Tuesday 4 July 2017

Cross-Canada Trip 2017 - DAY 1

VIA 15, just about ready to board passengers. Blasted barbed wire in the way!

We begin in Halifax. 

Friday, April 14, 2017. It was a beautiful sunny day, 11°C with a bit of a breeze. A friend of mine picked me up at around 11:40am, and we arrived at the station by noon. I headed to the ticket office and picked up my tickets for the Canadian, and inquired about a VIA journal (they have a really nice one in their souvenir line). No luck! They’re apparently quite popular. Ah well, for now, I would make do with my generic notebook, and see if I can “upgrade” in Montreal or Toronto.

With close to half an hour to go until boarding, I headed out to walk the length of the train and take a few pictures.

The sleeper check-in desk at the Halifax station. Note the colourful Canada 150 branding.

When I booked this trip, I assumed that the Ocean portion of it would be just a typical, Halifax-Montreal trip. What I couldn’t have anticipated was that a few weeks before my trip, VIA would have major problems with one set of the usual Renaissance equipment and replace it with HEP equipment instead. When this first happened, everyone assumed it was for one trip. Then it ended up lasting a week, and two weeks, and then about a month! As luck would have it, this equipment ended up on my trains in *both* directions!

I’m someone who will normally go out of my way to ride the HEP equipment any time it substitutes on the Ocean, so to have it on for both of my trips, entirely by chance? It just made an already exciting trip a truly unique and special experience.

This particular HEP set was unusual for the Ocean, as it was running with Manor sleepers – a true rarity on the Ocean, even back in the days before the Renaissance equipment took over. The consist had expanded to 13 cars by my trip to accommodate heavy passenger loads coming from Montreal ahead of the Easter weekend.

Here’s the consist of my first train:

VIA #15 – April 14, 2017
6406 (with weird numberboards)
8623 Baggage
8139 Coach
8140 Coach (Weird number font on right side, grey stripe by vestibule)
8138 Coach (stripe flaking badly)
8505 Skyline
Emerald Diner*
Chateau Lasalle (34)
Chateau Bienville (35)
Macdonald Manor (36)*
Amherst Manor (37)*
Butler Manor (38)*
Chateau Dollier (39)
Tremblant Park (40) *

Line numbers are in parentheses. All cars were numbered, but several were actually deadheads
*Indicates refurbished cars. All others non-refurb.

VIA 15 - all stainless steel!

I returned to the station to wait for the boarding call. There was a good line of coach passengers waiting, probably 30-40 people (guessing about 50+ actually boarded by departure). By contrast, I thought the sleeper waiting area seemed kind of slim. When the Service Manager (SM) opened the check-in counter for sleeper passengers, I was astonished to find that I was one of only four (yes, 4!) sleeper passengers boarding in Halifax. An unusually light day indeed… we would pick up more along the way, but for the first while it would be a very empty train behind the dining car.

Despite having a wide range of available accommodations (roomettes, upper and lower berths, bedrooms), only the bedrooms in the sleepers were actually sold. This is likely because any passengers on board probably bought their tickets when the train was still Renaissance and had only bedrooms available, so they had just been swapped to bedrooms in the HEPs as well.

We did still receive blue “Sleeper Plus” wristbands, despite there being so few of us, but there were no reservations for lunch. First call would be on departure, and second around 2:30.

I ran into one of the VIA managers who I know quite well on my way out to the train, and chatted with her for a bit. She took the “bon voyage” photo of me next to the Park, and then I headed down to find my room in Macdonald Manor – bedroom E – I was the only one in the car for the first part of the trip. There were plenty of familiar faces on board. My car attendant, Dan, was not something I knew well, though I had seen him around before (he was very pleasant and did a great job throughout the trip). Joanne was handling the other in-service sleeper and Vernon was back in the Park car, and it was a pleasure as always to see both of them.

Ready to board #15 and head out on this adventure! I'm doing my best to stand in the way of the awful plates in the fluting on the rear of Tremblant Park, which were butchered somewhere in the HEP program!

We departed on time at 1:00pm.

The refurbished dome in Tremblant Park. Now *that* is a way to see the country!

A couple of railfans (and friends of mine) were waiting on the Young Ave. bridge as we headed out from the station. Here’s a new idea for a hobby: railfan-fanning! A twist on the traditional. Admittedly it’s a bit harder to photograph people through a dirty dome window than it is to photograph a train from a bridge!

Railfans on a bridge.

I opted for the first sitting for lunch, and made my way up to the diner as we started rolling out through the rock cut. Despite having a full HEP diner, the meals were still the usual Renaissance re-heated fare. These are supplied by the Westin hotel at the Halifax end, and by a caterer in Montreal for the eastbound trains. The Westin does an excellent job, and admittedly some of the reheated meals are exceptionally good.

Lunch was a solid start – a tomato bisque, followed by a bacon-wrapped meatloaf cheeseburger and a raspberry cake for dessert. I was absolutely stuffed!

Today's lunch menu. Prices are for non-sleeper passengers.

Meatloaf cheeseburger and Propeller ESB - a good choice! Best when enjoyed with an ever-changing view out the panoramic windows.

Raspberry cake to top it off.

I made a point of trying to photograph all of the menus and meals that I had throughout the trip. This is one of those elements of the train experience that I don’t feel is always that well documented, so I figured it was worth doing. Meals on the train are a key part of the experience.
Of course whipping my camera out at every course of each meal did make me feel like a proper millennial (though I was using a real camera…aren’t we supposed to just use our phones?)

There were about 9 people in the diner, with some from the Economy section. I saw a few people turned away, despite the small numbers. I’m guessing they stocked fewer meals in anticipation of the smaller passenger load, so there wasn’t much extra to go around.

Our first (and only for this segment) delay was early – we had to sit at Kinsac to wait for CN 511 (the Wright’s Cove-Milford gypsum train). It wasn’t a long wait, but it did disgruntle one person – a young boy, who was on a trip with his family (parents and young sister) for his birthday. They were just going to Moncton, but had managed to get in for lunch in the diner. This little guy was clearly loving the trip, but he was not loving being stopped!

Oh yeah, there was an Illinois Central “deathstar” at Fairview when we passed, part of the power off CN 120. The first of the unusual CN power I would see over the following days:

An Illinois Central "deathstar" SD70. An appropriate thing to see on the day the first trailer for Star Wars Episode 8 was released!

We were back on the move shortly, and would ultimately be a bit late at Truro – 2:43pm arrival, 12min late.

This trip was my first time riding in a Manor sleeper, and also my first ever trip in a HEP bedroom (I had only been in roomettes and berths before). Overall, I was very impressed with the Manors. I didn’t realize just how much of a difference the refurbishment would make, but it was almost night and day between them and the Chateaus (especially when walking between the two); cleaner, nicer looking, and not at all musty. The ride was a little rattly, but pretty smooth overall. The bedroom was spacious, and the chairs in the daytime setup were quite comfy. I had a rear-facing room (E), but I didn’t find it made that much of a difference. You can always move the chairs around if you prefer. The toilet is quite compact, and some of the lights were a rather cold tone, but overall I was impressed with the room.

Daytime setup in Macdonald Manor bedroom E. Comfy!
Compact toilet. Shower is down the hall.

Sink and vanity. The cover where the towels and stuff are stacked flips over to free up the sink. Note the light switch panel and dixie cups to the right, and the ventilation fan up top. 

Storage up above. Plenty of room for a small suitcase or two.

Here’s a rare opportunity: I took this photo of Amherst station from inside Amherst Manor! Because, why not…
Amherst view from Amherst...

Another railfan-fanning opportunity: Ric Hamilton was out at Painsec…

Ric! I think...somebody needs to clean these windows!

We made stops at both Amherst and Sackville, and departed Moncton at 5:37pm, 5min late. No stop at Rogersville.

Manor sleepers at Moncton.

Reflecting on our train as it refuels

A while before Rogersville the railway parallels a road for a while. Somewhere along there (about 30km before Rogersville) I saw flashing lights ahead on the road, and realized as we got nearer that there had been a horrific accident. A pickup truck was totalled, and there were fragments of the other vehicle everywhere, but nothing large enough to identify what it had been. The emergency crews appeared to have arrived only shortly before, and there was a visible fatality… scary stuff.

I spent most of the afternoon and early evening in the Park car dome. I got to chatting with the other sleeper passengers who started with my from Halifax. There was a father and son (Brian and Eric) from the US (near New York), who had come up on the Adirondack and onto the Ocean, and were now just making the same trip back in reverse. It was the Eric's school break, and this was a vacation trip. Brian had excitedly promised his son that they’d get to enjoy a classic “vista dome”, but had no idea the entire train would be classic stainless steel streamliner equipment! A nice surprise. Brian was a pilot and a well-travelled train rider, and had no end of interesting stories to tell. The other passenger was a Swedish PhD. physics student at the University of Waterloo (Andreas), who was off riding the train to see a bit of Canada before heading back to Sweden for the summer.

Brian actually has a website where we documents his travels as well. You can check out his photos from this very same trip here: http://frogandbrian.com/Arles/VIA3/index.html

There's also video, and plenty of other stuff from their other travels, so worth checking out his site: http://frogandbrian.com/

We all had dinner together that evening. We went for the second call at 6:50pm, but no one had heard the first one. There weren’t many in the diner, but by this point we had picked up other sleeper passengers, with a few bedrooms in my car filled in.

The seafood option was sold out, so Brian and I had the chicken leg, Andreas had the boiled dinner, and Eric had pizza from the kids’ menu. The chicken was okay, but lunch was definitely better. The seafood chowder to start was still great, and the chocolate cake-thingy that followed was pretty decent too. Gary was in the kitchen in full chef’s outfit, and I could tell he wished he was actually cooking, not just re-heating. Fortunately he’d get his chance for breakfast!

Dinner menu


Blurry dessert

We were back to running on time by Miramichi.

It continued to be a beautiful day, and I tried to take a few more photos as we made our way along. This route is so familiar to me now that I don’t take as many photos as I once did. This turned out to be a good thing, as I realized I was short on memory card space! I’d need to get a new one in Toronto…

Out of sequence photo alert! Our stainless steel train snakes around the bend by the Tantramar marshes, entering New Brunswick. This was about the best I could do through the dirty dome windows!

 We continued to make good time, arriving early at Bathurst, and early again at Campbellton. After a walk outside to stretch my legs, I arranged for Dan to make up the room (the attendant has to lower the beds in these bedrooms, unlike the Renaissance bedrooms or roomettes where you can do it yourself).

We were on time at Matapedia, and made no stop there.
After a bit of time in the darkness of the Park dome, enjoying a cup of tea as I watched the train snaking through the darkness of the Matapedia valley, I decided it was time for bed. A friend of mine was heading east that night on the #14 that we would meet in the wee hours of the morning, but I decided not to stay up for the meet (I believe he did the same!).

Off to bed. Before settling down, I wrote: “Still doesn’t feel quite real that I’ll be on The Canadian tomorrow night. This feels routine so far, though still special thanks to the unusual Budd consist and Manor sleepers – a true Ocean rarity. Funny how exciting this trip alone really is, in so many ways. I may have booked it this weekend anyway last minute if I didn’t have this whole shebang planned.”

Day 1 draws to a close. Next up, the “whole shebang” continues on Day 2…

All ready to sleep! A comfy bed, and a cozy room. My little hotel on rails.

Manor bedroom night-time setup. I didn't have the upper bunk down in my room, but here's another bedroom showing how that setup works.

Signs of things to come...

A sign of things to come! Not on The Canadian yet, but this route map was up inside one of the Manors (they normally run out west, so it makes sense). Bizarrely enough, there was not a single one of these anywhere on The Canadian itself when I rode it! 


  1. Interesting! I'm looking forward to the rest of the trip!

    1. Thanks! Happy to have you following along :)