Wednesday 23 December 2020

2020: Looking back at a year without train travel, and looking ahead...

Waiting for a train? You'll be here a while. The displays are still lit up, but there hasn't been a train status to provide in over 9 months. Halifax station in late November 2020.

It’s been a while… 

As we near the end of 2020, I think it’s more than fair to say that this year didn’t turn out the way any of us expected it would. In startling short order, life as we know it changed in ways that few of us really considered possible even in the first months of the year. 

Before I really dive into things here, I think it’s important to make it clear that I don’t wish at all to trivialize, minimize, or otherwise downplay the really serious events that have taken place this year. Far too many people have lost their lives, lost loved ones, battled illness, faced financial hardship, and dealt with stresses and uncertainty beyond what many of us have seen before in our lifetime. Here in Nova Scotia, we’ve also seen a string of other tragedies throughout this year, from the incomprehensible massacre that took the lives of 22 people in April, to the recent loss of six fishermen aboard a scallop vessel in the Bay of Fundy. For so many, this has been an absolutely devastating year. 

I think it’s important to start with that recognition. This is a train travel blog, so I’m going to write about this year in that context, but I think it needs to be said that there are far more important things in life – and I don’t want to seem at all like I’m minimizing that by reflecting on my disappointment related to train travels that could have been. I also think it’s worth recognizing that even within the context of the trains themselves, I’m just missing out on being able to enjoy the ride and the visits with family on the other end – for the VIA employees who operate and crew these trains, as well as work in the stations and behind the scenes, this year has meant layoffs and the associated hardships that come with that. My heart goes out to all of them, especially those I’ve gotten to know well over the years.

Needless to say, this year hasn’t been what I thought it would be. On the train travel front, I had a number of trips in mind – I planned to be on the Ocean quite a few times, as usual, and was thinking about other possibilities to check off parts of the VIA network I haven’t covered before. I was eyeing up more of the Montreal transit system, and maybe getting to the new LRT in Kitchener. I even had a few ideas that may have taken me back south of the border. Instead, this has been the first year in nearly a decade and a half that I haven’t set foot on a single train whatsoever – and with only a handful of days left before the calendar flips over, I can say with confidence that the year will end that way. 

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last several months thinking about writing this post. I felt I needed to write something, but it’s been hard to figure out exactly how, and when the time was right. Now as we launch into the Christmas season, the absence of train travel and everything that comes with it (the warmth of the season, reconnecting with family and friends) is really weighing on me, and so it feels like the right time. With no new travels to write about, and none on the horizon, I’ll instead look back at this year without trains, and ahead to what train service in this part of the country will look like when it does, eventually, come back. 

The only VIA train I would get to photograph in 2020 - #15 departing Halifax, mixed consist in tow, in a blizzard on Jan. 8, 2020.

2020 - The year without trains...

The only VIA equipment in Halifax for most of 2020 would be these two damaged Renaissance coaches, left behind after a derailment in November 2018. Before the end of the summer, they would finally be scrapped.

2020 has been an unprecedented year in VIA Rail’s history. Before the pandemic even arrived in Canada, train services across almost the entire country were shut down by blockades in solidarity with the Wetʼsuwetʼen people in British Columbia, and controversy surrounding the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Regardless of perspectives on that issue and whether blockades of rail lines elsewhere in the country are defensible, the end result was that VIA’s services on virtually every line were shut down, including almost all Corridor trains and the Ocean. 

After an extended shutdown, the Ocean finally resumed – but it would run for only a matter of weeks before growing COVID concerns and burgeoning travel restrictions led to an abrupt service suspension on March 13. VIA made the cancellation announcement after #15 had already left Halifax and was near Moncton, and while connecting passengers for that night’s #14 were already en route or in Montreal. Similarly, the Canadian was cancelled with passengers already in the station waiting to board; not at all well planned or executed, from a passenger’s perspective. 

As it became clear that things were about to become much more restricted, I had been toying with the idea of making a quick return trip to Rimouski and back – a turnaround that would allow me to leave Halifax on one day’s #15, and connect directly (with a few hours of hanging around in the wee hours of the morning) to the #14 coming the other way, getting back to Halifax the following day. Unfortunately other obligations pushed that off, and then came the suspension – along with the arrival of more serious COVID concern and restrictions – so any hopes for a last hurrah were dashed. 

International travel vlogger Paul Lucas rode the Ocean during that brief window between the end of the blockades and the start of the COVID shutdown. It was, unsurprisingly, a very quiet trip – but it looked like a lovely time on the train. Paul’s report gives a fantastic look at the experience aboard the Ocean (at least as it was pre-COVID), and is worth a watch. I’ll even forgive his insistence on pronouncing VIA as though it were an acronym…

It seems somewhat appropriate that the last pre-COVID Ocean departed on Friday the 13th. I would have, at the very least, liked to get out to photograph that final train, but VIA’s choice to cancel with no notice meant the train was long gone by the time anyone knew it was the last one. 

Fortunately, a railfan in Quebec was able to get out to film that last pre-COVID #15 as it rolled through Drummondville the next morning, with its snow-encased mixed consist in tow. 

Since then, the Ocean’s service suspension has continued to be extended on a rolling basis. There was talk of resumption in November, and the Canadian did in fact resume on December 11 (running a truncated Vancouver-Winnipeg service), but with travel restrictions and serious COVID concerns in Quebec, VIA has continued to push off the return of the Ocean. At the time of writing this post, VIA has cancelled departures through the end of February, and blocked sales for March and April trips – it is looking more and more likely that the earliest hope for a return will be for the late spring or summer of 2021, leaving Atlantic Canada devoid of any passenger rail service for more than a full year. 

On the one hand, I can appreciate the logic behind the suspended service. Interregional travel has been strongly discouraged, with good reason, throughout this year. Ridership would be low, and particularly lacking the higher revenue tourist crowd. Travel restrictions would have made it complicated, though far from impossible, to ensure that provincial rules were being followed. Having said that, the suspension of the train has left many communities, especially in northern New Brunswick, without one of their only options for travel to nearby centres, and has created even more isolation throughout the region. I am absolutely convinced that some form of modified train service, focused on the needs of shorter distance and intraregional travellers, could and should have been provided, at the very least through the summer months when COVID was nearly non-existent in the Maritime provinces. 

I appreciate that VIA is in a difficult situation. Beyond the logistics of running the train, they have serious financial considerations across the system, and perhaps the costs of running such a service were seen as not worth the benefit – but I continue to be concerned that this further shows how much VIA views their service to Atlantic Canada as primarily a tourist-oriented offering, with little practical purpose for the people in the region. This is a view that needs to change, and we need serious investment in passenger rail across the country if we want to move to a greener, more equitable, and sustainable transportation future from coast to coast – but that’s a whole other topic to dive into. 

A sad fate... these two Ren coaches (7220 and 7222) were destined for scrap after the 2018 derailment, but it was hard not to see their torn up shreds as somewhat of a representation of the sad state of VIA's service to Atlantic Canada. Photographed on Sept. 16, 2020

The future of the Ocean 

When the Ocean eventually does resume, the train isn’t going to look quite the same. This is probably my main disappointment (in terms of train travel, of course) with the way that 2020 panned out. As you may recall, in my last post after Christmas 2019, I alluded to plans to try to ride the Ocean as much as possible this year, to take in the final days of the more “classic” train. I even had very specific plans for the end of October, which of course didn’t come to pass. 

Before the coronavirus had even made its emergence in the human species, we knew that VIA’s operations in Halifax would have to change due to the scheduled loss of the Halterm loop, a balloon track at the south-end container terminal that was used for decades to turn the train after arrival in Halifax. With business booming and the port expanding, Halterm (now PSA Halifax) decided they could no longer spare the room to maintain access for VIA. 

Tracks paved over, and containers stacked on top - by early September, with VIA not running, PSA Halifax had already rendered this side of the balloon track inaccessible.

Looking the other way - that's a whole lot of containers. A surge in traffic late in the summer left the port scrambling to find places to store containers. Note that they did also pave in the flange gaps next to the railheads, so no train could operate on this part of the loop any more, even though the track remains.

After lengthy negotiations and a mediated agreement to extend access, VIA was set to lose access on Nov. 1, 2020. With that in mind, VIA was no longer going to be able to turn its trains in Halifax. Other options were explored – re-installing the wye at Windsor Jct., using the wye at the Milford gypsum mine, or even installing a turntable by the station – all were deemed to be either too expensive, too labour intensive, or to pose too many safety concerns (e.g. having to back the train many miles, including across unprotected private crossings). So with no infrastructure option available, the only alternative would be a new operating configuration. 

The solution is ultimately quite simple. VIA will run the locomotives on the train back to back, with one facing either direction. After arriving in Halifax, they will back out of the station, and use a run-around track to move the locomotives to the opposite end. Simple as that! Aside from having to disconnect and reconnect various cables, it’s hardly any more complex of an operation than running out and through the loop. So that works great for the locomotives – but what about the passenger equipment? 

Details of the new arrangement have been scarce, but the one thing VIA has confirmed is that the new consists will comprise a mix of HEP and Renaissance equipment. Why the mix? In part, this ensures that they can still maintain accessible sleeper and coach space, which the Renaissance cars have but the HEP equipment lacks. They can also continue using the Ren dining/service car sets. Using all Renaissance equipment is also not an option, simply because so much of that fleet has been sidelined by age and decay, combined with incidents I’ve written about in other posts. 

So in all likelihood, each of the two consists will have one end comprised of HEP equipment, the other comprised of Renaissance, with a single Ren transition car in the middle. This will differ from the more recent “mixed” consist, which used two Ren transition cars to facilitate a Renaissance block mid-train. This won’t be an option for two consists, as VIA only has three Ren transition cars and it seems unlikely they’ll build more. 

In this new consist there will be a few complications. The first is the direction of travel of the various equipment. For most sleeper accommodations, dining cars, and service/lounge cars, this isn’t a big deal – these cars can operate nearly the same in either direction, with various rooms and tables already facing different directions. Roomettes in the HEP equipment will be one exception, though having some sleepers facing either direction could provide a mix. For the coaches, seats in the HEP1 coaches can be turned, so while the cars are being cleaned the seats can be rearranged. Alternatively, they could be set up with half facing one way, and half the other. 

What about baggage cars? On the Ocean, at most stations one of the engineers handles the baggage, so this ideally needs to be adjacent to the locomotives. Running with a baggage car on either end of the train can alleviate this – and on the Renaissance end it will be essential, as it will be needed to allow the locomotives to attach to the train. 

The million dollar question is, of course, what about the Park car and any other dome cars? This has been a signature feature of the train, and a key draw for sleeper passengers. The rooms in the Park were always popular, even sold at a much higher fare, helping the bottom line of the train. Unfortunately it appears that, in all likelihood, the days of Park cars on the Ocean have come to an end. A Park car isn’t ideal to run mid-train (and there's no passenger access at one end!), and without the ability to turn it and rearrange the consist, it just won’t be feasible to use. VIA could, of course, decide in the long-run to sandwich one in between the HEP baggage car and the HEP section of the train, but this seems unlikely (and everything I’ve heard so far says it’s not on the table). 

So what is a likely outcome? It wouldn’t be surprising to see a Skyline car in the mix. If oriented the right way, this would allow for café service to the HEP coach section, and the shorter lounge end and dome access could be kept exclusively for sleeper passengers. The car could fit neatly mid-train, so that isn’t an issue. The one downside would be that the seats in the dome would be backwards one way, but those should be capable of being re-arranged to a half forward/half back facing arrangement for the Skylines required. If VIA was willing to free up four cars, perhaps two could feature on each consist with one facing each direction – but this seems a bit less likely, given equipment demands out west.

Personally, I’d love to see the single level glass-roofed Panorama cars, typically only used on the Canadian west of Edmonton, be re-purposed for the Ocean instead. They could be set up with half the seats facing each way, and would work beautifully as a mid-train observation and lounge car. Alas, I suspect it’s unlikely that VIA would sacrifice those from the prime tourist market in the west. 

So there are still lots of unknowns, and I’m not even sure that VIA has worked out all the details yet. There’s also the added uncertainty with COVID, and whether some health considerations may still be in play by the time the train resumes, which could make for a different service offering for the short-term vs. the longer term plan. 

In any case, the train is going to be different, and I’ll be forever disappointed that I didn’t get the chance for a proper “farewell” trip. Still, I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to ride different iterations of this train over the last 13 years, and I look forward to hopefully many trips on the new Ocean – whatever it looks like, and whenever it’s safe to ride. 

This might be the last Park car going-away shot I'll ever get to take on the Ocean, given that the new consist almost certainly won't include one. Never say never, but I suspect I may have to head west to see Park cars from here on out. Jan. 8, 2020.

The last train I was on - #14 at Halifax, returning after Christmas travels last year.

A travel blogger's dilemma

So, what now? 

When I started this blog, it was really just to provide a format for a trip report about my cross-Canada trip in 2017 that I could share with family, friends, and acquaintances beyond the confines of the railfan groups where I might normally post such a thing. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d ever post anything else, or if it would just be a one-off for that trip. 

Since then, I’ve found it to be an excellent platform for posting trip reports, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with it – whether anyone has been reading it or not! I’ve never really intended for it to be a regular, frequently updated blog – certainly nothing the likes of Eric Gagnon’s Trackside Treasure, or similar – but my trips were generally frequent enough that I was able to continue posting something on a reasonably regular basis. 

With no trips this year, and perhaps for a while yet, what does this blog become? It could just sit idle, as it has for much of this year. I could try to dig up more old trip reports, for additional “From the Archives” type posts. It could feature other railfan expeditions or content, though there’s also been very little of that over the course of this year. 

One thing I have been contemplating is posting some smaller-scale content. This year may have been devoid of 1:1 scale trains, but it has been filled with their 1:87 scale cousins. Model railroading has helped me get through a lot of the strange, difficult days of this year. It is a hobby supremely well suited to days confined indoors, and has provided a welcome escape from the world outside. I often post about my modelling on various model railroad forums and groups, but those formats don’t work as well for longer form posting – such as a step by step “how to” of a project, a backgrounder about a layout, or a story-oriented photo essay. 

There may not be any real VIA trains in Halifax right now, but the miniature ones are still running on my layout...

I was particularly inspired by a recent Trackside Treasure post, in which Eric explored the myriad photo opportunities in a small section of his layout. It’s things like this that I envision diving into here. 

Who knows – this may become a bit more varied of a blog, depending on just how much I end up feeling like taking on! It may be a bit less of “Tim’s Train Travels”, but if it’s still involving Tim and Trains, I guess we’re at least 2/3 of the way there. 

So with that, until we connect again, I will wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a healthy, happy start to the New Year!

Midnight meet in miniature. A recreation of the wee hours meet between Trains 15 and 14, somewhere in the snowy wilderness of Quebec, with passengers settled in and fast asleep, relaxed and excited for Christmas festivities at the other end of their journey. Part of the beauty of model railroading is the ability to recreate scenes that are a thing of the past, keeping a little piece of history alive.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Trains for Christmas: the Ocean, exo, and Ottawa's LRT

This wasn't my train, though it was the same set of equipment that I rode on my return eastbound trip. Departing in a snow storm on Jan. 8, 2020, VIA 15 shows off why the train is such a great way to travel in the winter. 

Last year, I wrote about how much I love riding the train at Christmas. As far as I’m concerned, it really is the best time of the year to be on a train, and the only way I really care to travel around the holidays. So I was understandably pleased to have the chance to take the train to Ottawa and back over Christmas 2019.

The trip was really enjoyable in both directions. Since I’ve written in quite a bit of detail about the experience on board VIA’s Ocean service in previous reports, and this trip didn’t really deviate much from the norm, I’m not going to give a full narration of the journey. Instead, I’m going to provide consists and the highlights of the trip, and some commentary in the form of captions on the photos as I go along. While in Montreal and Ottawa I also had the chance to ride some commuter trains, including the new Ottawa LRT, so I’ll include a few photos and commentary about that experience as well. At the end of this report, I have an important note about impending changes for the Ocean’s service. If you’ve been thinking about riding this train or have and particularly enjoy the current operation, you may want to read that and take note.

So we begin in Halifax on December 22, 2019. There were no extra trains for the holidays this year, but the dates of operation were adjusted slightly due to Christmas day falling on a Wednesday. In addition to that adjustment, VIA tweaked the schedule of the Ocean on a couple of days when the adjusted days of operation would require a same-day turnaround of the equipment in Montreal. On those days, the preceding #15 ran on a 1-hour earlier schedule, and that day’s #14 departed about half an hour behind schedule. As it turned out, this would affect both of my trains.

There was a good crowd at the station in Halifax, largely boarding the coaches. The boarding call came a bit over half an hour before our early 12pm scheduled departure.

Busy crowd in the Halifax station. Note the new skylights, a result of the renovations that wrapped up last summer. The space looks really beautiful, and is particularly nice when decorated up for the holidays. 
A sign in the station promotes the recent renovation work. Nice to see this historic station getting some attention. Now if only we could get more trains!

The iconic Park car on the tail end of the Ocean, as it awaits departure in Halifax. A single Chateau sleeper ahead gives a brief illusion of a fully stainless train. Impending changes this fall may see the end of this classic tail end - see my notes at the end of this post. 

The consist for this sizeable Renaissance train was as follows:

VIA 15 - December 22, 2019
7003 Renaissance Baggage
7223 (03) Ren Coach
70230 (05) Ren Accessible Coach
7227 (04) Ren Coach
7208 (06) Ren Coach
7200 (07) Ren Coach
7312 Ren Service Car
7402 Ren Diner
7313 Ren Service Car
79501 (30) Ren Accessible Sleeper
7507 (33) Ren Sleeper
7522 (34) Ren Sleeper
7517 (35) Ren Sleeper
7518 (36) Ren Sleeper *Room 5
7520 (37) Ren Sleeper
7519 (38) Ren Sleeper
7516 (39) Ren Sleeper
7600 Ren Transition
Chateau Roberval (crew)
Assiniboine Park (40)

*Line numbers are in brackets. Note the odd coach numbering – appears to have been thrown off due to the placement of the accessible coach, which is always line number 05 on the Ren set in the current setup.

I found the Renaissance sleeper that I was in to be in fairly decent shape. Aside from an issue with the table (which I hardly use anyway), the only problem was that the shower seemed to only have very hot water – something I have encountered before. The room was also pretty cool, but I found that quite comfortable to sleep in once under the generous duvet.

Inside a Renaissance sleeper. The narrow hallways are a result of the narrow British loading gauge they were built to, and make passing someone else in the halls nearly impossible. Navigating the train often means waiting at the end of the car for oncoming traffic!

Room 5 - the best room in a Renaissance sleeper. Forward facing, shower-equipped, and almost smack-dab in the middle of the car. Can't ask for a better ride. 

Departure was ultimately delayed due to several late arriving passengers, some of whom needed assistance boarding, and all of whom had checked baggage that had to be loaded. It seems the change of the departure time may have thrown some people off! We departed at 12:18pm, but ran slow through the cut, not making it to the switch at Fairview Jct. until 12:40.

As usual, the passenger load was reasonable, but lighter in this direction than the corresponding run from Montreal. We had 141 in coach and 39 in the sleepers leaving Halifax, with plenty more boarding along the way (especially at Moncton).

With departure delayed, I made my way to the Park car to settle in before the crowds found their way back. An opportunistic shot of the bullet lounge, before it filled. This is one of the Park cars that is still sporting its late 1990s refurbishment interior. Compare this to the interior of Revelstoke Park on the return trip. 

Menu in the Park car. An assortment of snacks and drinks, though coffee, tea, and other snacks are available for free in the lounge. More complete snack offerings can be found in the service cars adjacent to the diner. 

The mural lounge beneath the dome. There's no good views here, but it's a comfortable space to relax and socialize - especially nice in the evening, when there's not much to see outside. Though rarely used, there is actually a TV hidden in the top part of that cabinet on the right.

Looking to the tail end - note the smattering of Christmas decor. 

Starting to pull away from the Halifax station. 

Two damaged Renaissance coaches are still sitting in their own deadline at the station. These were damaged in a derailment in November 2018, and are slowly being cannibalized for parts. They will eventually most likely be scrapped on site. 

Passing the Fairview "shops", now a desolate landscape. The last remaining major building on the former CN roundhouse site was destroyed by a spectacular fire late in 2019, and torn down. It's a strange sight - all that now remains are the fuel racks and a few small storage buildings. The turntable is also still there, though rarely used.

Meeting a recently-arrived CN 120 just past Fairview.

The DPU from CN 120 sits on the tail end of its train, the front half having already been pulled off. It's a busy day in Rockingham yard.

Lunch calls were to be at 12 (delayed, but ultimately started before we departed) and at 1:30pm.

Lunch menu - some familiar items. 

Fish chowder, to start. This was a long time dinner feature on the Ocean, and has recently been relocated to the lunch menu. It's thoroughly enjoyable in either context.

Chicken schnitzel. A rather tasty lunch.

The mille-feuille, which has been the lunch dessert staple for a while now. Always delightful, though a challenge to eat without making a mess!

One interesting thing to note was that this was the first time I had been on board since VIA made the switch to no longer accepting cash on board their trains (I had made one last coach trip from Amherst to Halifax in October just before the change, and made a point to buy something from the canteen with cash one last time!). VIA now only accepts credit cards and VIA gift cards for payment on board. The little terminals are pretty nifty, accepting either tap or chip payment. I found they worked pretty well on both trips, but it seems they are integrated with the same smartphone system that VIA uses for ticket scanning, and they can occasionally be problematic. How reliably they worked seemed to depend on which crew member you spoke to, with some saying it had been very smooth and others saying they were a headache. 

The new wireless electronic payment terminals. These replace cash payments on board, and also replace the archaic carbon paper credit card swipe setup that VIA was still using prior to last October. They are the most compact payment terminals I've ever seen, being roughly the size of a small smartphone. 
As we made our way, we had double stops at both Amherst and Sackville, and otherwise kept up a good pace through the afternoon.

A bit of freezing precipitation obscured the forward view from the dome for some parts of the afternoon, and into the evening. 

Views near Amherst, on a dreary afternoon. 

Vestibule views. Standard issue snow brush to the right.

Through the afternoon, I took some photos of various interior details in the Renaissance cars. As the days of these cars are likely numbered, I thought it worth recording some of the less-often photographed interior elements. 

Equipment cabinets inside the Renaissance transition car. Emergency equipment is located below, and a fire extinguisher above. The cabinet to the left houses various electrical equipment for the car. 

A large freezer in the Renaissance transition car. Additional supplies for the diner and service cars can be stored here. 

This small space is included at the front end of each Renaissance sleeper, with the exception of a few where it has been covered over and the accessible cars, which have access to the accessible bedroom here instead. As originally built, the idea would be to have coffee/tea and other amenities for sleeper passengers located here. There's also a small service cart below (to the right), the same as those used to provide at-seat snack and drink service on Corridor trains. Presumably this would have allowed for sleeper attendants to go room-to-room offering this kind of service. I don't know if this was ever used in practice, but when the service was modified to allow for a Park car to be included on the train and other amenities provided from the service cars, this kind of service was really redundant. 

Vestibule end of a Renaissance sleeper. The exterior doors are to either side, and the car's electrical equipment is located directly ahead. The hallway through the car is to the right. The sealed vestibules provide for a seamless transition between cars, and you'd often hardly know that you're passing from one to another - a stark contrast with the traditional HEP equipment.

Located across from the small service area at the front of a Ren sleeper, each car has a fire extinguisher and an emergency power shutoff. 

A Canadian railroading essential - the snow brush. While the vestibules themselves are well sealed, the exterior steps still get clogged up with snow in the winter.

Looking forward from the transition car to the last Renaissance sleeper. Note the sliding doors, which are standard on the Ren cars and operate with the push of a button. The transition car itself has a solid door that looks much more like something you'd find in your house, rather than on a train (to the left). 
We would ultimately depart Moncton at 4:57pm, further delayed due to lots of coach passengers and baggage boarding at that stop.

Paused at Moncton, our three locomotives are refuelled for the journey onwards.
Dinner calls were at 5, 6:30 and 8 pm.

Renaissance dining car, set for dinner. There were different little festive centerpieces on each table. 

Dinner menu.

Caprese salad appetizer. Quite tasty, though I found it to be a bit much as a starter. Could also do with a bit less of the balsamic glaze!

Filet of sole. Doesn't look overly exciting (maybe it's just the lack of colour), but it was actually very good. Dessert is not pictured, but it was the same chocolate caramel cake that has been standard on here for some time now. 

We were through Rogersville at 6:04pm with no stop, and would eventually arrive at Campbellton at 10:19pm. I decided to step out for some fresh (and very cold!) air before bed, and realized that the crew were having issues with deploying the steps on that side of the train. Some had frozen (Campbellton is the first left-side stop after Truro, so plenty of time for ice to build up), and there was also ice on the platform that interfered with their operation. We departed there at 10:38pm, and I headed off to bed shortly thereafter.

By the morning we had not only made up time, but were running ahead of even our earlier schedule. We were at Drummondville by 7:08am (departed 7:16), St-Hyacinthe at 7:42, and St-Lambert at 8:15. Despite even having to use the diversion on the Victoria Bridge, we were still in to Montreal Central Station by 8:38am, nearly half an hour ahead of our already early scheduled arrival. Arriving at that hour had me reminiscing about my earlier days of riding this train over a decade ago, when the Montreal arrival was scheduled for closer to 8am.

It would be a bright and sunny day, but it was still dull and overcast as I made my way to breakfast in Drummondville.

Breakfast options.

Golden breakfast bread, and plenty of coffee. A rather nice way to start the day. 
Brightening up as we make our fast final run in toward Montreal. 

As we depart St-Lambert, the lift bridge directly ahead is in the upright position. The Victoria bridge has a whole separate double-tracked diversion to deal with this frequent occurrence, as ships traverse the lock. An impressive bit of engineering!

As we swing left onto the diversion, a CN freight (which had been waiting for us to make our stop and clear the station) starts up.

Looking from one lift section to the other, the ship that necessitated the lift is visible on its approach. For the volume of trains that cross this bridge, having an option to not halt traffic is very useful. 
Swinging around on the diversion.

As we near the end of the diversion, the two bridges re-combine. I'm always amazed by the way the road bridge components deal with this, with one lane lifting up and over the rail section at the juncture. 

Coming off the Victoria bridge, a lone F40 is emerging from VIA's Montreal Maintenance Centre. It would soon make its way over to the station as well. 

Final approach into Central Station, with exo commuter trains (an EMU on the left and a string of ALP45DP-hauled multilevels on the right) await assignment.

Leaving Train 15 on track 13, down underneath the majestic Central station. Note the longer gap fillers required for the narrow Renaissance cars.

A Corridor train waits on an adjacent track in the bowels of Central Station. 

A group of carolers make for a very warm welcome to Montreal. 

While in Montreal, I decided to make a very quick exo (formerly AMT) commuter train ride. The Mount Royal tunnel is due to be converted to the new automated light rail “REM” service, and commuter service through the tunnel will end in a few months’ time. This seemed like it could be my last chance to ride through it as-is, so I figured I could make a quick out-and-back trip to Canora station using a Deux-Montagnes line train out, and a Mascouche line train back in, with about 10min between them. As it turned out, both were running with ALP45DP-hauled multi-level trains. It was my first time on this equipment, and I was quite impressed with the comfort of the ride.

A sign of things to come - the new automated light rail system being funded by Quebec's pension fund will make for major changes to the Montreal transit scene. Some aspects of it will be welcome, and it is an impressive project - but it will also render large chunks of the already excellent commuter rail network redundant. There are a lot of questions about the quality of service it will provide on the existing heavy rail commuter line that a part of the system will largely replace.

Inside a Bombardier multi-level coach. The seating is very comfortable and spacious for a commuter run.

One of the things I like most about these cars is the way the seating is set up - half faces in each direction, but it's done so half of the car faces all one way and the other the opposite, with just a few facing pairs. This seems to me to be a much more comfortable setup than the bilevels used by GO Transit, which have virtually all seats set up as 4-seater facing pairs. Note as well that the upper levels of these cars are designated as quiet zones (clearly not an issue here...). There are also small retractable coat hooks by each pair of seats. 

Looking to the upper and lower levels from the end section, where the accessible space is located. The high level doors are to the right and left here, while the low level doors (with permanently fixed low steps) are behind me at the end of the car.

The accessible seating area, and the vestibule with low level doors straight ahead.

Leaving the train at Canora, the pair of now exo-branded ALP45DPs accelerate the impressively long train away from the station. 

The temporary relocated Canora station, reduced to a single track. Note the overhead electric wires above the new temporary platform. Soon all of this will be closed for construction of the REM.

My return train arrives, a much shorter 3-car train from the Mascouche line. 

I made my way to the cab car, where the end door was briefly open. Just after snapping this shot it was closed, and I watched through the middle window as we headed for the tunnel. 

A brief bit of daylight view as we head back to the darkness of the Mount Royal tunnel. 

After that quick ride I went to run some errands in downtown Montreal, and also wandered around the old Windsor Station. While I’d been around that area plenty of times before, I hadn’t actually ventured into the historic station. It’s fascinating to stand there and imagine what it would have been like in its CP-run glory days, as passengers milled about and boarded trains heading all across the country.

Montreal. What more can I say?

The old CP Windsor Station. The concourse is open to the public and leads off to some businesses. There are historical displays commemorating the railway history of the station, which was once a busy hub for Canadian Pacific's transcontinental, intercity, and commuter trains. 

This is outside the old Windsor Station, and next to the modern Bell Centre. One part of the train shed still exists, incorporated into the building to the right. Where this outdoor rink is located was once where the end of the stub tracks ran in, and passengers would make their way down the platforms. The closest remaining bit of the track that led here is back on the other side of the Bell Centre, where the modern AMT Lucien L'Allier station stands today.

Back at the current-day Central station, I picked up my bags (as usual, I used the checkroom service at Central station to leave my carry-ons while I wandered around) and boarded train 35 for Ottawa.

VIA 35 – Dec. 23, 2019
3468 (01) LRC Business Class *
3335 (03) LRC Economy Class
3370 (04) LRC Economy Class

Both of the coaches on this train were in the old LRC scheme outside, but had been refreshed inside with the new style seating and the 50/50 forward/back configuration. Having arrived from Quebec City, #35 has to back out of the station to reverse directions before heading onwards. We departed a few minutes behind schedule at 12:04pm.

I was in Business class, which is my preference on #35. If booked in advance, the price differential is usually pretty reasonable, and the departure time means that the train is running right over lunch time. Business class has its greatest value, in my opinion, when the train is running through a normal meal period. Lunch was served by Coteau, with service starting only from the front of the car. By the time they got to me nearer the back of the car, one of the lunch options was gone. The cold plate, which I chose, was perfectly enjoyable. The ride was pretty smooth, and we ultimately made up time to arrive slightly early at 2:10pm.

A brew from Beau's, one of the local craft options available on VIA's corridor trains. 

Business class lunch. 

One of the things I really like about the new Business class interiors is that the single seats are shifted out from the wall to allow for the little table down to the right. This means you have a much better view out the next window ahead, as long as no one has closed the curtain. 

LRC Business class interior, with the new 2+1 seating configuration. The forward half of the car has seats facing backwards. This same interior design is slowly being introduced to the HEP2s, to bring some consistency to the service offering. 

Arriving at the station, there was some confusion about where checked baggage would be arriving. The normal baggage area is being renovated at the moment, and it’s covered over with no indication as to where alternative service will be provided. An employee finally informed us that the cart would just be driving around to the front entrance, and a short while later it arrived.

There are also major renovations ongoing to to Business lounge in the station, so it is currently closed and a temporary lounge is in place near the Ministry of Coffee. I didn't have a chance to see inside, as I wasn't in Business class on my return.

Arriving at Ottawa, another Corridor train is preparing to depart on the high platform adjacent to the station. Note that 917 is one of the only P42s not wearing a version of the new silver and yellow wrap, while the LRC club behind it is the only business class car that has been wrapped. The rest of the train is HEP2s. 

More signs of things to come: promotion for the new Siemens trains that VIA has ordered to replace their Corridor fleet are all over stations throughout the Corridor. There are also signs up promoting the proposed HFR project, which is still pending final cabinet funding approval. 

Winter danger! There's something about the graphic design of these signs that I really enjoy.  

With all bags in hand, I headed off to try my luck with the new O-Train Confederation Line. Since its much-delayed launch in September 2019, the new LRT line has been plagued with problems. Some were forseen by observers well before the system launched, and others have unexpectedly cropped up as the trains got running. I’m not going to delve into that in any great detail here, except to acknowledge that there is clearly a lot of work left to be done to get the system running properly.

Hopefully those problems can get sorted out before long, because when it does run as intended, the LRT is actually a pretty fantastic addition to the Ottawa transit landscape. I have previously taken a bus from the train station to my parent’s home near Tunney’s Pasture, and the difference with riding the LRT was astounding. It was far more spacious and comfortable, and the ride through the tunnel downtown was immensely faster than the old slow bus slog through downtown.

Getting to the LRT from the VIA station was quite straightforward. The signage is pretty good, and while you do have to walk outside, it’s not too far to go. I found the ticket purchasing interface to be really intuitive and quick to use, the elevator was spacious and quick (ideal with a large bag), and while a train had just departed as I bought my ticket, the next train arrived just a few minutes after I got to the platform. Getting off at Tunney’s Pasture, I had only a short walk to finish my journey.

Signage inside the Ottawa station, directing to the O-train. The large red O ("lifesaver") has been adopted as the distinct symbol for the service. This seemed to cause some confusion at first, because for newcomers to the city it isn't entirely clear that it refers to the train. The new "Downtown in under 10 minutes" sign (with photo of the train) seems to have been added to help address that. 

Leaving the station, the O-train Tremblay station is a short walk, not more than heading to either of the parking lots. 

The ticket machines are intuitive, and quick and easy to use. You can purchase single fares or longer passes. The machine prints a ticket-like card with a QR code. 

Fare points - scan the QR code from your ticket or tap your Presto card, and you're in. You can see the tracks below to the left. Platforms are on the outside here, and you can access either one from the upper level. 

A Toronto-bound VIA train departs in the background, looking towards the downtown direction on the line. 

My train arrives! The Confederation line operates with coupled-pairs of these Alstom Citadis Spirit light rail vehicles. It is fully electrified with overhead wires, and operates on a semi-autonomous control system. 

Flexible barriers block the space between the coupled vehicles. They prevent people getting onto the tracks, but are flexible so someone trapped could get out. The trains are programmed to stop at exact platform spots, so this will always be between the trains. 
Over the next few days I would head out to ride the whole Confederation Line from end to end, as well as the original diesel Trillium line (impressively, it is possible to do both in their entirety on a single fare). Given that the Trillium Line will close this spring for rebuilding and expansion as part of the next stage of the system construction, I figured it was worth getting in a last ride.

Forward view through the cab, as we meet an oncoming train. The system is fully double tracked, with right-hand running as the norm. 

End of the line, at the eastern terminus of Blair. The next phase will extend this line further east. Note that this station uses a central platform, making accessing trains in both directions possible from the same platform.

Between trains at Blair. Every station has these barriers.

As we depart the station, we have to cross over to get back to our normal right-hand position. An oncoming train is approaching, and waits for us to clear the way. 

A central feature of the new line is the downtown tunnel, which allows the trains to get through the city core without delays. This definitely has the feel of a subway for this part of the run. This is Paliament station.

Above ground at Parliament, quite the trek above the station itself. A series of escalators and stairs, as well as an elevator option, provide access down to the tracks themselves.

Parliament station, looking west through the tunnel. 

Our train arrives.

At Bayview station, the transfer point between the Confederation and Trillium lines. The elevated Confederation line is on the right, while the Trillium line's new platform is down the stairs straight ahead. 

End of the line, for now...the next phase of the diesel Trillium line will continue south along this former CP right of way, adding several new stations to the line. 

Back at Bayview, at the Confederation line level. 

One last shot, showing off the seating inside the new Confederation line trains. More like a subway or bus than the much more comfortable regional intercity style seating in the Trillium line's LINT trains, but still comfortable. 

On December 27th, I headed out for my return journey. This time I had a ride to the station, and boarded VIA 28 – this is the later connection to the Ocean, and one I hadn’t tried before, usually opting for the earlier #26. This is clearly an extremely popular train, running a solid 6 car LRC consist with two in-service Business class cars and an impressive crowd boarding. I was very excited to see that I would finally get to make use of the high platform adjacent to the station. It is extremely well designed, and made the boarding experience the easiest it has ever been. Interestingly, a 6-car train is the maximum that can just squeeze onto that platform.

VIA 28 – Dec. 27, 2019
3451 (01) LRC Business Class
3477 (91) LRC Business Class
3322 (03) LRC Economy
3318 (04) LRC Economy
3302 (05) LRC Economy
3329 (06) LRC Economy *12A

Train 28 at the new high level platform. Wide stairs and ramps in multiple directions make the platform very easy to access, no matter where in the train you're headed. 

Convenient boarding. Eventually, more platforms at Ottawa are planned for conversion to high level, which will improve accessibility for all train departures and arrivals. 

I noted that checked baggage (only available if connecting to the Ocean) was loaded into Car 91. All LRC cars had the new interiors, though externally were in a mix of schemes. I was in Economy class this time, as I find Business class on the late afternoon departure much harder to justify, unless the price differential is really good. We departed on time with a good full train, and after a delay at Coteau waiting for a signal, we would ultimately be 10 minutes late arriving in Montreal. During our stop at Dorval, I noticed that the VIA shuttle to the airport is actually a small white Blue Bird bus with large VIA logos on both sides and the rear.

Once in Montreal, sleeper check-in had begun – so I checked in, then relaxed for a while in the lounge before boarding.

On the way back, our train was the hodge-podge mix of HEP and Renaissance equipment, necessitated by the dwindling number of available Renaissance cars. I took advantage of this to book a roomette in one of the Chateau sleepers. Originally opting for a roomette 8, I was surprised when I boarded to find that my reservation had been changed to 7 in the same car. Once on board, I realized why – there had been an issue with the windowblind in that 8, and it had been removed entirely. Not conducive for sleep! I happily switched over to #7 instead.

VIA 14 – Dec. 27, 2019

8619 HEP baggage
8123 (02?) HEP1 Coach
8140 (04) HEP1 Coach
8137 (05) HEP1 Coach
8138 (04?) HEP1 Coach
7601 Renaissance Transition
70217 (07) Ren Accessible Coach
7309 Ren Service Car
7401 Ren Diner
7314 Ren Service Car
79515 (30) Ren Accessible Sleeper
7512 (31) Ren Sleeper
7602 Ren Transition
Chateau Brulé (35)
Chateau Bienville (36) *Roomette 7
Chateau Laval (38)
Chateau Marquette (37)
Chateau Rigaud (39
Revelstoke Park (40)

*Note the really weird line numbering on this train. Not sure if the coach numbers are accurate (I wrote down what was in the external number displays, but that might not have been changed). The sleeper numbers had to do with how the train was crewed, and the fact that one sleeper was emptying entirely at Moncton (where one of the employees would also end his trip).

Looking across from roomette 7 to roomette 8. Note that the entire window blind fixtures have been removed from the problematic window. This roomette was uninhabited, and I kept the door open (and light off, once we left) to give myself a view out the other side of the train when I felt like having my door open. 

We boarded around 7pm, with departure at 7:30 – as I noted at the start of this report, this was one of the days with the same-day equipment turnaround, so our entire schedule was shifted half an hour later than usual. First dinner call was on departure, and the second was at 9:30.

Dinner menu. As you can see from the green meal reservation ticket to the top left, this was the 7:30pm dinner call.

Salad appetizer, with smoked salmon, shaved fennel, oranges and mixed greens. A very nice starter.

Coconut cranberry chicken. I had tried this before and really enjoyed it, and it didn't disappoint on its repeat appearance.

The evening was relaxing, and I headed to bed after departing Ste-Foy and leaving Joffre Yard. The ride was comfortable, and I slept very well in my roomette.

A Park comparison - this is the more recently refurbished interior of Revelstoke Park. Compare this to the photos of Assiniboine Park above, and you can see this is in much sharper condition.

Looking to the dome stairs in Revelstoke Park.

Mural lounge in Revelstoke Park, again, looking clean and classy. 

The bar area. Interestingly, I find the splash of brown on the counter facade makes this look like an interior from the 1970s.

By the next morning, we were only a few minutes behind schedule. I wandered down for breakfast before the last call, and ended up seated with someone I had met on the train and dined with several years earlier. It’s a small world, sometimes…

The only odd thing I noted during out morning run was that we made a stop by the switch just across the second Miramichi river bridge. We had stopped there in the other direction as well – I wonder if there is a new requirement for the crews to stop and verify that the switch has been set properly.

Renaissance diner, set for breakfast.

Breakfast menu.

I opted for the havarti and leek omelette. The omelette itself was just okay, but the accompaniments were all quite good. 

Frosty train at Bathurst. This isn't a designated smoking/stretching stop, but it tends to be long enough that the crew often let people step out. At this time of year, many stops are longer due to the amount of baggage people are bringing with them around the holidays. 

Crossing the Miramichi. The dome is the ideal place to really appreciate the full structure of these impressive bridges. I also took advantage of one of the quieter times in the dome (during the first lunch call, if I recall correctly) to snap this photo - there was consistently more of a crowd up here through the trip.

By Moncton we were making good time. During our stop, we had a meet with a short local train returning to Gordon Yard. Shortly after that cleared, we backed out to the main (standard practice at Moncton, to allow the use of the CTC controlled switch at the west end of the station) and continued onwards. 

VIA 14 at Moncton, looking at the rear stainless steel section.

Looking ahead to the mixed portion of the train, with the Renaissance block and another stainless block up front. 
Park car reflections. I can never pass up this shot. 
A long-hood running CN 4112 leads a short local train past VIA 14 during its Moncton station stop. 

When I said short train, I meant it. The little GP9 is plenty of power for this two car wonder.

Lunch calls were at 12 and 2pm. I went for the second one, after departure from Moncton.

Lunch menu.

The fish chowder, once again. Something that I'm glad is a staple on the menu.

Feeling fishy, I went for the salmon croquettes. They were good, though the Kraft tartar sauce was less than amazing (and could have used a second one). The grilled vegetables were nice, and the rice was alright. Dessert is not pictured, but was the same mille-feuille as on the westbound trip.

 We would make two long stops at Sackville, one stop at Amherst, and no stop at Springhill. Ultimately we ended up a bit behind schedule, and would finally arrive at Halifax at 6:32pm, not too far past our schedule half hour late run. 

Views on the Tantramar marshes. The dark paint inside Revelstoke's refurbished dome makes for a nicer frame than the old grey interiors.

A shot I can never pass up - heading into the curve as we branch away from our brief parallel of the Trans-Canada, heading toward the NB-NS border. The mixed train doesn't look as nice as either a solid matched Renaissance or HEP consist, but it's still nice to capture much of the long train winding around the curve.

Afternoon mood...with the light falling, the wintery world rolling by and the smooth rocking of the train, it's nice to just sit in your room and relax. An afternoon snooze is a likely possibility...

All in all, the return trip was smooth and enjoyable. The only minor issue was that the shower in Chateau Bienville, in complete contrast with my Renaissance room on the way down, had no hot water. I could have made my way to a different car to try my luck elsewhere, but by the time I realized the issue I decided to just brave the cold. That sure woke me up!

Riding the mixed set was once again an interesting experience. Having the HEP sleepers is definitely enjoyable, particularly for the wider range of accommodation options, and I also genuinely like continuing to have the Renaissance diner in the mix. The 2-person tables are nice, and the catered meal service works much more smoothly in these diners than it does in the HEP diners (or Skylines, as I experienced last spring). When this train eventually reverts to all-HEP equipment, as planned, I am curious if they will return to on board cooking, or try to maintain the catered arrangement.

VIA 14 under the platform lights at Halifax, as passengers make the long chilly walk to the station. 

The Ocean’s future: changes are coming

On a closing note, and as I think ahead to my next trip, I should note that major changes are likely coming to the Ocean this fall. As of November 1, 2020, VIA will no longer have access to the loop track that they use to turn their trains in Halifax. PSA Halifax, formerly Halterm, has decided that they can no longer spare the room occupied by the loop track as the port continues to expand. Despite being on Crown land, PSA operates the infrastructure and has the ability to tell VIA if they can or can’t use the track. They initially gave notice to VIA that they would lose access as of November 1st last year. Transport Canada mediated negotiations resulted in an extension to November of 2020, but it now seems that this deadline is real, final, and non-negotiable.

With the loop unavailable, VIA has nowhere else to turn a train. The nearest useable wye is in Truro, more than 60 miles away. The former wye at Windsor Jct., which was a much closer option and the former backup for when the loop was unavailable, has been removed. Short of finding somewhere to build a new wye or reinstalling the one at Windsor Jct. (which would require cooperation from CN and significant funding), VIA will not be able to turn the Ocean around.

So what does that mean for the Ocean? Details are still murky, but it appears that VIA will be moving to a new train arrangement that will allow them to run it as a bidirectional train. In this setup, the locomotives would run back to back, and after arrival in Halifax, the train would be pulled out of the station, and a nearby runaround would be used to move the locomotives to the other end. The consist itself would run in reverse for its return trip. 

There remain a lot of unknowns about the equipment setup. VIA’s corporate plans have indicated that the Renaissance equipment would need to be withdrawn, as the coaches can’t operate in both directions (and the equipment is generally nearing the end of its life). But it is also possible that they could renovate some of those cars to have 50/50 forward/backwards seating. The sleepers, service cars and dining cars should be able to operate in either direction, as they were designed to run that way from the start. Keeping at least some Rens in operation for a while longer would help with capacity constraints, and would also ensure that VIA maintains accessible coach and sleeper accommodations on the Ocean. So we may well see a similar mix of equipment as we currently have, but what that will look like is a real question.

The one near certainty in this bidirectional operating model is that the classic Park Cars, the tail-end dome/lounge/sleepers, will likely disappear from the train. Their curved tail end means that they can’t be run mid-train, and poses challenges for running them directly behind the power (in all likelihood, a bidirectional set would have baggage cars at both ends, as baggage service is handled by one of the engineers at most station stops en route). A modified Skyline could presumably help fill in this gap, but the Park is an iconic car whose loss will be acutely felt. It also removes the large sleeper rooms that VIA currently sells at a premium, and which are consistently popular.

It's likely that we’ll start to hear details about VIA’s plans for the fall over the coming months. In any case, I’ll offer the advice that is always so wise to heed, given the long history of disappearing and changing passenger trains in this country – if you want to ride the Ocean as it currently exists, don’t delay – get out and do it. All being well, we will still have a full-service long distance train between Halifax and Montreal after November 1, 2020; but it’s very likely it won’t look the same, and some of its iconic charm may be gone forever. I know I’ll be trying to ride as much as I can before that date…

A fitting note to close us off. A Park-car-tailed VIA 15 disappears into a winter wonderland, with passengers warm and cozy on board, enjoying the best way there is to travel when the winter weather turns foul...