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.