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 
6411 
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”!


15 comments:

  1. Thanks for the comprehensive report, Tim. It was also a real pleasure to have been trackside to witness the passage of the Ocean once again.

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    1. Thanks Bill, I had heard you were out to chase the train as well, and glad you were able to do so. It's a shame we didn't get the chance to properly document what turned out to be the final pre-pandemic #15, but at least good to make up for it now. Alas, without the dome it's much harder to spot railfans from onboard, though I did see a few!

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Tim, including the selection of photos. It's no wonder VIA wanted to showcase them. Your trip was shorter than some Corridor hops! Hopefully you can ride the Ocean again soon!

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    1. Thanks, Eric! Even with it being such a short hop, it was a lot of fun to be able to both make the trip and to be able to write up this report afterwards. I am very much looking forward to being able to make a full trip before too long, though at least for the next little while I'll have to make do with getting out to photograph the weekly arrivals/departures - still exciting, after going so long with no VIA action to watch at all in this part of the country!

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  3. Thanks for the comprehensive report. I got on the first #15 at Springhill Junction for a mini-hop to Amherst, where my wife was waiting for me, #15 was about 12 minutes late at Springhill Junction. However the first #14, a few days later, didn't get the "royal" treatment from CN unfortunately, and lost a lot of time on the Newcastle sub, arriving in Amherst almost 3 hours late.

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    1. Thanks! There certainly were quite a few folks making some sort of little trips to mark that occasion, and good to hear from another one.

      Yeah, that first 14 had a rough run - they were over an hour late leaving Montreal in the first place, which set them up for cascading delays. I was looking forward to catching them in at least some light, but any hopes of that got dashed when they got held at Kinsac to let 121 get away on time. So I settled for a video at Rocky Lake / Bedford Quarry, which turned out pretty well!

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IBWQ-ga3BX8

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  4. Hi Tim,

    Excellent review and great pictures. Thanks for sharing your trip.

    I came across your review on the Amtraktrains forum website. Hopefully you can help me out.

    I am booked in Car 1539 Unit 6 going from Halifax to Ottawa and Car 1439 Unit 6 on my return. I assume it is the same car and room both ways as the train numbers are 15 westward bound and 14 going east.

    Since they no longer turn the train around in Halifax does this mean that I will be forward facing in one direction and backward facing in the other? If so, which way is facing forward?

    Thanks Tim (I also asked this on the website where I found the link to your review)

    Todd
    St. John's,NL

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    1. Hi John, thank you kindly. Re: your questions - Yes, 15/14 are the train numbers, with 15 being the westbound train and 14 being the eastward return.

      Car 39 in the current configuration will be a Renaissance sleeper, the one immediately next to the Renaissance coaches. For a Ren sleeper, the normal "forward" orientation (the way VIA always used to run them) is with the vestibule at the rear. In that orientation, the odd numbered rooms face forward and the even numbered rooms face backwards.

      As of right now, the train has the Renaissance sleepers "forward" from the Halifax end (i.e. they're facing west). So, a room 6 will be backward facing on your westbound trip (15), and forward facing on your eastward return (14). This is the same orientation on both of the two consists now in rotation.

      Hope that's helpful, and have a great trip!

      -Tim

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    2. *Todd, not John! Sheesh, that's what I get for reading too quickly and blending the name and location :-)

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  5. Tim

    Thanks for the reply. After sending my question I noticed you have a number of other reviews of the Ocean. I already read one and will work my way through them. They are fun to read.

    Since your have a wealth of knowledge can you answer a few more questions.

    I booked on the Via Website and I did not see a place to pick my room. Is it possible to change my westbound trip to room #5 if available?

    Is there any particular car or room better than the other, as in refurbished? Bigger? Quieter?

    I booked the discounted room with shower during the 25% Good Friday discount. Just curious, do you know if this makes a difference in which room they assign?

    Do you think they will add a skyline car by early February?

    On my return I will need to check my skis in. Since I will be boarding in Ottawa can I check my skis in there or do I have to wait until Montreal?

    Going up my son will be with me. We are flying up from St. John's the day before we depart to ensure we make the train. It is just me on the return and I am considering booking the 10:10 pm flight home to St. John's. What odds to you give me that the train will be under two hour late? Anything more and it might be cutting it close to catch my flight since it will Feb 24th and in dead of winter. Plus I need to allow time to get by skis from baggage.

    Thanks Todd

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  6. Hi Todd (sorry about the name mistake above!), quite happy to help as I can! Re: your questions, my answers follow:

    "I booked on the Via Website and I did not see a place to pick my room. Is it possible to change my westbound trip to room #5 if available?"
    -> VIA's current website has no way to allow room/seat selection. They've been working on an entirely new reservations system for several years now, which should be launched some time in 2022. Part of the plan with that system is to allow customers to see and select seats/rooms like you can on most airlines. At the moment, only a VIA agent can actually change a room assignment (either over the phone at the call centre, or in person at a station). Interestingly, as far as I know they also can't make that selection until *after* booking, so once the system assigns you something automatically, an agent can go in and see what's available and then make a change. It's very likely that there will be other rooms available in February, as that's a pretty quiet travel time and still a ways out. Give them a call, and see what they can do.

    "Is there any particular car or room better than the other, as in refurbished? Bigger? Quieter?"
    ->The Renaissance rooms are all the same size - rooms with shower (1-6) and rooms without (7-10) are physically identical to each other, aside from alternating forward/backward (which mostly just changes which side of the room the bathroom door is on). My only advice is to stick to rooms as close to the middle of the car as possible (4-5-6-7 are ideal) as the ride quality is a lot better when you're not over the trucks.

    All of the Ren sleepers currently in service on the Ocean appear to have received a basic cosmetic overhaul during the shutdown, but the only cars that have had any more significant work over the years are the accessible sleepers (the 795xx cars). They had bedrooms 9 and 10 replaced by a single, large accessible bedroom that has a door opening directly to the vestibule. As far as I know, these rooms can only be booked by people requiring them for accessibility purposes (i.e. in a wheelchair).

    "I booked the discounted room with shower during the 25% Good Friday discount. Just curious, do you know if this makes a difference in which room they assign?"
    -> Nope, no difference. The system will assign whatever room is next in the assortment still available, and there isn't any fare preference attached as far as I'm aware. It does seem like they favor assigning the rooms toward the middle of the car first, and I've found that booking late at the higher fares more often results in getting less preferable rooms that happen to be left at that point.

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    1. "Do you think they will add a skyline car by early February?"
      -> Highly unlikely. At this point, I'm willing to bet that we won't see a Skyline added until VIA is back to more seriously targeting the tourist market and trying to replace the allure of the Park car. I have some hope for next summer, coinciding with the return to 3/week service, but I can't make any guarantee.

      We should see some extra equipment added over the next few weeks for the holiday rush, and I'm not sure what all might end up in that mix... but by February (really, by early January), the consist should be back down to what it's been for the last little while, which is what I reported above on the inaugural trip plus one more Chateau.

      "On my return I will need to check my skis in. Since I will be boarding in Ottawa can I check my skis in there or do I have to wait until Montreal?"
      -> That's a really good question. In the past, VIA allowed through checked-baggage to/from Corridor trains connecting with the Ocean. Travelling to/from Ottawa (as I usually do), you could check baggage at the station there the same as you would elsewhere, even though the connecting train typically didn't have a baggage car. Baggage was handled as any other checked baggage would, but placed in one of the baggage areas in a coach instead, then transferred at Montreal. Now during the pandemic, VIA suspended all checked baggage service in the Corridor. The last I've heard is that people checking baggage from this end to connect from the Ocean to a Corridor train will have their baggage transferred in Montreal, but it will go to their car in the connecting train and they'll then be responsible for it at their destination (effectively transferred to carry-on). In the opposite direction, it sounds like you may need to handle things yourself from Ottawa and then check them in Montreal.

      I'll be checking all of this out shortly on a Halifax-Ottawa trip, so I'll report back on that when I know a bit more. Of course if in doubt, always feel free to give VIA a call. They're quite good about these things.

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    2. Last part! "Going up my son will be with me. We are flying up from St. John's the day before we depart to ensure we make the train. It is just me on the return and I am considering booking the 10:10 pm flight home to St. John's. What odds to you give me that the train will be under two hour late? Anything more and it might be cutting it close to catch my flight since it will Feb 24th and in dead of winter. Plus I need to allow time to get by skis from baggage."
      -> That's a really tough one. In general, the westbound train (15) does better for time keeping into Montreal, while the eastbound train (14) is more prone to delays, just because of the particular nuances of typical freight interference that's encountered in either direction. I have been on eastbound trains that were right on time or early into Halifax, but I've also been on ones that were 5 or 6 hours behind.

      Now, that said, I'd say the most common delays eastbound are in the range of an hour. To look at some recent examples, here's most of the arrival times for #14 arriving in Halifax over the last month and a half (missing one):
      -Nov. 1 - 18:11 (20min late)
      -Nov. 8 - 20:35 (2h44min late)
      -Nov. 15 - 19:04 (1h13min late)
      -Nov. 29 - 19:13 (1h22min late)
      -Dec. 6 - 19:37 (1h46min late)
      -Dec. 9 - 19:39 (1h48min late)
      -Dec. 13 - 20:45 (2h54min late)

      The much later delays tend to have something more specific going on (like being stuck waiting a long time for a particular freight, or an issue with equipment or a passenger somewhere), but as you can see, delays in the range of an hour or so crop up regularly.

      It shouldn't take too long to get baggage, especially when the train isn't too busy at that time of year. Certainly less than half an hour, and then you need to factor in the time to get to the airport - give yourself at least half an hour on that one, once a taxi has been arranged and picked you up. I'm then not sure how far ahead the airline also requires you to be there to check baggage.

      Is a 10:10pm flight do-able? It's quite possible, but I'd be a little wary about it myself. I'd want to know that there's reasonable flexibility on the airline's front if I had to cancel/reschedule!

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    3. Tim

      I called via and changed my Train 15 Westbound trip to Room 5. Thanks for the information.

      Another question .... ( I responded with this same question to your Email about your blog update. I thought I was responding to this thread lol)

      When we were in Ottawa visiting my son in September I noticed the Via website offering discounts for CAA members.

      I got on the CAA website and sure enough it was a perk. When I got home and searched CAA I noticed the membership was cheaper and the VIA discount was not offered.

      I called CAA and come to learn that they have regional chapters with different benefits and that the Atlantic chapter members do not qualify for the VIA discount.

      Do you know if purchasing a CAA Atlantic membership will allow me to get the discount?

      This would come in handy if booking a trip when there are no available discount codes as you get 10
      percent off both The Ocean and Canadian Sleeper Ckass.

      Thanks for your help
      Todd

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    4. Happy to help, Todd, glad you were able to make the room change.

      Re: the CAA discounts, I don't have any experience with those. I have used discount codes via membership in Hostelling International, and more recently through my employer/union, but those both work a bit differently than the CAA one (a discount code available to members, rather than having to log in with your CAA membership). I did respond to the Canadian Passenger Rail list, as I know that others on there have discussed the CAA discounts in the past, so hopefully somebody else there can be of assistance!

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