Sunday, May 14, 2006

Train 14: The Ocean

So, I won't go into the details of my rest stop, but it involved butternut squash soup, Tremblay beer, Artic Power washing detergent and Dove body wash. All of those things had been absent during the last three weeks of my trip, and along with a relaxing night at home with friends in Montréal, I was able to catch up and recharge the batteries, leaving just one round trip before the end of my month long rail tour. Although coming home a week early might seem weak, it was on the way, and has allowed me to replenish my hand luggage with home made food and to re-stock my overnight bag with fresh underwear.

I'm back in Montréal's Central Station. It's Sunday evening, and the last trains of the day towards Toronto and Ottawa are leaving soon. The weekend is ending for many, as they head home from two days off with family and friends. Many will be back at work tomorrow morning. I, however, have another week left on my North America Rail Pass, and I intend to use it.

I'm here for the 18.30 departure of VIA Rail's eastern flagship train - the Ocean, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax will be the final destination on my tour. I have several reasons to make this trip, one of them being a job interview on Tuesday, and another (equally important) being my girlfriend. In fact, she's already there - having arrived by aeroplane from London Gatwick this afternoon. We have a rendezvous in Halifax before we return to Montréal on Friday together. So, as you can imagine, I'm very excited to be boarding this train.

Alongside me a line has formed for train 16, the thrice-weekly 'Chaleur' that runs from Montréal to Gaspé, on the beautiful Gaspésie Peninsular. Once a separate train, this service is now attached to the front of the 'Ocean' and will run with us as far as Matapédia, Québec. After we arrive there in the morning, it will be detached and will run separately along the southern and eastern coast of the Gaspésie. This train boards and 'departs' fifteen minutes before our train - in actuality it pulls forward from the station, and then reverses to be attached to our still stationary coaches, before we all leave on our overnight run up the south shore of the Saint Laurence river.

The friendly atmosphere has started before I've even boarded the train. I'm early at gate fourteen, having checked in my bags for the first time on the trip. In front of me for a short while is a amiable English ex-pat from Toronto who doesn't like flying. He's going to Halifax to visit an old school friend he saw for the first time in decades last year. I say that he was in front of me for just a short while, because it turns out from our conversation that he's in a sleeper compartment, and therefore in the wrong line. As much as I hate truncating an interesting conversation, I point him to the line of sleeping car passengers who are boarding ahead of us through another gate. We wish each other a pleasant trip, and he heads off. I check with the two women standing behind me that they aren't in a sleeper car (it's a good way to start another conversation) but all is well there. They're heading home to Moncton where they live. We talk about Montréal, and I confess my feelings of stagnation. We agree that it's a fun city to live in for a while, but that it becomes remarkably one dimensional after a while. I think that this trip has reminded me that I will soon have the chance to move on, and having criss-crossed the USA and Canada, I'm looking forward to settling somewhere else for the remainder of my year in Canada. Maybe this will not be the last time I board train fourteen for Halifax?

At about 18.10, coach passengers are boarded. We descend the steps in the centre of the grand hall of Central Station, and descend once more to the grim underbelly of the station. It's just over three weeks since I was here last at the start of my trip. And I still have to say that it's a depressingly dark station to start a grand journey from.

Our train tonight is modern and bright green - it's one of VIA Rail's infamous 'Renaissance' trains. These were bought at a bargain price in the late nineties from Alstom in Great Britain. They were designed and built for the unrealised night trains that were to run from London (through the Channel Tunnel) to Paris, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Frankfurt. They were imported to Canada and adapted for VIA Rail by Bombardier: the bogies were widened for the larger North American guage, steps were added for un-improved platforms and the trains were uprated to work through colder winters. The result is an odd looking train - narrower and smaller than others, but much smarter and sleeker than VIA Rail's older fleets.

Coach class is at the end of the long subterranean platforms. Disabled and eldery passengers have already been boarded with the aid of platform buggies, but the women walking behind me are finding it hard going with all their carry on baggage. I offer to help, but it's still a long hike.

Inside, the coach carraiges are unlike any other that I've travelled on, here or in Europe. There are two seats on one side of the aisle, and one on the other. The seats themselves are raised up above the level of the corridor by a plenum, which swoops up to offer passengers a continuous footrest and a deep space for hand baggage beneath the seat. Above each seat is a suspended luggage rack, which is used by the passengers behind - as you stand up from your seat it's directly in front of you. There are individual reading lamps, but the coaches are surprisingly bright when fully illuminated. I'm immediately aware of the very loud rushing sound caused by the air conditioning grilles beneath the seats in rows 7 - 10.

Being on my own, I'm directed by coach attendant's to take a single seat to one side of the aisle. That's fine with me, although I'd prefer to have a pair of seats to stretch out on. The car rapidly fills up, and that looks less and less likely. The raised seats offer a very good view through the window, but I'm already noticing the hard fixed arm rests on either side of me... these could be problematic on my overnight trip. The seats cunningly recline by sliding the base of the seat forwards and bringing the seat back down with them - these means the passenger behind isn't bothered when I choose to recline. A large folding table slides up and out of the chair in front of me, and the seats match up well with each half window. I have my own window blind too. The basic design is clever, but it's far from perfect, as I'm going to find out during my trip.

We're all boarded and ready to depart on time. I don't feel it happen, but a few minutes before we leave, train 16 is hooked onto the front of our train. Just before we leave, Amtrak's 'Adirondack' from New York slips into the platform next to ours. I wish any connecting passengers the best of luck... we leave just a few short minutes later...