Thursday 6 June 2024

Trip tidbits: Ocean observations in Spring 2024

Train 14 makes its stop at Campbellton NB in late April 2024.


Over the course of April and May 2024 I made a few trips on the Ocean, covering both end-to-end travel and shorter hops. Somewhat uncharacteristically from some previous trips, these actually went very smoothly and, aside from some minor delays, were entirely uneventful.

As I got thinking about writing something up, I found myself wondering: is there much point in writing specific, detailed trip reports on these? It felt like I would be re-treading old ground.

So instead, I’ll present some trip tidbits rather than a full report, focusing on some recent updates that may be useful for those interested in riding this train. I’ve grouped this into updates on the consists, the dining car menus, the economy class experience, and an upcoming schedule change. Interspersed are photos that show both these items and some general scenic items from recent trips.

I hope you find this information useful, and perhaps at least a little bit interesting!


Consist Updates

Early in 2024, the consists for the Ocean were reversed to put the bedrooms in the Renaissance sleepers on the side of the train with the nicer views, notably along the Baie des Chaleurs and the Bedford Basin. This was accomplished by simply flipping the orientation of the two trainsets, so the HEP equipment is now on the east end of the train and the Renaissance equipment on the west end.

Here’s a look at the typical makeup for the current peak season consists, noting an extra coach being added in mid-June. Barring subsequent changes, this consist should remain at least until after Thanksgiving.


VIA 14 Leaving Montreal (Eastbound orientation – reverse for 15)


Locomotives x2 (Back to back)

HEP1 Baggage

Chateau Sleeper (Crew dorm)

Chateau Sleeper (41)*

Chateau Sleeper (40)*

[HEP1 Economy Coach (06)]**

HEP1 Economy Coach (05)

HEP1 Economy Coach (04)

Renaissance Transition Car

Renaissance Economy Coach (03)

Ren Service Car (Economy Canteen)

Ren Dining Car

Ren Service Car (Sleeper lounge)

Ren Accessible Sleeper (30)

Ren Sleeper (37)

Ren Sleeper (38)

Ren Sleeper (39)

Ren Accessible Coach (Not in revenue service unless accessible space required)

Ren Baggage Car

 

*Chateau sleepers are oriented in opposite directions, but which car faces each way currently varies between the two trainsets in service. Renaissance sleepers all face "forward" on train 14, which means odd numbered rooms are forward facing on 14, and even numbered rooms are forward facing on 15.

**Third HEP1 Coach is being added as of mid-June.

One set has had a fifth Renaissance sleeper deadheading for a couple of months now. The car was bad ordered due to non-functional toilets, but because of the bizarre combination of coupler types on the Ren equipment, VIA had to leave the car on to allow the addition of another functional sleeper. This should finally be resolved shortly, but it does further highlight just how much of a nuisance the Renaissance equipment can be.

It is worth being aware of the position of your particular car in the train depending on the direction. On one recent trip, I ended up in sleeper 39 on train 15, which is just the third car back from the locomotives in that direction. This made for a rather noisy night, as the horn blasting for grade crossings was very audible at all times. If you're a light sleeper or sensitive to noise, bringing earplugs or riding in sleepers farther away from the locomotives is a good idea! 


Train 14 prepares to depart from Sackville NB, with the diminutive Renaissance section following the larger stainless HEP coaches. Note that the first coach is an ex-American car (this one was originally built for the New York Central), with its shorter windows compared to the ex-Canadian Pacific car that's following it. Aside from the window differences, the cars are identical inside.

 

Menus

As I mentioned in my Christmas post, VIA launched new dining car menus last spring. I hadn’t had a chance to try them out in full yet, so I was quite pleased to do so over these couple of trips. Most options I had were good, though I miss a few of the past offerings.  

Here’s a look at the current menus for each meal in each direction, followed by some example meals. The dining car is reserved exclusively for sleeper passengers. Previous menus still indicated a price for economy class passengers, but it has been several years since anyone in economy has been allowed to use the dining car, even when the train is quiet – they only stock sufficient meals to cover the booked sleeper passengers.

 

Lunch menu on VIA 15



Lunch menu on VIA 15. Soup of the day is usually clam chowder.

Dinner menu on VIA 15.


Dinner menu on VIA 15. Soup of the day was a tomato bisque.



Breakfast menu on VIA 15 (crossing the river to Ste-Foy QC)

Breakfast menu on VIA 15.

Dinner menu on VIA 14. Lousy photo of this one, unfortunately. Soup of the day was chicken noodle on one trip, and tomato bisque on another.



Breakfast menu on VIA 14.

Lunch menu on VIA 14.

Lunch menu on VIA 14. Soup of the day was clam chowder.

And now for a look at some of those menu items, by category.

Appetizers

[Not pictured are the tomato bisque and caprese salad]

Clam chowder, the lunch appetizer in each direction. This is usually very good, though a couple of times I've found some undercooked potatoes, which were somewhat offputting.

This is the Moroccan carrot salad on the menu on #14. This was quite nice.


Breakfasts


Smoothie bowl on VIA 15. This might be my favourite of the new breakfast options - light, fresh, and satisfying. You can also get toast along with this (and any of the breakfast options). 

Baked oatmeal on the VIA 14 menu. I quite liked this as well, though I found the yogurt needed something added to it (but I don't much care for plain yogurt of any variety).

This is the breakfast poutine on the VIA 15 menu. I didn't have it on these recent trips, but I did at Christmas time, so including it here again for reference. Note the paper napkins - it's often been standard to have cloth napkins at dinner but paper at breakfast and lunch, but on the most recent trips there were cloth napkins at all meals.


Lunches

Brisket sandwich on VIA 15. This was very good, though the potatoes suffered from being reheated.

Miso salad on VIA 15. I quite enjoyed this as well, light and citrusy dressing, and especially flavourful chicken.

Chickpea pumpkin curry on VIA 14. This was an absolute standout - extremely flavourful curry, and an option I'd definitely have again.


Dinners

Piri piri pork on VIA 15. Much better than it looks here, and despite warnings from one of the dining car staff, it was not overly spicy (I would have preferred a bit more heat).

Haddock puttanesca with her risotto on VIA 15. That risotto was one of the punchiest, most flavourful things I've had on this train - really superb, and the puttanesca had some heat to it (more so than the piri piri, in fact).


Butternut squash ravioli on VIA 14. Quite good, and well sauced.


Salmon with dukkah butter and rice on VIA 14. The brussels sprouts were actually a bit of a highlight of this one. The salmon was a little on the dry side, but nice flavour from the char and the dukkah (not a seasoning I had encountered before, but I enjoyed it).


Desserts

Caramel carrot cake, currently offered with lunch on VIA 15 and dinner on VIA 14. This is absolutely stellar - one of the best desserts I've ever had on a train, period. 


Cherry cheesecake, currently offered with dinner on VIA 15 and lunch on VIA 14. Nothing overly exceptional, but it is a very good, basic cheesecake. 


Economy Experience

My recent reports have all been focusing on sleeper class, and I feel like this has missed a bit of a spotlight for the lower fare economy experience. Economy class travel is a major part of the Ocean's service, as evidenced by the growing number of economy coaches on the train. The Ocean serves a variety of markets: there are long Economy trips involving a full overnight in coach (e.g. Halifax-Montreal), but there are also a myriad of well patronized shorter segments that are more akin to a trip in the Corridor – Halifax to Moncton, for example. I've also made trips between Halifax and Truro, Amherst, and most recently, Sackville NB. At just a few hours, these are perfectly sensible trips to make in Economy, even if you don't otherwise care for the idea of sleeping overnight in a coach seat. It used to be possible to make short trips in a sleeper as well, but VIA recently removed this option from the reservations system starting this spring/summer, allowing only economy for short segments. This may change for the off-season, but for the peak season it seems intended to ensure sleeper space remains available for overnight trips.

Most coach passengers are seated in HEP1 coaches. These cars have been refurbished, making for a very nice and comfortable experience. The ride quality is quite good, and they are a very comfortable car to ride. They also have all of their seats (except the 4-seaters) turned at each end, so all seats face forward. As noted above, summer trains this year will have 3 HEP1 coaches and 1 Ren. This may be reduced down to just one HEP1 and one Ren in the off-season, though that remains to be seen. 

Inside a refurbished HEP1 coach. 2+2 seating, but lots of space. Note the leg rest instructions posted on the back of each tray table - evidently trying to avoid pinched fingers!

Refurbished HEP1 coach. The new leather seat upholstery is very nice. Washrooms are located at each end of the car (on the left before the vestibule here), along with luggage storage and drinking water taps.

Check out that legroom! The seats also have a very generous recline, and fold-out leg rests. Power outlets are located near the floor between the two seats, both ahead (see lower left in this photo) and down beneath the leg rests.

Panoramic windows make for a nice view. The ex-American HEP1s, like this one here, have slightly lower windows than the ex-CP cars.

Models! The HEP1 coaches all previously had models (though rarely of Canadian prototypes) in these little display cases mid-car, at the dividers that once separated smoking from non-smoking sections (as if that really did anything...). Many of these models were removed during refurbishment, but some remain, as seen here inside coach 8144.

 

One Renaissance coach remains in service as well, offering some single seat options. As more HEP1 coaches complete their refurbishment and become available, I wonder if we’ll see this coach removed entirely at some point in favour of only the HEP1s.

There is no economy seat assignment on the Ocean, but crew members will direct passengers to a particular car based on their destination. Once seated, tags with destination are put above each passenger's seat, indicating where they are going and also that the seat in question is occupied. They like to group passengers together to make sure that those going all the way to Montreal don't have to be disturbed during the night by passengers getting on and off, and also so any passengers getting off at intermediate stops are in the same place so they can spot the train appropriately especially at stations with short platforms. 


Renaissance coach, with 2+1 seating. Note the tiny overhead bins. Most luggage space in the Rens is under the raised seats. This is the full bright light setting, but there is much dimmer lighting for the evening, using only the small lights along the floor.

Renaissance coach, with long defunct "Comfort Class" branding on the antimacassars. 

Economy passengers can access the canteen in the service car, where they can also use the lounge space. Crew also come through the coaches with a trolley periodically, selling many of the same items. Here’s a look at the current canteen menus. Note that economy passengers are not allowed in the dining car at all anymore, so this is the extent of food service on offer. Payment is only by credit card.

Economy menu, found at each seat (same as in the service car below, but easier to read). I'm not sure what the "hot meal" refers to, and if its actually available. On Corridor trains, this had been a reference to surplus Business class meals, which were rarely available.

Economy menu posted in the service car.

Service car lounge seating. The service car with the economy canteen is open for economy passengers' use, and these cars are also the only place on the train with WiFi service.

On very late trains, VIA will provide some snacks to all passengers. Sleeper passengers on this trip were being offered an extra soup and sandwich meal, while economy passengers were offered this hummus snack, digestive biscuits, and bottled water. The canteen was of course still open for food purchase. Coffee and tea are somtimes set up complimentary in the service car on very delayed trains.

Economy views - those HEP1 windows are hard to beat. Definitely much better than the Renaissance coaches.

Schedule Changes

As of June 19, the schedule for both 14 and 15 is changing. The latest change further pads the schedule to account for added slow orders near Campbellton, which were chronically delaying both trains. The schedule also shifts 15 disproportionately earlier. One of the big issues was the meet between the trains overnight, where the head-end crews swap trains midway between Campbellton and Ste-Foy. Train 15 has often been delayed due to the slow running, leaving an otherwise on time or early 14 stuck waiting on the meet and losing time. 15 can then often make up time before Montreal, but 14 can’t, leaving it chronically at least an hour or 2 late. Hopefully this new schedule will make for more reliable on time performance, though unfortunately it does make the trip even longer once again.

Here's a snapshot of the new schedule. Arrival time for 15 is unchanged, but it leaves Halifax 90 minutes earlier. Train 14 will leave Montreal 30 minutes earlier, enough to sever the later connecting option from Ottawa (train 28; the earlier option on 26 remains), and arrive in Halifax slightly later than currently.

 


Enjoying the views

To close, here’s a montage of some photos from these recent trips, with more details in the captions. A few highlights on board, and some of the nice views out the windows.

 

Open section in Chateau Brûlé

My section in Chateau Brûlé on April 24. Appropriately, this was on the 69th anniversary of the launch of Canadian Pacific's "Canadian", the train this equipment was built for. 


Upper berth. Very spacious and comfy, though unfortunately there were some rattles I couldn't get to stop through the night.

Renaissance service car.

Ren service car views 

VIA 15 at Moncton NB.

VIA 15 at Ste-Foy QC. Yes, that is snow in the vestibule - and this was April 25th!

Directions to Halifax - boarding in Montreal.

Renaissance sleeper on 14.

Ren sleeper amenities. Chocolates returned, though these were absent when travelling in May. Note the new guest directory.

New guest directory. Interestingly, this is an old VIA marketing image that features a Skyline dome. They have photoshopped the dome off the car in this image, to reflect the Ocean's new reality (though sharp eyed VIAphiles will notice the odd window arrangement for a dome-less car!)

Directory interior - I focused on this page because of the meal time details.

Back page, with some familiar marketing imagery, and oddly one image in the middle from the Canadian.

Ren sleeper at Ste-Foy QC.


Renaissance dining car, set for meal service. Note the remnants of long defunct "Easterly Class" branding on the glass partitions.

Marshland views nearing Amherst NS.

Wind turbines on the Tantramar marsh, approaching the NS-NB border. 

Brilliant flashes of yellow on the Tantramar marshes, rolling into New Brunswick under pretty beautiful May skies.

The curves across the marsh used to be fantastic to watch from the Park car dome. Alas, this sort of view is not quite as exciting.

Head end of VIA 15 at Moncton on May 19, 2024. With a recent change, the locomotives are no longer fuelled at Moncton, just Halifax and Campbellton now. This does make it easier to snap a less obstructed view of the locomotives.

F40, meet Renaissance. The rear facing locomotive actually looks pretty sharp against the matching Renaissance baggage car.

New Brunswick views.

Crossing the Miramichi on VIA 15. There were a lot of beautiful views across the river and as sunset fell towards Bathurst during dinner. I didn't capture many on camera, but thoroughly enjoyed them at the time. 

Renaissance from HEP on #14. This doesn't seem like that remarkable of a photo, but the train zipping by the window was the last remaining set of Renaissance equipment operating in Corridor service. This set was originally slated to be retired just a few days later, and though it would make it another week, it has now been withdrawn (replaced by the new Venture equipment). The VIA 1 branding, which I just caught here, is still one of my favourite VIA designs ever.

Muggy night at Ste-Foy QC. Night of May 22, 2024. It was hot and humid, and we had been rolling through rather spectacular thunderstorms much of the evening. We would end up heading into heavy fog through the valley past Montmagny, which would contribute to delays overnight.



 ------------------------------------------------------------------------


As I wrap this up, it occurs to me that it’s been just over 7 years since my cross Canada trip, the coast-to-coast adventure that got me abord the legendary Canadian and launched this blog in the first place. Hmm…maybe it’s about time to give that another go, don’t you think?

More on that soon… :-D 


VIA 14 arrives in Sackville NB, the first time I would board a train here - checking off another station from the list!


7 comments:

  1. Very Interesting. Thank you for posting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great photos, Tim! The tidbits offer some very useful info

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would be pleased to meet you on your way through Kingston, just like we did in 2017, Tim! A cross-Canada trip sounds like a great idea! Thanks for sharing the Rens and your valuable experiences and photography.
    Eric

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd be happy to line that up, if we can! This next trip will be a little different from the last one, but I will be through Kingston in one direction. I'll drop you a line :-)

      Delete
  4. Great photos, and great information.

    I was interested to see how much the menu has changed since December 2023, the choices ae much more interesting, and palatable!

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the incredible detail, Tim! You make train travel look very appealing indeed.

    I didn't notice much in the way of "gluten friendly" options on the menu. Do you know if VIA has any special meals available on request? A lot of those meals are definitely not suitable for a gluten-free diet as they contain fried potatoes, which probably shared a fryer with breaded items.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Steve! As for special meals, yes, VIA does offer a variety of special meals on the Ocean (gluten friendly, vegan, etc.) on request - basically the same range as offered in Corridor business class. In the past, you had to call them in advance to request those meals, and then talk to the dining car staff. With the new reservations system, you can actually indicate any special meal needs when you're booking, and then (if everything is working properly), this will get marked at check-in. Sleeper passengers are all given little paper bracelets to indicate they're in Sleeper Plus, and those with special meals are now being given a different coloured one so the dining car staff can identify that when they arrive and then verify which type of meal is set aside for you. On recent trips, I noticed several people with special requests. These meals also include different appetizer and dessert options, if required.

      VIA's special meals page notes the following available as options on the Ocean:
      Montréal-Halifax, The Ocean - Sleeper Plus class
      (72 hours notice)

      Bland meal (BLML)
      Diabetic meal (DBML)
      Gluten-friendly meal prepared with gluten-friendly ingredients* (GFML)
      Kosher meal, prepared in a certified kitchen (KSML) (Special Kosher meals are supplied during Passover)
      Low-calorie meal (LCML)
      Low-Fat meal (LFML)
      Low-sodium meal (LSML)
      Halal meal (MOML)
      Meal prepared with lactose-free ingredients* (NLML)
      Vegetarian meal (may contain dairy and/or eggs) (VLML)
      Vegetarian, Indian inspired meal (AVML)
      Vegan, Asia Pacific region inspired meal (VOML)
      Vegan meal (VGML)

      One thing to note (as this was explained on board recently): if you do order one of the special meals, you are not then permitted to switch to one of the "normal" meals on the menu. So for example, if you selected a vegetarian or vegan special meal in advance, you will have to take that rather than the vegetarian and vegan options on the normal menu, as they stock the number of meals based on total passenger counts, and this could result in a shortage of meals for other passengers.

      Delete