Wednesday 27 June 2018

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - to Ottawa and South - PART 1

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - to Ottawa and South
Renaissance cars on VIA 14, the Ocean, at Moncton NB.
The end of May 2018 saw me heading off on a rather hastily planned visit to the Nation’s Capital. I had been invited to attend the Transport Action Canada Annual General Meeting, and decided that I could make the trip up by air one way and by rail on the return. I hadn’t been expecting to make another VIA trip just yet, so this was a welcome opportunity. It would also give me a chance to check out a bit of the new O-Train Confederation Line, which is still months away from starting operations but is very much a part of the landscape.
I mention that this trip was rather hastily planned. It was, effectively, shoehorned in just before another trip which I had been planning for close to a year. A group of us from the Maritimes were planning to head south to Enfield CT, to attend the New England/Northeast Regional Prototype Modelers Meet (NERPM) on June 1-2. That would be a road trip (and a wildly fun one!) which would bring me into some new territory, and I hoped to catch plenty of passenger train action in the process. I was also hoping to squeeze in my first trip on Amtrak, and ultimately I would manage to make that happen.
So I’m going to post two parts to this report, the first heading off to Ottawa and back, and the second heading south of the border. The two trips aren’t inherently connected, but they happened so close together (with only a day back in Halifax in between) that I keep thinking of them as one adventure. So, here we go…
Part 1: Ottawa
On May 25th I left from work and headed straight to the airport. For several years now Halifax Transit has been running route 320, which connects downtown Halifax and Dartmouth to the airport. Anyone familiar with Halifax knows that the airport is a fair hike outside of town (just over 30km from downtown). For years, your only options to get there without a car were a ~$60+ cab ride, or the more sparsely scheduled airport shuttle buses and Acadian Lines/Maritime Bus buses, either of which would run you $20-30 one way. In May of 2012, then Metro Transit launched a new MetroX service to the airport via Fall River (with a park and ride facility built there). The bus is somewhat slower than other ways to get to the airport, as it makes its Fall River stop and meanders through the industrial park around the airport to provide service for people working there, but it works well, runs once an hour, provides service from downtown and the well-connected Dartmouth Bridge Terminal, and the cost is impossible to beat – the usual fare ($2.50 cash or a $2 ticket) plus $1 one way. The bus always seems to be well patronized, though much of that traffic is people working at the airport and using the Fall River park and ride. For people like me, it works extremely well, and I use it any time I am flying in or out of the city.

I arrived at the airport with some time to spare, so I grabbed something to eat and then headed through security. Halifax is a really nice airport to fly out of; it’s small enough to be easy to navigate, but big enough to have plenty of amenities (and good flight options). Security is usually pretty smooth, and the gate waiting areas are spacious and provide excellent views of the runways. While waiting for my flight there was a flurry of activity, and I had the chance to watch the usual mix of commercial flights plus the Nova Scotia EHS LifeFlight plane (with a friend of mine at the controls), a DFO patrol plane, and a C-130 Hercules. One of CN's private jets was also in town and I saw it elsewhere at the airport, but didn't get a chance for a photo.

EHS LifeFlight plane landing at YHZ.

DFO patrol (leased from PAL) taxiing at YHZ

A C-130 Hercules landing at YHZ. This particular afternoon brought quite a bit out of the ordinary.
Shortly before scheduled departure my plane arrived. I was flying with Porter; they offer direct flights to Ottawa from Halifax, but that plane typically originates in Newfoundland and then continues on to Toronto. My ride for today would be C-GLQF, Porter 805. I like Porter’s Q400s. They’re small planes, but the layout is spacious for what they are and the seats are comfy. The same cannot be said for WestJet’s version of the same plane, which uses less comfortable seats and has way too many crammed in (but I digress…)
My ride to Ottawa.
Porter still offers a complimentary snack and drinks in-flight. They recently changed their beer selection from Steamwhistle to Ace Hill (Light or Pilsner). It’s nothing to write home about, but any complimentary drink in an aircraft is enjoyable enough.
A drink in the sky, compliments of Porter (unfortunately not served by that little racoon guy)
The flight was a bit rough on the way up, but once we were above the clouds it was fairly smooth, and despite warnings about storm activity in Ottawa we landed without issue. As much as I prefer the train, I can’t deny that covering that distance in barely 2 hours is remarkable.
It's often hard to really effectively capture the impressive views from a plane through the tiny windows. There is still a part of me every flight that thinks about just how incredible it is that we are among the tiny fraction of people who've ever lived who have actually been able to see the clouds from above. Flight is an incredible thing, and perhaps more incredible is the way we take it for granted.
After the TAC AGM wrapped up on the 26th, one of the board members had arranged a walking/bus/train tour to check out the new O-Train construction, ride a bit of the Trillium line, and ultimately end up visiting the Ottawa Valley HOTrak setup. Our first bit of exploring took us by the Pimisi (formerly LeBreton) station, by the west portal of the downtown tunnel.
Looking from Pimisi station to the west portal of the downtown tunnel.
We then took a bus to Tunney’s Pasture, the west end of the first phase, where the track ends and the old Transitway begins. Just east of Tunney’s we had the chance to see one of the new Alstom Citadis LRT vehicles, which are currently testing on the line. These are set up as 4-car bidirectional sets that can be operated in service as coupled pairs. They are electric, running off overhead catenary.
End of track at Tunney's Pasture. Beyond the rails is the pavement of the former Transitway, blocked in by a berm that allows buses to enter the new Tunney's terminal. The conventional bus route continues beyond, though more of that will be converted to LRT in the upcoming western expansion.

Tunney's Pasture station. Note the tracks on plinths along the platform.

Impressive trackwork at the east end of Tunney's.

Those trains are electric. Watch out!

A train! One of the first completed Alstom Citadis LRT trains. There was a security guard posted by the fence to keep an eye on it while it sat here.
A quick bus ride then brought us back to Bayview station, which will be the transfer point between the Confederation (east-west electric) and Trillium (north-south diesel) lines. Of note, the existing Trillium line end of track is being extended to allow access to a new platform for transfers between the two lines, as well as to set up for the eventual connection to the Prince of Wales Bridge, where the line will run across to connect with Gatineau’s system (which is in the planning stages).
Bayview Station - enormous!

Current end of track for the Trillium Line. When the new Bayview station opens, the platform will be farther along on the left hand side.
New track going in at Bayview. This will be the platform for transfers between the Confederation Line and the Trillium Line, and ay the end you can see that ballast has been put down for the eventual future extension to the Prince of Wales bridge.
The ROW of the Confederation line by Bayview. Without context, you could easily mistake this for a high-speed mainline in Europe, with the catenary, well maintained ballast, and concrete ties.
From there we rode the train one station to Carling, before heading off for supper and a visit to the HOTrak setup. After all that, I decided to make an extra ride of my own, from Carling to Mooney’s Bay (formerly Confederation), and then back to Bayview to catch a bus.
O-Train Alstom Coradia LINT C4 heading north at Carling.

Clear signals, so C4 will head towards Bayview, with a meet with the southbound train a the passing track.

A sign at Mooney's Bay, indicating that all trains must stop for the station regardless of the signal. Ahead of this point is the diamond where the Trillium line crosses the VIA Rail line.

At each O-Train Trillium line station there is a platform spot sign to let the operator know where to stop. The platforms on this line were built farther away from the track to allow for freights to pass safely at night, back when the line was shared. Platform extenders were installed at the door openings, so it's important to have the train in the right spot.

Mooney's Bay, the former Confederation station. Greenboro south, Bayview north. There's only a single track here, so it's important to know which way your train is headed!

The train I got off has taken the siding, as the oncoming train passes on the main. In this shot it is crossing the VIA line at the diamond.

C9 arrives at Mooney's Bay en route to Bayview.

Inside a Trillium line Alstom LINT train. Very spacious, and comfy seats.

Looking forward at the front end of an Alstom LINT (C9). I miss the large clear doors behind the operator on the old Bomardier Talents!
The next day, after a short visit with family, I was off to the train station to make the longer trip home. VIA currently offers two connection options from Ottawa to catch the Ocean – VIA 26 and VIA 28. I opted for the earlier connection (26), in part because I’m paranoid, and in part because I never mind a few hours to hang around in Montreal.
Boarding the train at Ottawa I noted the first complete high platform.
High-level platform at Ottawa. This is the first part of significant renovations to make this station a more accessible and comfortable place to board trains.

Ramp at the end of the high-level platform.
VIA 26 was running as a mixed consist, with an LRC club car (actually, two LRC club cars) and HEP2 coaches. I was in coach 4117, and the ride was comfortable and smooth. I didn’t get numbers for the consist, but in general terms it was:
VIA 26 – May 27, 2018
P42 Locomotive
(01) LRC Club (Business class service)
(03) LRC Club (Economy service)
(04) HEP2 Coach (4117)
(05) HEP2 Coach
(06) HEP2 Coach

Inside HEP2 coach 4117, operating as car 04 on train 26. The Business class car is always numbered 01, then the first coach is numbered 03. The line number 02 never seems to be used, because a second Business class car, if added, is usually numbered 91. Mysteries of VIA line numbering.
 While the LRC cars have all been rearranged as 50/50 forward/backward seating (even if they still have the old seats), it doesn’t appear that this has been done with the HEP2s. It certainly wasn’t the case on this train, as all seats were forward facing. The HEP2s are currently undergoing an overhaul at the MMC to, among other things, re-do the club cars to the new Business class setup (like the LRCs), and ultimately replace seats and make minor upgrades to keep them in good shape.

The ride in this HEP2 was better than most LRCs I’ve recently been in. We made good time, with only brief stops at Alexandria and Dorval, and arrived in Montreal pretty well right on time.
At the station, I noted that in addition to the new VIA 40th anniversary branding, there are now large electronic screens at every gate. This replaces the old train boards, and gives them more flexibility to display different train information without physically changing signs. The ones at inactive platforms were running various VIA advertisements.
New electronic signs at every track gate in Montreal's Central Station.

Montreal, with plenty of VIA 40 years branding.

VIA 40 years branding on the main sign in Montreal.
After killing some time the call came for sleeping car passengers on VIA 14 to check in. There was a heck of a line, so it became quickly evident that the train would be busy. As it turned out, despite being ahead of the real peak season, this train was already an impressive length and sold out in the sleepers! Really sold out too – there was even someone in a wheelchair occupying the accessible room in 79526. Here’s the consist, with sleeper line numbers in brackets.

VIA 14 – May 27, 2018

6410 F40
6428 F40
7009 Baggage
7228 Coach
7226 Coach
70230 Coach (Accessible)
7200 Coach
7309 Service Car
7400 Diner
7314 Service Car
79526 (30) Sleeper (Accessible)
7517 (33) Sleeper
7500 (34) Sleeper (*Room 6)
7503 (35) Sleeper
7516 (36) Sleeper
7510 (37) Sleeper
7506 (38) Sleeper
7513 (39) Sleeper
7601 Transition
8202 Chateau Bienville (crew sleeper)
8711 Revelstoke Park (40)

This consist was already pretty close to peak lengths, but they have since added more equipment (up to 5 coaches and 9 sleepers) to the sets as the summer has begun. There is currently a Chateau sleeper on both Renaissance sets, being used as a crew sleeper to free up space in the Renaissance cars. This became common practice last year, and has been continuing fairly consistently. A few of the roomettes and bedrooms in that car were occupied by crew, but I didn't get a proper count.
Departure was on time from Montreal. When I got to my room I discovered two issues – first, there were no room keys (a minor issue, easily remedied), but more significantly, there was no water in the bathroom! Nothing from the tap, nothing from the shower. Hmm…  After alerting the attendant I soon found out that this was a problem in the whole car (7500, car 34). Fortunately this seemed to be due to work that was being done on one of the showers during servicing, and the water system just needed to be reset. The train rider (a standard feature on the Ocean now) was able to fix the problem by Drummondville, and everything worked smoothly for the rest of the trip. Apart from those little issues, I had nothing bad to note about that particular sleeper. Everything worked as it should, the interior was in reasonably good shape, and the ride in the Renaissance cars was as it should be – smooth and comfortable. 
Renaissance bedroom - Room 6 in daytime configuration.

Bathroom in a Renaissance sleeper, with shower (shower head to the right). There was no water here at first, but the problem was soon remedied.

Door to the hallway, bathroom to the right.

Renaissance bedroom - night configuration (in the daytime). The nice thing about these rooms it that you can easily raise and lower the bunks yourself, so you can change the setup whenever you want. Pro-tip: if you're travelling alone, it's still worth putting down the top bunk. The way it swings down provides more room by the wall. Pro-tip #2: to deal with rattles in the night, use the provided napkins to wedge into problem areas (note the right side of the picture, just below the bottom bunk...)
Something neat - this is the original accessible sleeper room that was built in the end of the Renaissance service cars. These were seldom used, as I believe VIA had some issues with them. Ultimately they would build new accessible rooms in the front of the first sleeper on each train, and the former rooms were converted to storage areas. This used to just mean a bunch of stuff got crammed in there, but now they have actually added cabinets and what appears to be a fridge.

The trip was generally really busy. I went for the second of the two dinner sittings (7 and 8:30), which was delayed ~15min as they cleared up from the first one, and the diner was full. They were using both ends of the car, which they often don’t do unless it’s very busy. Only one single 2-person table at the forward end was being used for crew purposes (on a quieter train, at least one 4-seater is also often used for paperwork).
Dinner menu. Prices are for any coach passengers who are allowed in to the diner. Sleeper tickets include all meals.

Dinner - pan-fried turbot.

Dessert - a pretty astounding chocolate cake.
Supper itself was really excellent, as were both breakfast and lunch the next day. Once again, anyone who continues to insist that you can’t get a good meal in a Renaissance dining car either hasn’t been on the train in years, has been really unlucky, or is just determined that they will not enjoy anything.
Despite long stops at St. Lambert and St. Hyacinthe, we arrived at Ste-Foy 20 minutes early. This sort of performance kept up along the trip, as we were consistently on time or early along the way, and would ultimately make our final arrival in Halifax 4 minutes ahead of schedule.

The train at Ste-Foy, with some rain falling. A heck of a lot warmer than when I was here in January...
I spent a while in the Park car seeing what I could in the dark, and then decided to head off to bed. The Park was sparsely occupied leaving Montreal and through the evening, but it was jam-packed all the next morning, finally thinning out over lunch and picking up again towards Halifax. It was generally busiest between meals.

The next morning we were running on time, and I headed for breakfast around 8am. There was a ~10min wait for a table, as it was once again very busy in the diner. Later on at lunch the service car was packed full of people waiting for the call. Once actually seated, the service was quite speedy at all 3 meals.

Morning view, along the Baie-des-Chaleurs.
Breakfast menu.

Potato and leek quiche. Those sausages honestly seemed like they'd come straight out of a frying pan - you'd never guess they were catered and re-heated.
For much of the morning I hung out in the lower level of the Park car, and worked away at some Transport Action Atlantic work (our president happened to be on the same train, returning from the same meeting, so we used the time to be quite productive!). I went for the first lunch sitting, normally reserved for Moncton/Sackville-bound passengers, so that we could continue to discuss things as we ate.

The crowded dome, approaching the first bridge over the Miramichi.

Construction staging area for work on the Miramichi river bridges.

Work crews are preparing to do major structural maintenance work on the Miramichi bridges, a critical piece of infrastructure to keep this line operating.
Lunch menu.

Lunch - paneer tikka masala. Downright fantastic!

Mille-feuille for dessert.
At Moncton we had a meet with CN 407 during our station stop, conveniently timed so as not to delay us at all. After it cleared we backed out of the station to the main (common practice these days to use the CTC-controlled rather than hand-thrown switch), and continued onwards.

VIA 14, the Ocean, at Moncton NB. I can never resist a photo from this view.

Renaissance to Budd transition...the British dimensions really show!

CN 407 passes by, as one of the engineers from VIA 14 performs a roll-by inspection.

Connections between Renaissance cars. There's a lot going on...
It turned out that a good chunk of the sleeper passengers (probably 2 cars worth) were a tour group going to Sackville NB, where a chartered Maritime Bus was waiting on the platform to pick them up. I assume they were probably heading on to PEI, but I never found out for sure.

A chartered bus picks up the large tour group at Sackville NB.
The rest of the day was really lovely, so I spent some time in the Park car dome (now that it had thinned out!), and also ended up taking a nap through part of the afternoon (an advantage of knowing the route well…there are some parts you know you won’t see anything too interesting!). There really isn’t a whole lot more to report – things were comfortable and smooth, and we made excellent time to Halifax, arriving 4 minutes early.
A rare moment of quiet on this trip - lunch is on and a bunch of people left after Moncton, so the Park car dome is actually almost empty! A good chance for a photo, and a short-lived one, as it filled up again pretty soon after.

Curving around on the Tantramar marsh.

Full train - another view that's hard to beat.

Windmills before Amherst, crossing back into NS.

Forward dome view. VIA could really do to wash the windows on the Ocean's domes now and then. Compared to the careful treatment on the Canadian, they're a mess. The one on the left has also clearly lost its seal, and is fogged between the panes.

Grand Lake NS, nearing Halifax.

The Bedford Basin, with Dartmouth and the MacKay bridge in view.

Didn't see a whole lot of freight on this trip, particularly in the daylight. Here's the power for CN 121, resting at Fairview before their evening departure.

Renaissance accessible sleeper 79515 and Chateau Lasalle rest by the platform in Halifax. I assume they're here for crew training, though I haven't confirmed that.
Renaissance accessible sleeper 79515 and Chateau Lasalle rest by the platform in Halifax. I assume they're here for crew training, though I haven't confirmed that.
VIA 14 has arrived in Halifax. The station and platforms are beginning some major renovation work, hence the signs (perhaps sidewalk isn't the appropriate term...)

There we have it. Another nice trip, and enjoyable, relaxing (and uneventful) ride back on VIA 14.

After a quick bus ride I was home, and looking at only a day before I would head off on the next part of this adventure!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we'll get into some truly new territory...
A sneak peak at things to come...

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