Monday 18 December 2017

From the Archives: A bit of Christmas Chaos

VIA 15 at Matapedia on the morning of Dec. 23, 2013. Why was this westbound train here at that hour of the morning? Read on...

With Christmas fast approaching, I find myself longing to be back on the rails again. Train travel has been an integral part of the Christmas season for me over the last decade; I headed to the east coast for school in the fall of 2007, and one of the most exciting things about that was the opportunity to take the train back and forth to Ontario over the holidays. That’s continued every year since, and now it doesn’t really feel like Christmas if I’m not on a train at some point. There’s something really special about train travel at the holidays – there’s a certain festive atmosphere, and everyone is excited about seeing friends and family. Best of all, a raging snow storm outside makes the trip even cozier and more enjoyable, while by any other means of travel it would be a nightmare.

I’ll be getting in plenty of train travel this year too, though all slightly after Christmas for a change. For now, though, I’ve been thinking back on various Christmas trips I’ve made over the years, and it seemed like a good time to resurrect an old trip report from “the archives”.

I posted this report on the Canadian Passenger Rail Yahoo group back in January of 2014. I’ve had a lot of interesting trips on the Ocean over the years, but this particular one wins hands down for the most “eventful” trip of them all!

Without further ado, please enjoy this snippet from Christmas 2013:

#15 Dec. 22nd, 2013 Halifax-Montreal

I arrived at the station for departure on VIA 15 about an hour ahead of time, and went ahead and checked my bag. I’m glad I was there early, as it was quite busy in the station and the line for checked baggage quickly grew. Despite it being busy, the train was still not nearly sold out in this direction. It seems Christmas travel this year was heavier towards Halifax before, and towards Montreal after the holiday [Edit: This is a typical travel pattern, and I've noted it each year since]. I was traveling in a sleeper, so I waited until the check-in process began.

There was a rather long line for coach passengers, and unlike in the past where a single line was started at Gate 1, there were actually two separate lines. One was for coach passengers going all the way to Montreal or on to points west, and the other was for all intermediate stops. As it turns out, VIA was using first of two HEP1 coaches at the rear of the train entirely for coach passengers going through from Halifax to Montreal, and keeping intermediate pickups and drop-offs in the forward coaches. This avoided having to make multiple platform stops at intermediate stations. The second HEP1 coach picked up Montreal-bound passengers in Moncton.

I noticed right away that the train was split into two segments: the first HEP1 coach was still on the rear, but the second coach, the Chateau sleeper, and the Park car were split off as a second section on the adjacent track.
VIA 15 before departure, in two sections. The majority of the train is on the right, and the Park, a Chateau and a HEP1 coach are separate on the left.

The second section, which would be added on departure.

After boarding the sleepers and the HEP1 and loading baggage, we pulled out of the station and backed in to pick up the remaining section. Passengers in the forward coaches were then boarded after the train was connected (I’m not sure what the reasoning was for this). We departed Halifax in light rain at 12:50pm, about half an hour late, and would soon make our way into freezing rain and snow. The consist leaving Halifax was as follows:

79501 (19)
7518 (20)
7520 (21)
7507 (22)
7509 (36)
7512 (37)
7524 (38)
7516 (deadhead)
Chateau Richelieu (deadhead)
Assiniboine Park

I don’t know how busy the forward coaches were, but 8124 was quite full leaving Halifax, and 8137 filled up at Moncton. The sleeper load was light though, with plenty of empty rooms, one deadhead Ren and the deadhead Chateau. I should note that though the Chateau was deadheading, I did notice several coach passengers who had gone back and laid down in the open sections overnight. The crew didn’t put down beds, and may well have told them to move at some point (as the car was unattended).

I was in Room 7 in Car 37. This was my first time in one of the non-shower Ren bedrooms, and I can say I was quite pleased with it. The setup is a touch different, but nothing major. Room 7 was a very smooth ride, being both forward facing and near the middle of the car.

I made for the Park very early on, and was surprised to find it empty (apart from the attendant) all the way to about Truro. The load remained light for much of the trip, and I was surprised that few coach passengers seemed to have found their way back. Coach passengers were being provided with food cart service (much like in the Corridor), which seemed to be based out of the transition car. They were also informed that the canteen was available in the Park. As a result, there was no complimentary tea or coffee set out in the Park (although it may have been available from the attendant, had I asked).

The dome of Assiniboine Park, complete with tinsel along the windows (the multitude of no-smoking labels are a unique feature in this dome).

Christmas décor in the Park car lounge.

Christmas décor in the mural lounge.

Christmas décor in the bullet lounge.

The Park car did have a sign (hand-written) on the door indicating the car would close at 10:30pm. It was closed at 10:30EST, and indeed we were all asked to leave and the car was blocked off with the end gate. It was open again in the morning, although it didn’t get much use (you’ll see why shortly). The rooms in the Park weren’t sold on either of my trips.

Sign on the Park car - no dome for anyone after 10:30.

We did have a meet with #14, which is unusual on the new schedule and only made possible by Christmas schedule adjustments. Both trains were running late, so we ended up leaving Amherst and backing into the first siding we came to. We had maybe a 20min wait before #14 emerged, solidly caked in ice, out of what was now mostly blowing snow.

Meet with #14 at Amherst.

VIA 14, with a nearly identical consist to ours, arrives at Amherst.
Our journey continued well, and as the night got on there was a good group of us chatting in the Park bullet lounge. I was reminded again of how great the train can be for socializing and meeting lots of interesting people! We lost some more time into the evening and were close to an hour a half late by the time I turned in for the night, not far from Campbellton. I can’t say I was quite prepared for what would happen during the night…

Before I get to that, a quick note on meals: the dining car was well patronized on this trip, although there was enough space that general calls were made for both lunch and dinner. Most people seemed to opt for the first lunch setting and the middle dinner setting. The food was about as good as can be expected on the Rens, and the staff and company were excellent. I was a little disappointed by the lack of the Christmas dinner that had been an option in recent years, but what was offered was still decent. Most passengers seemed happy with the food as well, which is always good to see.

Renaissance dining car - with some festive touches.

The “Bustitution”

Now, back to the trip: having arrived at Campbellton, we were a good bit late so I had gone to bed. I did notice at some point that the HEP shut down and came back on, and that we stopped and started moving again, but I fell asleep and didn’t really notice what was going on. I was woken up a few more times in the night by some sort of alarm going off (I realized later that these were indicating HEP problems), but I generally brushed it off and got back to sleep. I was sleeping surprisingly well until I was awakened by a loud knocking on my door at around 6:20am (AST). Still trying to put my thoughts together, I was surprised when the attendant informed me that we were STILL in Campbellton, and that we might be put on busses and that I should be prepared just in case. When I asked what was wrong, she pointed out that we had no power or heat, although she didn’t elaborate on what the cause of that was. Apparently the problems had started just after we left Campbellton, so we had backed up and spent the duration of the night trying to fix the problem. That fact that we weren’t moving did explain why I had slept so very well!

One thing I learned very quickly about the Renaissance cars is this: they are NOT well insulated. Within minutes of the heat being off, the cars become noticeably colder. Waking up at that point, it was absolutely freezing in the room (the HEPs, by contrast, actually did very well and stayed warm for a good while after we lost heat in the Rens). I put my things together, but opted to try to stay warm in bed until further notice! I would learn later that apparently 1 or 2 busses *did* go from Campbellton, and were apparently for people making connections beyond Montreal, but no-one ever informed or asked me if I was interested. I heard about it from one person who was offered that option, but turned it down because she was told that checked baggage would not be transferred to those buses.

Shortly after 7am (AST), I was informed that we would be able to stay on the train, and the heat was quite noticeably back on. I put myself together, and decided to head down and see if breakfast was on just as we started moving, around 7:25am. The diner was quite full, and breakfast was being served. Unfortunately, the HEP proceeded to cut out shortly after we left, requiring us to stop and reset it. We started moving again, and this happened twice more before arriving in Matapedia. Each time we lost power, breakfast prep had to be put on hold as all the appliances shut down! We did all get fed eventually, and we arrived in Matapedia shortly. By that point though, it was clear that all was not well. I heard the SM radioing as he walked through the diner, say “okay, that’s enough of this. Just order the busses”.

After a lengthy stop in Matapedia, we were informed that the train would not be going forward. The reason, as I understood, was that 6457 had died and at least partly as a result of that, we were having HEP problems. It may have been that the other locos were overloaded or that there was an additional problem, but the most I could find out for sure was that something kept causing breakers to cut out, requiring the HEP to be reset. 6457 was shut down when I walked by at Matapedia, but the other two were still running. After much trying, they couldn’t get the problem fixed and decided we would have to find alternate transportation.

VIA 15 at Matapedia. Now you know why it was there at this time in the morning!

VIA 15 in a very snowy scene at Matapedia.

We were given two options at this point: go back in a taxi to Campbellton and be put up in a hotel for the day to take #15 out that night, or get on a bus to Montreal. I opted for the bus, figuring that we could well face further delays on the following #15, and that at least getting closer to Montreal presented a faint chance that I could make some sort of connection on to Brockville that night. Most of the people I had met on board opted for the Campbellton hotel (it seems especially elderly folks and those with young kids who didn’t care for the idea of a long bus ride!), and in the long run, they would make it to Montreal the next day in time to make connections.

We were put onto the buses by about 10am (EST). This process was, unfortunately, not very well organized. Although we were pointed in the right direction, with instructions to board one bus for Montreal and west and the other for intermediate stops, there was major confusion about checked baggage. Some staff told us we had to pick it up, then the baggage car staff told us it was all being transferred so no worries. Then the staff at the bus told us yes it was being transferred but that we needed to ID it first. Then again at the baggage car, we were told it was all being transferred. It didn’t help that some passengers were given their bags to put on the bus, and some of us weren’t. In the long run, all the bags were transferred.

"VIA 15" for the rest of the trip to Montreal. Not exactly what I had been expecting...

We left Matapedia by about 11am EST, with a lot of confusion still remaining about what would happen at the other end, and our assigned VIA attendant having few answers to give. Food was provided on the bus, in the form of various sandwiches and other snacks that were picked up before we left.

The bus trip itself was slow thanks to the poor road conditions, but it was a very scenic ride. The odd thing was that we didn’t take a more direct route to Montreal, but instead followed very closely to the train route the whole way [Edit: someone subsequently noted to me that there wasn't a much more direct route to go from where we were]. Despite separating us into two distinct bus-loads, both buses traveled together the entire way and made all the necessary stops along the way (which were not at the respective VIA stations, but rather at a more convenient stop location for the bus, and I believe passengers were then taxied to their destinations). Stops were at Mont-Joli, near Riviere-de-Loup, and near Quebec City/Charny. As a result, the trip was long and we didn’t arrive in Montreal until 8:37pm, about 11.5h late.

The arrival in Montreal was a bit of a disastrous mess. We stopped at the bus drop area at Central station, and since there was no room to pull in, our driver parked right in the middle of the road blocking traffic and the exit from the parking area. There was no organization to the baggage retrieval, as everyone was just sent to get their own bags instead of having a few people remove them all and then have people claim them. It caused a bit of chaos, and the staff outside were very frustrated by the whole thing. I’m sure it was made even more difficult by the extra buses that were there to be loaded with that night’s VIA #14 passengers.

The departures board in Montreal - "Remarks: Bus Service" - This is a message no one ever wants to see...

Since we missed any possible connections, we were given two options: 1) stay in a hotel at VIA’s expense and take another train out the next day, or 2) be refunded 100% for our trip, but be left on our own to find accommodations and further transportation. It seemed like most people opted for the hotel, and there were close to 20 of us who stayed the night. We were put up at the Fairmount Queen Elizabeth (directly above the station), which was a very nice place to stay for the night. Unfortunately the check in process, which involved re-booking us onto trains for the next day, was not very quick. We ended up in the station for close to an hour before we were sorted through to head to the hotel, and the station agents seemed to be learning the process as they went. Regardless, we did eventually all get checked in, had very nice rooms, and were given free supper and breakfast at the hotel (which was very nice!).

So after a relaxing (albeit unplanned) stay in Montreal, I made it the rest of the way on VIA #57 on the 24th, a sold-out but almost entirely on-time run. Final arrival in Brockville: 24h10minutes late! [Edit: As of Dec. 2017, this is still the record for my latest trip ever.]

Overall thoughts on the trip:

As usual, I was impressed with VIA’s service for much of the trip. In the case of the bustitution, I was pleased that VIA made a real effort to get everyone on to their final destinations, and I commend the crew on the great job they did during what has to be an unwelcome and exhausting trip for them as well. I also appreciate VIA doing things like providing extra meals and hotel accommodations. However, I have to say that the communication at several points was severely lacking, and I fear that VIA may have lost some customers over this. I know at least one woman who swore she would never set foot on a train again (despite my assurances that this was a rare occurrence, to which she replied sarcastically “oh sure, I’ll bet it is”). But there were also others who were very pleased with VIA. On my return trip (described in Part 2), I met almost everyone I had met on this trip, making their return the same day I did. Most of them chose the Campbellton option, and all of them were very pleased with VIA’s handling of the situation. So generally, it seemed to me that it was the experience around the bustitution that left most people bitter.

For me, it was an unusual and interesting adventure, which I took at a relaxed pace and tried to see the positives. If nothing else, I now have a handsome travel credit for my next trip :) [Note: I made good use of this credit...]

The Return

New Business Class on VIA 54

After the exciting trip west from the week before, I was looking forward to a slightly more straightforward return trip. This time I was connecting from Ottawa on Train 54. I had booked a Business class ticket on a good sale, and was looking forward to what I expected to be my first taste of VIA’s “new” Business class in a refurbished LRC club. I was not disappointed.

First, a note on checked baggage: Train 54 does apparently allow for limited checked baggage for passengers connecting to the Ocean (despite the lack of a baggage car), but this is not clearly explained anywhere and I only found out about it thanks to a post on VIA’s Facebook page. When I arrived at the station, I took my bag to the counter and said I was checking it to Halifax. A tag was slapped on it, no further questions asked, and it was on the conveyor simple as that. It made it to Halifax with me, so clearly the system works.

The train was about an hour late from Toronto, and we would arrive in Montreal over an hour behind schedule as well (another travel credit…I ended up with a pretty good collection of these by the end!). When it did arrive in the station, I was pleased to see the 3461 in its bright new paint scheme leading the LRC consist.

3461, in all its (semi-)refurbished glory. Note that only the lower half of the end of the car was actually repainted.

A rebuilt F40 led 3461, a single non-refurbished LRC coach, and three rebuilt coaches. This was the closest thing to an all-rebuilt consist I’ve seen yet! I was seated in 12s, one of the newly-available single seats, and I must say I was impressed.

The new Business class interiors look fantastic, for a start. For the first time, I think they really do look properly like a “first class” version of the LRC interior. The new layout is very spacious, and the overall look of the new upholstery is splendid. The seats are now laid out so that there are no “window-bar” seats. The leg room is excellent, and the spacing to the sides is much improved. The addition of a small table next to the seat along with a fold-down tray table from the seat-back make it a much better setup than the old LRC clubs. I was also quite impressed to find that the armrests are moveable, which makes it possible to get in and out of one’s seat while leaving the tray table down. The single seats are also slightly farther out from the wall, which allows you to see out the window ahead of you as well as the one next to you (assuming the curtains are open). The new bathrooms are also very nice, with large mirrors, clean colours and motion-sensor activated taps. The only thing I was surprised to find that wasn’t at all modified were the overhead luggage bins. From the outside they appear only to have been cleaned up, and inside they’re very clearly the original bins with no work done to them.

The refurbished Business class interior. This past year VIA has now reconfigured all of these cars so the front half has backwards facing seats, putting the facing pairs in the centre of the car.
The single seats. Lots of space.

The double seats. Far more room than the old layout, and with the table in between, you hardly even feel like you're sitting right next to someone.

View forward. With the single seats spaced farther from the window, you actually have a good view out the window ahead (assuming that person doesn't close the curtain).

Entering the car, through the refurbished galley.

New tray tables - a huge improvement over what was in the armrests in the past.

The bathroom - much nicer sink, with motion-sensor faucet. Bright and clean.

Overall though, I was impressed. The seats weren’t quite as soft as I expected (a little hard), but they were still comfortable and I suspect this will improve as they get “broken in” [Edit: This hasn't really happened yet. A recent ride in a HEP2 Club with the old seats confirmed that those were much comfier - however, this new layout is undoubtedly superior. VIA now has plans to update the HEP2s, as people have been complaining that they don't have the same layout as the LRCs. Many of the LRC coaches have also now received these new seats in a 2+2 layout]. They also recline in a slouching way like the Rens, which allows the tray table to be unaffected by the reclining of the seat ahead of you.

I have only had one prior experience with Business class, so I don’t have much to compare the new service with. Drink service started immediately out of Ottawa along with small snacks (which seemed similar to the “urban mix” or whatever it was that VIA has had in the past). Hot towel service followed, but the former towels were replaced with packaged “lemon scented towels”. Meals were served all at once, and service started simultaneously from the front and back of the car. This meant that in Row 12 I still had all three options (chicken, salmon or chick-pea salad) available to me. The middle rows, though, had few options left. I had the chicken, which was quite good and included mashed potatoes and vegetables, a roll, salad, and Laura Secord fudge and biscotti for dessert. The meal was followed with packaged chocolates (dark or chocolate and raspberry), which were quite good. I was only ever so enthralled with the VIA chocolates, so this was certainly an acceptable substitute.

We arrived in Montreal late and so backed in off the Victoria Bridge [Note: this train would then proceed on to Quebec City, so it needed to be ready to head straight out]. The escalator at Gate 20 was not working, so the stairs were a little chaotic!

Heading East on VIA 14

[Note: I do have photos from this trip somewhere, but I haven't been able to dig them up yet. I may go back in and add them at some point] Upon arrival in Montreal, VIA #14 was listed as on time. However, I had noticed that the train wasn’t in the station yet when we arrived on 54, so I suspected we would be late. When checking in, the SM informed me that we’d be lucky to leave before 8pm. Sure enough, the departure time was steadily pushed back and back by 15min at a time, and it was 9pm by the time we boarded. By 9:23pm we had departed Montreal.

Apparently the cause of the delay was that some problem had developed with the accessible Renaissance sleeper (Line 19) and it had to be cut from the consist. As a replacement, an extra Chateau was also added. I don’t believe any rooms were occupied (apart from crew), but I don’t know for sure. I expect they may have been needed on the return trip.

Our consist on departure was:

7502 (20)
7517 (21)
7519 (22)
7510 (23)
7525 (36)
7513 (37)
7504 (38)
Chateau Brulé
Chateau Bienville
Tweedsmuir Park

The rear HEP1 coaches were both full, but were loaded only with passengers going to Moncton. At Moncton, they both emptied completely. All intermediate passengers and those going through to Halifax were put in the forward Ren coaches. Once again, food service in the rear coaches was done by food cart, and though the Park was available for some canteen service, few people seemed to use it for that. Unlike the previous trip, free coffee and tea were available on a table in the Park lounge (as usual).

Since we were late leaving Montreal, we only had one dinner setting on departure. It was reserved exclusively for Sleeper Plus passengers, with extra space going to Sleeper passengers as available (they were informed at the check-in that they should consider getting food before we left, as we were delayed anyway). The menu on the return trip was different from the trip up, which provided a nice bit of variety. The food again was good by Ren standards, the company was excellent, and the service was okay (although not as attentive as on the trip up).

After dinner I returned to my cabin, Room 2 of car 37. The Park had closed at 10:30 (if it was even open when we left, which I don’t know), but I decided to check anyway. The end gate had actually been put up across the first Chateau sleeper, discouraging coach passengers from trying to sleep in the open sections or even steal a roomette.

I slept surprisingly well once again, and woke up to find that we had been delayed by yet another hour overnight thanks to waiting for freights. This meant that I got to enjoy breathtaking views of the Matapedia valley, with trees covered in snow and the river mostly frozen, as I enjoyed my breakfast in the diner. We kept up a good pace for much of the day, but still remained well behind schedule.

Lunch service was also reduced to only one setting at 12:30. It was exclusively sleeper passengers with reservations, but this time basic Sleeper passengers were also invited along with Sleeper Plus, and in fact given a complimentary meal due to the delay. They also picked up Subway sandwiches and other snacks at Bathurst for all coach passengers.

Just as we were nearing Moncton (at around MP26 on the Newcastle Sub), we got stopped again. Apparently a snowmobile was on the tracks ahead of us and had got itself stuck on a small bridge. The crew ended up using the train to pull the snowmobile free, and after about 40min of delay and jostling, the snowmobile and its owner were left in the hands of the RCMP.  We then also had to wait for about another 15-20min due to issues with a switch just a few minutes out from Moncton. Thanks to all this and our further delays, we got up to running nearly 5 and a half hours late. It was well dark when we arrived in Moncton, so I didn’t see much beyond there. The Park attendant turned the lights on in the dome (and wouldn’t turn them off again), so that view was gone.

Due to the delay, VIA picked up extra meals for everyone going on past Moncton. This time it was very basic St. Hubert takeout (chicken with a baked potato, bun and sauce, and drinks). I enjoyed that in my room, picked up a cup of tea from the Park, and settled into bed to read for a while as we made our final way into Halifax. Final arrival in Halifax was at 10:49pm, warranting yet another travel credit to add to the list from this year’s Christmas travels. [Edit: I made good use of all of these!]

Overall, it was another excellent trip. I was very pleased with the onboard service, and had a very comfortable ride. The extra little things VIA does during delays, like bringing on extra complimentary snacks and meals, do really go the extra mile to help offset people’s displeasure at being so late. As I look at it, I got extra time on the train, still got where I was going the day I planned to (unlike the last trip!), and got a few extra perks and a travel credit out of the whole thing. In the end, I don’t have much to complain about.

Another excellent trip with VIA, and I already look forward to the next one!


So, there you have it. The first installment From the Archives. I'll plan to post more of these in the future, but for now, expect to see some new material very soon. Merry Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

VIA #14with classic Budd cars filling in for the usual Renaissance equipment, drops off passengers in Truro NS before making the final part of its trek to Halifax. Feb. 26, 2011