Monday 29 January 2024

Christmas Chaos Returns: Trains, planes and…buses?


"VIA" 15 at Campbellton NB. Hmm, something doesn't look right here...

Here we go again…

Those of you who have followed my reports will know I’ve had some “interesting” trips, particularly in the winter. Last Christmas was the peak of these experiences – if you haven’t already, go ahead and have a look at my “Trains,Planes and Automobiles” post from last year. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this might make me a bit hesitant about jumping on a train again at this time of year; but I’ve always been happy to recognize when the experience was the result of rare and unusual circumstances. If I’d been scheduled on a flight that same day last year, I would have ended up having to deal with delays, cancellations, and rebookings anyway!

So this year, as Christmas approached, I made my plans and hoped that I wouldn’t be in for anything quite so exciting. My itinerary would be somewhat similar to last year, heading up about a week before Christmas (and using a credit from last year’s trip!), on the train heading west. For the return, the train schedule unfortunately didn’t line up well (departing on Christmas Eve), so I booked a flight for the return right from the start. Not my first choice, but reasonable under the circumstances.

As the date approached, the weather looked fine; no major storms to contend with. After chronic delays through the summer and fall due to track work, the Ocean’s timekeeping had also improved. The train was now arriving reliably on time (or close to it) in Montreal, which made my late connection to Ottawa on train 37 seem likely to be a bit of a nuisance. Ah well, a bit of extra time in Montreal isn’t the worst thing in the world.

On the Friday before my Sunday departure, I had a look at the tracking information for the eastbound train that would become my westbound train in a couple days’ time. I noted that the train was delayed by a few hours leaving Montreal. This turned out to be due to late connections from both Toronto and Ottawa, owing to trespasser strikes by other trains that resulted in lengthy delays. Still, the train was on the move! Good.

Later in the evening I noticed something odd. The train had made it as far as Mcmasterville, by Beleoil/Mont-St-Hilaire, and it had stopped. It had remained stopped for an extended period of time. That isn’t a typical place for a meet, and the length of delay was a little concerning; so I kept an eye on it. Much later in the evening, I noticed that the train was back on the move….towards Montreal. Uh oh.

As it turns out, the lead locomotive had died not long after leaving Montreal. After some time stopped and trying to fix it, the crew made the call to return to Montreal, where a new locomotive would be brought from the Montreal Maintenance Centre and added to the train.

This made for a long delay, but with the new locomotive finally added, the train again departed Montreal some time after 3 am, now running around 8 h behind schedule. I was glad not to be on that train, but at this point I figured it should still have no implications for my trip the other way, aside from having 3 locomotives on the train.

At some point the next day, I checked the tracker to see that the train had stopped once again, this time short of Riviere-du-Loup. An unusual spot, not in a siding, and they had been sitting for quite a while. Once again…uh oh.

Thanks to the online railfan community, I was quickly able to learn that this train had encountered another stoke of astronomically bad luck. Along the right of way, there are many small level crossings on farmland, allowing farmers to access either side of fields cut in half by the railway. These crossings are typically unprotected, meaning they don’t have lights or other crossing signals, only signs. They are mostly sporadically used, and rely on these farmers being responsible watching for trains. In this case, a farmer was driving a tractor with a trailer across one of these crossings, and either didn’t check for trains or assumed he had adequate time to get across the tracks. He was wrong. The train collided with his trailer, and while he was lucky to escape without injury, the impact did serious damage to the train.

While the train remained on the track, the lead locomotive suffered damage to its front end, and more significantly suffered a puncture to its fuel tank, resulting in a fuel spill. This meant that an environmental cleanup team had to attend the site, and resulted in an extended delay while repairs were made to the locomotive to stop the leak and repair damage as best as possible.

Of course now that the lead locomotive had a ruptured fuel tank, it could no longer operate under power. So the train had 3 locomotives, and only one functioning… The solution this far away from VIA’s maintenance base was to make arrangements with CN to borrow a spare locomotive from Riviere-du-Loup. CN 2337, an ES44AC, was brought in to rescue the train. Eventually, with this locomotive added on the front and the VIA unit patched up, the train resumed its eastward trek to Halifax.

By this point it was becoming clear that this was going to have implications for my departure. The estimated arrival time got pushed back and back, particularly owing to the slow speeds thanks to the restrictions on the freight locomotive, so it was clear that the train would be arriving at some time on Sunday, rather than supper time on Saturday. On Saturday evening, I received an email notification from VIA about a delayed departure time, and I also received a call from VIA confirming this and also letting me know that they did not expect to make any connections in Montreal on Monday, so I would be rebooked to a connecting train on Tuesday morning instead. There was also an offer to cancel the entire trip for a full refund, but I figured I’d stick with the original plans and see how it all worked out.

By the next day, the incoming train had been delayed even further. As if all of the other delays weren’t bad enough, a broken rail east of Truro (at Milford) resulted in one final delay. Eventually, the train limp into Halifax about 23 hours late. I ventured out to capture this unique arrival as it rolled through Mill Cove, which you can see in the video below. An unusual sight for sure!

VIA 14 rolls through Mill Cove, with its CN leader, nearly 23 hours late. There wasn't even much daylight left on this unexpected extra day of their journey!

Departure of #15 had been delayed to the late afternoon, then evening, and eventually pushed back to 11pm – 10 hours behind schedule. VIA was good for communicating this, and I was glad to be able to just relax and delay heading to the station, making the most of the extra time at home before leaving.

Finally, as the evening rolled on, I made my way down to the station, arriving around 10pm. It was very strange to be showing up and seeing the station alive at this time of the evening. There were some snacks and water bottles set out on tables in the station. I noted that our train had been prepared, and CN 2337 had even been turned on the turntable at Fairview so it could lead our train back west.

CN 2337, turned for the return trip, idles away on the lead of our train.

Halifax station, decorated for Christmas - festive, even at an unusual hour to be boarding the train!

Snacks and drinks laid out on a table in the station, a nice token from VIA with the late departure.

Departure board, reflecting our 10-h delayed start.

Checking my bag, I was informed that it would only be checked to Montreal, given the uncertainty in arrival times. Sleeper check in started by around 10pm, and we boarded the train around 10:15. Given the evening departure, sleeper rooms were already made up for the night, and there was something quite relaxing about getting on the train and being able to settle right in to a cozy room. Though I haven’t ever ridden one, it felt reminiscent of what I know of European night trains, which typically board and depart late in the evening for an arrival the next morning.

There was still a pretty good crowd boarding both in Economy and Sleeper. I noted that the accessible Ren coach was being loaded with Montreal bound passengers, Moncton passengers were being boarded in the standard Ren coach, and passengers for all other points were in the HEP coach. Our trip was just before additional Chateau sleepers were added for the Christmas rush, so all sleeper passengers were in the 4 Renaissance sleepers.

Heading out to board the train.

VIA 15 – December 17, 2023

CN 2337 ES44AC

VIA 6401 F40 (forward)

VIA 6433 F40 (reverse, dead)

VIA 6406 F40 (reverse, dead, punctured fuel tank)

8616 HEP1 baggage

8219 Chateau Montcalm (crew dorm)

8131 HEP1 coach (*refurbished ex-US coach)

7600 Renaissance transition

7208 Ren coach

7308 Ren service car

7400 Ren diner

7314 Ren service car

79515 Ren accessible sleeper (30)

7520 Ren sleeper (37) *Room 5

7518 Ren sleeper (38)

7519 Ren sleeper (39)

70217 Ren accessible coach

7011 Ren baggage



Entering my Renaissance sleeper room, already made up for the night.

There was an issue in our sleeping car before departure, as there was no water in the bathrooms. This issue was resolved in short order before departure. Though we were set to leave for 11pm, there was an issue with the door indicators, with one door showing open despite being checked and secured. The crew had to bypass this, and were ultimately able to do this and confirm after a couple of rolling tests. One of the issues with having a CN lead engine is that the door and bearing monitoring systems are located in the VIA units, and can’t be accessed from the CN leader. So one crew member would have to regularly board the lead VIA unit to check on these periodically through the trip, something that would cause another delay.

Finally, we departed Halifax at 11:29pm, and as we made our way out around the Bedford Basin and into the dark rural areas outside Halifax, I settled in for bed. An unusual start to the trip, but I was in good spirits and ready to make the most of it. The next day promised to be interesting with unusual daytime running, and the slower speed with the freight locomotive leading made it very easy to get off to sleep. It ended up being one of the best train sleeps I’ve had, certainly in quite some time!

The next morning I woke up and checked outside to see where we were. Breakfast was to be available from 6-9am, so I planned to go around 8. By this time we were approaching Miramichi NB, where we arrived at 8:12am.

Crossing the Miramichi River. Very unusual sight for first thing in the morning on #15!

Breakfast was quite good. The menus were revamped last year, so I was quite excited to try out some of the new options. There was a good crowd in the diner, but I was seated alone at a 2-seat table.

Sitting down for breakfast.

New breakfast options. In retrospect, I kind of wish I'd tried the smoothie bowl (another time!). With the new menus, options are still different on east and westbound trains.

Miramichi NB, with snow on the ground but rain coming down.

"Breakfast poutine" - quite good, and not as heavy as I expected; though the quality of the potatoes declined considerably as they cooled off.

Service car views on a drab day.

Relaxing in the service car with coffee from the diner to go. The lounge was well used at times, but quiet at others. 

Being so delayed, our meet with the next eastbound train would be at an unusual location. This ultimately ended up being Bathurst. We arrived first, at 10:10am, and made our station stop. Train 14 pulled up ahead of us by around 10:25am, while we were stopped, so I could see the two trains nearly nose to nose. We then backed out of the station and went around in the siding, while they made their station stop.

At Bathurst - hard to get a good view out of the window, but you can just see train 14 up ahead of us.

Meet with 14 at Bathurst, after we've gone around in the siding.

Meeting 14 - viewing one service car from another...

Icy views along the Baie des Chaleurs. The wide angle on my camera almost makes this look like a shot from the curved dome (alas, still absent from the train)

Shortly after leaving Bathurst we stopped again, and I heard chatter on my scanner about an issue with smoke from one truck on the CN lead unit. Perhaps a stuck brake, or a traction motor issue? A brief inspection and we were moving again, though it sounded like it would require some attention at Campbellton. I assumed we were okay, though I didn’t realize yet that this was foreshadowing things to come…

With our glacially slow pace, it was starting to look like we would very likely be spending another night on the train. Arrival in Montreal seemed likely by the next morning, so there would be no need to worry about arranging hotels. All in all, I thought, this wouldn’t be a bad thing. Late, yes, but I was well settled in and relaxed, enjoying my time, and looking forward to the unique experience.

Lunch sittings were to be at 12 and 1:30pm, and based on Eastern time since we’d soon hit the time change at the NB/QC border. I originally opted for noon, but with our arrival at Campbellton somewhat delayed, I shifted to the 1:30 sitting to make sure I could get off for a walk at Cambellton.

The run to Campbellton was slow, but when we finally arrived (in the rain), I got off for a walk to the head end, making sure to get some photos of our unusual train, and the damage to 6406. The impact of the collision was quite clear!

6406 was the lead locomotive that collided with the farm equipment. It's trailing on our return trip because of the bidirectional operation of the train. 

Pretty nasty impact to the front pilot/steps...

A make-shift fuel tank patch is visible on 6406. It's not pretty, but it does the job!

Our lead locomotive. An extra unusual sight, in addition to the strangeness of seeing 15 at Campbellton in daylight!

6433, the trailing locomotive on 14 (and the one that originally died leaving Montreal) is covered in gunk...whether that was fuel from 6406, or manure from the farm trailer, I don't really know (and didn't get close enough to check!)

One of the ex-American HEP1 coaches, which are also being refurbished at the moment. One interesting quirk of the refurbishment is that the corrugated letterboard has been covered by smooth striping material; this makes them look a bit more like the ex-CP cars.

Campbellton. I thought this would be a relatively brief stop...

After reboarding the train, the lunch call came while we were still sitting in Campbellton. I made my way to the diner, anticipating that we’d be leaving soon.

One interesting note on lunch: the diner had been stocked with supplies based on the usual plan leaving Halifax, which only sees lunch being served to sleeper passengers boarding in Halifax; but running behind like this, we had a much larger contingent of passengers on board for lunch. Because of this, the regular options were in short supply. There isn't as much flexibility in the Renaissance diners (thanks to the catered meals and lack of full kitchen facilities), but the crew did come up with an impressive alternative option. 

Something I hadn't really noticed before in the diner was the newer styled "Ocean" name on some glass dividers.

Lunch menu. Only the ramen noodle salad was still available at this point, but I was offered an alternative option.

Diner "views" in Campbellton.

Seafood chowder...excellent starter as always.

The alternative option - chicken tacos. These were actually really exceptional, with super well seasoned chicken and soft tortillas that were almost more like a naan. An excellent choice.

Carrot cake for dessert. Ok, but not amazing. The crew were raving about the cheesecake, which seemed to be on the menu for supper. Alas, we wouldn't get there...

During lunch, I heard chatter about an unruly passenger being evicted from one of the sleepers. This seemed to be the cause of our delay leaving. But then, there started to be word from the head end crew. They’d been looking at that traction motor issue on CN 2337, and it wasn’t looking good. I noticed that the service manager had convened a conference call at one table in the diner, and this was the first clear sign that things were not going well.

A while later, the news started swirling around that there were locomotive issues. Around the same time, a friend of mine sent a heads-up that 2337 was showing up as bad ordered due to a failed traction motor bearing; and it turns out this is exactly what happened.

For those of you less familiar with the mechanics of locomotives, modern trains in Canada run predominantly with diesel-electric locomotives. These have a diesel engine that burns fuel to produce mechanical energy, but instead of directly turning the wheels this is used to run a generator, which produces electricity. There are then individual traction motors on each axle, which are electrically run and actually turn the axles. This is far more efficient than direct diesel propulsion. One issue, of course, is that the individual traction motors (6 of them on a CN locomotive like this one) can run into problems. In this case, it seems that the bearing on one traction motor had seized and was overheating, which had caused the smoke seen earlier. With a problem like this, the train can’t actually keep operating.

The call went out to try to find another locomotive, but CN also didn’t have anything nearby. Facing another prolonged delay and uncertainty, VIA made the understandable call to cancel the train at this point and call in buses. Understandable, yes, but fun? No…

This of course immediately brought back memories of a Christmas trip in 2013 (my first "Christmas chaos" post), when a HEP failure resulted in our train being cancelled in Matapedia and bussed from there:  Having made that long bus trip once, I wasn’t excited to do it again.

We were informed of the plans for bussing, and I returned to my room to await further news. It was a long wait – getting buses (and drivers!) on short notice is a challenge, especially for a long trip. Eventually, we found out that three buses had been arranged. The first seemed to be for shorter haul passengers, and the next two would be making the longer trip. Of those two, there was one loaded entirely with passengers going to either Quebec (Ste-Foy) or Montreal, and the other with passengers going to any intermediate stops. This was welcome news for many of us, as it would mean a faster trip; and with a start from Campbellton (rather than Matapedia like that previous time), we could at least get to the Trans Canada and then go fairly direct.

Our baggage was unloaded to the station, and we were instructed to pick up our bags and take them to the appropriate bus. I realize this was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Campbellton station, so that was interesting.

We were finally on a bus and departed from Campbellton at 7pm Atlantic time (or 6pm Eastern, as I’d already reset my time). It was dark and raining, and an all around miserable looking night, but it was nice to be on the move. The bus was pretty comfortable as buses go, but it would prove to be less so as the hours wore on.

VIA handed out snack packages to all passengers, with a water bottle, snack mix, and a pre-packaged sandwich presumably from a nearby grocery store. Though better than nothing, this was a lot less than the supper I had been expecting to have, and the sandwiches were a random assortment that led to plenty of swapping among passengers.

As we prepared to depart, we saw our train back on the move(!) Evidently, they had sorted things enough to move it slowly to somewhere further down the line, where they would be swapping in another locomotive (an 8800-series SD70M-2) to get the consist all the way back to Montreal. Interestingly, since the tracking info was still on, I could see the train make its way along. It then ended up stuck near Sayabec for hours, where a tree had reportedly come down and blocked the line. So maybe the bus was the best option!

Campbellton station. Always wondered what it was like inside...

Boarding our "Excellence" bus. This felt very reminiscent of my Matapedia bustitution a decade earlier, which was also with the same bus company.

So long, train... The equipment would eventually make it to Montreal, but far later than we did (still in time to depart on Wednesday evening)

Empty equipment being tracked. "Replaced" by bus service, and stopped at Sayabec for many hours due to downed trees.

We did eventually make a stop near Edmundston, where passengers could get off to use the washroom, stretch, and grab snacks if so desired. Once we got back on the road I did my best to get some sleep, and managed at least a few fitful hours before we stopped again at Levis. We made a driver swap at a bus garage, and then headed over to Ste-Foy where we dropped many of our passengers, and had another welcome stop to stretch. We departed Ste-Foy around 1am.

Board inside Ste-Foy station, noting "alternate transportation" for our train. Yep, we know...

A welcome stop at Ste-Foy.

After another fitful bit of sleep, I awoke to note that we were approaching Montreal. We would ultimately arrive at Central station at 3:32am on Dec. 19th. The early morning arrival definitely had shades of last year! Though at least this time I had an onward train scheduled. Arriving at the station, it was clear that VIA would not be providing hotels, which I suppose was understandable given the odd hour. Would it be worth it by that point in the morning? Someone from the Bonaventure was enthusiastically offering hotel rooms, at the excellent "bargain" of $150 a night. For a few hours sleep? Yeah, right. 

Arrival in Montreal, just after 3:30am. 

A festive but very empty Central Station. A bit too reminiscent of arriving here a year ago, though at least this time I had a train onward instead of being stuck here!

Just like my trip a decade ago, arriving here and seeing "bus service" on the board. It almost looks like we're early, but our scheduled time was 10:03 the day before...

One thing VIA did do was open up the Business lounge in the station, which was really nice. They also let us know that the ticket office would open early, shortly after 5am, and we could be rebooked to earlier connecting trains. I was very pleased to be able to get myself rebooked to train 31, the 6:20am departure for Ottawa, which meant that my overall wait in Montreal was only a few hours.

Boarding for train 31 happened around 6am. I was somewhat surprised to be informed that my bag needed to be checked, despite being on a train with no checked baggage. This was evidently to make more efficient use of the baggage space in the Venture train (something exciting about this trip!); large bags were “checked”, placed in the second unused Business class car, and unloaded on the platform in Ottawa.

On that note, this train was, excitingly, one of the brand new Siemens Venture trains! This wasn’t actually my first ride on one; I had been in Montreal a week earlier and made a short round trip to test them out. More on that soon! And since I’ll do a separate post about the Venture trains, I’ll keep my comments here fairly succinct; but my main takeaway is that these new trains are really, really nice. I like everything about them, though the baggage space is slightly limited (as evidenced by the “checked” baggage). All in all, riding one of these made for an extremely pleasant end to the trip, and at least partially made up for the long overnight bus ride.

After the long overnight bus ride and a few hours in the lounge, this was a very welcome site! Boarding these new trains is very open and spacious, and the electronic signs on the doors give a lot of useful information.

Entering through the galley. One of the most immediately noticeable things in these new trains is how much more spacious and open they feel, and the galley feels far less industrial.

View into the 01 Business class car, which features the larger accessible washroom. The two Business cars on every Venture train have slightly different layouts, as do each of the Economy coaches. Note the "pod" just ahead to the right, which can be booked by groups looking for more privacy. Also note the information screens along the ceiling throughout the car. These display the next stops, time, train speed, and text of any audio announcements.

Lots of nice touches in these cars, particularly the VIA branding throughout. Note the couple of fold-down seats (for crew or passengers waiting for the washroom), the curtain by the galley, and the garbage/recycling bins.

Business class seating is once again 2+1 on these trains. The new seats are also considerably more comfortable, in my opinion, than those on the refurbished LRC and HEP2 cars.

Blind end of the 01 car. The car right behind the locomotive has no end door, so the space can be used for additional equipment lockers. There is also luggage space, and what will eventually be room for bikes.

VIA 31 – Dec. 19, 2023

2307 Venture Economy Cab Car (05, leading)

2807 Venture Economy Class (04)

2907 Venture Economy Class (03)

2707 Venture Business Class (02) (*not in service)

2607 Venture Business Class (01)

2206 SCV-42 Charger (pushing)


VIA’s Venture trainsets are being delivered as 5-car sets, and the ones in service are currently all configured in the standard 5-car configuration, as shown here. Eventually, they made be reorganized into some longer and shorter sets, but this is the standard.


The HEP started up at 6:20, a few minutes before departure. Right away I was impressed with how much quieter everything on board these trains is, compared to the older equipment. We departed at 6:25am, 5 minutes late, and the movement was silky smooth. As these trains are all semi-permanently coupled, including between the locomotives and the passenger cars, the lack of any slack action in the train is very noticeable.


One thing I had been pleased to see is that the lighting, which is very bright when on full, is dimmed when the train actually departs. This made it much more pleasant on board.


I’ll write more about these new trains in a separate dedicated post, but I was impressed with the ride quality, the comfort of the seats, the ease of moving around in the train, and of course the huge accessible washrooms. One definite improvement in my books is the information screens throughout the cars, as well as the automated announcements.

Breakfast: omelette, fruit, choice of croissant or bagel, and of course coffee. The larger mugs are nice, and it was extremely noticeable how much less slop and spillage there was with the smoother train movement.

Wintery views, rolling out of Alexandria.

Single seat. Note that these cars have pull-down shades, rather than curtains. The shades are translucent, so you can still see through them a bit even when pulled down. 

Old and new at Ottawa - SCV-42 2202 is on the far track with a Montreal-bound train, while a refurbished HEP1 coach is on the tail end of another consist on the closer track. There's about 70 years between the manufacturing date of these two pieces of equipment...

Baggage being unloaded from the empty second Business class car at Ottawa.

New train in Ottawa. These really do look slick.

The ride was smooth and quick to Ottawa. Business class breakfast service was efficient, the food was good, and I was extremely impressed with the tray tables and the new, larger trays. The overall service seemed to go smoother for the crew, as the cars have much more room to move around. The extra space was also extremely noticeable in Ottawa, where the process of getting off the train was far easier and less congested than the usual experience on other VIA equipment.


We arrived in Ottawa just slightly behind schedule, and after picking up my bag on the platform and enjoying the use of the nice, high platform, I headed into the station and found my ride. I was, of course, very happy to head off for a good long nap once I arrived!



Ottawa station, looking festive.

Information, and the backdrop of the new and soon to be ubiquitious Siemens Venture train in the background.

So that was much more of an adventure of a trip than I had expected or hoped for, but I was glad to finally arrive safe and sound, with all of the “alternative” arrangements made by VIA this time. As usual, I have nothing but great things to say about the VIA crew from end to end, and VIA’s communication throughout this process was excellent. After the trip, I received an email to let me know that we would be receiving compensation in the form of a refund of the difference between the sleeper and economy fares for Campbellton-Montreal (which ended up being a quite generous amount, processed automatically early in January), as well as a travel credit for 50% of the remaining fare, to be used in the next 6 months (though that can likely be extended for up to a year).


My return trip with Porter on Christmas Eve went smoothly as well, even with checked baggage, and I was home for Christmas Day this time without issue. It is a bit disappointing to have had such a disrupted train trip, especially when every other Ocean trip over the holidays ran without issue. But all in all, I am just glad to have still been able to travel safely, get most of the time I planned to with family, ride one of the new trains, and ultimately make it home safe and sound.


That said, I do look forward to a more uneventful trip, hopefully in the near future! I’ll leave it here for now, but I will plan to return soon with an in-depth post with my thoughts on the new Siemens Venture trains, as well as some thoughts on Montreal’s new REM system.


As always, thanks for reading!

Next in-depth look at these new trains. Stay tuned!


  1. Thanks for sharing, Tim. Those who travel should really be prepared for the worst. Nobody wants it to happen. In these days of overnight amazon delivery and such, we sometimes forget the weather, distance and technological challenges that are routinely overcome. And sometimes not. Your thorough, balanced and photo-supported posts are always fun to read!

  2. Those Venture train sets look fantastic!

  3. Very interesting article - All things considered Via staff on all trains that I have travelled on do a great job above and beyond their job descriptiom