Tuesday 14 December 2021

Ocean observations and videos

VIA 15 departs Halifax on August 25, 2021.

I haven't had any reason to be travelling over the last few months - with the pandemic still some version of "a thing", extraneous train rides seem a little harder than usual to justify, especially for a longer distance overnight trip. Still, even if I haven't been out on the rails, it has been extremely refreshing to have VIA trains once again coming and going from Halifax. Sometimes you don't realize just how much you appreciate a thing until it's been gone for a while...

With the initial service offering running just once a week, I decided to try to make a point to get out and see the train every week, if possible. I haven't been able to keep up on this entirely, but I did have the chance to document quite a few of the arrivals and departures over the last few months. 

I've also had a bit of a shift in my approach to documenting the train. I've never been a really serious photographer, but I have tended to take lots of photos and try to at least come up with something interesting. One downside of photography with passenger trains, especially longer ones like the Ocean, is that it's very difficult to capture the full train in a single photo. When trying to document interesting and unusual consists, like the ones currently operating on the Ocean, this isn't ideal. 

By contrast, video does a much better job of capturing the full train. Similar to my photography, I'm by no means a professional or serious videographer. Until recently, the best I could do was shoot some sub-par video using that mode on one of my digital cameras - and I had done a handful of videos like that, but they never really turned out as well as I'd like. Editing and uploading things to share was also a bit of a chore as well. 

Fast forward to 2021. With the advent of ever more and more sophisticated smartphones, shooting high definition video is more accessible to the average person than ever. Plus, basic video editing and uploading can be done directly from the device itself, making the whole process far easier. Now, just like with the photography aspect of things, there is plenty of discussion/debate to be had re: the merits of smartphones vs. traditional cameras, etc. - I'm not going to wade into any of that here. I'll just say that I think all of these devices are tools that, if used within their own confines and limitations, can produce results that satisfy the end goals. For me, a lot of this is about having fun and trying to document and share observations - and whatever tool accomplishes that is good enough for me!

Earlier in the summer I finally replaced my ageing phone with a newer model - an iPhone 12 Pro, which is a huge upgrade from what I had before. One of the best features of it is the inclusion of three cameras (the standard one plus a 2X zoom lens and a wide angle lens), as well as an excellent video mode that turns out some really nice results. Also excellent is the ability to seamlessly take photos while shooting video, without obnoxiously interrupting the video stream. I didn't really plan to start into video with this phone, but the first arrival of the eastbound #14 back in August was well after dark, and video turned out to be the best way to capture it. Ever since, I've been finding this to be a really enjoyable way to railfan. 

One very, very useful addition has been getting a tripod attachment that can hold a smartphone. These are inexpensive and easy to come by, and are an invaluable tool for keeping video steady and allowing for some better camera panning and movement. 

So, with that bit of background, I thought I'd walk through my videos from the last few months, and intersperse some comments about the trains during that time. I did spot several trains that aren't documented on video, and I've included a couple of photos of those in here as well. I hope you find this interesting, and as always, I welcome questions in the comments!

VIA 14 - August 15, 2021

After the first train departed from the Halifax end, the first eastbound trip from Montreal followed on August 15th. The train ran into substantial delays, and arrived well into the evening. I originally planned to try for a shot at the curve in Bedford (Moirs Mills/Mill Cove), but after CN 121 got cleared to leave town with the Ocean holding at Kinsac, I figured I'd look for somewhere more interesting for an after-dark shot. So I relocated to Bedford Quarry, which offered a spectacular view of the train passing by the still waters of Rocky Lake. 

This train had been expanded from the previous run, with a whopping six Chateau sleepers now in the mix. Four of those were in service and would remain on until the fall, while two were deadheading to Halifax to have some minor clean-up work done by the maintenance folks at this end. 

The train leaving on Aug. 25 had one of the refurbished HEP1 coaches sporting the new teal and yellow paint job. All of the HEP1 coaches that have been on the Ocean since the service resumed have been fully refurbished cars, but most wear the standard scheme with blue stripe and new logos, minus the old waving flags. Only a smaller group of cars seem to have the new scheme - nominally intended to be used in the Corridor, they have mostly appeared on the Canadian. I wish they'd use them on the Ocean, as they'd look quite good with the Renaissance cars!

VIA 15 - Sept. 8, 2021

My next attempt at video came on a really sunny day, with the westbound train departing Halifax on September 9th. There aren't a lot of good options for the train leaving from Halifax, as the lighting is only really ideal in a few spots. One of those locations, which was first shown to me by the late David Othen, is the little trestle over the Sakville River in Bedford. There's a park nearby that offers a nice view of the bridge, and it works particularly well on video. 

I didn't capture the next few trains on video, but here are a few photos from Sept. 13th/14th.

VIA 14 arrives on Sept. 13, seen here entering the cut and about to dip under Bayers Rd.

VIA 15 sits at the Halifax station on Sept. 14, 2021. The train is all ready to depart the following day. The "reversal" of the train (i.e. running the locomotives around to the other end) happens in the evening after arrival and all passengers and baggage are off, so the train then sits ready for departure during its layover. 

VIA 15 - Sept. 29, 2021

It would be a few weeks after that before I got out for another shot at #15. This time, I set up behind the farmer's market along the Bedford Highway, just past mile 7 on the Bedford Sub. This makes for a neat view of the train snaking around the curves as it rolls out of town, though an outdoor air conditioning unit added some unwelcome background noise. 

This trip was deadheading one of the Chateau sleepers (Argenson) back to Montreal. The other, Laval, is still in Halifax as of the time of writing this post (scroll all the way down for a quick look).

As it turned out, travel vlogger Michael Downie ("DownieLive") was on this particular train, and subsequently reached out to ask about using this video clip in his new travel series on Chek TV. You can check out his series, "Downie Live Travels by Train" on Chek TV via their free app: https://www.cheknews.ca/shows/downie-live-travels-by-train/ 

VIA 15 - Oct. 6, 2021

This next one is admittedly a pretty run of the mill shot. Nothing exciting or special, just the Ocean departing as viewed from the Mumford Rd. overpass. Still, sometimes the seemingly mundane turns out to be interesting in the long run, and it never hurts to capture. 

VIA 15 - Oct. 13, 2021

Now here's a little mini-chase that I thought was going to be rather mundane, but turned out to be quite a bit more interesting. On this particular day, with a cloudy sky and no strong light in any particular direction, I decided to try a shot from the overpass between Joseph Howe Drive and the Windsor exchange. This offers a view of the train coming by the Fairview shop, and a decent broadside view of them on the main track. 

While waiting for the train, I had my scanner on and heard chatter about a pending detour. CN had left traffic parked on the main line through Rockingham, so the train was going to be routed around through the yard and out the transfer track. Unfortunately, this put them on the nearer track and hampered the view for my initial shot. But a surprise benefit was that it gave me enough time to get out to Millview ahead of the train (even with construction and gridlock traffic!), so I was able to get a view of them there as the skies brightened up. 

If you look closely, you can see passengers eating in the dining car. When the Ocean first resumed service, all meals were cold meals delivered to sleeper rooms. By this point in October, passengers had the option to take their meals in the dining car. By October 24, full hot meal service in the diner would resume. 

VIA 14 - October 18, 2021

While it often worked better for me to catch the outbound train, on October 18th the timing lined up well to catch #14 for a change. This particular trip was exciting because it was the first time in the new bidirectional setup that the train featured three locomotives - the third one being added to help deal with wet leaves on the tracks through the New Brunswick wilderness. 

It also helped that there was still an impressive array of fall colours, which made for a rather breathtaking view around the curve at Moirs Mills/Mill Cove in Bedford. Unfortunately the light shifted up a little, so it wasn't quite perfect - but it was still pretty impressive!

Just a short while before this train arrived, VIA announced a long-awaited resumption plan for the Ocean service. The train would return to twice a week in December (as of Dec. 8), and the full 3/week service would resume in June 2022. More on that in a bit. 

VIA 14 - Nov. 1, 2021

With the clocks rolling back the following week, November 1st would be the last day until next spring that VIA’s Ocean would arrive in Halifax before dark, even if on schedule. The train was running close to on time, less than 20min behind schedule, so it just squeaked in during the last stretch of decent light on this beautiful fall day. Once again, I set up at Moirs Mills/Mill Cove in Bedford, though at a slightly lower vantage point that offered a view amongst the eye-catching inuksuks that have been erected by members of the public. The lighting and the early sunset were pretty great. 

The train had finally been shortened down at this point for the off-season, with two Chateau sleepers removed. At this point, the forward facing sleeper would be in service on at least some trips, while the backwards facing one would be for crew use. Notably, ex-CP baggage 8613 had been swapped in for the ex-UP 8618. A few other cars have been rotated out of this set as well, included the Ren accessible sleeper and transition car, at least one Ren sleeper, and both HEP1 coaches.

A still from the video linked above. The sunset paired with the inukshuks made for an excellent view.

With lower passenger volumes, only the HEP1 coaches are in use. These cars have their seats rotated at both ends, so they are the ideal cars to use to ensure all passengers can face forward. With the Ren coaches, only one is oriented in each direction, and the seats cannot be turned. The main reason any Ren coaches are still used is to ensure that there is fully accessible coach space available, something the HEP1s cannot satsify.

VIA 15 - Dec. 1, 2021

My next video would be exactly one month later, as November didn't work out as well for getting out to see trains. This wasn't an ideal spot, but it worked just well enough to capture the train rolling up grade behind the Halifax shopping centre annex, near the old Sears (once rail-served). 

VIA 14 - First bi-weekly arrival, Dec. 9, 2021

I'll bookend this post with notable arrivals of #14. We started with the first eastbound train post-shutdown, and we'll now close off with the first of the bi-weekly arrivals, with the #14 that departed Montreal on Wednesday, December 8th. This marks an expansion of the service, but most importantly, it marks the return of a second consist into operation. This second train set is required for either bi-weekly or tri-weekly operation, as the trains depart from either end on the same day and meet overnight. 

A severe snow storm had struck the Nova Scotia the day before, with close to 40cm of snow falling (short lived, as a rain storm a few days later would wipe it all away....ah, winter in Halifax...). This made for a rather beautiful (but frigid) backdrop for #14's arrival, with some light snow falling and the tracks thoroughly blanketed. 

I decided to head down to the Young Ave. overpass to capture the train arriving on its final approach to the station. Not captured in the video is the mad dash to the other side of the overpass, plowing through the deep snow drifts, to get the going-away shot! The things we do...

The second consist is set up to mirror the first, both in terms of car types and orientation. This makes for a consistent experience between the trains, and no doubt makes it easier for VIA's booking agents to let passengers know what to expect. 

Here's the most recent iteration of both consists. As you may note, some of the cars in set #2 previously appeared in set #1. This is based on the consists of 14 and 15 departing on Dec. 12, 2021. I have not included the locomotive numbers, as those aren't entirely relevant (there are usually two, always back to back). I have also shown each consist in its eastbound orientation (i.e. heading towards Halifax) - the westbound train will be in the reverse order, as the train is not turned in Halifax. 

Ocean set #1

7009 Renaissance baggage car

70230 Ren accessible coach (forward)

7208 Ren coach (backward)

7512 Ren sleeper*

7507 Ren sleeper

7506 Ren sleeper

79526 Ren accessible sleeper

7314 Ren service car

7401 Ren dining car

7303 Ren service car

7602 Ren transition car

8124 HEP1 coach**

8127 HEP1 coach

8220 Chateau Papineau (forward)

8228 Chateau Vercheres (backward)

8613 HEP1 baggage car

Ocean set #2

7003 Renaissance baggage car

70108 Ren accessible coach (forward)

7231 Ren coach (backward)

7516 Ren sleeper

7522 Ren sleeper

7520 Ren sleeper

79501 Ren accessible sleeper

7312 Ren service car

7402 Ren dining car

7309 Ren service car

7601 Ren transition car

8117 HEP1 coach

8118 HEP1 coach

8221 Chateau Radisson (forward)

8219 Chateau Montcalm (backward)

8618 HEP1 baggage car

*All Renaissance sleepers are oriented backwards (i.e. vestibule at the front) from Montreal, and therefore forward (vestibule at rear) from Halifax.

**All HEP1 coaches currently in use have been refurbished. They have their seats turned in Halifax for the return journey.

Both of these sets are likely to expand, at least in the HEP sections (not likely to see any more Ren equipment added, simply due to equipment availability) as we head into the busier holiday season. The trains immediately before and after Christmas have been largely sold out for some time, and VIA's reservations system has shown evidence of inventory being added - so it's a safe bet to expect longer trains. 

What we might see on those trains in terms of any interesting equipment, and just how long they'll end up being, remains to be seen! It's also still an outstanding question as to whether VIA will eventually plan to add in anything to replace the Park car, which can't be operated in the current bidirectional arrangement. The original consist configuration prior to the pandemic shutdown did include a Skyline, so that's always a possibility. As I've mentioned before, I personally think that the single-level Panorama cars would be an excellent option - but what equipment VIA has available, and what they would be willing to sacrifice from the Canadian's equipment pool to use on the Ocean, remains to be seen. In any case, I expect any such addition is most likely to come when more normal tourist traffic resumes, hopefully heading into next summer. 

I'll leave things at that for now. All being well, I'll have some more proper trip reporting to do soon - stay tuned! Until then, Merry Christmas, have a safe and happy holiday season, and I wish you all well in the new year! 

Thanks for reading :-) 

Chateau Laval sits by the Halifax station, having been in town idle for several months now, supposedly for some minor tune-up work (something to keep the local maintenance guys busy?). The Christmas tree lot in the foreground makes for a very festive scene.

Friday 13 August 2021

The Ocean Returns!

Train #15 is all ready to go at the Halifax station, for the inaugural trip of the Ocean after its lengthy shutdown. A seagull has perched atop the nearest lightpost, no doubt excited to watch the train depart!

It’s been a long wait! Nearly 17 months after the last train departed Halifax, the Ocean is finally back in service, making it the last of VIA’s routes to resume since most of the network ground to a halt in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (*yes, technically the VIA-operated Toronto-Niagara Falls portion of the Maple Leaf is still not in service, but since that’s a jointly operated train with Amtrak, I’m not really counting it here). The last pre-pandemic Ocean departed Halifax on March 13, 2020, and the next train would once again be a departure from Halifax on August 11, 2021. That last run happened unceremoniously amidst a time of uncertainty, with the service suspension announced after the train was already long gone from Halifax. Now, the return was well publicized in advance, and its departure would be marked with an appropriately celebratory air.

As I reflected on in my last post, the past year (now year and a half +) brought changes for nearly all of us, and saw travel virtually shut down across much of the world. Here on the east coast, strict provincial and regional travel restrictions resulted in significant reductions in air service, severed any bus service connections to the rest of the country, and posed a significant roadblock for VIA resuming a service that would run from Quebec through both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. While it wouldn’t have been impossible (VIA did resume the Canadian into Winnipeg while Manitoba had similar quarantine/isolation requirements), it would have had its challenges and appeared to lack support from the respective provinces. VIA was in regular contact with the NB and NS provincial governments, and waited until all parties were more comfortable with the service resumption before moving ahead. Regardless of whether something earlier may have been possible, with travel restrictions easing significantly this summer, it’s clear that the time was now right to get the Ocean back on track. 

For now, the Ocean is only running once per week in each direction. This is consistent with the Canadian and other remote services (except for the Winnipeg-Churchill train), and is also comparable to the reduced frequencies in the Corridor. As we move into the fall, the hope is that all of VIA’s services will be able to get back to their usual frequencies. The Ocean is currently slated to resume 3/week operation in October, but this is of course subject to change. There is also a modified on board service offering in light of ongoing COVID concerns, which I’ll detail more below. 

In preparation for the service relaunch, VIA sent a deadhead equipment move from Montreal to Halifax on July 12, arriving in Halifax on the morning of July 13. Why deadhead the train to Halifax instead of just sending the first revenue train from Montreal? The main reason is that while the equipment is based and maintained in Montreal, the on board crews for the Ocean are based in Halifax, and the on board service is coordinated from this end. So they really needed the equipment to be in Halifax for crew training, preparation of the on board service, and general orientation to the new train setup. The deadhead also allowed for a refresher trip for the head end crews, based in Quebec/Ste-Foy, Campbellton, and Moncton. 

The deadhead equipment move, operating as VIA 614, rounds the curve at Moirs Mills (Bedford, NS) on its approach to Halifax. Given the normal schedule of this train, it's an exceptionally rare sight to see it coming through this curve in the morning light.

The Ocean's new mix of HEP and Renaissance equipment can be seen here, with the HEP section beyond the Ren transition car. 

First VIA equipment to arrive in Halifax in over a year, and the first of any kind here since the two damaged Renaissance coaches were scrapped last summer, VIA 614 pulls up to the station tracks in Halifax. 

Despite suspicions that a significant number of new crew members may need to be hired, it seems that there are enough returning on board staff to cover the service, at least for now. But after so many months out of work and with a modified service offering, some re-training is essential. The deadhead move was originally scheduled to arrive in Halifax around 3am, having left Montreal the previous day at 4h30. Thankfully delays along the way meant that it didn’t arrive until after sunrise, so I was able to go out and catch the train arriving. It’s hard to describe how excited I was to see a VIA train again after so long! 

So with the train now in Halifax and the first revenue trip fast approaching, I figured I really needed to make a point of riding that first train. August would mark closer to 20 months since I’d been on a VIA train – by far the longest gap since I started riding regularly in 2007! – so I was more than due for a trip. Plus I had lost the opportunity for the "last hurrah" trip I had planned on the final Park car-equipped Ocean, so being aboard the inaugural trip at least seemed like something I should do. With the new consist and operating model, plus refurbished equipment, I was really curious to get a peek at the onboard experience. 

This wasn’t actually quite my first bit of travel since the pandemic began, and it also wasn’t technically my first time back on a train of some sort – I’ll write more about that in a separate post a little later. Had the Ocean restarted a month earlier I could have made a full trip in both directions, but that wasn’t in the cards. 

Wanting to make a short trip, I thought through my options. Going all the way to Montreal was going to be too complicated and wouldn’t work with other things going on. Going as far as many other points along the line would require an overnight stay, and a lengthy return bus ride. Even Moncton, Sackville or Amherst wouldn’t work, as the bus departs too early for a same day return. So the only option that could be done using scheduled intercity transportation would be to go as far as Truro, and then return a few hours later with Maritime Bus. This would make for a fairly short trip, but it would still give me a nice taste for the service, and should be a fun time. 

When looking through my options, I decided to do something I hadn’t done before and book myself a sleeper cabin even though this was a short day trip. VIA will allow shorter distance sleeper bookings over much of the Ocean’s route. In the past, this would have had the benefit of access to the Park car and dining car, as well as private space, and would make for an attractive option for some folks particularly on a trip of several hours but not overnight. With the current modified service offering, it was going to mean that I would have my own private space, something that’s still quite attractive right now, and I would also get lunch before arrival in Truro. The opportunity to see what the meal service looked like, plus to check out the reportedly spruced up Ren sleepers, made this quite appealing. 

One thing to keep in mind, which I only discovered after booking, is that VIA is currently not allowing the same room to be occupied more than once per trip. Unfortunately this meant that my booking this room for Halifax-Truro would block it for the rest of the trip as well. This also means that the availability of shorter distance rooms may be limited, as VIA can only sell you a room if there is still one available for the full distance. This is being handled manually, so the reservations system may show and allow you to book something that isn’t actually available. 

With that ticket locked in I booked a return bus ticket from Truro, and started looking forward to a train trip for the first time in ages! 

August 11th arrived – on a hot, humid day that seemed intent on alternating between overcast threatening skies and beautiful sun, I made my way down to the Halifax station. After finding a vantage point for a few photos of the train itself, I headed inside. The station itself is not that different from how it was in the past, aside from the various COVID related signage. Masks are required inside the station, and on all VIA trains except when actively eating/drinking or in one’s own sleeper room with the door closed. 

Fences can make for annoying photo blocks, or interesting framing opportunities, depending on how you look at it. 

Arriving at the always impressive VIA station. Note the entrance to the Maritime Bus office to the right of the main doors.
Front doors, with additional signage.

Masque requis.
Some of the COVID signage on the main doors.

Reminders abound to report any COVID-19 symptoms. A questionnaire is included when booking tickets, and a reminder email a couple days before reiterated the need to stay home if experiencing any symptoms or required to self-isolate. 

Train outside the station, a sight not seen in ages... Some railfan friends made a sign for the inaugural run, with a reference to a YouTube channel that one of them runs. Keep an eye out for another appearance of that sign later on!

I was pleasantly surprised by how much of a crowd there was at the station. It didn’t look quite as busy as one would expect for a typical mid-August peak season train, but it looked quite busy for the size of train we actually had. Around 20 passengers boarded the sleepers, with more to come along the way (the sleepers were sold out for full Halifax-Montreal bookings), and there was a solid group of coach passengers as well. A handful were other railfans making shorter trips to ride the first train, but many appeared to be folks travelling for whatever purposes they may have, including a few families. 

The station is once again alive and bustling, after more than a year sitting empty. Passengers line up to check baggage, and some pick up tickets. 
A sizeable crowd waiting to board, with plenty more in the waiting area off to the right. 

Boarding was a bit later than usual, only getting underway around 12h45. The process was the same as always – coach passengers headed out through one door and made their way up the platform, with tickets being checked at the coaches. Sleeper passengers checked in with the service manager. Since meals are being delivered to rooms at the moment and the dining car is closed, there is no reservation for meals. As I checked in, the service manager had a laugh about my exceptionally short sleeper trip – but as I explained my rationale, he seemed to appreciate it, and provided a hearty welcome back. 

Sleeper check-in desk all ready to go - and the train status screen can finally display something, at least when it toggles back to the "Departures" screen.
A quick view on the sunnier side of the train, as the clouds started to break up a bit. This is the new look of the tail end of the westbound Ocean, a far cry from the classic Park car, but not that unfamiliar - for years, the Ocean's Renaissance consists only had a Park car during peak seasons, so the end of the train featuring Ren equipment was not unusual. 

Heading down the platform to board the train, steps down and ready for passengers. With only the HEP1 coaches up front being loaded, it was as long a walk as always for economy passengers. If this same consist orientation continues, it will actually then be a long walk for them when returning as well.

The consist for the first #15 was as follows. This is of course the new bidirectional consist, which allows the train to reverse directions without being turned, requiring only the locomotives to run to the other end. This is in response to VIA losing access to the balloon track at Halterm (PSA Halifax) – see my previous post for more information. As part of this new model, the Park car is a thing of the past. 
VIA 15 – August 11, 2021 
6427 (“love the way” wrap, reverse) 
8618 HEP1 Baggage 
Chateau Radisson (crew) 
8118 (03) HEP1 Coach 
8124 (04) HEP1 Coach 
7601 Renaissance Transition Car 
7303 Ren Service Car 
7401 Ren Dining Car 
7314 Ren Service Car 
79526 (30) Ren Accessible Sleeper 
7506 (37) Ren Sleeper *Room 10 
7507 (38) Ren Sleeper 
7516 (39) Ren Sleeper 
7208 (05) Ren Coach (forward) 
70230 (06) Ren Accessible coach (reverse) 
7009 Ren Baggage car 

Line numbers in brackets 
A few notes on the consist: the HEP1 coaches are both refurbished, though they still carry the classic blue stripe (with new logos and no flags). The Renaissance equipment in the consist has all had paint touchups and a buff and wax job externally, and all upholstery and carpets have been refreshed. While the HEP1 coaches are having their seats turned to face the direction of travel (except for 4-seaters), the two Renaissance coaches still have their normal seating layout; as such, one Ren coach is backwards in each direction. Priority is therefore being given to using the HEP1 coaches. They were the only ones loaded at Halifax, and I’m not sure if the others were used along the way. I have been told that the reversed Ren coach will be the last car used, as overflow traffic demands it, and will be prioritized for shorter trips. The one Chateau sleeper in the consist was for crew use, but additional Chateau sleepers will be added for the first #14 departure and are available for sale in bedrooms, drawing rooms, and roomettes (no open sections at this time). 

A view inside one of the refurbished HEP1 coaches on the train. Note the new upholstery and carpeting, akin to the new interiors in the Manor sleepers. A welcome refresh! (Photo courtesy of Ted Bartlett)

New sink in refurbished HEP1 coach. (Photo courtesy of Ted Bartlett)

Another view inside the refurbished HEP1 coach bathroom. (Photo courtesy of Ted Bartlett)

A look at the exterior of the refurbished HEP1 coaches a few days earlier. Unlike the ones currently being used on the Canadian, which received a new teal and yellow livery, these got a refresh of their blue stripe with new logos and no flags. You may note that the striping is slightly different around the vestibule, as the blue was continued on the dutch door but not on the framing around the vestibule.

A couple of notes, before I go into things further, about the COVID-era on board service. At the moment, VIA is requiring all passengers stay in either their seat or sleeper room for the duration of the trip (with the obvious exception of using the washroom or getting off at smoke/fresh air stops. The lounges in the Ren service cars are closed, and despite a dining car being included in the consist, it is not accessible to passengers. Economy food service is being provided by cart (like on Corridor trains), and sleeper passengers will receive all meals in their rooms. This will eventually be modified as the COVID situation continues to improve, hopefully into the fall - but it’s not yet clear exactly when that might be. At that time, it’s also hoped that a Skyline dome will be added to replace the loss of the Park car, but we’ll have to wait and see. That would be very welcome, not just for the dome, but also because the lounges in the Renaissance service cars are rather small and not that well laid out. 

For my short trip I was in car 37, room 10 – the rear facing bedroom (in this direction) at the front end of the car. I was immediately impressed upon boarding with just how nice the Ren sleepers look at the moment. Everything is in really nice shape, everything in my room worked as it should, and I had no complaints at all. The upholstery and carpets have been touched up with the same material as before, so the look is much the same. The only really noticeable change is the addition of antimacassars on the headrests. 

Entering car 7506 from the vestibule of the next sleeper ahead. The Renaissance sleepers don't have names, but they do have themes. This car is "Cavendish".

Looking down the hallway. Room 10 is the first at this end of the car. Not my ideal choice for a longer trip, due to both the lack of shower and being over the trucks, but for the short day trip to Truro it will do just fine. Better to save the nicer rooms for those going longer distances!

Looking back in the other direction, just before the end of the car is a line number indicator and the fire extinguisher. A small storage space for carts, which was initially planned as a coffee/snack station, is to the left out of view.

First look at the room! Still the same look as before, but nicely tuned up. Note the addition of antimacassars.
View the opposite way. Light controls on the wall by the door. All of the cieling lights worked in this room, but one of the small reading lights was out. Note that the large red "assistance" button is intended for emergencies (not to call the attendant!) and sounds an alarm through the whole car.

Lower angle from the seats. Note the bathroom door is by the window, and a small table can pull up from the wall - in this case quite useful for meals served in-room.

Towels, soap, and wipes in a bag - standard brochures, cups, and water bottles also provided. This centre section folds up for more room, and to accommodate the bunk folding down.

En suite washroom. No shower in the rooms at this end of the car (rooms 7-10).

View out the door. As you can see, this gives a view out the other side of the train, though the window is not properly aligned to let you see well while sitting down.

An obligatory "train travel in COVID times" selfie. When in the sleepers, you only need to keep your mask on while your door is open, when moving through the train (though you can only do that when getting on/off), and when interacting with the attendants. When your door is closed, you're welcome to take it off. 

Settling into my room I noted that the towels are now in a plastic bag along with soap and a sanitizing wipe, and otherwise the usual bottles of water and trip information brochures are provided. Notably, there are no room keys provided, I presume because you are expected to stay in your room. I wonder, though, how this would work if you choose to step off at one of the longer stops (i.e. Moncton/Campbellton/Ste-Foy). Would you need to leave your door open? Perhaps they were just absent from my room because I was making such a short trip.

My attendant came by to give the usual pre-trip talk, explaining emergency procedures and room features, and informed me that lunch service would start shortly. I was hoping this would happen quite soon after departure, given my trip was only to be about an hour and a half. 

We were a few minutes late getting away, departing at about 13h05. We had a couple of brief stops getting away from the station, including to throw a switch, but once we got out into the rock cut we picked up speed. A brief stop at Fairview to switch over onto the main line, and then we breezed our way out through Rockingham. CN had been storing container cars on the mainline routinely for months now, but they did get them moved earlier that morning and we had no issues making our way out of town. The rest of the trip to Truro was quick, with only a couple of brief slowdowns where some work was going on around the track. 

Views leaving the south end, looking across to the container terminal where VIA once turned the Ocean...but alas, no more. 

Views heading out through the rock cut, as we've leveled off a bit and are surrounded by trees.

Bedford basin, with the Fairview cove (CERES) port in view, and an ACL ship departing.

Views directly across from the room. As you can see, the windows don't line up quite optimally.

Rounding the curve at Moirs Mills - unfortunately the best I could do out the hallway-side window.

Passing Bedford Quarry.

Always one of my favourite views on the trip - passing the gorgeous Grand Lake, just past Laurie Provincial Park.

I wasn’t sure what the etiquette would be regarding sleeper room doors. I had heard that on the Canadian, passengers were being told they needed to keep their doors closed. However, there was no such instruction on the Ocean, at least for the duration I was on. I ended up mostly keeping my door open so I could see the view out both sides. I only closed the door while having lunch, so I could have my mask off and not raise any concerns. 

While the trip out felt familiar in so many ways, it also felt rather odd. I usually do one of two things on westbound trips: I either opt for the later lunch so I can head straight to the Park car and enjoy the views on the way out of the city, or I go for the first lunch sitting and then have the views out both sides of the diner. Being in my room definitely diminished the views along this scenic stretch – in some ways, being in coach (at least in one of the HEP1 coaches) may be slightly better – but it was still enjoyable and comfortable. 

Lunch service was quite a bit later than I had hoped. It was around 2pm when my attendant finally came by with lunch options – to her credit, she did make sure I got mine before the cart made its way through the rest of the car. I was just presented with a couple of options, but subsequently was handed a full menu. This is being handed out to passengers shortly before the service starts, and then a few of the crew members (the same ones working as sleeping car attendants) were coming through with a cart with the various meals and drinks. In many ways, this is more reminiscent of VIA’s Business class offering in the Corridor. 

During this initial period, all meals are pre-packaged and cold, in an effort to keep the service as efficient as possible. The options sounded good, and the option I took – the vegan vegetable wrap – was perfectly decent. It was actually much better than many of VIA’s past vegetarian/vegan options, which I’ve often found to be a bit lacking. So I can’t complain too much, but it is definitely a step down from the ambiance of the dining car, with real china and silverware and the meal served as three courses. Thankfully it is only a temporary offering, and traditional dining car service will resume once VIA has determined it is safe and reasonable to do so - hopefully this fall. This isn’t like Amtrak’s experiments with “contemporary dining”, which were meant to be a permanent replacement of the traditional dining car! 

Full menu for all meals in both directions.

La meme chose, en francais...

My meal - a look at how things are served. There’s a plastic lid I already removed and tucked underneath. Pre-packaged, with wooden utensils. All in all quite decent, and I'm curious about just exactly what the other meals would have looked like. The salad consisted of something akin to orzo, and was not the coleslaw advertised on the menu. Keen eyed veterans of VIA's Business class service might recognize the Theobroma chocolates and Sweets From the Earth dessert, both of which have been staple features in Business class for a number of years.

The vegan vegetable wrap - a mix of grilled vegetables, corn, and beans, with an almost fajita-style tomato sauce. Quite enjoyable, and actually a step up from most of VIA's vegetarian/vegan offerings.

I did quite appreciate the fact that the single menu includes listings for all three meals and in both directions – you can see there’s a slightly different menu for trains 14 and 15, as usual, which makes for some nice variety on a round trip. I appreciate that VIA continues to think about this for passengers who are travelling in both directions. Given that I’d only get to sample one of the offerings, I was glad not to have to bug the crew to find out about further menus. 

In the long run I didn’t have a long time to eat lunch, but it was still enough to not have to rush through things. I finished up with enough time to get freshened up and relax for another 15 minutes or so before we rolled in to Truro, and I disembarked. 

Views along the Stewiacke River. The run from Halifax to Truro is quite scenic, and I spent most of the time just enjoying the views, and occasionally snapping the odd photo.

Disembarking at Truro. Sad to have to leave the train so soon, but it was still a fun trip!

There was another solid group of passengers boarding at Truro in both the coaches and sleepers, and there appeared to be plenty of baggage being handled. This gave me time to get ahead of the train at the crossing just past the station, and set up for a few photos of the train as it departed. Bon voyage! 

A better look at the back-to-back pairing of 6411 and 6427. This had been a rare sight on VIA, as the F40s consistently get run elephant style. There were only a few rare instances on the Ocean and Canadian of back-to-back setups. Now it will be the norm for the Ocean going forward. I look forward to seeing a matching pair of Renaissance scheme units back to back, but it will also be neat to see when they have to add a third unit in the middle during busier times and in the later fall when wet leaves bring the need for extra traction.

Departing Truro. The sunny skies that followed us most of the trip had shifted to a threatening overcast that looked like a thunderstorm could be on its way - but then only a short while later it all cleared up again, and with sun out it was a pretty sweltering afternoon!

Rolling away, with the ex-UP HEP1 baggage car up front. Assuming VIA keeps the consists oriented in the same direction, the HEP section will bring up the rear on the eastbound train.

Remember that sign in the station earlier? I happened to have set up on the right side of the train to catch the "Bizarre Adventures" crew, riding in the second HEP1 coach, who had taken advantage of a vacant window by their group of seats to celebrate the first trip. You can check out their YouTube channel, which should eventually have some video from this trip: https://www.youtube.com/c/BizarreAdventuresYouTube/videos 

I can't get over just how good the Renaissance equipment in this consist actually looks. Says something about how rough they've been for years now! As a passenger I'd much rather be riding in a HEP1 coach, especially now that they're refurbished, but the Ren coaches (especially back to back like this) just look cool.

The new tail end look for the westbound Ocean. With the new consists it will be a baggage car on the tail end either way. If they keep things oriented in the same direction consistently (which would be ideal for consistent operations and to ensure passengers can know whether their accommodations will be forward or backward facing), then the Ren baggage cars will bring up the tail end of #15 and the HEP1 baggage cars will bring up the tail end of #14. Note the window in the end door on this baggage car - I've never seen this before, and I suspect it may be a new addition to facilitate backing moves (like at Ste-Foy) without needing to open the rear door. No such modification was made to the HEP baggage car in this consist, but of course those may move around more - the Ren baggage cars on here will likely stay in captive Ocean service.

While killing time in Truro I had a quick look through the station – like Halifax, it appears to be much as it was before, just with additional COVID signage. 

Entrance to the Truro station, with additional COVID signage.

Having arrived in Truro just past 14h30, I didn’t have a huge amount of time to kill before my bus left at 16h20. After watching the train leave, grabbing coffee from Jimolly’s cafĂ© across the street, and then making the walk to the bus terminal, most of the time had elapsed. 

I arrived at the Maritime Bus (formerly Acadian Lines) terminal around 16h00. There were only a handful of passengers there, along with two gentleman I had seen on the train up from Halifax. In total, there would end up being six passengers boarding the bus who had come up on the train. 

The bus terminal, unfortunately, has all the hallmarks of a…well, bus terminal. Pretty rough shape, and the bathrooms didn’t look (or smell) like they’d been properly cleaned in ages. Not too much different from how it was in the Acadian Lines days, but it could definitely use some work. Still, Maritime Bus provides a decent service, and they have done an admirable job of keeping people moving through this pandemic. 

Truro bus station - formerly Acadian Lines, now operated by Maritime Bus. When they first launched, Maritime Bus shared the VIA station downtown, but ultimately moved back to this terminal when the downtown option proved too difficult to operate.

Entrance to the bus terminal. Nice looking Maritime Bus graphics, but aside from that it’s not much to write home about.

My coach for the ride back to the city. Not as spacious or exciting as the train, but still a reasonably comfortable and reliable option. During the pandemic, Maritime Bus did an admirable job of maintaining some level of essential service throughout their network.

The bus arrived and departed on time. The passenger load was reasonably substantial. I was able to find a seat by myself, but Maritime Bus has ceased their guarantee of spacing passengers out, now that volumes have increased. The Prevost H3-45 coach was in good shape and reasonably comfortable, though the seats are not my favourite design – not a fan of the particular back curvature. The ride, though, was quite smooth. We made good time, had no intermediate stops except the Halifax Airport (where the bus now stops by the main terminal and not at the specific bus bay), and arrived in Dartmouth on time. I decided to end my trip at the Dartmouth terminal as it would be faster to make my way home from there instead of staying on to the downtown terminal and departing from that point. 

There are still some nice views to be had from the bus along the highway, but even though you're treading much of the same ground, there's no dispute that the train takes a far more scenic route. 

Bus seats. I didn't find the seatback curvature to agree that well with my back, but overall the seats were acceptable for a short trip. Leg room is fairly tight. Seatbelts were an interesting feature to note.

Arrived at the uninspiring Dartmouth terminal, in the side of a bit of strip mall. However, I should say that while this terminal itself isn't that impressive, it is quite conveniently located a short walk from the Halifax Transit Dartmouth Bridge Terminal, which makes it an easy connection to transit routes all over the city. It's a far better location than the old Acadian Lines stop in Burnside. This was also announced as the connection point for Maritime Bus routes heading to Lunenburg and points in between.

So all in all, a rather smooth trip. I have no complaints about the bus component, though it obviously wasn’t the focus or highlight of this trip. 

On the train front, it was just a real joy to be back on a VIA train for at least a brief trip after this long hiatus. The crew were as helpful and welcoming as always, in spite of the unusual work environment, and it was nice to see many familiar faces. The whole mood in the station on departure was rather jovial, and I see there was a proper celebration as the train arrived in Moncton. Even with just a little taste of the service offering, it seems to me that VIA is doing a pretty respectable job of providing a service that works within the constraints of the current environment, and should make for a comfortable way to travel even before service gets back to normal. It’s not entirely the Ocean as it was in the past, but I have confidence that VIA will be able to get back to something comparable to their past offering in due time, even though it will be missing the Park car and featuring a bit of an odd consist that will pose some logistical challenges as the service ramps up. The biggest issue, now, will be ensuring that the service gets back to its usual schedule, inadequate though it may be, as the current once per week service offering is not that useful for many passengers, and also difficult for the crews who now have a six day trip with the layover in Montreal. As noted above, it will also be important to find some way to provide the sort of lounge space that the Park car once offered as an amenity to sleeper passengers. 

There are also, of course, serious questions and concerns about the longer-term prospects for this train. Real improvements in ridership and the quality of service provided to communities along the route will only come if it can be made into a more useful (i.e. frequent) service. Infrastructure improvements are dearly needed through New Brunswick to get the speeds back up to a respectable travel time. And longer term, VIA will need new equipment to keep the train operating as the Renaissance and HEP equipment wears out. These are all items that advocates, citizens, and passengers along the Ocean’s route need to continue to push for, especially to the federal government that holds the purse strings for VIA. New trains and potential dedicated tracks in the Corridor are great, but the rest of VIA’s routes need the investment as well, before it’s too late! 

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. Various issues and longer term concerns aside, it was great to see the Ocean back and to get on board for the first of what will hopefully be many, many more rides. I look forward to being able to make a proper end to end trip before too long, and especially look forward to seeing the service return to something more like the past offering. Train travel is something really special, and the last while without it has helped run that home more than ever. 

With the iconic Park car gone, the classic going away shot is gone for now, so we need to find other points of interest in the existing consist. One really neat thing is the two Renaissance coaches running back to back, something I don’t believe we’ve ever seen before, given the rather restrictive ways the Rens can be coupled together and the fact that the seats are fixed in one direction. There’s something about the symmetry this presents, especially while the cars are so clean and in the sun, that really appeals to me.

Post-Script: a friend at VIA asked after my trip whether I could share any photos for their social media, so I sent a few along – I was quite pleased to see them feature in VIA’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts about the Ocean’s return! Now it would be great if VIA management across the board, along with the federal government, could get on board with better supporting this “most beloved route”!