Monday 30 September 2019

A Mixed-up Ocean

As September rolled around, I prepared to celebrate one of those milestone birthdays - you know, the ones that our base 10 thinking tells us are more important than the year before or after – and I figured that I should try to do something significant to mark the occasion. Of course I quickly decided that the best way to do so would be on board a train; but which one?

After much deliberation, I decided that it would be most enjoyable on board the Ocean – my stand-by train, one that I’ve travelled on so often that it feels comfortable, like a second home (on rails). The plan would be to start off in Halifax on Friday, riding all the way to Montreal, then spending a few hours there before catching a Corridor train back to Quebec City. Then spend the night and next day in Quebec, leaving on Sunday night’s train from Ste-Foy.

This would make for a relaxed and train-heavy long weekend, would get me in to Gare du Palais for the first time, and would still allow for plenty of time to explore and enjoy the old city.

As an added bonus, the train in each direction would be operating with the “Mix” equipment that VIA has been running on one Ocean train all summer – mostly HEP, but with a block of Renaissance cars in the middle of the train (see the previous post for photos of this unique train). I had been very eager to ride this particular setup, so it made the trip even more exciting.

We departed from Halifax under sunny skies, but slightly cooler temperatures than are usual for this time of year. Hurricane Dorian had rolled through Halifax the previous weekend, causing full day delays to trains – we were glad it was well out of the way so as not to interfere with our trip!

Departure time was changed for the summer to 12:45 instead of the usual 1pm, to allow extra time to combine the train before departure, as the long summer consists had to be split to fit on the station platform. However, our train was all in one section – a HEP coach had been removed (coach traffic quiets down after school is back, while the sleepers stay busy with tourist traffic through October), so the train could now fit on the platform. When we departed, I noticed that an extension had been added to one platform to allow access to the baggage car on a slightly longer train.

Check in and the boarding call took place by around 12:20. As we headed out on to the platform, we noted the always impressive Queen Mary 2 in the background, making a Halifax call. It was a decent walk up to our sleeper, the very first of the HEP section, and then we boarded and got settled in to bedroom D of Chateau Rigaud.

Mixed train in the station - the Renaissance block in the middle does really look rather incongruous with the rest.

Queen Mary 2 as backdrop. When the Chateau sleepers in the foreground were built, transatlantic ocean liners were in their final days, as air traffic would pick up in the following decades. Though nearly half a century younger, the Queen Mary 2 is the last vestige of that lineage in service today. 

The Ocean and the ocean liner. 

The consist follows:

VIA 15 – September 13, 2019
6409 F40 Locomotive
6456 F40 Locomotive
8622 HEP1 Baggage
8137 (03) HEP1 Coach
8140 (04) HEP1 Coach
8138 (05) HEP1 Coach
7601 Renaissance Transition Car
70217 (07) Renaissance Accessible Coach
7309 Renaissance Service Car
7401 Renaissance Dining Car
7314 Renaissance Service Car
79515 (30) Renaissance Accessible Sleeper
7512 (31) Renaissance Sleeper
7602 Renaissance Transition Car
Chateau Rigaud (34) *Room D
Chateau Laval (35)
Chateau Montcalm (36)
Chateau Dollier (37)
Chateau Marquette (38)
Chateau Bienville (39)
Assiniboine Park (40) 

*Line numbers in brackets. Bedrooms in several of the Chateau sleepers were refurbished. Note that the 30-31 numbering on the Ren sleepers is unusual, as the typical line numbering has 30 as the first sleeper and all others sequentially numbered down from 40 at the rear. The coach line numbering is also interesting – the accessible Ren coach has been kept as 07, and the other cars have been numbered from 03. The sequence was complete for much of the summer when a fourth HEP coach was included.

The mixed consist has created some challenges for the crew, working with two different types of equipment. One thing that hadn’t occurred to me before is that the PA systems don’t work between the two types of equipment. Normally, this means that separate announcements need to be made in the Park car. In this case, all on board announcements have to be made 3 times – once in the HEP coaches, once in the Renaissance block, and once in the HEP sleepers!

On walking through the train, I noted that the bedrooms and drawing rooms in several Chateau sleepers were refurbished. This was the case in Laval and Montcalm for sure, but Chateau Rigaud was entirely in its late-90s interior décor. As has been the case on other recent Chateau trips, the sleepers could clearly use some attention and proper refurbishment. Everything worked properly in our car, and the seats and beds were comfortable, but the upholstery is clearly wearing and the cars are looking and feeling old. Having said that, the ride in Rigaud was quite good. 

Partially refurbished drawing room in Chateau Montcalm - not our room, though I wish it were!

Refurbished seats in the drawing room of Chateau Montcalm. Several sleepers had this new upholstery and decor, while our car (Rigaud) still had the '90s era blue and pink. 
I didn’t take any detailed photos inside our room on this occasion, as I’ve covered those in past trips. Have a scroll back if you’d like to see more photos of a Chateau bedroom (even specifically Room D, during last Christmas’ travels).

There was a decent crowd on board from Halifax, and we would pick up more along the way. Still, the train was far from full. This would very much not be the case on the return trip…

We departed “late”, but technically right on the planned departure time of 1pm. As we left town, I was amazed by the treatment we received from CN. Normally the Ocean has to stop to throw one switch heading in to the rock cut, and another near Fairview Jct – on this occasion both were already in the proper position, so we made good time out of downtown. CN 120 had already arrived at Rockingham, and the main was clear as we headed through. As we approached Milford, CN 511 (the Milford-Wright’s Cove gypsum train) was waiting at the mine as we blew past. Even more amazingly, before we reached Truro we *passed* CN 407 at Alton – the Dartmouth-Moncton train was running late ahead of us, so rather than forcing us to slow down and wait behind them as they got in to the Truro yard, they took the siding and let us overtake them. I could hardly believe it…so this is what passenger trains getting priority feels like!

Departing under beautiful skies. 
Platform extension at Halifax - this end appears to have been added fairly recently, to allow a slightly longer train to be serviced on two of the station tracks. In the background are two Renaissance coaches damaged in last November's derailment, which are slowly being parted out. 

Passing CN 120 at Rockingham.

Containers at Rockingham, along the Bedford Basin. 

CN 511 waiting at the Milford gypsum mine as we blast through.

In rather unusual fashion, we're the ones sailing past these autoracks - not the other way around!

Now that we've passed, CN 407 prepares to leave the siding at Alton to follow us towards Truro.
We opted for the second lunch sitting at 2:45. Heading up from our sleeper to the dining car was a strange experience in this mixed consist. Leaving the first Chateau, you make the walk through the transition car’s long empty corridor. It’s much like heading forward from the Park car on a conventional Ocean consist. Then it’s on to the two Renaissance sleepers, and before you know it you’ve arrived at the rear service car, and on to the diner.

One of the nice things about the Renaissance diners is the availability of 2-person tables, for folks travelling as couples. The other benefit is that the current catered meal service is much more efficiently prepared and served in a Renaissance diner than it is in a HEP diner (or Skyline, as we had in the spring!). Since HEP equipment has become a more regular feature substituting on the Ocean, VIA dropped the on-board cooking that they used to offer on Christmas extras, and has gone to catered meals at all times – so may as well have a Renaissance diner.

Lunch was quite decent. Photos cover the menu and contents, just missing a photo of the mille-feuille (see that in the return trip).

Lunch menu. 

Renaissance dining car - 4-seater side. Still loving the teal tablecloths, which were introduced a couple of years ago. 

Seafood chowder.

Salmon nicoise salad, served cold. Enjoyable, though the potatoes were a little odd. 
As the afternoon wore on, we enjoyed a wine and cheese tasting in the Park car, and interesting stories from the Park car learning coordinator – though geared towards tourists, there were still some interesting tidbits for those of us who live in the region. 

The late afternoon and evening were relaxed, and we continued to make good time. The views outside were lovely, and a surprising number of leaves had begun to change with the cooler temperatures. 

Quiet in the Park car dome. It would pick up in here shortly, when the first lunch sitting wrapped up, but would never become as busy as on the return trip. 

Sun on the marshes, heading to New Brunswick. 

Late afternoon sun on the Tantramar marsh - these views never get old. 
Refuelling at Moncton. 

Bogs in New Brunswick. Someday I'll spot a moose here. Someday...

Miramichi river sunset.

Miramichi river sunset, take 2 - bridge edition. 
Dinner reservations were taken for 5:15 and 7:45 – only two sittings, as the crowd wasn’t quite big enough to justify a third. Having had such a late lunch we opted for the second, and were glad we did! Supper, like lunch before it, was quite good.

Dinner menu.

Smoked fish appetizer.

Honey pecan chicken - an excellent choice!

Chocolate caramel cake - this has been the defacto supper dessert on the Ocean for a while now. Not a bad option by any means, though I do kind of hope they change it up soon. 
After supper we returned to the Park car, and enjoyed the views from the darkened dome as we made our way through the last part of New Brunswick. We had a brief delay leaving Campbellton, as we waited on an eastbound freight to arrive in the yard.

The Park developed a quite lively social atmosphere that evening. There was no live musician, but someone put on a selection of Stan Rogers music through a small portable speaker, and a good sized crowd in the rear lounge seemed to be enjoying themselves wholeheartedly. Eventually we made our way back to the room for the night, where I slept reasonably soundly in the spacious and comfortable upper bunk.

Morning arrived with grey skies and a forecast of rain, and I wandered up for breakfast shortly before the last call. As usual, the breakfast in this direction was absolutely superb!

Stylish breakfast menu.

Breakfast options - the french toast options are consistently good, though the eggs also tend to turn out well. 

Banana bread french toast - superb!

Arrival in Montreal was on time to the minute.

Heading upstairs, we dropped our bags off at the baggage counter for storage, and headed out to explore a bit of downtown Montreal. After a few hours out in the cool, slightly damp day, we returned to Gare Centrale to board VIA 624. This train was exceptionally busy, and there was a bit of confusion because of a last minute equipment change. Up until a few days earlier, that train was intended to be a mixed consist (LRC+HEP2) with two Business Class cars – we were to be in the second car, Car 91. A few days before the trip we got a notice that this had been changed; the consist would now be all HEP2, with only a single non-refurbished HEP2 club in Business Class service.

Given that the HEP2s are all being refurbished, I was glad to get at least one more chance to ride a club car with the old interior. The cars are 2+2, and while the layout isn’t nearly as nice as the refurbished cars (armrest tables are a particular drawback), the seats are considerably more comfortable.

It hasn't been called VIA 1 for a long time now, but this iconic branding still graces the non-refurbished HEP2 club cars. I'll be sad to see that logo disappear. 

I foolishly didn’t get a consist for our train. We had P42 #915 leading, and the train was entirely HEP2s. With the exception of our club car, the rest of the HEP2s were refurbished with the new LRC style seats and 50/50 forward/back seating layout. They looked very nice from the outside, but I didn’t get a chance to tour inside.

The train was very busy, in large part due to a host of tour passengers heading to Quebec to board cruise ships. Because there were so many cruise passengers, many people had large suitcases. With no checked baggage service, luggage space on board was sparse. In our car, one bathroom was closed off to be used just for storing bags!

As this is an Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec train, we first had to back out from the station before heading forward across the Victoria bridge. After that the trip was quite uneventful, as many Corridor trains are. The Business Class service was excellent as usual, with a good meal and attentive service. The old HEP2 seats were comfortable, but the inconvenience of the armrest tables and more limited space did make a case for the benefits of the new interior layouts.
Business class meal - cold option, thoroughly enjoyable, though the armrest mounted tables aren't ideal. 

Views by Cap-Rouge - I didn't realize just how scenic the first bit of the line is once you leave Ste-Foy. 

Refurbished HEP2 coach on our train. All of the coaches were refurbished, but not all were in the new scheme. 

VIA 915, which led our train to Quebec, in the small trainshed at Gare du Palais. The white sign just above (to the left) of the locomotive indicates that it is the stop point for 900 series locomotives. There is a separate stopping point for the 900s and 6400s.
The highlights of this trip were undoubtedly the run between Ste-Foy and Quebec, and the arrival at Gare du Palais. The turn at Cap Rouge is actually much more scenic (and tighter!) than I had realized it would be. Despite having left Montreal about 10 minutes late, we arrived at Quebec 11min early.

Gare du Palais is a beautiful station, but it’s also much smaller in person than I thought it would be. The best way I can think to describe it is that it looks like a scaled down version of an ornate, big city train station. It feels more quaint and homey than one might expect. I was thoroughly impressed, and am sad that I won’t have regular opportunities to use that station.

Inside Gare du Palais. The platforms, ticket office and Business Class lounge are all off to the right.

Gare du Palais. Gorgeous!

Fountain outside Gare du Palais.

Sign for the shuttle to connect with the Ocean, inside the entrance to the station. 
Quebec is a wonderful old city, and we had a great time during our brief stay. We saw a lot, but were surprised by how incredibly busy it was – several cruise ships were in at the same time, and this made for crowded streets and shops!

In the lower streets of old Quebec - a rare moment with a break in the crowds!

The Chateau Frontenac - a Quebec icon. 

Views across the old city. 

On Sunday, we headed to the station in the morning to see about storing out bags for the day. Though we hadn’t booked it initially, we decided to book the shuttle that VIA offers from Quebec to Ste-Foy. Despite being described as a “shuttle”, it’s really just taxis to accommodate however many passengers there are. The convenience is that VIA makes the taxi arrangements, you can store bags for the day at Gare du Palais for no additional charge, and the taxis are timed to arrive at Ste-Foy a reasonable time ahead of the train’s departure. We were told to be back at the station by 8:30 at the latest, as they’d need to get everyone sorted and sent to Ste-Foy ahead of the ~10:30pm arrival of VIA 14.

After an excellent day, we arrived back at the station at 8:30 and picked up our bags from the ticket counter just as the first group of passengers was being ushered out to waiting taxis. We were told another two cabs would be coming for the remainder of us, and we could wait in the Business Lounge until then.

Unfortunately during our wait, the station attendant came in to inform us that #14 was running late from Montreal. How late? Almost 2.5 hours…!!! What on earth??

Turns out that a freight train hit and killed someone on the tracks west of Napanee earlier in the afternoon. This halted several Corridor trains for an extended period, and Train 64, the connection to the Ocean from Toronto, was delayed more than 4 hours. With more than 60 passengers on board connecting to our #14, and the next train three days later, VIA decided to hold the Ocean to allow for that connection. Welcome news for those passengers, I’m sure, but less exciting for those of us boarding late in the evening.

Unfortunately we still got sent out to Ste-Foy around the same time we would if the train was on time, as the last train of the evening was arriving and then the station agents would be off duty. This meant a rather long wait at Ste-Foy, a less comfortable station with nothing in the immediate vicinity. This is a definite downside of taking the VIA shuttle, vs. opting for our own arrangements (such as a cab or bus). Still, we took things in stride, played a few games of cribbage, and awaited the train. A CN GP9RM switching in front of the station provided some entertainment (well, for me anyway).

The train finally arrived at 12:34am. Coach passengers and baggage were handled during a first stop, then the train pulled forward to load the sleepers. The Service Manager came in to the station to scan tickets and give us all a rundown of the amenities and schedule for the next day, so we would all be able to get straight to bed once we boarded.

I think many of us were feeling a little blurry eyed by the time the train arrived!

Coach stop at Ste-Foy.

Full moon over the first Renaissance transition car, paused at Ste-Foy. 
Our return consist was the same as the way up – the only exception was that our locomotives were now 6409 and 6438. We were in Chateau Laval this time, as Car 35. We had booked upper and lower berths in section 03, and were pleasantly surprised when we boarded to see that we would have the sections in that car entirely to ourselves. Our attendant had made up section 02, had placed a table in 01, and left 03 open. This turned what is normally a more open, less private accommodation option into a more semi-private setup. We were quite fortunate with this, because as I would discover on walking through the train the next day, almost all of the sections through the rest of the train were occupied. Only our car and 34 ahead of us had just a single section made up.

As we got ourselves settled in and ready for bed, the train made its way to the east end of Joffre yard. There was a track gang doing work on the track next to us, which was pretty neat to watch. We waited a good 20 minutes or so for a freight to arrive at the yard. Then we were on our way, and we got off to sleep.

Track gang working at Joffre yard - pulling spikes. Pretty neat stuff to watch. 
While the ride in room D in Rigaud was very comfortable, the ride in 02 of Laval was quite a bit rougher. This may just be due to being over the trucks and in a lengthwise configuration, where you get jostled around a lot more with the side to side movement of the train. In any case, neither of us slept super well – but by the morning we got up for the last breakfast call (later than usual, due to our late running), and settled in for a relaxing day.

By Matapedia we were running about 3h20min late. This made for some nice morning views, though we had slept through a good chunk of that due to how late we got to bed, along with the time change overnight. Due to the delays, the head end crew changed at Matapedia instead of Campbellton.

Breakfast menu - different selection from the westbound trip, and already a little coffee stained. 

Brekfast - crepes. Quite good, though the maple syrup on the side seemed redundant, given the syrup of some description that was already added. 

Late morning stop at Campbellton. 

Vestibule view. Step on up...

Many people out for a stretch and fresh air at Campbellton.

Vestibule views, across the way.

After breakfast, showering and getting pulled together, we headed for the Park car. Much to our amazement, the train was busy enough that there wasn’t a single seat available in the dome or the bullet lounge, and only a few spaces in the mural lounge below the dome!

The mural lounge below the Park car's dome is an ideal place to relax and socialize in the evening, but much less ideal for sightseeing. A few of us were standing to catch the Baie des Chaleurs.

More views across the bay, from the small windows. This section of track is considered vulnerable to potential washouts, so there is a slow order over one section, and some sort of electronic washout detection system is visible along the right of way.
Overall, the sleepers on this trip were very close to full. Bedrooms and drawing rooms were all sold, many roomettes were occupied, and some berths in all cars were sold – all three sections were set up in several of the rear-most sleepers, and only the first two had a single section occupied.

Lunch reservations were made for 11:45, 1:30, and 3:15. Passengers going only as far as Moncton were prioritized for the first, and all three were ultimately quite full, with both ends of the diner in service. We opted for 1:30, and had a lovely meal.

Lunch menu.

Chicken shish taouk - I was very glad to see this back on the menu.

The mille-feuille - current go to lunch dessert, and I won't complain if this continues to stick around. 
Aside from the late running, the rest of the day was fairly relaxed and uneventful. We eventually found space in the dome as some people migrated to meals and their rooms, and enjoyed the surprising amount of early fall colour in the trees along the way.

Due to the late running, VIA ordered St-Hubert takeout meals from Moncton – a choice between chicken dinners or salads. This is fairly standard practice if the train is over 2 hours late. It was served directly to passengers’ accommodations.

Lunch time views.

Fall colours, much more present than I anticipated for mid September.

Colourful bogs.

Stopped at Moncton, still under rather gloomy skies.

HEP section behind, Renaissance section ahead.

Beautiful skies over Folly Lake. There would be many more stunning views as the sun dropped in the sky and the clouds parted, but I opted to enjoy them instead of trying to capture more on film (er, pixels...)

St-Hubert dinners, in section 01. Note the classic checkerboard table (game pieces not included).
With the days getting shorter, it was dark by not long past Truro. The final hour and a half sped by in darkness, and we arrived at the Halifax station just after 8pm, 3h11min late.

After dark in Halifax, looking more like a scene from the winter than mid September. A long, long walk from the back...

All in all, an excellent way to spend a weekend!


While it was initially planned to be a solution for the summer equipment crunch, it looks like the Mixed consist will remain on one Ocean set for the foreseeable future. The VIA reservations system is now showing that equipment type and mix of HEP and Ren accommodations through until April of next year, which means we will likely see a shortened version of this set all winter and spring. With the full retirement of the Renaissance equipment not far off on the horizon, it seems likely that the days of the Ocean running with all Renaissance equipment have come to an end. While many railfans will celebrate their demise, and some passengers will be happy with the consistent return of a variety of sleeper options, the end of the Rens will have serious implications for VIA’s long distance equipment pool. Unless or until they’re able to acquire new long distance sleepers and other cars, a return to a fully HEP Ocean will mean shorter trains on either the Ocean or Canadian (or both), and will rule out any chance of a return to more frequent service. There will also be a need for serious refurbishment of much of the remaining HEP equipment, which hasn’t received that kind of attention in years. Love them or hate them, the Rens did provide VIA with a lot more equipment capacity and flexibility.

For the next while, it will be interesting to see how the changes take place. Might we see a move to two mixed consists before a full HEP conversion?

In any case, I feel like I’m about due for a Renaissance trip…

‘Til the next time!

It feels almost cliché to end the post with a rear-view from the Park car, but some things just work too well. Bon voyage!