Facebook Page

Montreal to Quebec City, on VIA Train #22    February 4, 2008

By Daniel Chazin,

    It’s 11:50 a.m. on Monday, February 4, 2008, and I’ve just arrived at Central Station in Montreal, where I will be boarding VIA Train #22 to Quebec City. 

    Yesterday, I arrived in Montreal on Amtrak’s Adirondack.  I had reserved a room at the Glamour Hotel on St. Denis Street, which was near the Champs de Mars Metro station.  Not finding signs at the station pointing me to the Metro, I ended up going out to the street and walking several long blocks to the Square-Victoria station.  Montreal had experienced a major snowstorm last Friday, and although the streets and sidewalks had been cleared, the sidewalks were covered with a thin but irregular layer of packed snow, which made it difficult to push my wheeled suitcase.  And when I finally found the entrance to the Square-Victoria station, I had to walk down a long passageway to the station.  Once I located the right train, the Champs de Mars station was only two quick stops away, and my hotel was about two blocks from there.  In all, it took me about an hour to reach the hotel from the station, although it should have taken much less time than that.

    The previous evening, I had reserved the room at the Glamour Hotel via  The price I was charged – $60, including tax – seemed quite reasonable, and I did not expect anything really fancy.  When I checked in, the clerk had no record of the reservation, but when I showed him the printout from Travelocity and told him that I had just made the reservation last night, he said that that explains why he did not receive information about it, and he honored the reservation (keeping a copy of my confirmation for his records).

    A sign in the lobby informed guests, in a sentence that is a model of clarity and lucidity, that the “hotel management is currently undergoing some renovation works.”  That was evident in the frayed carpeting in the hallways and some peeling paint and rust in my room.  The room was certainly not luxurious, but it was clean and a decent value for the money.  The hotel also had wireless Internet, which I took advantage of.  I hadn’t gotten very much sleep the previous night, so I after checking my e-mail, I decided to go to sleep.

    This morning, I got up and went down to the lobby for the Continental breakfast, which consisted of corn flakes and coffee.  I then spent about an hour walking through Old Montreal, which was just a few blocks from my hotel.  I returned to the hotel, checked my messages again, and checked out of the hotel about 10:45 a.m.  I headed back to the Champs de Mars station, but instead of taking a train directly back towards Central Station, I went the other way.  I took the Orange Line to the Jean Talon station, where I changed to the Blue Line to Snowdon, and then took the other end of the Orange Line to the Bonaventure station.  It turns out that this station is connected directly to Central Station by underground passageways – something that was easy to figure out going back to Central Station, although the signs coming from Central Station are not all that clear (which is why I did not succeed in finding the direct connection yesterday).

    When I got to Central Station at 11:50 a.m., I went over to a kiosk to obtain my ticket.  VIA has one feature that Amtrak has not adopted yet – the confirmation you receive when purchasing your ticket on the web includes a barcode which you can scan at the kiosk!  Interestingly, though, when I did this, the machine asked that I insert my credit card as an added security measure.  When my ticket came out, I noticed that it contained two coupons – one for each leg of the journey – as part of a single ticket.  I looked at the departures board, which informed me that my train would be leaving from Track 13, with boarding scheduled to commence at 12:00 noon.

    Soon, a line formed in front of the gate.  I would ordinarily have joined this line, but VIA Rail assigns seats in advance, even to coach passengers.  So nothing would be gained by standing on line, and I remained in my seat and took out my computer to start writing these memoirs.  

    At 12:11 p.m., the gate opened and an announcement was made that our train was ready for boarding.  As I passed through the gate leading down to the track, my ticket was inspected and marked with a red pen.  When I reached the track level, I was shown the way to my Car 3.  Also, since I was carrying a suitcase, a backpack and a green cloth bag, I was asked to check the suitcase.  My friend Tom had warned me that this might happen - apparently, due to the limited storage space aboard, passengers on the Renaissance equipment are permitted to bring with them onto the train only one piece of luggage.  The checking procedure consisted of bringing the bag over to an employee on the platform who, after asking me whether I was going to Ste. Foy or Quebec, took the suitcase, placed it on a baggage cart, and gave me a claim check.

    As I was checking my suitcase, another train pulled into the track on the other side of the platform.  That was  Train 52 from Aldershot/Toronto, scheduled to arrive at 11:45 a.m.  However, the arrivals board had indicated that the train was running late (or, was, as they say in French, en retard), and it would not be arriving until 12:15 p.m.  It turned out that the train from Aldershot was actually arriving on Track 13, while our train was on Track 14.  It didn’t really matter, as each track was on the opposite side of the same platform.

    I boarded Car 3 of our train and walked down to my assigned Seat 8S.  Renaissance cars have 2-and-1 seating, and passengers traveling alone are, to the extent possible, assigned the single seats.  The seats – which are raised about a foot above the level of the aisle – are quite roomy and comfortable, with more leg room than Amfleet I coaches, but there is limited space for storage of luggage.  There is a tiny storage compartment above your seat, which is too small even to put a coat, and storage space is also available below the seat, but that space is very awkward, as it slopes backward at about a 30-degree angle.  I later noticed that another passenger had succeeded in putting a suitcase about the same size as mine under their seat, but I decided to put my backpack, green bag and coat in a storage compartment towards the front of car (actually, few passengers used this compartment, and there would have been plenty of room there for the suitcase that I had checked).  I subsequently also noticed that there was a coat rack in the back of the car where I could have hung my coat.

    There are 49 seats in each Renaissance coach car – 16 rows of three seats, and a single seat on the left side at the very rear of the seating portion of the car, opposite the coat rack.  The first four rows of seats are arranged around tables (with seats facing the table in each direction), thus making it possible for groups of four to sit together.  Behind these four rows of seats is the luggage compartment, and the rest of the car has 12 rows of forward-facing seats, with a single seat in the rear, and restrooms in the very back of the car.  My car was quite full, with all but about 10 of the 49 seats occupied by passengers.  But since I had a single seat all to myself, it really didn’t matter to me how many other seats were occupied – there was no issue of passengers putting their bags on adjacent seats to discourage someone else from sitting there.

    I was rather hungry so, even before we departed Central Station, I took out a package of salami and a roll, made a sandwich, and had it for lunch along with a bottle of Snapple and a bag of potato chips that I had purchased on the way to the station. 

    We departed Central Station on time at 12:30 p.m.  As we pulled out of the station, I noticed two kinds of commuter rail equipment waiting for the afternoon rush hour.  There were electric MU cars used on the line to Deux Montagnes (this line formerly featured ancient electric engines that were over 75 years old when retired only about ten years ago) and standard coaches powered by diesel engines, used on the line to Mont-Saint-Hilaire, which follows the same route that our train to Quebec City does.  I noticed that the diesel train in the station was powered by ex-Amtrak F-40 engines 287 and 319. 

    Soon, we crossed the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River and, at 12:42 p.m., we made our first stop at St. Lambert.  Three passengers boarded here, and one of them took the seat directly in front of me.  Our stop lasted for two minutes, and we departed one minute late at 12:44 p.m.

    There is no dining or lounge car on these Renaissance trains, but limited beverage and food service is provided by an attendant who comes through the aisle with a trolley cart.  When the attendant came through my car, I obtained a cup of tea from him.

    We continued through suburbs of Montreal, paralleling Route 116 for part of the way.  At 12:55 p.m., we passed through McMasterville – the next-to-last stop on the commuter service to Mont-Saint-Hilaire – after which I noticed a high mountain looming in the background.  I guess that this mountain – the only peak that I observed along the entire route – must be Mt. St. Hilaire, which gives the town its name.  Then, at 1:08 p.m., we passed the St. Hyacinthe station, which is a stop for some VIA trains, but not ours.

    Our next station stop was Drummondville, where we arrived at 1:33 p.m. and departed on time two minutes later.  Several passengers detrained here.  The Drummondville station was on the opposite side of the tracks from where I was sitting, but it appeared to be a large, classic brick building that is still in use by VIA.   

    The scenery for most of the way consisted of farms, forests and rural villages.  Everything was covered with over a foot of snow, so it made for a very pretty sight, but the scenery wasn’t especially exciting.

    At 2:18 p.m., we again slowed down, and soon we passed southbound VIA Train #25, which was waiting for us on a siding and consisted of seven Renaissance cars pulled by engine 903.  I now decided to walk through the train.  I found that Car 4, directly behind us, was also nearly full, but the last car on the train was closed off and used only by the crew.  In front of our car was a first-class car, with gold seats (the seats in the coach cars are blue).  The passengers in this car were being served a tray meal, but otherwise, the car seemed to be nearly identical to the coach that I was sitting in.  Since it didn’t seem appropriate for me to go any further, I returned to my coach, where I remained for the rest of the trip.

    At 2:56 p.m., we crossed the frozen Chaudiere River into the town of Charny, and we came to a stop at the Charny station two minutes later.  Our stop lasted for only one minute, and when we departed at 2:59 p.m., we were four minutes early (since no passengers are carried locally between Charny and Quebec, the train can depart early).

    Just past the Charny station, we turned left, heading north towards Quebec City.  This part of the ride would be new mileage for me (up to here, I had previously covered the same route when I took the Ocean/Atlantic between Montreal and Halifsx in 1994).  Then, at 3:05 p.m., we crossed the landmark Pont du Quebec, the longest cantilever bridge in the world when built in 1917.  The bridge is particularly famous for an accident which occurred during its construction, when the center cantilever span collapsed and fell into the river as it was being lifted into place, resulting in a number of fatalities and a significant delay in the completion of the bridge.

    As soon as we reached the north end of the bridge, at 3:08 p.m., we came to a stop.  Five minutes later, an announcement was made that we are stopped for a signal.  This is first time on the trip that we have been delayed for any reason, and it now looks like we will not arrive at our final destination on time (although this is of no concern to me).

    Finally, at 3:18 p.m., we moved ahead, and we arrived at the Ste. Foy station at 3:21 p.m., 11 minutes late.  Ste. Foy has a fairly large modern brick station.  It now serves as a suburban station for Quebec City, but it once served as its main train station (in 1976, the Gare du Palais in Quebec City was closed, and all trains terminated at Ste. Foy until the Gare du Palais was reopened nine years later). 

    We departed Ste. Foy at 3:23 p.m. and proceeded west, following a rather roundabout route which eventually curves around north, east and then south, terminating at the Gare du Palais.  At first, the train follows the bluffs along the St. Lawrence River, with spectacular views over the river and the Pont du Quebec that we had just crossed.  I moved to the left side of the train so that I could take in these views.  We then turned sharply north for a short distance and continued heading northeast along some more bluffs, with more panoramic views to the left of the train.  It’s interesting that by far the best scenery on the route is on the very last segment – between Ste. Foy and Quebec City.

    Finally, we crossed and then recrossed the St. Charles River and, at 3:48 p.m. – 18 minutes late -- we pulled into our final destination, the Gare du Palais in Quebec City.  Given the name of this edifice, I had anticipated that we would be arriving into a “palace.”  Imagine my disappointment when I saw our train pulling into a non-descript chamber, with an ugly concrete high-level platform straddling two tracks and dark ceiling supported by concrete columns.  It looked more like a dungeon than a palace!

    I detrained and, after having my picture taken next to the train by an attendant, walked down the platform towards the station.  This was the first opportunity I had to check out the entire train, and I noticed that – like the southbound train we had passed along the way – our train consisted of seven cars, pulled by engine 913.  The rear three cars were coaches, and then there were two First Class cars, with a service car between them (the service car contains a lounge area which is accessible to First Class passengers).  The first car on the train was the baggage car.  As I passed the baggage car, I noticed that my suitcase had already been placed on the platform, waiting for me to pick it up.  I was not at all inconvenienced or delayed by the requirement to check my suitcase; in fact, the whole procedure reminded me of a similar experience I had many years ago when I flew on a turbo-prop plane with very limited space for baggage.

    Okay, maybe the platform area was less glamorous than I expected, but perhaps I’ll find the “palace” once I walk into the station building.  Again I was disappointed.  I entered an undistinguished modern room with a low ceiling and nothing but some modern-looking seats for waiting passengers.  It seemed to me that the station had been grossly misnamed.

    But there was more.  The exit from this small waiting room led down a short flight of stairs to a pair of doors, and they opened up into a grand, classic space, with a high ceiling, decorative brick walls and steel trusses supporting the roof.  This was undoubtedly the waiting room of the historic Gare du Palais.  Part of this large space has been converted to stores, but there are still benches and other seating available to the public waiting for trains. 

    And it got better yet.  After passing underneath an arched window, I came to the original ticketing concourse at the entrance to the station.  This room features a dome, with a map of the Canadian railroads embossed in stained glass at the apex.  To the right, as you enter the station, are the original ticket windows, and under an historic sign for Canadian National Railways and the Quebec Central Railway, you can still purchase tickets for VIA trains!

    I began to realize what must have happened.  When the Gare du Palais was abandoned by CN in 1976, its trainshed was torn down and an ugly modern office building was constructed in its place.  Then, when train service was restored nine years later, the new building made it impossible to restore the original tracks behind the station building, so new tracks had to be installed to the west of the original station building.  So the non-descript concrete platform with the dark ceiling was constructed, together with the undistinguished waiting area.  But passengers still enter through the grand entrance of the original station, buy their tickets at the original ticket windows, and can wait, if they choose, in the original high-ceilinged waiting room.  All in all, the Gare du Palais does still largely live up to its name!

    It was now about 4:00 p.m., but my friend Tom would be taking a later train that would not be arriving until 7:00 p.m.  I decided to walk around the Old City of Quebec for a while and then return to the station to meet Tom at 7:00 p.m.  I discovered that the Old City is situated high above the station, and I had to climb some steep and narrow roads to get there.  I spent about an hour in the Old City and then descended back to the station via a different route.  I found the Old City quite interesting, but did not enter any of the historic buildings, figuring that I would do that tomorrow or the next day.  About 5:30 p.m., I returned to the station.  I sat down in the historic waiting room (which was practically deserted at this late hour), took out some food for dinner (some of which I had purchased from a small store in the Old City) and, after eating, continued working on these memoirs.

    My friend Tom’s train arrived only one minute late at 7:01 p.m.  We walked one block to a bus stop, where the 800 bus immediately arrived.  The bus took only about ten minutes to get to D’Estimauville Street, where we got off.  We had to walk several blocks to our motel, but Tom pointed out that we actually could have gotten off the bus a stop or two earlier, which would have been much closer to our motel.

    My trip to Quebec City on VIA was very enjoyable, and I’m now looking forward to spending a few days exploring this interesting and historic city.

[ Part III | Top of the pageTrainWeb.comVarious Rail Travelogues ]