|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 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.|
|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.|
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.|
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 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".|
|First look at the room! Still the same look as before, but nicely tuned up. Note the addition of antimacassars.|
|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.|
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.|
|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...|
|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!
|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.|
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.
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 café 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”!