Facebook Page

Gare du Palais, Quebec City, to Montreal on VIA Train #21    February 7, 2008

By Daniel Chazin,

    It’s 5:45 a.m. on Thursday, February 7, 2008, and I’ve just arrived at the Gare du Palais in Quebec City, where I will be boarding VIA Train #21 on my way to Montreal, and then to New York.

    I’ve spent a very interesting two days in Quebec City.  On Tuesday, I went with my friend Tom Jankowski to the Winter Carnival, which features ice sculptures, an Ice House (a building constructed entirely out of ice) and various snow-based activities, including an ice slide at the Ice House, snow tubing and snow rafting – all of which we participated in.  There was also a zipline, which Tom went down (although I chose not to).  In the afternoon, we went to another part of the carnival, which featured another Ice House and more ice sculptures, and then walked through the Porte St.-Louis into the Old City.  We next headed towards the Citadel and, after walking around there for a while, headed downhill to the Gare du Palais.  I would return directly to our motel, while Tom decided to head to Place D’Youville to see “Bonhomme” – the mascot of the Winter Carnival – at an ice skating rink.

    We decided to stop at the railroad station for a break, and as we walked in at 4:45 p.m., I noticed that the monitor informed us that Train #27, scheduled to depart at 5:35 p.m., was “replaced by bus.”  Curious as to what happened, I inquired of an attendant and was informed that the train from Montreal to Quebec City had “hit something,” as a result of which “the engine was broken and we couldn’t fix it.”  When I informed her that I would be traveling on Train #21 on Thursday morning, she assured me that all trains would be back in service by then (in fact, she said that everything would be fixed tonight).

    The next day, we got a rather late start.  Tom is a “busfan” as well as a railfan, and he had dedicated the day to riding various buses around town (his main interest was in riding different types of buses, rather than different routes).  I have no interest in buses; instead, I wanted to use the time to explore more of Old Quebec.  However, since he would be riding a number of buses during the day, Tom needed to purchase a day pass for the buses, available for $5.95 (each one-way bus ride otherwise costs $2.50).  Since it pays to get the pass even if you ride as few as three buses, I decided to purchase one, too.  The clerk at the desk told us that such passes could be purchased at Epicerie Chez Paul, a few blocks away, so we walked down there, bought our passes, and took the 800 bus to Place D’Youville.  Tom wanted to get off there because it is a terminus for many bus lines, while I found the stop convenient because it is adjacent to a gate leading into the Old City of Quebec.

    I spent the rest of the morning following a suggested walking tour around the Old City.  I saw many historic buildings, but did not go into any of them.  Then, about 12:30 p.m., I stopped at a tourist information center, where a sign indicated that Internet access was available.  I turned on my computer and found that there was wireless Internet available, so I took advantage of the opportunity to send off several messages with attachments from my computer.  While our motel had a computer that I could use to access the Internet, it did not have wireless Internet, so I could not send several documents that I had written on my own computer.  (Subsequently, when I stopped at the tourist information office later in the afternoon to once again use the wireless Internet, I was told that there is a $2.00 charge for Internet access, which I gladly paid.)

    About 1:00 p.m., I walked into the adjacent Chateau Frontenac Hotel and asked about guided tours.  I was told that the next tour would be at 4:00 p.m., so I decided to do something else and come back then.  There are two interesting means of transportation (other than buses) available in Quebec City – funicular and ferry – and I decided to try them both.  The upper end of the funicular is adjacent to the Chateau Frontenac Hotel, so I walked over and rode the funicular down the hill.  The funicular consists of a small car that takes less than a minute to descend the very steep drop between the upper and lower city, and I was the only passenger in the car.

    At the bottom of the funicular is the original settlement of Quebec – even older than the Old City on the hill above.  I first walked down the charming Rue du Petit Champlain, where the old stone buildings have been converted to artsy-type shops.  Then, I noticed that I would be passing right by the ferry terminal for the ferry across the St. Lawrence River to Levis.  It was now 1:25 p.m., and the ferry, which runs every half hour, would be departing in five minutes.  So I quickly bought a ticket and boarded the ferry.

    The ferry features an attractive cabin, with tables and chairs and vending machines.  On the walls are interesting posters which relate stories of the ice bridges that once connected Quebec with Levis, as well as previous ferry operations.  The ferry also offers panoramic views of Quebec City from the deck (which is the reason that many people take it), but it was snowing out, so the views were somewhat obscured by the snow.  The crossing of the St. Lawrence takes less than 15 minutes, and I would be taking the same ferry back.

    When we arrived at Levis, I got off the ferry and walked around a little.  The building now used as a ferry terminal was built as a railroad station, with the rail line from Montreal to Halifax passing right next to it.  In fact, when I took the Ocean from Montreal to Halifax in 1994, we stopped at this station.  However, a bypass was constructed many years ago, and this line, which was used in later years only for two VIA passenger trains each day, was abandoned about ten years ago.  Interestingly, though, the historic platform canopy, as well as several VIA signs, remain.  I took a few pictures of the building, with the former right-of-way (now converted to a bike path) covered with mounds of snow, and then reboarded the ferry for the trip back to Quebec.

    After visiting the historic Place Royale in the lower town (the location where Quebec was founded in 1608), I walked back up to the upper town and went to the Chateau Frontenac for the 4:00 p.m. tour.  The tour was quite interesting, although I was a little surprised that the hotel does not seem to have any really “grand” public spaces with high ceilings.  At the conclusion of the tour an hour later, it started getting dark.

    I noticed that there was a pathway leading west along the St. Lawrence River from the hotel, and I decided to follow it.  It turned out to be a promenade constructed in the 1960s that offers panoramic views over the river for its entire length.  Built into the side of the cliff overlooking the river, it is about half a mile long and includes 370 steps.  Although it was already quite dark, the snow had stopped, so I was easily able to see across the river to the City of Levis.  This was a really spectacular walk, and the fact that I didn’t meet a single person the whole way only added to the charm of this fascinating walkway.  I was very glad that I had stumbled upon it by accident!

    The promenade ended right near the site of the Carnival, which was open through the evening.  I visited it again and noticed that the Ice House was now illuminated, with the colors of the lighting constantly changing.  I slid down the ice chute once, then walked down to Boulevard Rene Levesque, where I caught an 800 bus back to the Gare du Palais.  I stopped in the station, where I noticed that the monitors indicated that the 5:35 p.m. train had actually departed and was not “replaced by bus.”  I then took another bus back to our motel.  Tom arrived soon after, and he told me that he had seen a train, which was pulled by engine 903, from the bus on the way back to the motel.  He thought this equipment would be used for my 6:05 a.m. train tomorrow morning – and he turned out to be right.  After downloading my pictures and showing them to Tom, I checked my e-mail once again at the computer downstairs, and we both went to sleep.

    Ordinarily, I would have preferred to take a train that leaves much later than 6:05 a.m.  However, my connecting Amtrak train leaves Montreal at 9:30 a.m.  That meant that I would have to take the first departure of the morning, scheduled to depart Quebec City at 6:05 a.m. and arrive in Montreal at 9:04 a.m.  That is a rather close 26-minute connection; however, if the train were late, I could get off at St. Lambert, on the other side of the St. Lawrence River, and pick up the Adirondack there, thus giving me another 25 minutes or so.

    The next question was how to get to the station.  At first, I assumed that the only way to reach the station from my motel at such an early hour was to take a cab.  But the Metrobus 800 – which has the most service of any line in the city – comes within one short block of the hotel, and when I looked at the timetable, I discovered that the first bus was scheduled to leave at 5:33 a.m.  Since the ride to the station takes no more than about 10 minutes, that bus would get me there in plenty of time to catch my train.

    Before going to sleep the previous night, I said goodbye to Tom, who had shared the room with me (there were actually two separate rooms, connected with sliding doors, so I didn’t have to disturb Tom when I got up early in the morning).  I got out of bed at 4:40 a.m. and, after taking a shower, packing up my belongings, and even checking my e-mail messages at the computer in the lobby, I left the motel at 5:25 a.m. and walked the short distance to the bus stop.

    Somewhat to my surprise, another person soon arrived at the bus stop, followed by two others.  The bus arrived exactly on time at 5:33 a.m., and at the next stop, nine more people boarded.  By the time we reached the Gare du Palais at 5:40 a.m., nearly every seat on the bus was occupied.

    I walked over to the station and went through Gate 1 to the modern waiting area immediately adjoining the platform (actually, the term “Gate 1" is somewhat of a misnomer; there is no “Gate 2" or any other higher numbered gate!).  There were only a dozen passengers waiting here for the train, with another four people in the adjacent Panorama Lounge for First Class passengers.  I went over to the attendant at the desk, who informed me that I would have to check my suitcase.  However, when I explained to her that I was connecting with the Adirondack and that I might have to detrain at St. Lambert if our train was running late, she agreed that I could keep my suitcase with me on the train.

    At 5:51 a.m., it was announced that VIA 1 passengers could board, and a general boarding announcement was made a minute later.  Our train was boarding on Track 3 – which again, is somewhat a misnomer, as there is no platform for Tracks 1 or 2 - and Track 4 (the only other track adjacent to a platform) was occupied by another trainset, which would be used for the 7:50 a.m. departure.  After stowing my belongings in the luggage rack in my Car 3, I walked down the platform to record the numbers of the equipment on my train.  Like all Renaissance trainsets used on the Montreal-Windsor corridor, our train, which was pulled by engine 903, has seven cars – three coaches, two first-class cars, with a service car/lounge between them, and a baggage car in the front.
    When I entered my Car 3, I noticed that this car – unlike the car that I was in on the train from Montreal to Quebec – has large luggage storage racks, rather than restrooms, at the rear of the car.  These extra luggage racks provided plenty of room for storage; in fact, even after we departed Ste. Foy, I noticed only one other piece of luggage (besides my suitcase and backpack) in the luggage racks.  The availability of more than ample space in my car for the storage of luggage made the request of the attendant that I check my suitcase seem rather ludicrous!

    Another feature that I noticed was that the Renaissance cars, being significantly narrower than regular passenger cars, have a large gap of over a foot between the car and the platform.  To span this gap, each door is provided with a bridge plate that must be manually placed by the attendant between the car and the platform at each stop.  Of course, it would be nice if the Long Island Rail Road - which has had a major problem with people falling through the gap between the train and the platform – could adopt this technique, but it would not work in the setting of commuter trains, which make frequent stops at which all doors must open.

    We departed one minute early at 6:04 a.m.  Soon afterwards, the attendant with the trolley came by, and I purchased a cup of coffee and a can of orange juice for breakfast (I also had with me a bag of potato chips that I bought in the Old City of Quebec on Tuesday).  When we arrived at Ste. Foy at 6:26 a.m., the platform was crowded with passengers waiting to board our train.  This was not surprising, as this train is designed primarily for business travelers who will be spending the day in Montreal.  Most of these live in the Quebec area and drive to the station, and Ste. Foy offers ample parking (I think for free), while only very limited parking (at a much higher cost) is available at the Gare du Palais.  Moreover, most residents of the Quebec City area probably find it faster to drive to Ste. Foy than to the Gare du Palais, and the train departs from Ste. Foy 23 minutes later.  (Of course, for me, the Gare du Palais was much closer and reachable directly by bus.)  Two businessmen wearing pinstripe suits sat down at the pair of seats opposite me, and they immediately took out their laptops.

    After we departed Ste. Foy at 6:29 a.m., one minute late, the conductor came by to collect tickets.  I watched as we crossed the Pont du Quebec (this time, without any delay) and proceeded past the Charny station (this train does not stop there) seven minutes later.  I then walked through the first two coach cars and found that there were about 30 passengers in each car (about 60% of capacity).  As might be expected, a significant percentage of the passengers were using their laptops!  Soon, the attendant came through my car again, and I asked for a refill of my coffee, which was provided without additional charge.

    It was now getting light, and I watched as we passed through the snow-covered rural scenery, using the time to start writing these memoirs.  I also noticed that there is enough headroom on Renaissance coaches that you can comfortably stand up in front of your seat (you cannot do so on Amfleet equipment without stepping out into the aisle).  We passed an eastbound CN freight train on a long siding between mileposts 78 and 80.  The meet was set up by the dispatcher so that both trains kept on moving, although we did slow down somewhat.

    We arrived at Drummondville at 7:56 a.m.  There were at least 20 people standing on the platform, and they all walked towards the rear of the train to board.  I took a picture of the classic brick station (this time, on the same side of the tracks as my seat), and we departed one minute late at 7:58 a.m.  Then, at 8:03 a.m., we passed VIA Train #20, the first train of the morning from Montreal to Quebec, which is scheduled to depart Montreal at 7:00 a.m. and arrive in Drummondville at 8:15 a.m.  Train #20 seemed to be running a few minutes early, and we did the meet at track speed.

    I now walked through the train again.  As I had figured, all of the Drummondville passengers were assigned to Car 5, the last car on the train, and I counted 37 passengers in that car, making for a total of about 100 coach passengers on the train.  (I suspect that some passengers boarding at Quebec or Ste. Foy may also have been assigned to Car 5; I didn’t walk in there during my earlier walk through the train, so I’m not sure.)  I was hoping that I might be able to look out of the back of the train, but although there were glass doors that would ordinarily afford a view, they were covered with blowing snow, so nothing could be seen.

    At 8:22 a.m., we passed through St. Hyacinthe.  Our train is scheduled to stop here at 8:28 a.m. on Wednesdays only.  That is because, on other days, the Ocean from Halifax stops at St. Hyacinthe at 7:10 a.m., providing this community with an early morning train to Montreal.  But the Ocean does not operate into Montreal on Wednesday mornings, so our train stops there instead.  Today being Thursday, we proceeded through at track speed.  Clearly, we are running on time (even a few minutes early), and it seems that we should arrive at Central Station in Montreal in plenty of time for me to make my connecting train.

    We passed through the Mont-St.-Hilaire station at 8:32 a.m.  This is the terminus of the commuter service from Montreal, and it features a new but quite attractive station on the westbound side of the tracks.  I noticed that it was now snowing out.  Just beyond, we crossed the Richelieu River into Beloeil, and we passed the McMasterville station at 8:35 a.m.  Soon afterwards, an announcement was made that we would be arriving at our next stop, St. Lambert, in about ten minutes.

    Somewhat to my surprise, we arrived at St. Lambert at 8:46 a.m., eight minutes early.  Our stop (to discharge passengers only) lasted for less than a minute, and we were soon on our way to our final stop, Central Station in Montreal, where we arrived on Track 20 at 8:58 a.m., six minutes early.  Our trip from Quebec City to Montreal had taken only two hours and 54 minutes, which was 24 minutes faster than the trip from Montreal to Quebec City on Monday.  A minute later, the attendant put the bridge plate across the gap, and I detrained and walked upstairs, ending a quick but very pleasant journey on VIA from Quebec City to Montreal.  I’m now looking forward to the next part of my trip – the ride from Montreal to New York City on the Adirondack.

Part IV | Top of the pageTrainWeb.comVarious Rail Travelogues ]