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.


  1. Hi Tim, it's your blog, write what you want!

    I agree that the current state of VIA Rail travel outside the Corridor is pretty bleak. In the east it's definitely that way, with a lot of question marks. Here in Winnipeg we do have the "Canadian" running but I really question how many people are riding the Winnipeg-Vancouver route. It's hard for me to know since the once-weekly train arrives and departs at night, if it's on time.

  2. Just found your amazing blog and absolutely love it! Thanks for posting all this hugely useful information; even in this time of COVID, it's great to plan and dream. I've planned my own trip on The Canadian as a result of your great posts. Keep up the good work!

    1. So glad to hear that, Aaron! Happy to have helped with that, and hope your trip is wonderful whenever it comes around!

  3. I've got a few questions surrounding the Ocean. The Renaissance cars are in a poor state to put it mildly. According to the recent annual public meeting, VIA will be modifying a couple REN coach cars to have seating that can be rotated like the HEP cars and that the mixed set is still the planned course of action. However, as stated by TAC, the Ren cars will have to be retired by next year. Is the money it's gonna cost to modify the REN coach cars worth it then? I understand VIA want to maintain accessible accommodations which normal HEP cars don't have but if i am correct, the overhauled HEP coach cars have accessible accommodations so why don't VIA just use them? (Does the Canadian even have accessible coach and sleepers?) Also according to the TAC, VIA are looking to get funding to purchase new sleepers and diners which would be compatible with current equipment and in the case of the sleepers, have accessible accommodations. How soon could such a thing take place considering it's already May? Sorry for the wall of text and sorry if these questions are unanswerable to you

    1. I had just written out a longer comment, but got an error message as I went to post it - darn! So I'll try again here, but perhaps with a more point form version:

      -At least some Rens are here to stay for a while yet. The Corridor sets will likely be first out the door when the new Siemens trains arrive, but the ones on the Ocean will straggle along as part of the new mixed consists. They're not in great shape and they were originally slated for withdrawal starting last year, but without them VIA will lose both accessible space on the Ocean (something they faced lawsuits over in the past), and be further strained for long distance equipment across the country. Do keep in mind that they've been sitting idle for nearly a year and a half now, though I'm not sure what might have been done on them in that time.

      -The only accessible sleeping space in the HEP equipment is in the Prestige class Park cars, and those are used exclusively on the Canadian (and there are only 4). The Chateaus and Manors have no accessible space. There were plans for a full accessible overhaul on 17 HEP1 coaches, but those were cancelled due to structural issues discovered in the cars. So in the HEP coaches, there are some accessible spaces but not the full modern standards.

      -There is a desperate need for new long distance equipment. VIA has acknowledged this and is planning towards it, but until they have committed funding from the federal government they can't start a procurement, and once they do you're looking at at least a few years lead time for new equipment to arrive. So we're stuck with what we have for a while yet, and it will be in VIA's interest to keep whatever equipment still operating that they can. With a limited pool of Rens still running, it may be feasible to stretch a bit more life from them.

      -In the new consist, there's only expected to be one Ren coach (the accessible one) in each consist (the rest of the Ren cars will be the accessible and possibly additional sleepers, baggage and transition cars, and the service car-diner-service car set). I haven't seen any confirmation of whether they will actually change the seats on the coaches or not. It would be far easier to set up the seats in that one coach 50/50 forward/backwards rather than installing turnable seats. The majority of the coaches will be HEP1s, and those seats can be turned.