Friday, 18 January 2019

Christmas 2018: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (on a train!)


~ Christmas 2018 ~

 
Our stainless steel VIA #15, heading into the sunset at Sackville NB. Photo by David Morris.

There is no better time of the year to be on a train than at Christmas. I’ve had the great fortune of being able to travel by train around Christmas for every year since 2007, and these days I don’t think it would feel like Christmas at all if I wasn’t on a train at some point. There’s just something really special about the atmosphere all along the way, from the stations to the trains themselves. There’s something particularly special about VIA Rail’s Ocean during that time of year. The trains are as long as they get in the busiest summer months, but the ridership is completely different – there are few tourists, and every part of the train, from the coaches to the sleepers, is packed with people who are using the train to travel to see friends and family for the holidays.

For the last several years VIA has run extra trains on the Ocean through the holidays, which has also meant the return of a stainless steel HEP1 consist to facilitate the extra trains. VIA had continued to indicate that the extras were now a standard practice, so I assumed they would return once again. Unfortunately, during my last trip back in October, I found out that a decision had been made and there would be no extra trains this year.

Two reasons were given: first, the existing dates of operation worked very well around the holidays – Christmas eve and day and New Year’s Eve and Day both well on a Monday-Tuesday, which nicely interlays with the Sunday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. There were definitely places where extras could have been added, but it wasn’t as obvious as some years and there was no need for re-scheduling trains. Second, there was a concern about available equipment – issues with the Renaissance equipment during the extreme cold last Christmas caused major delays and eventually one cancellation. Running only the usual trains would allow for a spare set of HEP equipment to be on hand just in case, rather than already being required to manage the extra runs. With quite a bit of HEP equipment (coaches and diners) in for refurbishment right now, there’s not quite as much available as usual.

Exactly one month before Christmas a rather unexpected occurrence forced that spare HEP set into service more abruptly than expected.  On November 25th, the equipment for Train 15 derailed in Halifax while heading for the Halterm balloon track to turn before departure. No one was on board (besides the engineers) and there were no injuries, but the derailment forced the cancellation of that day’s train and left one set of Renaissance equipment crippled in Halifax. A hospital train of that equipment ran back to Montreal a short while later, with 2 damaged coaches left behind in Halifax. In order to run the next #14 from Montreal, VIA pulled together a set of HEP equipment. This stayed on in rotation for a few weeks, and soon the reservations system showed it operating on what promised to be the busiest train of the holidays - #14 on December 21st.
Derailment-damaged Renaissance coaches (7220 and 7222) still left behind in Halifax. The latest I've heard is that they'll likely be stripped down for parts and scrapped, but time will tell.

End of 7222, showing the unique Renaissance couplers that make these cars so much more difficult to uncouple and couple (but facilitate nice sealed transitions between cars).

Interestingly enough, the second Renaissance set was pulled back in to service with new coaches added before the holidays, operating on two round trips. But the HEP equipment was still showing as returning for December 21st – why the change?


The answer would become clear when that #14 departed Montreal. It was absolutely MASSIVE. VIA had evidently made the decision to use the HEP equipment on the busiest holiday runs, not because the Renaissance equipment was unavailable, but because they could dramatically expand capacity on those trains by running with HEPs. A HEP1 coach, for example, seats 62. A Renaissance coach seats only 48. A Chateau sleeper can accommodate as many as 23, a Manor, 22. A Ren sleeper can handle a maximum of 20, but since there are only double bedrooms a car could be “full” with only 10 passengers. A Chateau or Manor could at a minimum be “full” with 18 or 16 respectively.


Happily for me, a December 21st HEP #14 also meant that my westbound trip would be that exact same HEP train. So with that, let’s get on to the trip! 

 
The Westbound Trip

My trip began on December 23rd. I arrived at the Halifax station by taxi about an hour before departure, to ensure I had adequate time to check my suitcase. The station was busy, as was expected. The ongoing renovations mean that the station waiting area is much smaller, and it felt crowded as people waited for the boarding call. With some time to spare, I decided to walk along the fence outside and take some photos of the train itself.


Lousy sun, but the view of that train is impressive no matter what.

Brock Manor! This was my home-away-from-home for 4 days on the Canadian nearly two years ago. Nice to see it down in my neck of the woods!

Passengers head out for the long trek up the platform to the coaches, some 12+ cars away. The three locomotives and baggage car wait on the adjacent track. The baggage is being loaded before they head up to the front end.
Seeing that gleaming stainless steel streamliner always warms my heart, but seeing it on this particular day was a thing of wonder. This train was far larger than past holiday substitutions, which an impressive 18 cars – including 6 (yes, six!) coaches, all of which had been in service and packed on the eastbound trip the day before – and 7 sleepers. Most impressive and perhaps even unprecedented on the Ocean was the presence of TWO Skyline dome cars – one ahead of the diner, and one behind. The forward one would serve as the standard lounge and takeout café service for coach passengers. The one behind the diner was an extra dome and lounge for sleeper passengers, but it had also been used as an overflow dining car on the Dec. 21st #14. A friend of mine had travelled down on that train and mentioned that they seated people in the Skyline café, which was outfitted with tablecloths and full place settings, for each meal through the trip.

With this length of train and three locomotives, the whole thing couldn’t fit inside the limit of one station track. So they had cut off the locomotives and baggage car, and set them on the adjacent track until departure. This also made loading baggage much easier for the station staff.

 
The baggage car and locomotives, on the adjacent track.

Looking up the train from the rear, with well-worn Assiniboine Park bringing up the markers (and coupler paddle).
Check in for sleeper passengers happened by around 12:20, and the boarding call was made shortly after 12:30. I made my way onto the platform and found my way to car 39, Chateau Rigaud, where I was set up in Room D. I had originally booked a Renaissance bedroom before the equipment change, so I was moved to a Chateau bedroom at no extra cost (a nice “upgrade” –normally there is a higher surcharge for single occupancy in Chateau and Manor bedrooms, since roomettes and berths are also available). This is a forward facing bedroom, immediately adjacent to the shower and the open sections. The most exciting thing I noted was that the chairs in the bedroom had been refurbished somewhat similar to the ones in the Manor bedrooms, and were actually even nicer and more comfortable than the ones I had in previous Manors. Overall the room was comfortable and in good shape, and the ride was quite nice. I’ll comment later on about how it compares to the Renaissance bedrooms normally offered on this train.
Inside bedroom D in Chateau Rigaud. Note the refurbished seats, though the rest of the car looks pretty much like a standard '90s era Chateau interior. Particularly keen-eyed (and knowledgeable) viewers may note that bedroom D has one of the stretcher windows in the car - noticeable from the heavier window frame with twist latches around the sides and bottom. This window can be unscrewed and folds out like a flap, allowing a stretcher to be passed in to the room from the outside. This was a standard feature on passenger cars back in the days when trains were the main (and often only) way to get between a lot of places, and people who were ill and infirmed might need to be transported this way.

Loco 6459 outside my window, soon to head for the front end. When I took this picture I had no idea that 6459 would later nearly sabotage our trip. Read on...

Here’s the magnificent consist of this incredible train:


VIA 15 – December 23, 2018

6418 F40 Locomotive
6457 F40 Locomotive
6459 F40 Locomotive
8608 HEP1 Baggage
8103 (03) HEP1 Coach
8140 (04) HEP1 Coach
8138 (05) HEP1 Coach
8119 (06) HEP1 Coach
8137 (07) HEP1 Coach
8139 (08) HEP1 Coach
8516 Skyline Dome
Frontenac Dining Car
8501 Skyline Dome
Chateau Marquette (33)
Chateau Bienville (34)
Chateau Dollier (35)
Brock Manor (36)
Dunsmuir Manor (37)
Chateau Brulé  (38)
Chateau Rigaud (39) *Room D
Assiniboine Park (40)
 

*Line numbers in brackets. The coaches still appeared to be using their standard numbering, even though only a few of them were in use.

There were a lot of common east coast visitors in this consist, such as Chateaus Bienville, Brule and Dollier. Brock Manor was a nice surprise, as that was the car that I rode on the Canadian nearly 2 years ago. It was pretty neat to walk through and see that same car and roomette again. Chateau Marquette was quite interesting, because it was a car I frankly forgot even existed.
The locomotives and baggage car headed forward at 12:46, which allowed them time to get coupled up and add only a minimal delay to our departure. We got underway at 1:07pm, and I headed to the dining car for the first lunch sitting.
Looking back along the roof of the train, from the second Skyline dome. There's actually more train forward from this dome than behind!
Similar to the last two years, all of the meals on board were the standard catered Renaissance fare, despite the proper dining car and full kitchen. Despite that the meals were still quite enjoyable. I’ll let the photos (and my captions, I suppose) do the talking.
Diner Frontenac, all set and ready for lunch.
Lunch menu.

Fish chowder, to start. Nine Locks IPA as accompaniment. The on board beer selection has recently been expanded to include more local craft options from Halifax.


Salmon Nicoise salad, served cold. Quite enjoyable. There was also a Mille-feuille for dessert, which is pictured on the return trip.

Tables in the dining car. On the previous #14, the full dining car and the Skyline café were used for meals. On this trip the load was lighter, and though each sitting was decently full, they didn't use the booths at the end of the car.
While coming and going from the diner I took some photos inside Skyline 8501, to give a good look at the various features of these cars.
Skyline dome lounge. This is at the front of the car. On the forward Skyline, this is lounge space for coach passengers. On this one it was available for sleeper passengers, though lightly used on this trip.

Looking forward in the lounge. The dining car is ahead.

Skyline dome. The seats in here were in much better shape than in Assiniboine, though both cars could use a refurbishment.
Takeout snack area under the dome in the Skyline. In the Economy car, this is used to prepare and sell various takeout food for coach passengers, as the dining car is often off limits (Economy passengers only allowed in if there is sufficient space).

Crew meals, stored in a fridge in the Skyline rather than the dining car.

Takeout menu, with a number of options scratched off. There was no one actually serving anything here, as the forward Skyline was doing the coach duty.
Coming around the corner towards the café section, there is space for coffee, water, etc. On the Canadian this area is often used to provide various amenities for passengers. On this trip nothing was set out, but on the previous trip this was used for prepping things for meals. Not pictured is the small galley/kitchen that is also under the dome, between the takeout area and this section.
 
Café section at the rear end of the Skyline. This was set and used as dining car space on the previous day's #14.

The first long stretch of the trip was enjoyable and uneventful. There was a good crowd on board, though nowhere near as busy as the #14 that had necessitated this massive train. In contrast to the 6 fully loaded coaches on that trip, we had just 2 in service from Halifax (a third was used from Moncton onwards).  We had stops at Truro, Amherst and Sackville, and as usual no stop at Springhill Jct. Later on in the trip we would make stops almost everywhere on the schedule.
"NO ENTRY". Posted at the rear of the fourth coach. I believe this one was opened up at Moncton.

Signs of the Canadian... This was on the back of the second Skyline, and is clearly a sign of its usual use and placement on the Canadian. The Ocean has no Prestige! (well, not the class anyway...)
View from the Skyline lounge near Truro. That's flooding outside, not a normal waterfront view!

An attempt at Christmas décor, in one of the sleepers. It wasn't clear if the candy canes were decoration or meant for the taking, or both.

View from my room as we pass Folly Lake.
A neat feature in Assiniboine Park - the table used for serving coffee, just beside the stairs to the dome, was originally used as a writing desk. The idea was that you could write a letter to someone while travelling, and it could then be handed off to train staff to be put into the mail for delivery (trains at the time handled a lot of mail service). These desks are still there in the non-Prestige Park cars, but a more rare feature of Assiniboine is that it still has the original chair!

There were a few railfans out photographing our train. I spotted a few, but only managed to photograph one, as he shot our train at Fort Lawrence.
Railfanning a railfan.
David Morris sent me a couple of photos of our train. Here's one of us at Nappan, near Amherst.

 
Our train at Nappan, not long before arrival in Amherst. Getting a full train this long in one frame requires one to be a fair way from the tracks! Photo by David Morris.

I noticed through the first stretch that the ride was jerky at times. The HEP equipment handles differently from the usual Renaissance, with more slack between the cars and more potential for jerking movements. I noticed the ride after Campbellton and in the morning through Quebec was much smoother, so I suspect it just had to do with the head end crew’s familiarity with the equipment – or perhaps just a different style of operation. It didn’t detract from the trip, but it was an interesting thing to note.

 
Rounding the curve across the Tantramar marsh, between Amherst and Sackville. This view is really impressive with a long train, and the late afternoon sun.
 
Another view...can't get enough of this.
 

One more. Man, that train...
Arriving at Sackville NB. I'm in the dome of the Park car, waaaaaaaaaaay at the back. Another photo from David Morris.
 
The money shot at Sackville - the early sunset glints off the stunning stainless steel train. Many thanks once again to David Morris for this photo.


To add to David's photos, here's the view from the Park car dome at the same time, as we pulled in to Sackville. Love that sun!


Forward view from the dome, heading in to the sunset towards Moncton.

Moncton. Nice headgear on the attendant just ahead!
Broader shot at Moncton. The yellow glow from the old sodium lamps on the platform just adds to the sunset, and makes this a really irresistible shot. We would soon depart into the woods of New Brunswick in darkness.
I headed off to the second dinner call after leaving Moncton. There were three sittings on this particular trip, and I went with a few people I knew to the second one. The food was, again, perfectly enjoyable.

 
Dinner menu.
 
Something different - I passed on the soup and went for this smoked fish platter. Quite nice for a change.
 
Honey pecan chicken. Tasty!
 
Chocolate caramel cake for dessert. This has been one of the standard offerings for the last little while, and it's pretty hard to pass up.
After supper I retired to the Park car, where the lights in the dome were off and we could enjoy what view was available. There isn’t much interesting until after Bathurst, but with snow on the ground and a good full moon you can actually see quite a bit. The extra addition of Christmas lights along the way is another bonus of this time of year.


We had arrived at Bathurst a bit early, and then had a rather long stop as we boarded lots of people and baggage. A few moments after leaving the station, the power on board the train cut out. Dang… A few minutes later it came back on, and then just as quickly cut out again. This repeated a couple of times, and I suddenly started having flashbacks to several years ago, when a very similar situation just a little farther up the line left my train stranded at Matapedia, and resulted in a long bus ride to Montreal.
The Park car attendant was just downstairs, and I could hear the radio crackling with chatter from the head end. Multiple solutions were attempted. With power back on we started moving again, then it cut out and we stopped again. More solutions were tried.
In the long run, it appeared that our third locomotive (6459) was causing problems with the head-end power. The ultimate decision was to cut that locomotive offline (put it in standby mode) and bypass it, effectively running the train with just the other two. This is one of the benefits of having an extra locomotive! Nearly an hour after the first issues we made it to Campbellton, with just another brief failure outside the station. There would be no issues after that time.
We were a bit over an hour late at Campbellton, and an hour and a half late when we left. I stayed up in the dome to enjoy the run to Matapedia, and a bit of the run through the valley. With a bright moon and snow all around, the view of the silver train snaking along the river was really quite stunning. But at some point it was time for bed, and I headed back to my room to settle down.
I slept remarkably well, and snoozed my first alarm. Eventually I got myself out of bed, somewhere between Ste-Foy and Drummondville. By now we were only about half an hour late, having made up plenty of time overnight. I made use of the shower just steps away from my room, and made my way to the dining car for breakfast.
Morning view, from the dining car.
Sadly, the usual special breakfast option in the HEP diner was not available, so there were no cooked to order eggs. Despite this, breakfast was still perfectly fine – not the best, but not awful by any stretch.
Breakfast! I opted for the scrambled eggs, hoping that they were being fried up on the flat top in the kitchen. Alas, they were just being reheated in the oven (though the toast was fresh). A little on the soggy side, but all in all this was still a really nice way to start the morning.
After breakfast I stopped off at the Skyline for a while, to watch the train from a different vantage point. Then, feeling in the mood for some more coffee, I made my way back to the Park car and grabbed a cup of coffee from the lounge behind the dome. The seats in Assiniboine Park are in need of some work, but the view was still as exceptional as always.
Looking forward from the second Skyline.

Looking back from the second Skyline.

Heading on to the bridge over the Saint-Francois river, just before Drummondville.

Wild water on the Saint-Francois River.

There's often some impressive water over the Barrage de Drummondville, and today was a particularly stunning example.
At Ste-Rosalie, shortly before Saint Hyacinthe.
A slug at St-Hyacinthe.
I love the last stretch of the trip in to Montreal. After the slow meandering of the night before, the train is by this time blasting along pushing from 80 to 95mph at times. The signs of urban life slowly emerge, and finally Montreal emerges on the skyline. I spotted another railfan photographing us as we crossed the gorgeous Beloeil bridge across the Richelieu River. He was photographing us with a drone, and his photo showed up soon afterwards online. Thanks to Frank Jolin for this stunning photo of our beautiful train (see link to original below). I'm in the dome of Assiniboine Park, at the back of the train and not even visible in this photo! 
Photo by Frank Jolin, posted at Railpictures.net: http://railpictures.net/photo/681785/
 

Some interesting power at Southwark yard, just before St-Lambert. The Montreal skyline is visible looming in the background.

CN activity at Southwark.

Crossing the Victoria Bridge into Montreal. The new Champlain bridge is visible under construction in the distance.

Various AMT (sorry, "Exo") equipment around the old Pointe-Saint-Charles site. I love that one trio, with a Bombardier MLV, an old Canadian Vickers gallery car, and an ex-GO Hawker Siddely single level all together.

View from Assiniboine as we snake our way in to Gare Centrale.

We pulled into the station at 10:28am, only 25 minutes late. Not bad, given our delay during the night.

The train was long enough that we couldn't fit entirely under the station, so the last few cars were outside. A great view!

A rare opportunity to photograph the outside of Place Bonaventure from this end of the platform.
Montreal’s Central Station is a magnificent place, and it’s an especially wonderful place to be around Christmas. There’s a different decorative theme every year, and this time it was a play on pink.

This says it all. I love this station.

Hey look, you can pretend to be on a train while waiting for your train!
After a bit of a wait, I bid farewell to a couple of friends who were on the trip with me, and made my way back down to board VIA #35 to Ottawa. On a Monday #35 is running with an all-HEP consist, in contrast to other days when it runs with an LRC club and then a mix of HEP2 and HEP1 coaches. I was in Business class, so ended up seated in HEP2 club 4003 (seat 11A). It was nice to get to ride one of these again. It may well be the last time I get to ride a classic HEP2 club with the old seats and layout, as these are all getting re-done with the new LRC style interiors. This will make for a nice and comfortable layout, with 2+1 seating and more space, but it will sacrifice the comfier old club seats for the newer style, which aren’t awful but also aren’t terribly cushy.
The ride was smooth, and we ended up about half an hour delayed due to a late arrival of the train from Quebec (35 runs Quebec-Montreal-Ottawa), and then a wait for a meet just before Ottawa. On departure from Montreal the train backs out to the Victoria bridge, then proceeds forward on toward Ottawa. Lunch was good, and I was please to see that Beau's "Lug Tread" (of Vankleek Hill ON) is now one of the offerings in the on-board drink selections.
View of Montreal as we backed out to the Victoria Bridge before heading forward.

Old HEP2 club. I will miss these seats when they are re-done, though the new layout is much nicer.

"Exo", which was once AMT, at Dorval. I'm going to miss the two-tone blue scheme on these trains when they go to the new, bland Exo branding.

Signs of things to come - the AMT logo is gone from the side of this ex-GO F59PH, and "Exo" now adorns the front nameplate.

Business class lunch. Cold chicken plate with celeriac salad and all the fixings. Really quite nice, though I was reminded of just how lousy these old armrest tray tables are.

CP at De Beaujeu

Snow fields in a blur, pushing 95mph.

Cassel Brewing, at Casselman ON. Their imagery is very railway inspired, unsurprising since they're located right by the tracks!
I arrived in Ottawa on Christmas Eve, refreshed and in a very festive mood after the trip. On entering the station in Ottawa I was pleased to note that a new café (the Ministry of Coffee) has opened in the station, filling a void left when the previous food provider closed up last year.

Arriving in Ottawa, a spare F40 is parked on a stub track.

Arrival in Ottawa, on a frigid Christmas Eve.
The Ministry of Coffee - an excellent new addition to the Ottawa station!

Arriving at Ottawa. Unless you pull in on the new high level platform, you have to take an escalator (or ramp) down under the tracks, and then ascend into the station through this rather impressive spiral ramp (or the much less inspiring escalators).
I picked up my checked bag after a short wait, and then headed off ready to enjoy Christmas with family. At the end of the week I would return to this station, ready to make the trip home.



The Return

I was back in the Ottawa train station on Dec. 28th, to board VIA 26 to Montreal. This time I was back in a more conventional Ottawa-Montreal mixed consist, with a pair of LRC clubs (both in service) followed by three HEP2 coaches.
Ascending the ramp to the platform in Ottawa.

The second LRC club, in 40th anniversary graphics.

Passengers board VIA 26.

My ride for the trip, in 3462.
I actually caught the full consist this time, something I don’t always do for my Corridor trips. It was:

VIA 26 – December 28, 2018

6458 F40 Locomotive
3462 (01) LRC Club *Seat 12S
3476 (91) LRC Club (VIA 40 Years wrap)
4008 (03) HEP2 Coach
4100 (04) HEP2 Coach
4117 (05) HEP2 Coach

 
Just like the trip the other way, this ride was smooth and pretty uneventful – were it not for a short wait just outside Montreal station, we would have been right on time. I had checked my suitcase again before departure. VIA doesn’t offer checked baggage on these Ottawa-Montreal trains, but if you are connecting to the Ocean you can check bags and they are stored somewhere on board by the crew, then transferred to the Ocean’s baggage car in Montreal.

The LRC club was comfortable, and I was again reminded of how nice the new Business class layout is, even if the seats aren’t my favourite.



Looking forward from my seat.

This car has a bit of an identity crisis - this should be displaying "2601", for Train 26, Car 01; but it appears the crew forgot to change it over after it came in as Train 33.

Light meal. Cold roast beef with potato salad, fresh veggies, etc. The seat-back table on these LRCs is much better than the old armrest mounted ones.

Overall view of LRC Club 3462. The HEP2 clubs will soon be getting this same layout and style of seats.
I don’t ever feel like there’s a whole lot to say about these Ottawa-Montreal trips. It’s a nice, short, fast run, with some decent scenery along the way. The trip really flies by in Business, as the various parts of the meal and drink service take up most of the trip. On time performance is usually very good, as VIA owns most of the line. Overall I have a hard time imagining why anyone would want to travel any other way when going between Ottawa and Montreal.

Back in Montreal I made my way to lounge, and just decided to kill time there until check in and the boarding call. I discovered that there were once again a few people I knew travelling on this train (seems to happen a lot around this time of year!), so I spent some time in the lounge catching up with them. Check-in and meal reservations for sleeper passengers happened about an hour before departure, and then we actually boarded by about 6:20pm, a full 40 minutes before departure.
Back in Montreal - a stylized porter.

Some of VIA's current creative advertising - the use of various yellow elements to finish off the VIA logo is pretty neat!
Another example - I really like this ad campaign.

In the Panorama lounge in Montreal. Complimentary coffees, tea, snacks, etc. are available for passengers travelling in Business or Sleeper class.
I headed down the escalator to the tracks below the station, where the Ocean awaited. I knew that this return would be on the usual Renaissance equipment, but in some ways I was happy to have the chance to compare the two trains with trips less than a week apart. The Renaissance equipment is quickly coming to the end of its service life. Fairly recently, VIA indicated that it is planned to be withdrawn from the Ocean by the fall of 2020, with the train returning to HEP equipment year-round. As many issues as the Rens have had, it’s still nice equipment in some respects, and a unique part of Canadian rail history. It will be kind of sad to see it meet its end.
The consist for this trip was pretty big by Renaissance standards:

VIA 14 – December 28, 2018
6411 F40 Locomotive
6437 F40 Locomotive
6425 F40 Locomotive
7009 Renaissance Baggage
7228 (03) Renaissance Coach
7226 (04) Renaissance Coach
70230 (05) Renaissance Accessible Coach
7200 (06) Renaissance Coach
7231 (07) Renaissance Coach
7309 Renaissance Service Car (Economy)
7400 Renaissance Dining Car
7308 Renaissance Service Car (Sleeper)
79501 (30) Renaissance Accessible Sleeper
7522 (33) Renaissance Sleeper
7503 (34) Renaissance Sleeper
7510 (35) Renaissance Sleeper
7506 (36) Renaissance Sleeper
7513 (37) Renaissance Sleeper
7504 (38) Renaissance Sleeper
7516 (39) Renaissance Sleeper *Room 5
7601 Renaissance Transition
8211 (crew) Chateau Lasalle
8715 (40) Tremblant Park
  
I found my way to my room. My attendant informed me of one issue with the room – the door lock key was sticking most of the time. He showed me a simple fix for it, which helped throughout the trip.
Walking in to the Renaissance sleeper after being in a HEP sleeper just days early, I was struck by two things: first, with the Rens being so much smaller (built to British standards), the corridors and room felt much tighter and more cramped. On the other hand, everything about the Renaissance sleepers feels much more modern, owing to the fact that they were built in the later ‘90s rather than the 1950s.
The Renaissance sleepers have only double bedrooms. Having just been in a Chateau bedroom, this was a good opportunity for a direct comparison. The Chateau bedrooms (and the Manors as well) are much larger in every respect – wider beds, more floor space, a larger closet, and much more storage space. The Rens have only minimal storage under the bench seat, and a smaller closet behind the mirrors across from the bed. Both rooms have a bathroom, though the Chateaus have basically a toilet in a small closet and then a large sink out in the room. The Ren bathrooms are larger, and in the case of 6 of the rooms in each car, they have an en-suite shower. The window shades in the Chateaus are more effective, while the Rens now have curtains (replacing the old paper shades that fell apart and rarely worked right). These are nice enough, but I don’t like that you can’t pin them back, as they tend to cover a certain amount of each side of the window.
The biggest pros for the Renaissance rooms are the availability of an en-suite shower (when it works right), the locking door, the ability to lower and raise your own beds whenever you want, and the much quieter ride. The pros for the Chateau rooms are the much larger space, more luggage room, wider and comfier beds, better daytime seating, and a little spigot for drinking water (much better than the bottled water offered in the Rens).
All in all they both have their pluses, and I honestly enjoy both.
On departure I headed back to the Park, to enjoy the views leaving the city. Our Park this time, Tremblant, was in much better shape than Assiniboine. Comfier seats, nicely refurbished, and even some Christmas decorations in the rear lounge!
I had opted for the second dinner sitting, which happened near Drummondville. Supper was excellent.


Dinner menu.


Tomato bisque to start.

Roast turkey dinner - genuinely enjoyable. Dessert isn't pictured, but it was the same as the other direction.
A microwave in Renaissance service car 7308 - still bearing the British Rail logo! A nod to its heritage, and amazing that it has persisted on at least a few of these microwaves over the years. Worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, the Renaissance meals are not re-hated in these microwaves. There are hot air ovens just to the left for that purpose. The microwave handles a variety of other tasks.
Afterwards I headed back to my room for a while until the stop at Ste-Foy, where we arrived considerably early and spent quite a lot of time before making the backup to the mainline.
Ice on snow at Ste-Foy. It had been a mix of rain and freezing rain through the afternoon and evening.

Our train at Ste-Foy. Lots of ice everywhere.

Rear of the train at Ste-Foy, with the crew Chateau and Park car behind the Renaissance transition car.

Christmas lights inside the lounge of Tremblant Park.

Dropping to a low angle to capture the icy snow. It was a little treacherous!
Renaissance transition car, looking toward the Chateau.

Renaissance transition car, looking forward.

View down to the lounge from Tremblant's dome.
I stayed in the dome through Joffre yard to see if there was anything interesting, and then headed off to bed.
Just like the way up I slept incredibly well. I stayed in bed longer than I had initially planned, then got dressed and headed for breakfast.

Wintery views between Campbellton and Bathurst.

Snow, snow, snow. There would be none of this in Halifax.

Breakfast - crepes with dried and fresh fruit, nuts, bacon, and maple syrup. A nice start to the day.

Wintery blur out the window at the foot of my bed.
Returning to my room I went to take a shower, only to discover that there was no hot water! Only ice cold… Not wishing to torture myself, I packed up my things and wandered back to the crew Chateau sleeper, where I used the common shower in the car. Definitely one of the pluses of having that car in the consist! I was later informed that this was an issue in the whole car, and not something they could fix en route. So other passengers in that car were also advised to use the Chateau shower, should they so wish.
The rest of the day was very relaxing. I headed back to my room for a bit of a nap at some point, and ultimately had lunch at the second sitting, which carried through the stop in Moncton. We had ended up a bit delayed, but no one seemed to fussed about it.  The ride in my Renaissance sleeper was quiet and remarkably smooth – still probably the best quality of that equipment.
In the lounge in Tremblant Park. With no view from the dome due to ice, this was a nice place to relax.

Just having crossed the second of the Miramich River bridges, a CN hirail was on the spur at Nelson Jct just ahead of the CN oil train, which I wasn't quick enough to photograph. If you look carefully, you can just see the large CN noodle on the lead locomotive, through the trees on the right.

This always irks me a little. These labels are featured throughout VIA's trains, and while true, they tend to give a bit of a skewed perspective. Yes, VIA is subsidized by the Government of Canada. You know what else is subsidized? The roads we drive on. The airports where planes take off and land. Public transit systems. Every form of passenger transportation receives some sort of subsidy, whether direct or indirect. Unfortunately VIA is often the victim of added scrutiny and cuts because they are the most obvious "offender". At some point I hope we can get beyond this idea of "subsidy" that should be minimized, and recognize that it is worth paying to provide essential, high quality passenger transportation systems for our country!
There was a decent crowd on board. The dining car was quite full each time I went, and the Park car was well patronized in the dome and both lounges. Unfortunately the dome ended up iced over for much of the trip, which significantly reduced how much we could enjoy the view.

Lunch menu.

Chicken Shish Taouk, with potato salad. One of the best train lunches I've had!

The mille-feuille, a top notch dessert.

An impressive structure near Sackville. There was much discussion on board about what this was, and ultimately I would discover that it is in fact an under-construction 14-story automated freezer. Being built by Terra Beata and Burnbrae farms, this will store cranberries, blueberries, and whatever other products it can. It's one heck of a structure!

With a still-icy front end of the dome, this was the best I could do for the nice curve view across the marsh, heading for Amherst.

Christmas décor in Tremblant Park's lounge.

The dome at night, heading on the last stretch to Halifax. It's hard to photograph anything at this time, but I think this gives some of the feel of the experience, and why riding the darkened dome in the evening is such a great experience.
We ultimately arrived in Halifax at 6:40pm, 49min behind schedule. Picking up baggage at the station with the renovation work going on was a bit chaotic, as there was very limited access to the baggage carousel. But it still wasn’t too long before I had suitcase in hand and was off to hail a cab to head home.
All in all, another really lovely trip. It was neat to get to directly compare a few different types of equipment – HEP1 vs. Renaissance on the Ocean, and HEP2 vs. LRC clubs in the Corridor. In both cases there are definite pluses to each, and I find it really hard to just definitively declare one or the other to be superior. At the end of the day I’d probably lean to the HEPs on the Ocean and the LRCs in the Corridor, but it will still be kind of sad when the variety no longer exists.
That’s all for now. It’s a new year – 2019 promises lots of good things, and I hope there will be some fun train trips in there. Who knows where I may end up!
Until the next time…
VIA 14, in Halifax, on a cool and lightly rainy December evening.

8 comments:

  1. A superb post. I've taken the liberty to post a link to this on the US Rail Passengers Association blogs, on the Trains Passenger Forum and on several Facebook pages. There is a lot to consider here lookin at how VIA handles proper meal service (and presentation) on the one-night out OCEAN in contrast with the debacle that is Amtrak's "New and Contemporary Dining" travesty.

    Carl Fowler
    Vice Chair Rail Passengers Association (NARP/USA)

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    1. Thank you Carl, I'm glad that you enjoyed the report. I think the Ocean (these days) is a good example of providing quality meal service in a less conventional manner. The Renaissance equipment necessitated that model, with the lack of full on board kitchen facilities, and in early years the quality suffered. Even when I first started riding this train regularly in 2007 I found the meals were extremely hit or miss. But there is no denying that VIA has done a lot of work on improving things over the years, and while you may get the occasional dud, most of the meals these days are excellent. There are routinely examples that I would say compare pretty well with meals I had on the Canadian. They also do a pretty good job of changing things up enough so it's not the same thing every trip (though some options repeat), and it's always a different menu on #14 and 15, excellent if you're making the round trip.

      Aside from the meals themselves, the dining car presentation, service and atmosphere have been consistently top notch. Meals in the diner are always a highlight of the trip.

      The only major drawback is that the catered meal model means that there are a limited number of meals, so opportunities for coach passengers to use the diner are sparse. I've found that when travelling coach I can most often get in for breakfast and lunch, but getting in for supper is usually only possible during the quieter times of the year. During peak periods even breakfast may not be an option - but it still never hurts to ask. Of course aside from that, the takeout options from the service car are decent; there's just unfortunately very little lounge space available, so it usually means taking the food back to your seat.

      I've followed a certain amount of the controversy around the Amtrak dining experiments, and some of the decisions they made are really baffling. I hope that they revise things, and perhaps look at VIA (both the Ocean and the Corridor's Business Class) as examples of how meal service can be done in a different but still excellent way.

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  2. Excellent trip report Tim! I would have payed a million dollars to have been with you if I had the chance !!! Thank you for sharing!!! I found this "Blog" through "train orders" link... Thank you for sharing!!! :):):)

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    1. Send me a cheque for a million bucks and I'll buy you a train ticket the next time ;-) Seriously though, thanks for the kind words! Glad you enjoyed the report.

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  3. Hello Tim. Great blog post. My wife and I were on your eastbound trip between Sainte-Foy and Halifax, and returned on the Budd consist January 2nd. If you’re a Trainorders.com member, check out www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?15,4704811. We seem to have found many of the same locations for pictures from the Park car dome!

    Dave Paterson
    Boxborough, MA

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    1. Thank you Dave. I had seen your posts on Trainorders - I'm not a member, but I do lurk the forums from time to time to see what's going on - so I realized that we were on the same train. I'm sure that I would have seen you at some point, but not have known of course!

      I enjoyed your commentary and the photos as well. We did indeed catch a number of the same views! Also, I see that Geoff photographed your westbound train, much as he caught my westbound back on the 23rd - he's the photographer silhouetted on the bridge at Fort Lawrence above :-)

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  4. Wow. What a good read and especially the photos. How do you get them all. Blessings Tim for your love of trains. No one quite like you, ya know.

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    1. Thanks as always Ted! I'm glad that you were able to experience a bit of this too back in the fall, and that (by remarkable coincidence) I was able to be there as a guide along the way!

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