COUPLING EUROPE TO NORTH AMERICA
ABOARD VIA RAIL'S OCEAN
SEPTEMBER 6-7 AND 10-11, 2012
Photos by Henry Kisor, trainweb.org/henrykisor
Comments welcomed at HenryKisor@TrainWeb.com
In high season—from the middle of June to the middle of October—adventurous travelers can pay a premium to sleep and ride in a "Park car," one of VIA's luxurious boat-tailed stainless steel dome-observation cars from the 1950s that are named for Canadian national parks. Others can pay a little less for sleeper rooms in "Renaissance cars" that originally were built for overnight service from London to the Continent through the Channel Tunnel. If travelers choose the sleeper-plus-all-meals-in-the-diner supplement, they can ride all day in the Park car if they like.
One can take Amtrak from Chicago to Montreal, but that requires an overnight in Schenectady, New York, between the Lake Shore Limited and the Adirondack, so Debby and I chose to fly instead. For our journey from Montreal to Halifax we decided to splurge for a "Large Bedroom for Two" (as VIA's marketing department calls it) in the Park car, just to experience what upscale travel in the golden age of stainless-steel streamliners was like half a century ago.
Bustling Montreal Gare Centrale, host to scores of commuter trains as well as VIA Rail intercity trains each day.
Certain words on the departure board change from French to English every few seconds, as they are doing here.
Deep in the bowels of the station lies the Park dome-observation car bringing up the end of No. 14, VIA's Ocean, as the train awaits departure at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Note the wide gap between the platform and the smaller Renaissance car immediately in front of the Park car.
Looking to the rear of the Park car, lined by luxurious armchairs and anchored by a buffet serving coffee, tea and munchies for Sleeper Plus passengers. This is, of course, the place to be during a ride on the Ocean.
Looking forward from the rear of the Park car: In the center is the staircase to the dome, and at left is the corridor forward to the bedrooms and the rest of the train. To the right of the staircase is a rack of newspapers, magazines and tourist brochures.
The view forward in the dome of the Park car will bring back nostalgic yearnings for the days when the United States fielded many streamliners, especially in the West, that featured such amenities.
The view to the rear from the middle of the Park car's dome. Note the pristine condition of the fixtures and upholstery. VIA likes to keep its classic equipment in tiptop shape.
Compartment A—billed as the Large Bedroom for Two—in the Park car. To the left of the washbasin is the private toilet compartment, and the mirrored door opens to the corridor. There is no shower in this room, but Debby and I didn't care, because the two berths are both lowers—neither of us had to climb into an upper bunk. The two chairs at right collapse so that one of the beds can fold down from the wall.
Debby on the divan in Compartment A: The view from just in front of the washbasin. The back of the divan folds down to make a lower berth. These accommodations, we agreed, were the roomiest and most luxurious we have ever enjoyed aboard a train.
Nancy, our cheerfully loquacious Park car attendant, kept us fascinated by stories of growing up in French-speaking Acadian Canada and of railroad politics. She also served champagne in the Park car lounge on departure from Montreal at 6:30 p.m. and the next day hosted tastings featuring local cheeses and wines.
Above and below: The old 1950s-era stainless steel equipment is considerably taller, wider and heavier than the gently rounded and smooth-sided mid-1990s-built Renaissance cars from England, designed for tight European clearances.
When we went forward for meals in the dining car (seven cars ahead!) we first had to traverse an almost empty Renaissance "transition car" with North American-style couplers at the Park Car end and European-style couplers at the other. The Renaissance cars, intended for a Channel Tunnel overnight scheme that never came to fruition, languished at the factory in England until VIA Rail bought all 139 of them in 2000 for a bargain. Flags of the Canadian provinces and a VIA Rail route map break up the long empty walls.
The Renaissance cars, about two feet narrower than their North American cousins, are seal-sleek and modern. The passageways between the European cars are wide, with tight diaphragms and floor plates that make walking between cars far easier and more pleasant than on conventional Canadian and U.S. long-distance trains.
The Renaissance exterior doors are electronically controlled, with steps that emerge from under the cars and extend down to the platforms. The grab rails, however, are less handy than those on North American trains.
The corridors of the Renaissance sleeping cars are a couple of inches narrower than those on Amtrak sleepers, which may not sound like much but may cause lots of trouble for wide-bodied passengers. Two normal-sized people cannot pass in the corridors; one of them has to wait at the end of the passageway and yield the right of way. Passengers must hold elbows high to avoid barking them on the prominent door handles.
Above and below: Two views of the Renaissance bedroom Debby and I occupied on the return from Halifax. It has less floor space than a bedroom on an Amtrak Superliner and the beds are narrower, but the sink and commode compartment is larger and handier. Some of the rooms also have shower cubicles. For space, comfort and convenience, we thought the Renaissance compartment lay just about halfway between a roomette and a bedroom on Amtrak.
Looking toward the corridor of the Renaissance bedroom. Some travelers disdain the riding qualities of the European cars, much lighter and more prone to rocking and rolling than the heavy stainless steel equipment. Others like two features North American cars don't have: Passengers can lower the bunks to night configuration easily and without special knowledge, and the rooms can be locked from the outside with key cards.
The Renaissance dining car features European-style two-and-one seating (as do the coaches). The meals are prepared off train by a catering company and reheated aboard, as are Amtrak long-distance meals, but Canadian viands are much tastier than American ones. Amtrak diners also are served by two waiters and a lead service attendant while VIA Rail dining cars carry four waiters and a steward, making for quick and efficient service.
Meals are heated in the galley at one end of a Renaissance service car coupled to the diner. The attendant also does double duty serving drinks and munchies to sleeper passengers in the small lounge behind the kitchen.
The lounge in the center of the service car features just a few seats and two British pub-style tables for standees, and at the other end there is a large bedroom for a handicapped rider. The lounge is uncrowded today, for the Sleeper Plus passengers are, of course, all in the Park car at the rear of the train. During the off season, when the Park car is not running, the lounge probably has all the lively ambience of a London watering hole.
Because the first twelve hours of the Ocean's run take place at night, there's little scenery to see before breakfast, and afterward the ride is through mostly unremarkable countryside until the train crosses from Quebec into New Brunswick. In the early afternoon, as the train wends its way into Nova Scotia, Nancy the Park car attendant launches into a lecture about the sights. Here she explains how Nova Scotians made good livings fishing for lobster.
The interior of Nova Scotia is marked by lovely rolling farmland under deep blue skies, and the sights grow more interesting the further the Ocean runs into the province. This photo was taken just after the train rolled past Amherst on the border of New Brunswick.
Near Truro, the last major stop before Halifax, the train passes acres of mud flats sluiced by huge tides from the Bay of Fundy three miles away. This is at low tide; at high tide the flats are flooded by salt water.
The station at Truro is a long, low warehouse-style block decorated by a colorful mural featuring fanciful railroad cars. Who would have thought of a library car?
After the Ocean arrives in Halifax at 5:10 p.m. Atlantic time, it's a long, long walk down the platform from the last car to the station, but our hotel—the Westin Nova Scotian, the tall brick building behind the station—was easily reachable via a short ramp. It has glorious views of Halifax Harbor.
Two General Motors Canada F40s in attractive (and pristine) livery pulled the 17-car train from Montreal. Behind the second locomotive is a Renaissance baggage car with a North American coupler at one end.
All in all, Debby and I both thought the ride on the Ocean was much like a mini-journey on the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. The Ocean meals were nearly as good as the freshly prepared cuisine we'd had on the Canadian several years ago. The levels of service on both trains were very, very good, far higher than that on Amtrak (which, to be sure, has been improving).
Someday I'd like to ride VIA Rail all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but something tells me I'd better do that sooner rather than later. The frugal Canadian government has ordered the Ocean, a money-loser like all other passenger trains in the world, cut back year-round from six departures a week to three, starting at the end of October. Almost always, train service that is cut back is never restored.
C'est la vie.
Links:Please visit my blogs: The Reluctant Blogger and The Whodunit Photographer
Also see my books website, www.henrykisor.com
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