Friday, 4 February 2022

Christmas travels in the time of Covid - Part 1


PART 1 - To Montreal and Ottawa, in Renaissance 


Our train clips along through the snow at Windsor Jct. It was a great day to be on the train, and a great one to be trackside as well! Photo by Kyle Tourneur (original at https://www.flickr.com/photos/147890230@N06/51757794851/)


It’s nice to be back.

 

As Christmas 2021 approached, the pandemic was clearly not yet done (and preparing to take a turn many of us weren’t quite expecting), but the situation was vastly different from just a year ago. Travel restrictions between provinces, at least for those who had been vaccinated, were now long gone. The overwhelming bulk of the population was fully vaccinated, with boosters beginning to roll out for the most vulnerable populations. The Ocean had been up and running for several months now, and a second weekly frequency was added just a couple of weeks before the Christmas season, ideally timed to offer a few more options for the travelling public at what is normally a busy time of year. For so many reasons, it felt like heading to Ontario, and going by train, was once again a good idea (or, at the very least, not a particularly bad one!)

 

I knew I had missed this sort of travel, but I don’t think I had really fully appreciated just how much I missed every part of the process until I actually got back into it. Even just planning things out, looking up dates, checking availability, figuring out what accommodations to go with, etc. etc. – all of these things have a bit of excitement associated with them, at least for me, and it was an immensely cathartic experience being able to do that again.

 

The twice a week schedule offered a bit more flexibility, of course, than the once a week offering before. This was important not just for passengers, but also for the crews, shortening up the layovers in Montreal, allowing for additional employees to be brought back, and also facilitating better head-end crew scheduling with the two trainsets operating. All in all, a welcome thing – though a return to the full 3/week schedule will still be even more welcome, and of course a daily train would be even better – but I’ll leave that topic aside for now.

 

With this schedule, I was able to make a plan that would take me westbound from Halifax on Sunday, Dec. 19, and back from Ottawa/Montreal the following Sunday, Dec. 26. This would put me on each of the two trainsets in operation. I also decided that I would book a different type of accommodation each way, so I could try out the two sections of the train. With the current consist, there’s effectively a Renaissance end to the train and a HEP end to the train, with the only commonality for sleeper passengers being the Renaissance diner in the middle. Otherwise, it’s effectively like two different trains coupled together. By booking in a Renaissance sleeper one way and a HEP sleeper the other, I could get a look at both.

VIA 15 sits ready for departure from Halifax. 

 

I arrived at the Halifax station about an hour before departure on Dec. 19. It was a snowy morning, making for an ideal day to be heading out on the train. There was a sizeable crowd in the station, and a suitably festive atmosphere, despite feeling a bit different with the ongoing reality of Covid very much in the background.

 

Inside the Halifax station. At least some Christmas decor is up, and we even have a canine companion making the trip! I would see him again in Montreal, so he clearly made it safe and sound.

I checked my bag, which I was told could only be checked through to Montreal. I would have to pick it up there, and carry it on for the train to Ottawa. This was a change from past practice, where checked bags could be sent all the way through to connecting stations in the Corridor, even if the trains in question had no baggage car. Crews packed the bags on board in one of the luggage towers, and for passengers, pick up at the other end was no different from if there had been a baggage car. With checked baggage service suspended in the Corridor (supposedly for Covid reasons, though I’m not sure I really understand that logic), this is no longer an option. It does seem that passengers making a tighter connection on to Toronto were given the option to have their bags tagged for direct transfer to their connecting train, but not so for Ottawa, where the connection time is more generous.

 

Proof of vaccination was checked at the same time as baggage, and a small sticker provided with the date to show other VIA staff who might need to see it. The federal government mandated proof of vaccination (with limited exceptions) for all rail and air travel earlier in the fall, so VIA is required to check for compliance. The check in Halifax was done by visual inspection, with no QR code scanners (this would be different in both Montreal and Ottawa).

 

Typical blue lunch reservation ticket, and proof of vaccination check. It's a sticker that can be placed on a bag, ticket, or elsewhere, or you can just keep it with you.

As boarding time approached, check-in for sleeper passengers opened as usual. The dining car was back in operation, but passengers were offered a choice of either of two settings for lunch, or room service. Unlike during the original service re-launch, room service would be from the normal, full dining car menu, with the usual array of hot meal options and accompaniments. With the second lunch setting looking quiet, I decided to opt for that. With that sorted, I headed out to board the train, around 20 minutes before scheduled departure.

 

Our train, ready for boarding. The Ren baggage car doesn't have anywhere near the allure of the classic Park car. A spare Chateau sits idle on an adjacent track.

As always, I took note of the consist. In the lead-up to the holidays there had been indications of strong bookings, and talk of adding extra equipment. In the end, the consist only expanded slightly from its off-season configuration, with an extra Chateau sleeper added (and two of the three Chateaus in passenger service). In its typically unpredictable fashion, the pandemic had taken another turn just before Christmas, with the omicron variant spreading like wildfire and starting to drive up case numbers to unprecedented levels across the country. Unsurprisingly, many people changed their travel plans last minute. We won’t ultimately know what longer consists may have been possible if this hadn’t happened. This shift would also result in changes on the return trip, but more on that later.

Here's the consist:


VIA 15 – Dec. 19, 2021

6432 (Forward)

6420 (Reverse)

8618 HEP1 baggage

Chateau Argenson (crew)

Chateau Montcalm (41)

Chateau Radisson (40)

8118 HEP1 Coach (refurbished)

8117 HEP1 Coach (refurbished)

7601 Renaissance transition car

7309 Ren service car

7402 Ren dining car

7312 Ren service car

79501 (30) Ren accessible sleeper

7520 (37) Ren sleeper (*Room 09)

7522 (38) Ren sleeper

7516 (39) Ren sleeper

7231 (04) Ren coach (forward)

70108 (05) Ren accessible coach (reverse)

7003 Ren baggage

 

*Note that there were no line numbers listed on the HEP1 coaches – they simply had their car numbers in their line number displays. There is currently no seat assignment, with crews directing passengers to their car, so having line numbers is less important.

 

The Renaissance section is definitely the more convenient part of the train at Halifax, as it’s closest to the station in both directions. It made for a relatively short walk to my sleeper. Coach passengers at Halifax were all being sent to the HEP1 coaches nearer the front, with the Ren coaches to be used for passengers boarding at Moncton.

 

Arriving on board, I noted that everything was in superb shape, as had been the case during my short trip on the inaugural run. Everything was clean, in good repair, and functional. I had ended up booking a room without a shower, since it was all that was still available by the time I booked, but I find that this is quite acceptable in the westbound direction, when you don’t then have a full day on the train out the other end. The amenities in the room are a little bit different from normal, but still very much adequate.


Walking into the Renaissance accessible sleeper. Note that the access to the large accessible room is directly through the vestibule, to allow wheelchair access. This was not my sleeper, but the one ahead - and I figured it was worth including a photo. 

Room 9. Forward facing, no shower. As noted back in August, the headrests now have removable antimacassars, and the rooms have otherwise been very nicely cleaned up.
 
View of the room. Bathrooms in the non-shower rooms are on the opposite sides from the shower rooms (i.e. in forward facing rooms they are by the room door). There is also no mirror on the closet door, and the closet doesn't open up quite as wide. 


Looking into the bathroom. No shower, and a tiny bit smaller, but otherwise pretty well the same. Very functional. Towels were provided in a kit by the attendant shortly after departure. 

On board guide provided in each cabin.


We were a little late getting underway, departing at 1:13pm. The run out from the station was smooth, and unlike some other trips (and as you’ll see on the return trip), CN had the main clear at Rockingham so it was smooth sailing out of town. We had a meet with CN 120 at Kinsac, but they were already at the siding and being held for us when we arrived, so it was relatively smooth, even though we had to come to a complete stop and wait for them to leave.

 

Heading out through the cut away from downtown Halifax, snowy scenes outside the window.

Renaissance service car. Available to passengers at limited capacity, but the canteen is closed. This is the service car on the Renaissance side of the train (the rear one).

Maximum capacity for the service car. I never saw more than 2 or 3 other people in this car. 


Rounding the curve at Moirs Mills/Mill Cove, Bedford NS.




The conductor on CN 120 watches us roll by at Kinsac from his perch on the front porch of CN 3096.

More wintery views from the service car lounge. It's no Park car, but it's still nice. 
Sanitizer wipes on offer in the service car.

Service car bistro - closed for takeout, but the kitchen in behind is very much in use to keep the dining car running. 

The on board experience at this point was a bit different from my initial trip back in August. Masks were still required in all common areas and in the coaches, but the dining car was now open, and the service car lounges were also open, with limited capacity. This made for a bit more freedom of movement within the train, and removed the potential monotony of staying in your room for the whole trip. The service car canteens were still closed, though, and all food service for coach passengers was still being done by cart service at-seat. Passengers could, however, make use of the lounge and its available WiFi service. While wandering around in my section of the train, I went to have a look inside the two Renaissance coaches before they were put into use at Moncton. They looked nicely spruced up. 


Renaissance coach interior. This is the standard Ren coach. 

Luggage tower in the middle of a standard Renaissance coach.


Renaissance accessible coach interior. Note the lowered seats at the front and wheelchair spaces, as well as no luggage tower in the middle of the car. 

Rear end of one of the Ren coaches, with more seats at floor level. I find these far more comfortable and easier to stretch out in than the ones up on the pedestals. 

Accessible washroom at the front of a Renaissance accessible coach.


End of the line. This is as far back in the train as you can go - looking through the last coach vestibule to the baggage car door. No rear view...

I headed off for lunch at the second setting, around 2:45pm, for my first dining car meal in nearly two years. The dining car was barely patronized, with most of the other passengers having chosen either the first sitting or room service. The overall set-up within the diner is nearly identical to pre-Covid, and the meal offerings all sounded quite familiar. I’ll comment more in the photo captions, but all in all, it was an excellent meal. At the end of the meal I made a point of asking for a cup of coffee to go, which was important as the usual tea/coffee service that would be present in the Park car is not currently on offer. This is one significant loss, aside from the Park itself, in the current service offering, but hopefully it will find its way back in some form eventually.


Renaissance dining car. Very much the same look as always, though passengers are being spaced out even more than usual. No single passengers were asked to sit with others, and only groups travelling together were seated together. 

Lunch menu.
 
Chowder to start. Clam chowder this time, instead of the fish chowder typically on offer. Still quite tasty, and a good starter on a wintery day!

Main course - cold salmon nicoise salad. 


Carrot cake for dessert. 

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful, and I spent the time between my room and some time in the service car lounge. We had no stops at Springhill or Amherst, and a brief stop at Sackville. 

Wind turbines on the Tantramar marsh. 

Nearing the NS-NB border, by Fort Beausejour.

I stepped off for some fresh air at Moncton, and realized in the process that this was the first time I had been in New Brunswick at all in nearly 2 years! Hard to believe. As I noted earlier, coach passengers boarding in Moncton who were going all the way to Montreal were boarded in the Renaissance coaches at the rear. All of those going to/from intermediate stops were accommodated in the HEP coaches up front, simplifying the stopping procedures at various stations along the way.  

Stop at Moncton. Chilly, but nice to stretch. 

Coach passengers head back to board the Renaissance coaches at Moncton NB.


As the light dropped, I decided to add a little d├ęcor to my room. I had brought a string of battery powered LED Christmas lights, which I strung up in the window. This helped make up for the total lack of any decoration on board (apparently another Covid consideration, which again, doesn’t make much sense to me), and was appreciated by my attendant – and, I hope, by some folks along the way!


Christmas lights!

For dinner, it appeared that the settings were likely to be rather busy, so I decided I’d try out the room service option instead. I was also quite curious about how this would work, so it seemed a win-win.


When ordering room service, the meals were delivered by the respective sleeping car attendant. The service seemed to be staggered to fit between the main meal preparation times for the formal dinner settings, but there was some flexibility in when you could request your meal. Before dinner, my attendant brought by a menu. As usual, the order for both appetizer and main was taken at once, with dessert offered after that was all done. I was quite impressed to see a small tablecloth and full cutlery delivered to set up on the little pull-out table, which helped set the ambience. I realize this wouldn't work as well with two people in the room, but it was certainly nice for a solo passenger. Each course was delivered separately, with generous spacing between each course. Even without full china, I found each component to be very enjoyable, and there was actually something quite nice about being able to relax in my room and enjoy the view quietly, with the lights dimmed as much as I’d like to be able to take in the darkened scenery. The only thing really missing from this was the dinner rolls, which were not on offer in the room service package (they were in the diner). Aside from that, everything was excellent.

Dinner menu.
 

Dinner menu options, in the official language of your choice. 

Room service presentation. Not quite the full diner experience, but hey, it works!

Appetizer. Smoked fish platter.


Main course - honey pecan chicken. Despite the presentation, this was one of the absolute best meals I've had on VIA to date. 

Dessert - a swiss roll of some sort. Just okay, but the peppermint tea was lovely. 


After dessert, I asked for a second cup of tea, and enjoyed that in my room as we rolled slowly through the dark, New Brunswick wilderness. I noted that we had no stop in Rogersville or Petit Rocher, but we did make quick stops at both Jacquet River and Charlo, where the station buildings have recently been demolished. More on that in part 2.

 

When we made our stop in Campbellton, I got out for a bit of fresh air and a stretch, then settled back in and made my room up for the night. The ride was remarkably smooth, and I was off to sleep in short order.

Christmas lights from the outside! Conveniently on the right side at Campbellton.

Cold night at Campbellton NB.

 
Night-time setup. I've pulled down the top bunk (but not the ladder) to show it off, but would tuck it back up to sleep on the lower one. 

I awoke the next morning just after we had backed out from Ste-Foy, and was treated to a spectacular sunrise over the frozen Quebec landscape. The thing I love most about westbound trips on the Ocean is waking up to these wide open plains, as we’ve picked up speed and are rushing along on the final stretch to Montreal. Everything about it has such positive associations for me, and there are few better places to wake up, as far as I’m concerned.


Morning view, shot directly from bed. Seriously, how could you beat that?

 

Sunrise crossing the Chaudiere River, west of Joffre/Charny QC.

More sunrise views. Just a spectacular morning!

I headed to the diner for breakfast a bit before 8am. It was fairly quiet, and the food was excellent. I grabbed coffee to go when I was done, and spent a while in the service car lounge, enjoying the views, and chatting with an older couple who were on their way to Toronto to see their children and grandchildren. This wasn’t nearly as social of a trip as usual, for obvious reasons – but it was nice to have a little bit of that during the morning.

Breakfast menu. I still love the style of these, even if the scene is a little fantastical. 


Breakfast menu.
Banana bread french toast - decadent, but a lovely breakfast for a morning like this. 


Beautiful morning views from the service car. 

More lovely views. This is what I love about mornings on #15. 

 

We had been running a while behind schedule overnight, but had made that up by the morning. We made our stop at Drummondville at 8:33, with two stops, and a last call for breakfast just afterwards at 8:39. We were at St-Hyacinthe at 9:10, right on time, St-Lambert at 9:46, and finally into Montreal at 10:07, just 4 minutes late. We had to take the diversion on the Victoria Bridge due to a ship in the locks, which adds a tiny bit of time to the crossing.

Heading left to take the diversion on the Victoria bridge. I'm always amazed by the engineering of this bridge, with two separate double-tracked rail spans that rejoin, and road additions on either side. 

The reason for the diversion - a ship making its way through the locks. The main span is lowered again, but evidently not yet cleared for us. 

Curving back to the main bridge, our locomotives visible far ahead. 


Montreal!


Evidence of the new REM construction abounds - a lot of progress since I was last in the city. 

Another sad change in Montreal - the shift of branding from AMT to "exo", and the corresponding ghastly new decoration. To the left are stored MR-90 electrics, sent to a premature demise with the REM replacing the Deux-Montagnes line.


Nearing the station, more REM work above obscures former views. 

Montreal! Arriving at Gare Centrale, with more REM construction work evident. 
Arrived in Montreal, and off the train to head upstairs. 

Train 65 for Toronto awaits passengers heading in that direction. 

At Montreal I headed upstairs, and for the first time had to go see about picking up my checked baggage. The baggage carousel in Montreal is tucked away almost in a back hallway of sorts, and is a rather congested area. Bags were slow being offloaded, and there was a substantial crowd waiting around with a notable lack of any station staff to answer questions. Some with the connection to train 65 for Toronto didn’t seem to be sure if there bags were actually being transferred, and this caused some confusion and evident stress among some passengers.

 

Montreal! Always a wonderful station to visit. 

It took about half an hour for bags to actually roll off, but I eventually got mine and headed to the Business lounge to wait for Train 35. The lounge was quiet, as was the station once train 65 boarded, and I found the wait very comfortable. The agent at the check-in for the lounge checked vaccination proof again, this time using a QR code scanner, and I received a new check with the current date written on it.

Inside the lounge - promotions for VIA's HFR proposal abound. The lounge was pretty much the same as always, albeit with a requirement to keep masks on when not eating/drinking. Free soft drinks and coffee were still on offer.

Train 35 boarded by around 11:40, and would depart at 11:55. I was in Business class, and had booked what was meant to be a single, forward facing seat. A week or so before departure I had received an email informing me that my seat had been changed – though it was the same seat, it was no backward facing, meaning that VIA had reversed the orientation of the train. 35 was running push-pull with locomotives on either end, and the Business class car would now be on the tail end. On departure, we headed out from the station to the Victoria bridge, and reversed direction to head for Ottawa. Hopefully this practice will be able to be ended when the new bidirectional Siemens fleet is in operation, as it seems baffling to continue doing this, even with locomotives on both ends.


VIA 35 – December 20, 2021

6411

33xx LRC coach

33xx LRC coach

33xx LRC coach

3463 LRC Business Class (*seat 13S)

6416

 

 

LRC Business class interior on train 35. 

Backed out to the bridge, again.

By this point, the Business class service offering had returned to pretty much pre-pandemic standards. The usual pre-meal drink and snack service was offered, then lunch with the usual several options. Coffee/tea and chocolates were distributed afterwards. This would change just a day later, as I’ll highlight in my return trip.

 

Business class, or Business glass?

Pre-meal snack and drink. Full liquor service was available on this trip.

Business class meal. This was clearly meant to be basically the same as the honey pecan chicken I had on the Ocean the night before, but made by the Montreal based caterers. It was okay, but nowhere near as good. 


Views along the Alexandria Sub. The load was pretty light in this car, and people were well spaced out. 

These signs have shown up in most VIA bathrooms, and I don't remember this exact wording being there before - trash in the toilet could cause train delays. Don't be that person!
More new signage, no doubt indicative of the track and ride quality on many of VIA's routes. Three points of contact is good practice on the railways.


The trip was mostly smooth, with a decent ride in the LRC. The only issue I found was that the two locomotives seemed to be out of sync at points through the trip, which led to the feeling of being rammed back and forth as the two fought against each other and the slack pulled in and out. It seems this can be an issue on some top-and-tail sets – another thing that will be done away with on the new Siemens trains, which will have a locomotive on only one end and semi-permanent couplings throughout, which will largely eliminate that slack action.

 

We did eventually run into some sort of issue, and ended up stopped in the Moose Creek bog while one engineer got out to inspect the train. The HEP shut off briefly, so I expect there was some sort of equipment issue – but whatever it was, it was resolved fairly quickly, and we were back on our way. We would eventually arrive at 2:28pm, 23 minutes behind schedule. We arrived on the single high platform next to the station in Ottawa, which made getting off the train a very smooth process, even with a large suitcase.

 

Our rear locomotive, 6416. This seemed to be the one causing issues through the trip. 
LRCs at the Ottawa high platform. What's up with that black "V" next to the vestibule door?

The new Business lounge in Ottawa. I didn't get a chance to properly check this out in either direction, but it looks really nice! 


All in all, the trip up was very smooth and enjoyable, and despite some of the strangeness of travelling in these times, it was about as relaxing and stress-free as one could really ask for. It was fantastic to be back on the train for a proper, full trip, and it really ran home just how much I had missed being able to do that regularly.

 

The following week in Ottawa would consist of some wonderful time with family, even if it was awfully cold (!), and before I knew it, I’d be back on the train to head home. I’ve decided to leave that as a second part, because otherwise I may never get this report done (it’s taken me long enough to get to part 1 as it is!), and I don’t want to make this an entirely unmanageable read.


So for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed, and stay tuned for part 2!