Monday 11 April 2022

Christmas travels in the time of Covid - Part 2

PART 2 – Back to Halifax, from the other end of the train

After I finally finished Part 1 of this report, I optimistically hoped that it wouldn’t take me another whole month to get Part 2 together. Well, I was right! It took over two months instead. Oops…

In any case, it’s about time to wrap up this trip! If you read through Part 1 and have been anxiously awaiting Part 2, I must apologize for the long wait – I hope it ends up being worthwhile. If you’re just discovering this sometime later, well, enjoy both parts and ignore this prologue.


Christmas time in Ottawa was lovely, both in getting to spend some wonderful time with family, and also just getting to explore around the city and take in some of the beautiful sights. I was particularly impressed with the light show on the Parliament buildings, a series of lights and moving video projections, all expertly choregraphed to a musical soundtrack. Images alone don’t do it full justice, but here’s one anyway, along with a couple of images around downtown.


One of the lovely parks downtown Ottawa, not far from the National Arts Centre. 

Parliament. None of the photos really do the light show justice - I'd recommend looking up videos online. 

Though it has continued to have serious issues, the O-Train Confederation Line was running smoothly while I was there, and I made good use of it on several occasions to get in and out of downtown. When it works, it is a very smooth system. There were also plenty of signs around of the ongoing extension work, as well as the rebuild and extension work on the north-south Trillium Line (delayed, but evidently still progressing).


On Dec. 26th, I was back at the Ottawa station to board Train 26 to head off to Montreal for my connection with the Ocean. Like the trip up, this was once again a fairly typical top-and-tail LRC consist. This time I would be up front going forward, and the overall ride quality was significantly better than the trip in the other direction.

Ottawa Station. I didn't get a chance to check out the newly renovated Business class lounge, though it looked quite nice from outside. 


My train was on one of the middle platforms, so it meant a trip downstairs to head out to the ramp up to the platform. Nice to see you again too, VIA.

My ride to Montreal. 

Forward power for the trip.

VIA 26 – Dec. 26, 2022

6419 F40

3478 (*11S) LRC Business Class car

3362 LRC Coach

3300 LRC Coach

33xx LRC Coach

6409 F40

Proof of vaccination checks were done at the gate along with ticket scans, using a QR code reader. As was the case on the way up, checked baggage service was not on offer from Ottawa, so I had to carry on my large suitcase (easily stowed in the baggage racks at the end of the LRC car), to be checked in Montreal. Nobody offered any help with carrying this bag on, though I’m not sure if that was deliberate or just because I appeared to have it covered.


Because of the rapid and rather unexpected surge of Omicron shortly before Christmas, the on board service had changed between the two directions of my trip. In the Corridor, Business Class was still on offer (unlike earlier points in the pandemic), but the service delivery was scaled back to try to minimize the amount of time that passengers would have their masks off, and the extent of interaction between the crew and passengers. That said, it wasn’t a dramatic change – the most notable was the removal of alcohol service. A pre-meal drink was still offered along with the snack, but only from non-alcoholic options. Similarly, there was no wine on offer with the meal. The logic, here, appears to be that passengers are more likely to spend time slowly sipping away at these beverages over the course of the trip – sensible enough. As compensation for this, VIA provided an automatic $25 refund (per trip) to anyone who had booked a Business class trip prior to the change in the service offering. It took a few weeks, but this came through – though I never actually got a direct explanation from VIA about what the refund was, and wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t heard about it elsewhere.


The cart, for meal service. This is one of those things that seems to rarely get photographed; I often feel uncomfortable doing so when the crew are working, but since the cart was left briefly unattended, I snapped a quick photo. The wide angle lens, though useful for interior photos, can do some weird things - that tray table isn't actually angled down that dramatically!

Mid afternoon trains have lighter meal options. I went for the cheese plate, which had an interesting assortment of cheeses, grapes, dried figs and apricots, and the other accompaniments seen here. Not bad, though the bread was nearly rock hard from being refrigerated. 

Nothing like hot coffee and a chocolate while zipping along across the frozen landscape. 

Otherwise, the meal service was much akin to the other direction. We departed at 2:19pm, and meals were served by 2:50pm. Passenger load was fairly light. The trip went quite smoothly, with nothing of interest to report. We arrived in Montreal at 4:11pm.


Arrival in Montreal, walking past a train board passengers for Toronto. 
Montreal. Always a beautiful station to visit. 

Baggage room in Montreal. The baggage check is just on the left, and the claim carousel is hidden down around the back. 

After checking my large bag, I realized that it would be a while yet until check-in for sleeper passengers opened. So I headed outside for a walk, as it was a rather pleasant evening (for December), and managed to find a neat spot just down Blvd. Robert-Bourassa from the station. There are a pair of interesting structures that look almost like a mix of public art and playground, with twisting staircases leading up to platforms at different heights. The tallest of these makes for a nice view of the approach to Central station. My timing didn’t work to see too much activity, with no AMT trains and several VIA trains either just gone or still a ways away. But I was able to see a couple of movements on this snowy evening – Toronto-Montreal train 69, departing at 4:56pm with a pair of F40s and a lengthy LRC consist in tow, and then at 5:03pm, the equipment for my next train (VIA 14) came backing in from the Montreal Maintenance Centre (MMC) to Central station for preparation in advance of departure. I filmed a bit of video of these trains, which you can watch here:


The interesting viewing platform structure thingies.

View down from the top - the metal grating and slight bounce of the structure might make some feel uneasy.

Montreal. What more can I say?

Entrance to Central Station. It's a gorgeous building inside, but the outside leaves a lot to be desired. Far from the grand outer appearance of somewhere like Toronto's Union Station, or even Halifax.

I headed back in to the station around 5:45. Sleeper check in started around 6pm, with boarding expected at 6:30 and a departure at 7pm. During check-in and meal selection, the room service option was more prominently featured, and I noticed quite a few passengers seemed to be opting for this over going to the dining car. I decided to go for the later of the two settings in the dining car (8:45pm) – the first one would have been right on departure, and the second one promised to be quieter.

While waiting in the lounge, I had realized that train 64, the main connection from Toronto, was running extremely behind schedule. VIA will typically hold the Ocean in these cases, as they don’t want to strand passengers for several days. It wasn’t initially clear what would be happening in this case, and I was rather surprised when we received the boarding call at 6:30pm, as initially expected if we were on time. As it turns out, they decided to board passengers as usual, but we were still going to be held waiting for 64. This meant that instead of a 7pm departure, it would be 8:21pm by the time that train arrived, connecting passengers transferred, and we were finally underway.


So why board early? One of the considerations here seems to be to allow the crew to get started with the first dinner, both in the diner and for those who requested an earlier room service meal. Alas, it meant that people who opted for the first setting got to “enjoy” the views of the bowels of Central station. But I suppose it would have made things easier for the crew, not being jostled around while serving!


Arriving at my roomette after boarding. The interior still sports the '90s-era upholstery, but it appears to have been cleaned up and potentially largely overhauled. 
Forward view in an upper roomette. A toilet hides under the footstool, though I prefer to go down the hall. Convenient storage up above, and a fold-down sink on the wall. 

Train 64 finally arrives from Toronto! A few minutes to transfer passengers, and then we'd be on our way. 

Now, the train itself. This was the other set in operation, but you’ll notice that the make-up and orientation of the car types is identical to the other set from Part 1.


VIA 14 – Dec. 26, 2022

6407 (Forward)

6426 (Reverse)

7009 Renaissance Baggage

70230 Ren Accessible Coach (05) (Forward)

7208 Ren Coach (04) (Reverse)

7512 Ren Sleeper (39)

7507 Ren Sleeper (38)

7506 Ren Sleeper (37)

79526 Ren Accessible Sleeper (30)

7314 Ren Service Car

7401 Ren Diner

7303 Ren Service Car

7602 Ren Transition

8124 HEP1 Coach (Refurbished, no line number)

8127 HEP1 Coach (Refurbished, no line number)

Chateau Brûlé (40) (Forward) *Roomette 7

Chateau Verchères (41) (Reverse)

Château Latour (crew dorm) (Forward)

8613 HEP1 Baggage


This time around, I was at the other end of the train, riding in Chateau Brûlé. I had booked a roomette, and specifically requested #7, which is the upper level roomette on the left side of the car, farthest forward. This has the best ride of any roomette (farthest from the trucks), and I generally like both the setup of the upper roomettes, and the slightly higher view. That said, those with issues climbing steps would likely do better with a lower level roomette.

Chateau hallway, upper and lower roomettes on either side of the aisle. Roomettes have a door, but the curtain can be zipped up for extra sound deadening, and to keep things covered while you're opening and closing the door (ideal when getting up from bed!). The curtains are also useful because the sliding doors have a tendency to pop themselves open when they aren't locked from the inside. 

Another look inside my upper-level roomette. Lots of convenient storage space, a coat hook, and a large mirror on the sliding door. 

Sink folded down for use. A drinking water tap is also provided. 

Bed made up for the night. In the upper roomettes, the bed folds down from the wall Murphy-bed style, very much like the roomettes in a Manor sleeper.

For comparison, here's inside a lower-level roomette. Note that the room is level with the floor in the hallway. 

Another view in the lower level roomette. In these, the bed slides out from ahead, and storage is underneath the bed instead of overhead. I think the upper level design is superior, but this has its perks - the window is also slightly larger, though lower down. 

A Chateau bedroom, in daytime configuration.

The large Chateau drawing room, or "Cabin for 3", in daytime configuration.

Drawing room in nighttime configuration, showing all three beds. 

The first two Chateau sleepers were in passenger service, and there were indeed passengers in the backwards facing roomettes (something I was curious about). The open sections (berths) were still not being sold – policy across the board, though now beginning to change. Interestingly, since they weren’t being used for passengers, they provide almost a bit of lounge-like space. I did spend a little bit of time sitting out there (masked, as it’s an open area), and never had any issues with it; but I don’t know if that was meant to be off-limits.

Open sections (berths) in daytime configuration. Since these were not in use, they provided a sort of impromptu lounge space, though I only noted one other passenger taking advantage of this. It was a nice spot to have a view out both sides of the train. 

I noted that the bedrooms in Chateaus Verchères and Latour had been redone, though not the ones in Brûlé. Aside from that, the Chateaus were in excellend shape overall. The roomettes appeared to have had work done to them – the upholstery is still the same old design, but it looked clean and potentially new. One of the most noticeable changes was that the musty smell typical in those cars in years past was gone, likely thanks to a combination of cleaning and upgrades to the ventilation system. In any case, a very welcome change! The ride quality in my car was also quite good. The two HEP1 coaches in the consist had undergone a full refurbishment – more on that shortly.


The biggest change from my trip up was that the direction to limit movements in the train had returned, and the service car lounges were once again off limits. I did go back and forth to the dining car at meal times, but beyond that I stayed put in my car. Masks continued to be required when in open areas or moving through the train. Economy food service was still all by cart, and similar to the change in the Corridor, alcohol service was not available from either the cart or at meals.  

Walking forward from the Chateau sleepers, you pass through the HEP1 coaches. At this point they still had the full lights on, but those would be dimmed as the evening moved along. 
Ahead of the HEP1 coaches is the Renaissance transition car.

A change from the way up - lounges were closed again.

A view from the next morning. The service car was off limits, aside from passing through to the diner.

Once we were finally underway, it wasn’t a long wait for supper. The food was very good, and in keeping with the usual offering. Passengers in the diner were not being seated with anyone they weren’t travelling with.


Views leaving Montreal. 

The view outside of Central station has changed a lot recently, with the REM construction resulting in these elevated concrete guideways that criss-cross the tracks.

Unfinished REM framing the skyline. Presumably, the jump won't be included in the final design...

Dinner menu. 

Appetizer. Prosciutto-wrapped melon and grilled vegetables, quite tasty. 

Roast turkey dinner for the main course - quite good. 

Carrot cake for dessert. Not as inspiring looking as some offerings, but nothing wrong with it.

Back in my room, I set up my Christmas lights again. My car attendant was very pleased to see this, and mentioned being disappointed that decorations were off limits this year (something Covid related, I guess, but that seems a bit silly!)

After supper, I relaxed in my room for a while, got off for some fresh air at Ste-Foy, and then got settled in for bed as we headed off from there.


Views across the Chaudière River just before Charny. 

Station stop at Ste-Foy. A chilly night, and not too many takers for the fresh air stroll!

Exterior at Ste-Foy. This group of refurbished HEP1 coaches wear the classic blue stripe scheme, though they have lost their waving flags and now have only the full VIA logo (with white subtext - an unusual choice on the stainless carbody), and the large Canada wordmarks. Some cars have received the new HEP2 style scheme with teal window band and yellow letterboard. Supposedly intended for Corridor-use, those have mostly been on the Canadian. One car did make a single trip on the Ocean so far.

Views crossing the river again, having backed out from Ste-Foy. All warm and cozy in bed, and ready to get off to sleep. 

Breakfast the next morning started at 7am Atlantic Time, on the usual first-come-first-served setup. Being behind schedule, I was able to enjoy some gloomy early morning views of the Matapedia valley, and then head to the diner around our arrival in Matapedia. Breakfast was very enjoyable, and I was finished up in time for the longer stop at Campbellton. This ended up being an unusually long stop, as they had to refill the water tank in one of the HEP1 coaches. I overheard the Service Manager commenting that they couldn’t have any car without water at the moment, particularly sensible as passengers are meant to stay in their own car.


Morning views in the Matapedia valley. A fine way to wake up!

Breakfast menu, still using this classy design that includes a rather baffling depiction of the Ocean with out of scale Ren cars rammed up against a Skyline, running along a bit of rugged coastline that I've never seen on this route! 

Breakfast menu. 
Breakfast - I went for the western omelette, which was quite tasty. 

Breakfast in Matapedia. 

Looking across Chaleur Bay, looking rather frigid. 

CN switcher at work in the Campbellton yard.

Stopped at Campbellton, taking advantage of the fresh air.

The HEP section, transition from coach to sleepers.

Views leaving Campbellton.

More icy lakes after Campbellton, with the sun coming out in force!
More breathtaking Chaleur Bay views.

Some time after breakfast I went off to shower. There is a common shower in each Chateau car, and unlike on the Canadian, the Ocean has not had any kind of reservation system for showers – just a use-it-if-it’s-free setup. The one in my car worked well, with no issues with water temperature or pressure.

About those HEP1 coaches – since the Ocean restarted, the coaches on every trip have been from the group of cars that have recently been rebuilt by CAD in Montreal. The rebuild included a rather thorough overhaul, including new upholstery and carpets, renovated washrooms, all new lighting throughout, and upgrades to the mechanical and electrical systems. Because I had to walk through these cars on several occasions, I took a number of photos and briefly tested out the seats (in a section with no passengers, of course). They look really nice, the seats are very comfortable, and all in all it’s a very welcome refurbishment! I’ll let the photos show that off.


Overall interior view. Note that the ceiling lighting now has flat LED panels inserted in place of the former protruding flourescent fixtures. The seats at the front look a little exaggerated thanks to the wide angle lens. 

Most seats can be turned, though some like the ones on the left here cannot due to the storage bin between the seats. At least a few 4-seaters are set up at any given time. 

Classic leg rest and recline.

Note the electrical outlets at each seat, which are now mounted on the seat pedestal instead of the wall. There are also plugs on the front of each seat pedestal, so that 4-seaters still have access to electrical outlets.  

End with washroom and water fill station. 

The ends of the cars now include built-in garbage and recycling bins. 

The HEP1 coaches were well used, and seemed to have passengers going through to Halifax as well as some intermediate points. The Ren coaches up front were loaded with passengers going to Moncton, and then at Moncton any passengers boarding (either for Halifax or points between) were loaded in that section. On quieter trips only the HEP1 cars are used, as they can (and do) have their seats turned at the end points to face forward.

Along the way, I picked up a rather disappointing piece of information. In the past, any VIA crews that worked up to Montreal before Christmas would have the option to be flown back to Halifax for Christmas Day, and then either they or a new crew would be flown back up to Montreal afterwards to work the first post-Christmas trip. A very respectable practice, and one that helps make working around that time of year a bit easier. Unfortunately, in what seems to be yet another rather misguided attempt to save costs at the expense of employees, VIA ended that practice this year. So any crews that worked #15 from Halifax on Dec. 22 would have arrived in Montreal on Dec. 23, and had to stay there until Dec. 26 to work back on #14. Unsurprisingly, this led to a shortage of crew members willing to make this trip. In the long run, my car attendant was among crew who were flown up first thing on Dec. 26, and even with that they ended up having to bring on several Corridor crew members from the Montreal base in order to fill out the staff compliment. We ended up with 4 Corridor-based crew members on that trip, and were apparently still short-staffed.


The attendants assigned to the HEP1 coaches were Corridor crews. Where this became most noticeable was when they were doing cart service, and I was trying to make my way through the car to get to the diner. They didn’t appear to be expecting anyone needing to get through the car, as that’s not a consideration on Corridor trains. It took me a while to work my way past them!


In any case, I have nothing but good things to say about the crew members on this trip. They were all kind, courteous, and professional, even while evidently having to put up with a lot after already being laid off for such an extended period of time. VIA is very lucky to have them, and I wish they’d be more serious about treating them well.


The rest of the trip went smoothly, and it was largely a nice day. I did note that the small stations at Charlo and Jacquet River were finally demolished (both had serious structural issues that were beyond easy repair), leaving only a sign board and parking lot at each; but we did make stops at both. We also stopped at Petit Rocher, but had no stop at Rogersville. Later on we would have a stop at Amherst, but not Sackville or Springhill Jct.

Stop at Charlo. Now just a lot with a platform. 

Stop at Jacquet River. Parking lot and platform are still cleared and available, but no shelter.

Petit Rocher still retains its station, as it's owned by the town. 

There were two lunch settings, as usual, and I opted for the second one.


Lunch menu. Contrary to the information on the menu, alcohol service was not available,

Chowder to start.

Chicken shish taouk 

Dessert was some sort of maple swiss roll. Not bad, though not overly exciting.

One unusual perk of having Chateaus running in opposite directions is this kind of symmetry, not often seen in the typical VIA consist orientation.

The classic rear-end shot at Moncton doesn't have quite the same "pizazz" anymore...but at least there's still a train stopping here...

The "view" from the rear end. A far cry from the Park car's bullet lounge...

At Moncton, a railfan friend of mine was out by the tracks to photograph our train going by. A CN conductor/engineer, he had been waiting after having worked a train up to Moncton and was ultimately heading back to Halifax in a cab. We were messaging back and forth as our train made its way, and realized at some point that he *just* might beat us back to Halifax. It was going to be close! As we made our way through Bedford, I realized that we were going to be detoured around through the yard at Rockingham, as the main line was occupied. This meant we’d take the transfer track at Millview, and crawl along through the yard. This would delay us a bit more, but in the case of this impromptu chase, it would work out well. Ultimately, he would make it to the yard office at Rockingham with a few minutes to spare, and we’d have a chance to wave and exchange photos a second time!

Caleb snaps photos of our train, just before spotting where I'm camped out on board.

Dorchester penitentiary, always an impressive sight.
Rounding the curve on the Tantramar marsh, about to re-enter Nova Scotia. It's hard to get as nice of a view without the dome, but the curve is tight enough that you can still get a decent view from anywhere near the rear of the train.
Setting sun over the marsh.

Along the Bedford Basin - slow moving on the transfer track made for a chance to take a few more photos.

Harbour views, with a ship being worked at Fairview Cove.

You again!? Thanks to our further delay, Caleb gets to spot us twice - heck, they should have just put him on the train instead of in a cab!

With the trip ending in darkness, I had my lights back on for the last stretch - so here's one last look in the festive roomette. 

We would finally arrive in Halifax at 7:43pm, under 2 hours behind schedule – not bad, given the extended delay we started off with.


Back in Halifax. With the new consist, the walk from the Renaissance sleepers would be pretty short - but it's still a long hike if you're back in the Chateaus!

Back in the Halifax station. Most of the passengers who disembarked are behind me waiting to pick up their baggage. 

Just like the way up, this was another very relaxing and enjoyable trip. It was interesting to have the very different experience in both directions, as the current consist really does make it feel like two different trains depending on which end you’re occupying. As with the trip up, the loss of the Park car and associated amenities was definitely noticed, though admittedly, the sudden Covid resurgence did make having a secluded space of my own for the duration of the trip feel like a luxury.


As the pandemic wanes (or at least evolves) and travel returns to more “normal”, I really do hope that VIA will come up with a better solution to replace the lost amenities. The Renaissance service cars, both of which are shared between economy and sleeper passengers in the current configuration, really won’t cut it. The original bidirectional consist plan that was floated around before Covid happened included a Skyline and a slightly different overall configuration, but whether any such plan still exists remains to be seen. The Ocean absolutely serves a basic transportation function for many of the points along its route, but there’s no question that tourists and leisure travellers are a significant revenue stream during peak travel times, and one has to wonder how much of that will return as the train has fewer amenities to offer.


At the moment, we’re still awaiting formal confirmation of when the third (Friday) trips will actually return. The reservations system shows this starting the first Friday in June, but as we’ve seen in the past, this could still change and I wouldn’t trust it until VIA formally announces this. VIA’s answers about restoring the full frequency have kept making reference to responding to travel demands – at this stage, sleeper space on many trains through the summer is already sold out (though Chateau space has not yet been added to most trains), including Friday trips. That certainly seems to indicate a return in demand. There could be other considerations, such as hiring sufficient staff, but the two trainsets in operation are already sufficient to cover three round trips, and shortening the layovers in Montreal will definitely make for better working conditions for the onboard staff. In any case, it will make travel planning much easier (and more feasible) for those who do want or need to take the train.


So with that, this report is finally wrapped up! Odd to be writing about Christmas time in April (note to self: that can be avoided if you don’t take so long to write it!), but it is nice to revisit things, and I hope that you’ve found this interesting to read through. I don’t have any other trips planned in the immediate term, though that’s certainly on my mind as we move into the spring of what is feeling like a more comfortable year.


As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed or at least found this somewhat interesting!