more formal atmosphere than lunch. The artwork on the wall displays an old CPR dinner menu, quite appropriate for the context.

The non-soup appetizer option. Smoked mozzarella, pickled onions, and a balsamic glaze.

Blurry ravioli - quite tasty, or so I was told.

Not sure how the "Pier 21" part plays in, but this butter chicken was quite good.

Chocolate caramel cake - a familiar feature these days.
After supper we headed back to the Park car for a bit, then picked up a drink from the bar and returned to our room. During supper our attendant had made up the beds – just the lowers – and the drawing room was just as comfortable (if not more so!) in this arrangement.


Night-time setup in the drawing room. The sofa neatly converts into one bed.

The two chairs fold down nearly flat, and tuck under the second lower bed, which drops down murphy-bed style from the wall. If three people occupied this room, the upper bunk would lower from the ceiling above this one.
As we made our way to the edge of New Brunswick and into Quebec, we called it a night and headed to bed.

We awoke the next morning to more snow west of Ste-Foy, continuing the white landscapes we’d seen through the night. It was kind of strange to see so much white, having had so little snow in Halifax this winter.

We were still making excellent time, arriving early at the final stops approaching Montreal. The last hours of the morning flew by, between showering, getting breakfast in the Skyline-diner, and enjoying fresh coffee and lovely views as we clipped along the final approach to the beautiful city of Montreal. Our final arrival was a few minutes ahead of schedule, just as we had been the whole way.


Breakfast menu. Note the prices at the bottom for coach passengers.
 
"Golden breakfast bread"


Park car views, clipping along on the final stretch to Montreal.
As we disembarked we bid a brief farewell to the crew, knowing that we would see them again the next day – just like us, the Halifax-based crew would be making the return on the same train the following day. 

Our short stay in Montreal was excellent, despite frigid weather that felt a bit more like early than late March. The concert was top-notch, as expected. We had made the trip to see the British alt-rock band Muse, my favourite band – an incredibly talented 3-piece that put on some of the most impressive and extravagant live shows around, combining brilliant visuals and theatrics with an underlying musical performance that is consistently proficient and shows off the talent of each of the respective members.

I know this is a train travel blog, but I couldn’t report this without including at least a couple of little glimpses of their show. If you have the chance and enjoy these kinds of concerts, go see them!

 

Muse. Being this close to the stage, the photos can't even begin to do justice to how immense and impressive this production was.
 
Muse!
 
One of the wildly impressive parts of this phenomenal show was this giant skeletal robot (dubbed "Murph"), which emerged from the stage near the end of the show! It's an inflatable (though it doesn't look much like it) and is astonishingly mobile, opening and closing its jaw, flailing about, and looking like he could grab the band members at any moment. Just incredible.

The following day involved some touring around Montreal. My brother had come down from Ottawa to join us for the concert and weekend in the city, so we tried to hit a few highlights – we ventured to La Banquise for their renowned poutine, visited a tea house in the old downtown, and drove over Mount Royal to take in the views of the city (on a nicer day we might have taken a bit of a hike…with the bitter wind, we decided against it!).


The day flew by, and before we knew it we were bidding by brother farewell and heading back to Gare Centrale to check in for our return trip. We arrived by around 6:15, with boarding scheduled for 6:30. After check-in and making our meal reservation (options were 7 or 8:30, and we opted for the latter), we prepared to head into the lounge, only to discover that boarding had already begun. 


We were supposed to be in Car 38 Room B, which would have put us right next to our previous accommodation in Chateau Dollier. On checking in we found out that we had been moved to Car 36 Room B, as our original room had an issue with its window blind (it wouldn’t open!). This put us farther from the Park car, but much closer to our meals. Of course with only 4 sleepers, it still wasn’t a long walk in any direction.


The consist for the return was the same, save for a third locomotive and a change of the second engine.


VIA 14 – March 31, 2018


6448 F40 Locomotive
6411 F40 Locomotive
6459 F40 Locomotive
8622 HEP1 Baggage
8137 (03) HEP1 Coach
8138 (04) HEP1 Coach
8516 Skyline Dome (Economy Service)
8501 Skyline Dome (Dining Car Service)
Chateau Laval (36) *Room B
Chateau Brulé  (37)
Chateau Dollier (38)
Chateau Bienville (39)
Assiniboine Park (40)

 

Our train awaits in the bowls of Montreal's Gare Centrale.
I didn’t really take any photos of our bedroom this time, but I have covered the HEP bedrooms in previous posts, including a Chateau Room B last winter. This one was no different from those, but still in its late-90s upholstery, and looking pretty worn. Still, everything worked and it was a comfortable ride. This was the first time I had ridden in one of these bedrooms with someone else. It definitely felt cramped after having Room A in the other direction, and it felt pretty similar to a Renaissance bedroom in terms of the amount of space to move around with everything set up.

The passenger loads on the way back were comparable to the way up. Still, with the small space in the Skyline café, meals were pretty full. The 8:30 dinner sitting seemed to be the more popular one, with the car nearly full.

There had clearly been some issue with getting the menus properly printed for the return trip. Instead of the cards like on the way down, these menus were just printed on 8.5x11” copier paper in grayscale – clearly a hasty job. A minor issue, and not something that detracted from the experience.


Supper was excellent, once again.

Dinner menu, which appeared to have been hastily printed.

A different non-soup appetizer - smoked salmon.

Coconut cranberry chicken. Quite good!
As the evening wore on, we spent quite a bit of time in the Park car, enjoying the view in the dark. With the dome lights dimmed and plenty of snow on the ground, you can see surprisingly much on even an overcast night. We met at least three different freights before Ste-Foy and another at Joffre, but these were all well timed and we stayed on schedule.
I did note that while the second Skyline still had its dome lights on, the lights had been dimmed in the coach Skyline. This is a rare occurrence, but I’m sure very much appreciated by coach passengers keen to enjoy the evening view.
Eventually we headed off to bed. I got to experience the upper bunk in a HEP bedroom for the first time, and very much enjoyed it. Much more spacious than the upper bunk in a Renaissance room, both in headroom and bed width, and I had an excellent sleep.
The next morning brought more snowy views of the New Brunswick countryside. The first part of the day was appropriately leisurely, with a late breakfast, coffee in the dome, and eventually getting showered and dressed for the day. We made good time through to Moncton, where we got held up waiting for CN 407 to arrive – the only delay of our trip, which would ultimately get us to Halifax about 15 minutes late.
Breakfast menu.
Havarti and leek omelette.


View looking forward from the second Skyline dome. This car seemed to be minimally patronized, given that the Park car was conveniently accessible for sleeper passengers, and coach passengers had their own Skyline just ahead. The two domes being so close together does remove some of the forward view, but it's not too bad.

CN 407 arrives at Moncton, rolling through on the mainline toward the yard. The meet with this train often causes some delay to the eastbound Ocean.
The sun broke through a bit throughout the day, making for some nicer views on the last stretch. There were two lunch sittings – 12 and 1:30, and we went for the second. Once again, the meals were more than satisfactory.

Lunch menu - again, appearing to have been hastily printed or photocopied.




The beef tenderloin - a nice somewhat lighter lunch, ideal when being kept well fed on board.

The maple cake, again.
This time we made quick stops at Sackville and Amherst, but no stop at Springhill Jct.
The remainder of the trip was immensely relaxing, and we were both actually somewhat sad to be running on time – we wouldn’t have minded a few extra hours being added to our trip!

Work crews at the siding in Belmont, not far from where the incident occurred that forced this HEP equipment into service.

Waterfront views on Grand Lake. Many people seem to be disappointed that the Ocean doesn't provide views of the actual ocean, but the impressive lakes on the approach to Halifax make up for some of that.

The aptly named Grand Lake.

Bedford Basin views.
Ultimately we would arrive in Halifax about 15 minutes late, sad to be leaving the train, but glad to have had such an excellent weekend away.
Back in Halifax.
The HEP substitution on the Ocean has continued since, and will until the start of June. After that it looks like VIA will be moving to a mixed consist on one of the trains for the summer, with a combination of Renaissance and HEP cars. From what I've been told, it sounds like it will basically be a HEP consist with a Renaissance dining set (service car-diner-service car) and sleeper(s) sandwiched in the middle - promising to be a unique consist to see (and ride).
Another derailment of the in-service Renaissance set on April 4th, just a few days after our trip, fortunately did minimal damage and has only temporarily sidelined a Renaissance transition car and Park car. These should be repaired soon. Had it been worse, it could have caused some serious equipment availability issues.
This quiet off season trip reminded me again of how much I enjoy travelling on this train at any time of year. It’s consistently the best way to travel from the Maritimes to Montreal, and even more enjoyable when you have someone to travel with J
‘Til the next time…