Wednesday 5 December 2018

A Miscellaneous Mish-Mash of Modes


The holidays are fast approaching, and as usual for me, that will involve train travel to and from Ottawa to visit family for Christmas. This is easily my favourite time of year to be on the train – there’s just something about the festive atmosphere that makes it especially enjoyable. With that trip coming up soon, I figured that it would probably be a good idea to put together a post covering some other travels of mine over the last two months, before I end up feeling like I should report on this next trip instead!

This particular post is going to be, as titled, a bit of a mish-mash of modes. Sure, there’s some train content, but I thought it might be neat to spice things up a little and talk about the other means of transportation that I worked in. So come along as we travel by air, rail, and sea...

…by AIR

We begin on October 12th. I was heading to Ottawa for a weekend and needed to be around for the full day on Saturday, so a Halifax to Ottawa flight on Friday afternoon made the most sense. This route is quite well served these days, with a good range of direct flights from Air Canada, Porter, and WestJet. My experience (very much confirmed while planning this trip) is that there is very little fare difference between the three – even when one announces a sale, the others tend to match the price within hours or a day or so. So it really comes down to the rest of the package.

I’ve typically liked to fly with Porter because they offer some extra little perks – namely free drinks (including alcohol) and snacks during the flight – and their Q400s are quite comfortable, thanks to their choice to put in comfortable and well-spaced seats. They also have a nice lounge at the Ottawa airport, though nothing at the Halifax end. I’ve also found their rewards program to be fairly reasonable (I’ve been able to get a substantial discount on one flight so far).

Air Canada offers more flight options through the day, and fly a variety of aircraft on the route. You don’t get much, but many of their planes have seat-back entertainment that Porter doesn’t offer. I am a fan of their little CRJs and Dash 8s – while small, they have pretty good seats.

WestJet doesn’t have as many flight options, but they are generally known for good customer service. They offer both standard flights and WestJet “Encore” – this service flies with Q400s, but they feature the opposite of everything that Porter’s Q400s have. The seats are small, hard, and crammed ridiculously tightly together. After one flight on one earlier this year, I have decided to avoid Encore at all costs. In this instance, however, I noticed that there was a regular WestJet mid-afternoon flight that fit my schedule well, and happened to be operating with the brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8. These planes are the newest version of the 737 platform, which WestJet built their initial fleet around. The MAX 8 incorporates  new features like better noise suppression systems, quieter engines, and Boeing’s “sky interior” cabin design. After being very impressed with the new 787 Dreamliner I flew on last year, I figured I would like to give this a try. So WestJet it would be. [Edit: This was just a few weeks before the first of a pair of tragic crashes involving 737 MAX aircraft, which would ultimately expose critical safety flaws in the planes and lead to the global fleet being grounded. Boeing is in the process of trying to address the issues, but more flaws have been identified and the future of these planes is unclear. The grounding has caused major scheduling issues for airlines including WestJet and Air Canada, who have at least temporarily lost a substantial chunk of their narrow-body fleets]

I headed off to the airport on Halifax Transit’s MetroX route 320 service, which runs to the airport from downtown via Fall River. This bus is still a pretty recent addition, and I absolutely love it. The fare is just a dollar above the regular fare (a total of $3.50 cash or $3 if you use a bus ticket), and the ride takes just over half an hour from the Dartmouth Bridge Terminal. Sure beats a $60 cab ride…

I’ve always quite liked Halifax airport, and recent renovations and additions have made it an even nicer place to be (the only exception being the temporary closure of the upper level viewing deck). It’s not too big, it’s easy to find your way around, and there’s a pretty excellent assortment of shops and services on both sides of security.
One of the best new additions to the Halifax airport - Liquid Assets is a liquor store selling local beer, wine and spirits. It's after security, so you can actually buy things and take them in your carry-on baggage (as long as you left space!). They just ask that you don't drink it on the plane.

Security screening was a bit slow on this particular day due to the installation of some new equipment. The waiting area at the gate was also crowded, due to a couple of flights departing from adjacent gates at nearly the same time. Aside from that the boarding experience was pretty smooth, and I made my way to my seat near the rear of the plane. The 737 is a single aisle aircraft with 3+3 seating. I was in an aisle seat, and it soon became clear that no one was going to be in the middle or window seat. After confirming this with the attendant, I slipped in to the window seat, enjoying the extra space I was lucky enough to have. The economy seating in WestJet’s MAX 8 is pretty decent. They are using the newer slimline seats, which are relatively hard and certainly not luxurious; but the seat pitch is acceptable, and I felt like it would have been perfectly comfortable for a 2h flight – especially when I suddenly had extra room and could spread out!

Just as I was getting comfortable the flight attendant came back and informed me, much to my surprise, that they actually had a “Plus” seat up front for me, if I wanted it. The “Plus” seats are still in Economy, but have more legroom and appear to be a bit comfier. Never one to turn down an offer like this, I picked up my bags and started toward the front. Even more to my surprise, as I reached the front I was informed that I was actually being move to the Premium section, which is WestJet’s first-class offering. Premium features seats with more legroom and an adjustable headrest, as well as a filler placed in the middle seat to create a 2+2 setup with even more room (this is soon to be replaced with larger 2+2 seating). Clearly there was a shortage of people in Premium on this flight, so they pulled a few people up to fill out the space – I certainly wasn’t complaining!


A centre divider is placed into the middle seat, providing more space (and cup holders), as well as functionally making it 2+2 seating.

Looking forward. You can see the blue-toned lights on the ceiling and walls, which are part of the "sky interior" and provide a nice ambience in flight. The dedicated washroom for the premium section is just ahead to the left.

Check out the leg room! Very much comparable to what I had in Air Canada's Premium Economy offering on their 787s. You basically have two windows to yourself, and as you can see here, the headrest is adjustable (something the regular economy seats lack).

The service on a short flight like this was actually quite a bit like Porter’s economy service – you get to choose from a selection of free drinks (including alcohol), and various snacks. A dedicated attendant serves the passengers in this section, and I found she was extremely attentive. My drink was replaced the first time before I could even ask. There was also a second and even third offering of snacks during the flight.


Granville Island pale ale and the first round of snacks.

The full drink menu - all complimentary, of course. Something for everyone!

Coffee, and a top up of snacks - and there was much more on offer.

The other perks of Premium are a dedicated washroom at the front of the cabin (still as tiny as the others…), and being seated at the front means that you’re first off the plane. So after a smooth flight through mostly sunny skies (once we got above the canopy leaving Halifax) and an on-time arrival in Ottawa, I was off the plane in short order. I did find the MAX 8 to be quite comfortable, and remarkably quiet during the flight. The sky interior lighting, which was set to a light blue throughout the flight, did make for a nice atmosphere. I also tried out WestJet’s in-flight entertainment system, which is accessed via their app on a mobile device, laptop or tablet (I used my phone). You basically connect the app to a WiFi signal in the plane, and then have access to a variety of entertainment options. I found that it worked incredibly smoothly, and was considerably better than even Air Canada’s newest offerings.

Dark skies over Halifax - heavy rain in the forecast had me worried, but we took off without issue.

A bit further along, the cloud cover far below changed to look almost like a pillowy bed, or rolling snow-covered hills.

Looking back - the new engines really are remarkably quiet. Also note the added split wing-tip, a new feature on this generation of the 737.

Clearer skies over the Ottawa valley, nearly there.
My plane in Ottawa, sporting the newest version of the WestJet livery.


…by RAIL


At the end of the weekend I departed Ottawa to head back by train. I had decided to take advantage of the excellent fares offered in Economy class to make the trip back in much cheaper accommodations. A lot of people think of the train as being expensive – this can be true if you’re travelling in sleeper class, and with good reason, as you’re paying for a lot more than just basic transportation. Still, there are deals to be had. One thing a lot of people seem to miss is that Economy can actually be much cheaper than flying. An average Economy ticket from Halifax to Montreal, for example, can routinely be had in the $110-130 range one way. Compare that to the average $200 cheap flights. Sure, it’s a longer trip, but it’s not a bad option. It had been several years since I made a full trip on the Ocean in Economy, so I was interested to see how it would compare.

First off I had to get from Ottawa to Montreal. I took the earlier connecting option (VIA 26) so that I would have a bit of time in Montreal.


Ottawa station.

One of VIA's particularly clever new ads.

Some of the VIA 40th anniversary branding in Ottawa station. I really like this particular campaign.

Another train behind ours - not sure of the number, but I believe this had just arrived from Toronto. Note the rack of marker paddles to the right hand side.

The consist, with incomplete numbers was:

VIA 26 - October 14, 2018
LRC Club (Business class)
LRC Club (economy service)
HEP2 Coach (4105 – seat 6D)
HEP2 Coach
HEP1 Coach

The trip to Montreal was mostly pretty smooth. I had a good window seat in a HEP2 with the old seating (these are being refurbished right now), all forward-facing. There was a woman next to me at first but she asked to move to an empty quad seater to have more room to stretch out, so I ended up with plenty of space. We had a brief stop near Glen Robertson where a crew was working on a crossing, but otherwise we made it to Montreal just slightly behind schedule. Ride quality seemed pretty decent.


Typical farmland views heading southwest from Ottawa.

More farm views through the opposite side of the train.

Passing an AMT (well, "EXO" actually) train before Dorval. No sign of the new branding on this one, yet...

View inside a HEP2 coach. This is one of the ex-Southern Pacific cars with distinctive small windows. The HEP2s are currently undergoing a refurbishment program which will give them seats matching the new LRC interiors (2+2 in Economy and 2+1 in Business). While I like the space and general setup of the new interiors, I still think these old seats are comfier.

Track 13, boarding for train 14. Note the new electronic signs that were recently installed. It wasn't this dark in the station - my camera just decided to pick up the bright lights of the new sign and the classic flashing platform sign.
The most notable thing about this trip was that as of Oct. 10th, VIA has added assigned seating in Economy class on the Ocean, making this one of the first trips where this was in place. As a result, the coaches are prominently wearing line numbers (on cards in the door windows, same as the sleepers). I recall seeing some line numbering of coaches in the past, but it wasn't always that consistent and often wasn't displayed, and most of the time passengers weren't being informed what numbered coach they were in. It was just a matter of the crew grouping people into cars based on their destinations. I found the seat assignment worked very smoothly. I would normally line up early in Montreal to ensure I could get a seat that I wanted, but this time I just showed up mid-way through boarding and found my seat with no issue. Passengers did seem to be respecting the assignments, and I only noticed one case where someone had taken a seat they weren't meant to (someone with an aisle seat moved to a window and had to be displaced at a later stop). There was at least one couple that had ended up with separate assignments and asked to move to sit together, and the crew were able to accommodate. All in all, it seemed well accepted and well-functioning, and it did seem to make it easier for the crew. There was an announcement on board to remind people that seat assignment had been implemented, and asking them to please respect the assignments (similar to announcements on many Corridor trains). 
Ocean sleepers ready for boarding in Montreal.

Boarding the train in Montreal.
Line numbering is consistent with the Corridor. The first coach will be numbered 3, and since there is no Business class there will be no car 1. VIA never uses the line number 2, even with additional Business class cars (they number them 91). 

VIA 14 - October 14, 2018
7009 Baggage
7228 (03) Coach
7226 (04) Coach
70230 (05) Accessible Coach
7208 (06) Coach
7309 Service Car
7400 Diner
7308 Service Car
79526 (30) Accessible Sleeper
7509 (32) Sleeper
7517 (33) Sleeper
7522 (34) Sleeper
7503 (35) Sleeper
7510 (36) Sleeper
7506 (37) Sleeper
7513 (38) Sleeper
7516 (39) Sleeper
7601 Transition
8202 Chateau Bienville (crew)
8716 Tweedsmuir Park (40)

The train wasn't full, but there was still a good load with passengers in all four coaches and a sizable sleeper load. There was still a fair bit of tourist traffic for the fall colours, but it was starting to tail off, and this was to be the last peak-length train for the season. 

Breakfast on the Ocean - Economy passengers have limited access to the dining car if there is space. My general experience is that you can quite reliably get in for breakfast in either direction, lunch out of Halifax, and occasionally for other meals on quiet trips.

The trip was smooth and quite uneventful, and we arrived about 10 minutes early in Halifax. I didn’t do any thorough photographing through the train itself (I had meant to get a good shot in the coaches, but I forgot!), but I did take some photos of the passing scenery.

Morning views between Matapedia and Campbellton.

Campbellton - a scale test car on a flat car makes for an unusual view in front of the Campbellton bridge, and the orange and red hillside beyond.
Baie des Chaleurs, looking to Gaspé.
Crossing one of many smaller rivers through the New Brunswick wilderness.
Work crews on the Miramichi - barges are being used for repair work on the bridge.

Sunny skies in Moncton - Park car on the tail, and crew Chateau just ahead.

Some gloomier clouds over the rolling farmlands south of Truro.

One of the many gorgeous lakes that the train passes on the final approach to Halifax. Plus bonus utility lines.

VIA 14 after arrival in Halifax.
Inside Halifax station (this was actually from the next day, and not after arrival - hence the lack of people). The roof is being extensively worked on, so they have put in a temporary drop ceiling and scaffolding. They've actually done a pretty nice job of hiding much of the construction work, and have added some images meant to look like they're through the window of a train.

…by SEA

November 8, 2018

So there’s two modes covered, but a little over a month later there was one more in store! I was travelling for work to Saint George New Brunswick, and it happened to work out that it made sense to take the ferry across from Digby to Saint John. I had never taken this ferry before, so I was quite excited to have the opportunity to try it out.

Bay Ferries operates this ferry service.  This is a subsidiary of Northumberland Ferries, which operates the ferries between PEI and Caribou NS. Bay Ferries also operates the Yarmouth to Portland CAT ferry. The Digby-Saint John service has its earliest roots in the steamship service operated by the Dominion Atlantic Railway and then Canadian Pacific (of which the DAR was a subsidiary). There have been plenty of changes over the many decades of operation, leading up to the current service, and I don’t know it all that well so I won’t dive into it here. The most relevant information is that the ferry now operates a year-round service, with multiple crossings at some times of year and single sailings in each direction during the quieter months. It is operated by a single vessel, which limits how many crossings can be made.

This route was served for decades by the venerable Princess of Acadia, a CPR vessel which finally reached the end of its sailing career in 2015. It was replaced by the current vessel, a South Korean-built Greek ferry formerly named the Blue Star Ithaki, which now bears the name MV Fundy Rose (named after Rose Fortune, an important historical figure from the Annapolis Valley).

Deck plans for the Fundy Rose.
Bay Ferries recommends that all passengers should make reservations, and has set a cut-off check-in time of one hour before departure. I arrived at the Digby terminal just before that one hour cut-off, and found the setup there to be a little bit confusing. There are booths that were clearly used for check-in at some point in time (maybe in the summer?), but those were closed up. Someone was able to direct me to park near the main terminal and go inside to check-in, which ended up being a smooth process. I was then sent back out to drive into line and wait to board, which would only be about 10 minutes later. The terminal itself was quite spacious and well laid out. The ferry sees plenty of walk-on passengers, so the terminal serves as a good waiting area for them. Passengers don’t walk directly on to the ferry – they board a shuttle bus, which drives them on board.

Loading ramp lifting, the ferry prepares to cast off. The terminal design is quite impressive, as it has to be able to accommodate the dramatic tides of the Bay of Fundy, which make the loading height considerably different throughout the day (note the visible high water mark on the walls to the left).
 The vehicle decks are of an interesting design. Boarding at Digby is from the stern, and smaller vehicles drive up a steep ramp on the left side of the vessel after entering. This brought me to the upper deck, where I was then directed to drive around in a loop and into a final parking position. This would prove to be far more interesting at the other end…

Inside the upper vehicle deck. The yellow area on the left is the ramp - while loading, the near end of it was dropped down. When unloading, the front end of it dropped down. The whole thing tilts like a long teeter-totter. To the right is a central area where elevators, stairs and escalators are located. There are more lanes for vehicle parking on the right hand side.

Leaving the car I headed upstairs to explore the vessel. I must say that I was quite impressed with the layout. There are quite nice forward lounges with a view over the bow, a large seating area with reclining “airline” style seats, smaller lounge spaces with TVs, a dedicated truckers lounge, booth style seats, and two rear decks with lots of space and patio-style chairs. The upper rear deck has a bar that would be open in the summer, and the lower rear deck provides a smoking area. There is a small bit of open deck on the right side of the ferry, but no outside area with a good forward view.

One of the lounges near the front of the vessel.

Looking to the front - the large windows give a view directly over the bow. There are three distinct lounge areas in this forward area.
Looking forward from the lounge.

Moving to around mid-ship we have this large seating area with airline style seats, generously spaced and in a 2+4+2 layout.

Looking forward in the main comfier seating area. The TVs played a movie (at relatively low volume), and the windows on the left give a view out to sea.

The rear upper open deck. Patio style chairs were stacked along the edges and available to use.

Looking forward on the rear deck. There is a bar/café that would be open in the summer, and a nice mix of fully open and partially enclosed areas.

As far forward as you can go outside - this deck extends up the right hand side.
Looking back along the right hand outer deck.

Stairs between decks, and lots of flashy colours!

Escalators from the lower decks.
Inside there is a JavaMoose café serving coffee and snacks, and a full cafeteria serving a variety of meals. I had my supper there, which was perfectly alright – comparable to what you’d expect from a cafeteria, but nothing to get overly excited about. There is also a small gift shop, which opened briefly during the crossing.

Java Moose café, immediately behind the forward lounges. The gift shop is just off to the right.

Cafeteria at the rear end.

Lunch/dinner menu at the cafeteria.
The trip takes 2h15min. We left a good 20 minutes ahead of schedule (which is why being on time for the one hour cutoff is important!), and made good time to Saint John. The crossing was a little bit choppy and quite blustery (and cold!) outside, but not too bad. I spent a good bit of time outside (with a nice warm coffee in hand!), and also explored the various parts of the vessel and tried out all of the seating areas at some point. I quite enjoyed the forward lounge, and found that the airline-style seating section was probably the most comfortable to just sit down and stretch out (seat pitch was much more like on a long distance train than a plane).

The passenger load was light, though still enough that the boat felt well populated. I did have to wonder what it would be like in the summer when it’s quite full. There were a good number of truckers on board, many of whom congregated together in the cafeteria through supper time.

The best thing about the crossing was watching the sunset as we left Digby – I’ll let the photos speak for themselves!

Leaving the dock in Digby.

Sunset on the Annapolis Basin.

Sunset on the Bay of Fundy.

Wind turbines west of Digby.

More sunset - it was really difficult to get a shot with the flag extended, as it was quite choppy!

Looking back over the side - the Fundy Rose signs are illuminated.
Unloading at the Saint John end was interesting – the ramp that we entered on turns out to be reversible. During the crossing it lifts up so it’s basically flat with the rest of the deck, then it lowers at the opposite end to let cars descend toward the bow, as unloading is through the front at Saint John. This all made for an interesting experience, as most cars had to make the loop around on the upper deck to get to the other end of the ramp. That involves some very tight turns! In the end it all worked smoothly, and a few minutes driving later I was at my hotel.
Arriving in Saint John NB.

The Saint John ferry dock.

So all in all, a most enjoyable trip – certainly far more pleasant than the drive all the way around! I would definitely recommend the ferry to anyone who’s making the trek around and who would like to avoid having to drive as much. Even with having to arrive early, the travel time was comparable, especially if you factor in having to stop somewhere to eat during the drive. Yes, it’s more expensive (though you do save a good bit on gas), but at the end of the day you’re paying for the convenience of getting to relax and enjoy the travelling instead of being behind the wheel. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to consider, especially if it’s only an occasional trip!

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

So there you have it, a bit of air, rail, and sea travel, all rolled up into one. I expect I’ll be back to posting something when I return after Christmas, with another (hopefully enjoyable!) holiday train trip under my belt.


Until then, enjoy the colder days, and travel safely!