Monday 17 June 2019

To Ottawa and back

The consist for VIA 14 backs up to Central Station in Montreal. 

It hadn’t been long since my last outing on the rails at the end of March, but as May rolled around I found cause to be in Ottawa for a weekend near the end of the month. Unlike Montreal, where a solid weekend can be worked in by using the Friday and Sunday trains, Ottawa presents a bit more of a challenge to work in entirely by rail. The connection between Montreal is fast and convenient (a speedy 2-hour trip), but with the earliest connection on a Saturday you can’t make it to Ottawa until early afternoon, and the return on Sunday requires a mid-afternoon departure. Not much time to do anything, though a Saturday evening event would still be manageable.

In this case my purpose for being in Ottawa was a meeting that commenced on Saturday morning, so the train up would not be feasible. On the return, however, I figured I could squeeze it in.

So on Friday May 24th I headed off to the Halifax airport after work to board a flight. The Halifax airport is a fairly good distance outside the city – it’s a 32km drive from downtown. Not that many years ago the only ways to get out to the airport, if you weren’t driving, were a pricey cab ride ($50+), or some sort of shuttle bus (~ $20+ and limited availability). Thankfully Halifax Transit (then Metro Transit) launched a bus route to the airport in early 2012. Route 320 operates under the “MetroX” branding, as a limited stop longer distance route. Running hourly most of the time and every 30 minutes during morning and evening peaks, it provides service for passengers going to and from the airport, employees working at or near the airport, and commuters from the Fall River area who can use the park and ride and catch the bus. The fare? A bus ticket ($2) plus $1, or $3.50 cash. Not a bad deal by any stretch!

So one bus from work to the Bridge Terminal, then the 320 to the airport. I gave myself plenty of time as the last time I flew through Halifax I found the security line was very slow. This was not the case this time, as the airport has just completed a major overhaul of the security screening area, and it now seems to operate remarkably efficiently. So I ended up with plenty of time to kill.

The flight itself was with Porter, my usual preference for Halifax-Ottawa flights. Their Q400s are the most comfortable of their kind (apparently a result of the shorter runway at Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport, which required them to order planes with a lower passenger capacity), the complimentary beverage and snack service is always nice, and while there’s no in-flight entertainment system, on such a short flight you don’t really need it. Despite it having been a rainy day, it cleared up around the time we took off, and the flight was smooth and uneventful right to Ottawa. On the way over Montreal I was able to spot the various locations I’d pass through on the train a few days later, heading from downtown out through Mont St-Hilaire.

My plane has arrived. To make the most efficient use of its fleet, Porter operates these Halifax-Ottawa flights as one part of what is ultimately a St. John's-Toronto flight. The plane first flies St. John's-Halifax, then Halifax-Ottawa, and finally Ottawa-Toronto. Makes for a lengthy flight if you're going the full thing, but the shorter segments work well for people travelling on those legs.

Sunnier above the clouds.

Porter snack service. A special drink offering for a limited time was a Bombay Sapphire "Gin Mule", so had to give that a try. Quite enjoyable.

Aerial view of Montreal.

Back on the ground, under much nicer skies in Ottawa.
I had been hoping (as many were!) that the new Confederation Line would be open by the time I made this visit to the city, but alas, delays continue. The exciting thing now is that trains are testing through the day, operating simulated service schedules, complete with station announcements. It’s easy to imagine that the line is really running, until you notice the lack of people in the stations and on the trains.

While waiting for a bus at Bayview I snapped a few photos of the testing trains, both in single and double unit configurations. These electric Alstom Citadis Spirit trains accelerate impressively, and are remarkably quiet. I sure look forward to riding them (hopefully next time I’m in town!)

A single-unit Citadis Spirit train charges uphill into Bayview station, coming from downtown.
The new Bayview station is on the right - this will be the transfer point between the Trillium and Confederation Lines. At present, the Trillium Line trains stop just off to the left under the overpass. When the Confederation Line opens, they will use the platform directly ahead which will bring them in underneath the main station, allowing for easy transfers.

A double-unit train is heading towards Bayview as it meets a single unit train heading for the tunnel under downtown, with the Parliament Buildings towering in the background. Once open and operating, these trains should be a major improvement for commuting through downtown Ottawa. 

Tunney's Pasture station, the western terminus of phase 1 of the Confederation Line. Apart from a few finishing touches, it looks ready to run.
A train approaches Tunney's Pasture through the impressive double crossover. With this being the terminus for phase 1, at this point trains will be arriving and then reversing direction at this station, so they may need to be able to be on either platform and then get back to the proper track to depart. So crossovers are necessary for now. Eventually Tunney's Pasture will be a run-through station, but crossovers are still useful at regular intervals to allow trains to be detoured around maintenance work, issues, etc.
Sign says it all. With the heavy construction, concrete ties and full overhead wiring, this always ends up looking to me like a European high speed train could come flying through at any moment.
With meetings wrapped up for the day on Saturday, I worked in a quick ride on the Trillium Line O-train. I only really needed to go from Carling to Bayview, but where’s the fun in that? A Carling-Mooney’s Bay-Bayview detour was more fun, and got me on two of the four trains running that day. The Trillium Line will soon be closing for nearly two years while it is overhauled and expanded. When it re-opens it will offer service farther south and include a spur to the airport, and will operate with new Stadler FLIRT trains – I’m quite excited about those.

Trillium Line Alstom Coradia LINT C8 departs Carling on its way to Bayview station.
Train C4 departs Mooney's Bay. I hopped on this train at Carling and got off here, to catch the next train coming back from Greenboro.
After meeting C4 at Walkley, C9 has crossed the VIA line at Ellwood Diamond and is arriving at Mooney's Bay station.
The operator's cab at one end of C9. Unlike the old Bombardier Talents, these Alstom trains don't have a large glass door behind the cab; but they do have a small window, which offers a view. The operators often close the curtain across this window at the lead end, but at the trailing end it's often open.
Crossing the Rideau River approaching Carleton.

There's C8 again, departing Carleton en route to Greenboro, as we head off towards Bayview.

The weekend clipped along, and before I knew it, Sunday afternoon had arrived.

Ottawa station, with gorgeous blossoming trees outside.

Which way to the trains? Alas, I have yet to use the new high platform located directly through the doors ahead.
There are two designated eastward connections to the Ocean from Ottawa – VIA 26 and 28 (there are also several earlier trains one could use, but these aren’t offered by default). #28 would work well nearly all the time and leaves later, with a shorter layover in Montreal; but my preference has always been 26, which leaves earlier in the afternoon and offers a few hours in Montreal. More peace of mind as a connection, but especially on a nice day like this, it also offers a few hours to get out and explore downtown Montreal.

The trip on 26 was smooth and uneventful. I didn’t get all numbers, but here’s the consist:

VIA 26 - May 26, 2019

34xx LRC Club
34xx LRC Club

40xx HEP2 Club
41xx HEP2 Coach
4117 HEP2 Coach
4100 HEP2 Coach*

I was seated in the last car. The HEP2 fleet is in the process of being refurbished, but none of the cars on this train were. The ride was a bit rough, but not terrible. We had meets with VIA 35 (Carlsbad Springs) and 635 (just before De Beaujeau), and would finally arrive in Montreal 4 minutes late.

Classic HEP2 coach interior. These cars were rebuilt by VIA in the mid-90s to supplement the Corridor fleet. Hailing from a variety of American backgrounds, they were given a standardized interior built to closely match the LRCs. Aside from the colour, the one major difference between these and the old LRC seats is the centre armrest - on the HEP2s it is movable (as seen on the right), and the tray tables are stowed in the outer armrest, while on the LRCs the centre armrest is solid and contains the tray tables. The LRCs are in the process of getting all new seats, and the HEP2s will slowly follow suit.
View from the back. Toronto, that way!

This sign was on the back wall of the washroom, such that you most likely wouldn't see it until you'd already made use of the supposedly out of service toilet (which did, in fact work). The message says to "use other one", but the other one in the car (which also seemed to be entirely functional) had the same sign. Both look like they've been posted for a while...
View out the back, clipping along on the last fast stretch before Montreal.
If you’re travelling through Montreal with carry-on bags, VIA will store these for you at the baggage counter in the station. There’s no charge if you’re in a sleeper, and a small charge (<$10) if you’re in coach. I dropped my bags and headed out exploring.

For a change, I headed southeast from the station to the Peel Basin. It’s a lovely area and a nice walk, plus it offers some nice views of trains coming and going from the station. Among other things, I spotted the all-Budd stainless steel consist for my evening departure, and a few other trains as well.

The consist for VIA 14, in all its stainless steel glory, backs towards Montreal's Central Station.

Assiniboine Park, bringing up the markers (and leading for the moment...). It's one of the Park cars that could definitely use some work, inside and out.

VIA 14, with 40th anniversary wrapped 6437 in the lead. They had to wait a few minutes here for a track to clear.

VIA 915, one of only a few non-wrapped P42s, backs out of the station with its train, clearing the way for #14.

Construction has begun on Montreal's automated light rail "REM" system. This is one of the first major pieces in place, and it sadly obstructs what was once a really nice view of trains across the basin.

In the shadow of the REM construction, a VIA consist backs out of the station.

The future is on board - so says the car. With a new Corridor fleet on the way, there's only a few more years left for these venerable LRCs.

VIA 913, one of two P42s that had the 40 Years logos removed from its wrap (after having poppies applied for Remembrance Day), is in charge of this train backing out of the station and heading for the maintenance centre.
By the Peel Basin.

Peel Basin, on a beautiful day.

The consist of #14, which I spotted there and would soon board, was as follows:

VIA 14 - May 26, 2019

6437 (VIA40 wrap)
8137 (03)
8138 (04)
8140 (05)  [*with "WiFi and lounge zone" at rear]
Empress diner [*operating in reverse, kitchen at rear]
Chateau Rigaud (33)
Chateau Montcalm (34)
Chateau Laval (35)
Chateau Brule (36)
Chateau Dollier (37)
Chateau Bienville (38)
Chateau Roberval (39) *Upper 1
Assiniboine Park (40)

*Line numbers in brackets. None of the cars on this train were refurbished.

I swear, I didn’t deliberately plan this to be on yet another Budd Ocean! At this point, with few Rens in service and their time quickly coming towards an end, I would actually be quite happy to make a Renaissance trip…

You'll note my additional comment next to the third coach - VIA pulled the Skylines off of this consist a few weeks ago, replacing them with dining car Empress. Evidently the Skylines were needed elsewhere, with the Canadian getting up to peak frequency and length, and Skylines filling in on the Churchill trains in place of dining cars. The following week that diner would be removed and replaced with a block of Renaissance cars (with coach/service car/diner/service car and sleepers, bracketed by transition cars). I had wondered, in the interim, how they were handling food and drink service for coach passengers, and whether they were actually giving them any sort of lounge access. Turns out they had set up the rear part of the coach as a "WiFi and Lounge Zone" (so said the printed signs). The last 4 or 5 rows of that coach were set aside, with two 4-seaters set up with tables in between. There were passengers seated in all three coaches, but this rear section was kept as somewhere separate for people to go to work, have a snack, etc. They had also set up free coffee and tea for coach passengers to access, which was kept resupplied through the trip. 

Sign at the rear of the coach, marking this area off as a lounge area.

More signs indicating the "WiFi Zone". As you can see below, a few blocks of seat at this end of the car were set up as facing pairs with tables between, making a makeshift lounge.
Canteen service was being done from the pair of booths at the end of the dining car. That's why the diner was running in reverse of its usual setup, with the kitchen at the rear instead of forward. A pair of Corridor-style food carts were in use, with one blocking off access to the rest of the dining car and the other being used for occasional trips through the coaches for at-seat service. A large soft-sided cooler was set up on one of the booth tables with cold drinks, and coffee and hot water were being resupplied from the kitchen. I forgot to ask if any hot options were on offer, but I do know that a variety of sandwiches was available. Coach passengers occasionally sat in those booths while waiting for or consuming what they got from the canteen, but they were not permitted beyond the partition into the rest of the dining car. Coach passengers can sometimes access the diner for some meals if the sleepers aren't too busy (this was the case on my trip at the end of March), but with the combination of a very busy train and some other food issues that would arise, there was no offering to them on this trip.
"Canteen" at the end of the diner. The Corridor-style food cart serves as an indicator to coach passengers that they are not to proceed any farther.
Despite none of these HEP1 cars being properly WiFi equipped, VIA did have some sort of interim setup that was providing WiFi in both the rear of that coach and also in the Park car. I didn't try it in the coach, but found the service spotty in the Park - comparable to the usual Ren service car WiFi reliability on the Ocean.
I was surprised on check in to discover how busy the train was. Apparently several of the last few trips had summer peak-level passenger loads, which is somewhat early for the Ocean. I didn't get total passenger counts, but I do know that every bedroom and drawing room in the seven sleepers were full, lots of the roomettes were occupied, and both the upper and lower berths of two sections in Car 39 were occupied. All three coaches were occupied, with 04 quite full and 03 and 05 about half full when I walked through at Bathurst. 
I was in Upper Berth 1, and was quite surprised when I reached my section to discover that I actually had a couple sharing the lower berth! VIA will sell an upper or lower berth for two people (it’s a tight squeeze!), though you have to book that through an agent. Thankfully this couple were really lovely people, and section 2 across the aisle was unoccupied, giving us plenty of space.
As usual, we departed Montreal right on time.
Heading across the St. Lawrence, with the new Champlain Bridge visible on the horizon.

A ship in the locks, between the two routings of the Victoria Bridge.

A few in the dome - this would be nearly or entirely full through most of the trip, but many people were either at supper or hadn't found it yet.

Meeting the Adirondack at St-Lambert, with Amtrak 110 leading.
Dinner sittings on departure were scheduled for 7 and 8:45. I had opted for the second sitting, which got delayed quite a bit, so it was well after 9 when the call was made and close to 10pm when we got food. Everyone at my table ended up having dessert during the station stop at Ste-Foy! The first sitting was completely full and the second was almost full, with 9 tables (all of the main tables and one booth table) being used. They had run out of one meal option by the time I ordered, and subsequently ran low on another and one appetizer option, and asked for volunteers to change meals (with a free glass of wine as compensation - something I hadn't seen before). Food was all excellent, despite being very late. As usual, this was the catered Renaissance-style meals, despite having a full Budd diner (though the next morning would shake that up…)

Dinner menu. VIA does change up the menus fairly often, though some of the same offerings tend to pop up from time to time. In this case, the dinner menu was identical (though in a proper format) to the one leaving Montreal on my trip at the end of March.

Italian roasted cod. A popular dinner choice, and really quite excellent. The soup to start (tomato bisque) and chocolate caramel cake that followed are not pictured, but have featured and have been photographed on a number of past trips.
The evening was uneventful and we ran on time. Early in the evening (and through the next day) there were performances from a musician – James Gray – travelling as part of VIA’s Artists on Board program. These sorts of performances always add a nice extra ambiance to the Park car, and everyone in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves. You can check out James’ music here:

James Gray performs in the Park car lounge.
Later in the evening I enjoyed a while of relaxing in the darkness of the dome, watching what I could see of the countryside – spotting the CN business train at Joffre was the main highlight – then returned to my berth. The attendant had made up the berths – a physically demanding task! – around supper time. Riding in these open sections you don’t have private space outside of your bed, but the large washrooms at the end of the car provide ample space to get ready for bed. This was my first time travelling in an upper berth (I’ve been in lowers a number of times). I found it was actually perfectly comfortable, though a little warm for the first while. I missed having the window the lower berth offers, but it did avoid distractions during the night.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re travelling in either upper or lower berths – as of right now, neither the berths in the Chateau nor Manor sleepers have electrical outlets. So they are actually the one accommodation on the train (coach seats and all other sleeper spaces have outlets) where you can’t charge a phone or whatever else you might need to do. There are some outlets in public spaces (like the Park car), but it’s probably wise to bring a portable battery pack to keep your devices juiced up.

Inside an upper berth. The heavy curtain on the left provides privacy and blocks a decent amount of sound, though I found more light made it over the top than you would get in the lower berth. There are lights, air vents at the top, a mirror at each end, and slung storage pockets to keep any items you'd like to have near by through the night. Larger items can be stowed underneath the berths in the section, or in the luggage area at the end of the car (most conveniently in the one at the rear end of the next car forward).

Berths the next morning. The upper, in darkness, is accessed by the large and sturdy ladder, much easier to navigate than those in the bedrooms. The lower, as shown here, has access to the window, and the headrests from the daytime setup fold up to provide shelves at the ends to store some smaller items.
Come morning, I got up around 8, headed to the shower, then made my way forward for breakfast just after 8:30. I was surprised to find a line heading into the diner, and then found out that they were running behind because of a rather unfortunate occurrence the night before.
The dining car staff had come to start breakfast prep around 6am, only to discover that the fridge storing all of the catered meals for breakfast and lunch had shut off during the night. It had reached above safe temperatures, and since no one knew how long it had been off (apparently 15min is the maximum time they can keep food stored above safe temperatures), they had to throw out all of the breakfast and lunch meals (!)
With that gone, early risers were offered a partial continental option, with cereals and toast - but no yogurt, fruit, etc. At Campbellton the crew made a supply run to Sobeys (conveniently across the street from the station) and acquired a huge quantity of eggs, bacon and potatoes so that they could cook a full bacon and eggs breakfast with hashbrowns. This is one of the perks of having a real diner on the train! So anyone who went for a later breakfast had that full option, which was really excellent. 

A proper train breakfast! Hard to beat.
And a hard to beat view to accompany that breakfast.
Some readers may recall that VIA had offered some actual cooked on board meals on Budd Oceans in the past - Christmas substitutions originally had several options for all meals, but then they cut back to a single eggs-any-style breakfast option. Last year and this year, as the Budd substitutions have become a longer-standing feature, they've resorted to only the catered options for all meals. So while many of the passengers may not have been aware, I at least realized that this was an unusual treat, and enjoyed it!
The Sobeys stop also resupplied the coach canteen, as all sandwiches had to be disposed of. Apparently the crew bought every single pre-made sandwich and wrap that Sobeys had in stock (it was a good morning for that Sobeys...)

Bathurst stop. We were here for a few minutes, so a brief jaunt outside was allowed.
Stopped at Bathurst - the diner, right behind the last coach, and running dining room forward.
Unfortunately by the time lunch rolled around, it was a less exciting affair. The call was made to order meals to the train, similar to how they often do extra meals when the train is very late. Those meals have typically been St. Hubert or Swiss Chalet chicken dinners, but this time around they went for Dixie Lee in Miramichi. So boxed fried chicken dinners were brought on for all sleeper passengers, and delivered to our accommodations or the Park car. I had mine in the dome, and while the food wasn't necessarily my first choice, it was good for what it was and enjoying it in the dome felt like a sort of discount "dome diner" experience. I did hear several passengers lamenting not getting to have another proper meal in the dining car, and at least a few seemed disappointed with the offering - but overall most people seemed to understand the situation and appreciated the effort being made to make up for it. I never got a clear answer on what was being provided for vegetarians or others with special dietary needs. 
Lunch in a box.

Discount dome diner. Not the most exciting views, as we crept through the forests between Miramichi and Rogersville, but still pretty nifty. There was some coleslaw buried in that box, but otherwise not a vegetable in sight...

The rest of the morning was quite uneventful, though the two food-related stops had put us about an hour behind.

Stainless steel at Moncton.

That giant freezer at Sackville - now nearly entirely covered!

Amherst, meeting the CN local with a single car in tow.

The open section across the aisle (#2). The attendant had set up a table in this section, which made it a nice place to sit while the other sections were made up for the night.
We also had a meet with a freight (late-running CN 407) at Springhill, which turned out to be a longer delay than usual because we actually had someone getting off at Springhill Junction. We needed to be on the main line for the stop, so we tucked just in to the west end of the siding, waited for 407 to clear, then backed out onto the main to proceed ahead to the "station" (really a gravel parking lot) stop. Not a major delay, but it did put us about another 20 minutes behind. 

Just inside the siding at Springhill, one of our engineers waits to do a roll-by of the approaching freight, and then verify the signal and switch so we can back out.

After a bit of a wait, CN 407 arrives.

Passengers in the dome watch the freight speed by - this was an unusual train for 407, as they had picked up some container traffic that didn't make it out on 121.
The remainder of the trip was pretty routine. We made good time, but maintained most of that delay, arriving in Halifax at 7:09pm, just shy of 1h20min late.

Folly Lake, relaxing in the open section across the aisle, coffee at hand. With all of the other berth passengers having disembarked at Moncton, this end of the car was very quiet for the remainder of the trip.

All in all it was another great trip, made more interesting by the unusual food situation. Now with the summer arriving, the trains are longer, more people are travelling, and I’m definitely looking forward to getting back on the rails somewhere. I’ve got some ideas, but nothing definitive planned quite yet. Until then, whenever and wherever it happens to be…

Back in Halifax. The sunny weather from Montreal only followed us part way, and it was damp and gloomy by the time we arrived, much like when I left a few days earlier.