Wednesday 26 July 2017

Mini-Report: Halifax-Ottawa and Ottawa-Toronto, July 2017

VIA 15 waiting to depart Halifax station on a sunny July 14th, 2017
As I mentioned in the last post, I was away over the last week on vacation in Ontario. It probably won’t surprise any of you to hear that said vacation included some train travel! Things lined up well enough that I was able to take the train from Halifax to Ottawa at the start of my vacation, though I’d have to fly back. I also had reason to make a trip to Toronto during that week, for which I opted to take the train in both directions. If you’re going from Ottawa to downtown Toronto, is there really any other sensible way to go?

This is just going to be a quick rundown on the highlights of those trips, with a little smattering of photos. A mini-report, if you will. I'll get back to the cross-Canada adventure in the next post...

I departed Halifax on Friday, July 14th. After riding all HEP-equipped trains at Christmas time and during my cross-Canada trip, I was actually really looking forward to a Renaissance trip for a change. There are many things I don’t like about those cars, and they are having serious long-term issues on many fronts, but there’s still something nice about them. The ride quality, for example, can be quite exceptionally quiet and smooth, especially if you’re near the middle of the car. It’s nice to have a bed that you can set up yourself rather than having to get the attendant to do it, and having a full shower in the room is nice (if a little cramped!). The sound-proofing between rooms and the locking doors are also nice things to have.

Walking down the platform to car 34. This monster of a train filled the whole thing. Note the Canada 150 banners along the platform.

So I had booked myself in a sleeper on #15, specifically in room 5 of car 34. Room 5 is the best room in those cars, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s the forward-facing shower-equipped room that is closest to the middle of the car. Nice and quiet, and a smooth ride. As for car 34 – well, the line numbering on the Ocean is interesting. Car 40 is always the Park car, and car 30 is always the accessible sleeper right behind the service car. Then the cars are numbered backwards from 39, with car 39 being the last occupied Ren sleeper. It may be the last sleeper before the transition car and Park, but if there are deadheaded sleepers, they usually designate those as the last ones in the train. So car 39 could actually be moved forward, as it was here. Due to the downward numbering, the car after car 30 could in theory be 31, but it could also be 34 (as in this case) or even a higher number if there are more deadheads. Given that 8 sleepers is usually the most they run with, it is most commonly car 33.

Here’s the consist for that train, with line numbers in brackets.

VIA #15 – July 14, 2017
6407 F40
6415 F40
6438 F40
7009 Renaissance Baggage
7220 (01) Ren Coach
7226 (02) Ren Coach
70108 (03) Ren Accessible Coach
7200 (04) Ren coach
7208 (05) Ren coach
7309 Ren Service Car
7401 Ren Diner
7308 Ren Service Car
79515 (30) Ren Accessible Sleeper
7509 (34) Ren Sleeper * (Room 5)
7500 (35) Ren Sleeper
7508 (36) Ren Sleeper
7507 (37) Ren Sleeper
7517 (38) Ren Sleeper
7521 (39) Ren Sleeper
7519 (DH) Ren Sleeper
7601 Ren Transition Car
8211 Chateau Lasalle (crew)
8715 Tremblant Park (40) (refurbished)

Total: 3 Locos, 20 cars

VIA has been running a single Château sleeper on each Ocean set for a good bit of the summer so far. Apparently this sleeper is being used predominantly as crew space, to free up rooms to sell in the Renaissance sleepers. Some space may be sold when the train is otherwise sold out. On this trip there were a few crew in the bedrooms.

There was an enormous crowd in the station when I arrived. This July is the month that all of the Canada 150 Youth Pass holders were able to do their unlimited travel (in Economy class), so VIA trains all across the system have been packed with them. The Ocean has seen lots of traffic from the youth passholders, but also just from people travelling in general. Most of the departures in July were sellouts or very near that. On this trip, all 5 coaches (the most that we ever seem to get in a Renaissance consist) were packed full. I overheard someone saying that the coaches were in fact oversold, and that a few people had to be bumped up to sleepers. I never got a formal confirmation if this was that case.

There was also a good sleeper load, though with one deadhead there was clearly still a fair bit of space available. The corresponding #14 that day was 100% sold out in sleepers as well.

I went ahead and got checked in at the sleeper counter, and headed to board the train about 25 minutes before departure. I noted that most sleeper passengers had received the blue “sleeper plus” wristbands that they’ve been using to help identify those passengers (so they know who is allowed to be in the Park car, who has their meals paid for, etc.), but I didn’t get one. Perhaps that was because the SM recognized me, or perhaps it was just a mistake (or they ran out?). They were making reservations for lunch, and I went for the late (2:30pm) option instead of the early (on departure) one.

I got settled in Room 5, and after a quick chat with my attendant (Vernon, who’s always pleasant to deal with), I headed back to the Park to enjoy the ride out of Halifax in the dome. That stretch along the Bedford Basin and around the lakes on the way out of the city is really beautiful, and best enjoyed in the dome.

The daytime interior of Room 5. Couch on the left that folds down to upper and lower bunks at night, closet and storage area to the right, and bathroom door on the right next to the window. Note that the Renaissance room doors do have a key-card lock. Also note that the original shades have been replaced with curtains in most rooms, as they had been disintegrating.

In my room, I discovered that VIA had provided all sleeper passengers with a special Canada 150 package – an envelope with two postcards, a pen, and a pin. Neat! The perks of travelling this July!

Canada 150 package - two postcards, a VIA Canada 150 pen and pin, and a nifty envelope. The napkin and route guides are part of the normal amenities.

We were away on time, but then stopped briefly while still on the platform – it appeared that someone had arrived last minute, and they stopped to bring him on! Lucky guy.

One of the bridges along the line around the peninsula out from Halifax station. After a lengthy legal debate between CN and the city, these bridges are finally getting a much needed refurbishment. In this case, they seem to have removed....well, most of the bridge.
The ride to Truro was smooth, and I hopped off briefly at the station to chat with a friend who had come to meet the train at the station. A brief stop, and we were back on our way. The second lunch call was just past Truro, and I headed up to the diner.

They’ve changed a couple of things since I was last on. The tablecloths in the diner are now a teal colour, as are many elements of the VIA crew uniforms (teal and yellow ties, for example). I like the bright look, and think it’s generally a nice change. I also noticed that they had added black rubber/foam pads on the edges of the doorways and around the middle dish-washing area in the diner, presumably to help avoid injuries when the train is swaying.

I was seated at a single table on my own, and enjoyed my lunch tremendously. I opted for the pulled pork, and I can honestly say that had I been served exactly that on The Canadian, I would not have been disappointed. There really wasn't anything to complain about. 

One of the 4-seat tables in the Renaissance diner, set for lunch. The new teal tablecloths are certainly bright.

2-person table (on the right side of the diner) in the Renaissance diner, set for lunch.

Ocean lunch menu. All meals are prepared in advance, then heated in on-board hot air ovens and plated.

Tomato rotini soup to start. Not bad, for a tomato soup.

Pulled pork sandwich with peppers and onions, served with potato salad and greens. This was easily one of the best meals I've had on the Ocean, and easily rivaled fresh-cooked meals in a Budd diner. 

Dessert - a raspberry square. VIA has been going through many iterations of this style of dessert in recent years.

There were plenty of new crew on board this trip, including a few who were on only their second or third trips. They were all really pleasant, but it was interesting to see the difference in meal service with a newly trained crew. They were using both ends of the diner (only two tables set aside for crew), and had specific numbers for how many people would be seated in both ends. They only started with taking orders once everyone had arrived and was seated. It was a bit more formal than usual, but it seemed to work quite well.

I also discovered two interesting changes to the crew on board – VIA has often had “train riders” on board before to troubleshoot issues, but apparently they are now bringing someone on board for every trip. Presumably this is because of the consistent issues with the Renaissance equipment. The train riders are carmen who have experience working with the equipment, and should be able to fix minor issues en route instead of having to send someone out to fix them.

There is also currently a security guard (contracted from a security firm) on each trip, presumably to try to mitigate any issues that may arise with the huge youth groups on board in the coaches. Apparently the crowds have been pretty good so far, but they’re erring on the side of caution.

The afternoon was fairly uneventful – just a nice ride and a beautiful day. There were lots of people in the dome throughout the afternoon. 
The train snaking through the curve across the Tantramar marshes, to run briefly parallel to the Trans-Canada as we enter New Brunswick. I just can't pass up trying this photo, especially on a nice day - even though the dirty dome windows make it a little tough!
Railfan or not, nobody seems able to pass up this awesome shot. There's always a rush to the front of the dome, with cameras in hand! Fortunately it's a pretty long curve.
Looking across the lush Tantramar marshes towards the Bay of Fundy.

We stopped at both Amherst and Sackville, and arrived early in Moncton. I got out and walked the train there, and noticed an enormous coach crowd boarding there as well. I was also dismayed to see that someone had applied some huge graffiti to the side of the first coach. Ugh…one benefit, though, is that part of the graffiti covered one of the really bad rust patches on that car.

VIA 15 at Moncton. The train is refuelled, and we change engineers. There is another crew change at Campbellton, then when the westbound and eastbound trains meet near Rimouski (the crews just swap trains), and again at Ste-Foy. So a total of five different crews are required to get us all the way from Halifax to Montreal. 

Loading baggage at Moncton. This set of equipment suffered a lot of cosmetic damage during a bad ice storm in New Brunswick earlier this year. The effects of that are easily visible on this baggage car, and can also be seen on some other cars in the train. There was paint damage, as well as scratched windows. 

Graffiti on coach 7220. At least they cleaned the windows...

More graffiti. Note as well the awful rust patches down the side of the car. The "Wiley" tag actually covers up some of that rusted area. So perhaps its actually a good thing...?
A huge crowd of coach passengers board the fourth coach. You can see that the VIA attendant on the left by the accessible coach is wearing one of the iterations of the new VIA uniforms, which includes a large sideways VIA logo emblazoned on both the front and back of the shirt.

Looking down the platform at Moncton. When the train is this long, the back end is into the curve and right to the back edge of the platform.
As you can see, the Park is just trailing off the end of the platform. 

I've never seen this before - some sort of cable plugged into one of the comms receptacles on the end of the Park car. It runs through that bracket and then down underneath the car. Not sure what purpose this serves. 

The doors on the transition cars have been marked as "out of order" for some time now. They're not really necessary to use (given that the vestibule of the last sleeper is directly adjacent), and may also have had some issues. In any case, they were formerly marked as "out of order" or "do not use" with makeshift signs, and they even had tie-down straps attached to keep them sort of "locked" closed. Now they've upgraded to proper labels over top of the door controls, and I'm guessing they've disabled the door as well. 

On the inside, a new permanent label has been added over top of the door controls. This is certainly an improvement over the paper signs and tape that were there before!

We got away from Moncton in good order, and continued to make good time through the subsequent stops. We would be early again by Bathurst, and have to wait to make up time.

Dinner reservations were made through the afternoon, and I opted for the 8:15 (then changed to 8:00) sitting. There were originally three options (5:00, 6:30, and 8:15), but the 5:00 one was dropped and the others shifted to 6:00 and 8:00. I was seated alone again at supper, but once again enjoyed my meal. I opted for the butter chicken, which was a solid choice. It wasn't really fancy, but it was the sort of thing that I'd be entirely happy with from an Indian take-out or buffet sort of restaurant. Tasty, just the right amount of spice, and filling.

Dinner menu.

Dinner - butter chicken on basmati rice with naan. I forgot to photograph the seafood chowder that came before it.

Maple cake for dessert. This thing was spectacular, but also pretty hefty. I saw several plates coming back with part of it leftover, and by the time I got half way through it I could definitely see why...

Back in the Park car after supper, I noticed that there was a special Sloane VIA/Canada 150 "Anniversary blend" tea. It was quite good, and I snapped up an extra bag to hang onto. Sloane Tea Company is a Canadian artisan tea manufacturer, who recently partnered with VIA Rail to provide teas on board trains across the country. Their Rouge Provence (description HERE) was my go-to tea on my cross-Canada trip. You can read a bit about their partnership with VIA on their tea blog. This new anniversary tea is specifically packaged and branded as a VIA Canada 150 product, so it's both a nice drink and a neat souvenir of sorts.
Sloane VIA Canada 150 special edition tea, available in the Park car lounge and diner/service cars.
As the evening rolled along, we had a lovely view of the final bits of sunset on the Baie-des-Chaleurs, looking across to Gaspé. I had a nice time chatting with a group of people in the dome (where I was once again identified as that-guy-who-knows-stuff-about-trains), and the Park car attendant surprised us with a late evening wine and cheese tasting (which would normally have happened earlier on).
Sunset in the dome. With the lights turned off, the view outside is really lovely.

Final remnants of the sun over the Baie-des-Chaleurs. Hopefully one day the train will return to the other side of the Baie...

I stepped off at Campbellton and had a chance to meet up with someone I’d been corresponding with regarding Transport Action. We had a nice chat, and before I knew it the train was ready to go again.

I decided to head to bed after that, and got settled down as we wound our way into the Matapedia valley.

Night-time setup in Room 5 - if travelling along, you can just put down the lower bunk. However, the upper bunk protrudes out (note where the headrest from the daytime setup is), so it can feel a little restrictive.

Both bunks down. I usually pull the upper one down anyway, as it gives a bit more space underneath. Just have to watch your head! The piece under the bunk with the black strap on it is the ladder storage. A lightweight metal ladder is inside, which can be set up to access the top bunk. 
I slept quite well, and was slow to want to get out of bed as morning rolled along. We were still running on time or slightly early as I opened the blinds to see a rainy morning greeting me.

Once again, I was seated alone for breakfast, and had another great meal. I was originally informed they had run out of the “eggy bread” option, but then found out there were still a few left, so that’s what I went for. It was really quite good, and continued the trend of great meals on this trip.

Breakfast menu.

"Eggy bread" with bacon, fresh fruit, and maple syrup. 
I spent most of the last stretch in the very busy dome, and chatted more with people as we made our final approach to Montreal. I stayed up in the dome until we rolled into the station, and then had to make the run up to my room to collect my things – the hallways in the Renaissance sleepers are narrow, so I opted instead to hop off at the first open door and walk up the platform to my car instead!

One of the many Canada 150 wrapped P42s was on the adjacent platform, waiting to head out with Toronto-bound train 65. 
Off the train, I made my way up into the station where a friend of mine was waiting to hang out for a while until my next train.

The connection to Ottawa was on Train 35. It comes from Quebec City first, and was running late. Boarding was about half an hour late, but we got underway quickly. I was riding in Business Class, and was seated in LRC Club 3476, the single Canada 150-wrapped club car. The train was led by a non-wrapped P42, and had two HEP2 coaches following the LRC club.

My ride to Ottawa. This is the only LRC club car in this flashy Canada 150 scheme, wearing the same scheme as the Glenfraser lounge. Note that the P42 leading is one of the few non-wrapped units left in the fleet.
Since the train had arrived from Quebec, we first had to back out of the station to the bridge, and then head on forward towards Ottawa.

The sky cleared just past Dorval, and it became a beautiful day. We were making great time and it looked like we would make up most of the half hour delay. The SM announced we were expected into Ottawa only 15min late.

Well, that didn’t pan out. We hit slow orders past Alexandria, which meant running at about 30mph for a long stretch. Then thanks to that delay, we got stuck waiting for a meet with VIA 26, which shouldn’t even have left Ottawa until after we arrived (if we were on time). In the long run we would make it to Ottawa just over an hour late, which does entitle us to a travel credit for 50% of the fare, to be used in the next 6 months.

Service along the way was excellent, as usual. I had the curry chicken for lunch, and everything was really quite good.

Business class lunch on 35 - continuing the Indian theme from last night on The Ocean, we have curry chicken with rice, curried okra, salad with corn and lima beans, and a vegan chocolate cookie for dessert.
Once in Ottawa the delay was not quite over – I had checked baggage (despite no baggage car on the train, VIA allows checked bags for connecting passengers from the Ocean), and it was a long wait at the counter for it to arrive. Apparently the tractor that pulls the baggage cart broke down…

Canada 150-wrapped 6437 sits in the shadows on one of the tracks in Ottawa with an LRC consist in tow. 

The platform construction in Ottawa makes it a bit trickier to get into some areas for good photos, but there is still no shortage of trains around to see. On the right, an LRC consist is ready to head for Toronto. In behind it, P42 912 brings up the tail-end of one of the push-pull consists currently running between Ottawa and Toronto. 
So all in all, it was another great trip. Most things went smoothly, the food was great, and the service was excellent. It all reaffirmed why the train is such a nice way to travel.

The following Tuesday my brother and I had cause to be in Toronto, so we went from Ottawa to Toronto on Train 45, and returned the next day on 644. We were in Business class on the way there (LRC Club 3456), and coach (LRC coach 3328) on the return. Both trains were all LRC (with F40 leaders), and on the return we were seated in one of the original IRSI-refurbished LRC coaches, which now has the new seats in 50/50 arrangement. I don’t like the new style seats nearly as much as the old LRC ones in terms of comfort, but they are spacious, and the fold-down tray tables are a massive improvement over the original hidden-in-the-armrest LRC design.

There’s not really a whole lot to say about either of those trips. They went smoothly, with only minor delays in each direction. We spotted lots and lots (and lots, and lots...) of Canada 150 wrapped equipment. Pretty well every Corridor train has at least one wrapped car in its consist, plus almost all of the P42s are wrapped. 

We were both reminded of how nice it was to get right into downtown Toronto that way, as opposed to having to deal with driving around the city. The food in Business was quite good, and the crew was really pleasant. Union station is still a mess these days with the construction in the concourse, but the overall boarding and de-training processes at both ends were pretty smooth. The ride quality was also quite decent both ways, which was a bit of a contrast from my most recent previous LRC trip. We rode in row 5 each way, which is backwards facing and about a third of the way in from the end of the car.

I seemed to think I took more photos than I did on that little trip, but it turns out I didn't take many (at least train-related...I guess I was just enjoying it all too much!). Here are the few I did take:

Business Class meal on 45 - Thai chicken with rice and mango salad, with couscous on the side and a vegan "s'mores" cookie (which was surprisingly good). 

Dog fountain in Toronto. What, pray tell, is the relevance of this? Stay tuned to my Cross-Canada adventure to find out, when we roll back through Toronto on the way home...

There's no Park car (or dome car, or lounge of any sort) on Corridor trains, so the closest you can get is standing at the  back of the last car and watching the track disappear behind the train. Unfortunately the washrooms are also right here at the back, so standing here for too long tends to put you in the way...
There you go – a couple of really nice July train trips. VIA definitely has its issues, but it’s a really nice and often very practical way to get around, especially when you get into the Corridor. I’m always happy to be able to make use of it when I can.

With that little diversion out of the way, my next post will return to the cross-Canada saga, as we wake up near Edmonton and journey to Jasper and into the mountains…

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