Monday, May 15, 2006

Train 14: afternoon

After a walk up and down the platform at Moncton, and a friendly chat with a few of the coach attendants who are working the train, I get back on board and soon after we're on our way again. The train slips in between the buildings of the low rise centre of Moncton, reflecting in office windows and passing lines of traffic at level crossings. It's another Monday morning, and I'm still on holiday.

The afternoon begins to slip by rapidly - we're bowling along at a respectable pace for much of the rest of the day, and I am furiously typing away on my laptop to take advantage of the time to myself. At some point that slips by unnoticed, we leave New Brunswick and enter Nova Scotia. We stop at Sacville, Amherst and Sackville Junction, picking up 'local' passengers for Halifax. It's a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxed way to bring my second last journey to a close. Truro comes and goes (with some attractive murals painted on the wall of the warehouses that back onto the station's platforms) and we're on the home straight, racing through low fields and alongside rivers and lakes. The landscape of this part of Nova Scotia is much like the British scenery I miss so much - gently rolling, and under a blue sky it's looking even prettier.

It's nearing 16.15 as we pass through Bedford. We're running late, and we're on the outskirts of Halifax. Since it's been three months since I last saw BMM, I'm packed and ready to get off the train already, but we slow to a crawl as the line brings us alongside Bedford Basin. Ahead of us are the bridges crossing between Halifax and Dartmouth, and just to the right of them is the gently rising hill upon which the city of Halifax sits. The rail tracks beneath us split and multiply as we approach the container port on the northern side of Halifax, and we pass dozens of multicoloured steel containers stacked high above the water's edge. A container ship is docked, and cranes are loading the ship for another trans-Atlantic voyage. Throughout my trip I've seen and been passed by hundreds of these containers, travelling across the USA and Canada by train. Now the trains have reached the end of the track, and the containers are being plucked from their wagons and lifted effortlessly onto the boat.

The VIA Rail station in Halifax is in the south-eastern part of the downtown peninsular. To get there, the railway line passes through a long and deep cutting down the western side of the city, and round the southern edge of town into the main sea port and railway station. So while I can see that we are have arrived in Halifax, we are still some time away from arriving in the station. The train crawls through the cutting, sliding beneath bridges that carry roads above us. We're too low down here to see the city around us.

After a few pauses, the sea port of Halifax comes into view on our right. We edge forward, and approach Halifax station.

Train 14: old versus new

Surprisingly enough, they've managed to get them to fit together. Since the 'Ocean' is now entirely operated by newer but less swanky European built trains, VIA Rail have managed to do some bodge-work with a welder and duct tape, and have adapted a new car to be able to attach to one of the elegant older stainless steel 'Park' cars. These vehicles are where 'Easterly' class passengers can meet with their Learning Co-ordinator, a specially employed member of the crew who explain the history of the route and places that the train passes through.

It does make a rather odd looking train though...

Train 14: morning

In retrospect, I let my normally attentive standards slip on this train ride. It is the penultimate ride of the trip, and I'm also on my way to see BMM in Halifax. So you'll have to forgive me for dozing through New Brunswick and only not noting anything of interest to share with you now. One definite advantage of this train, however, are the at seat power plugs, which are gradually being fittted to every coach car next to every seat. Although I travelled for most of my trip without my laptop, stopping off in Montréal this weekend has given me the chance to pick up my diminutive PowerBook, and I spend most of the morning writing entries to bring the blog up to date. When I left Montréal, it was barely up to date as far as Churchill, and I am able to bash out about nine thousand words en route to Halifax. There's no wireless internet to make the updating live, but saving the drafts to my computer still saves a lot of time later.

It's a warm sunny day outside: we approach Moncton, and I pack up my laptop to go for a walk during our extended service stop here.

Train 14: feet

Train 14: breakfast

After my first brief experience of New Brunswick (a new day, and the first of two new provinces...) on the platform of Campbelltown station, we are on our way again. I walk back two carriages to the restaurant car, where I have been told there's plenty of room for breakfast. The restaurant attendants are extremely welcoming, and are already joking and chatting with passengers. I'm seated straight away at a table for four opposite another passenger, a physician from New Brunswick. He uses the train to travel to Montréal frequently, often flying in one direction and then taking the train in the other. He explains that there is no better way to travel, especially with the schedule of the 'Ocean', which departs Montréal at the end of a working day and arrives back in his home town of Miramichi just after 10.00 the next morning.

My breakfast companion is just back from a holiday in Cuba. Using his hand-held computer, he proudly shows me a photograph of the beach he has just spent a week on in Varadero. I counter by opening my laptop and showing him the beach in Churchill, Manitoba, complete with frozen ocean. We evidently enjoy very different types of holiday.

For non-sleeper passengers on board the 'Ocean', breakfast costs C$10. It includes coffee, juice and a plate of toast, which comes a bit before my main dish of folded crepes with cheese, fresh fruit and syrup. Once again, these trains have had to be adapted for their new job in Canada. There were no restaurant cars in the original fleet, so sleeper cars were converted for the purpose. The only noticable thing about this conversion is that because the sleeper cars were built with fewer and smaller windows, tables have to be spaced out through the car to make sure each has a window. Food is prepared off the train and re-heated on board, although the quality of my meal was impressive. The crepes did not have the unnaturally hot tell-tale taste of microwaved food, and the fruit was fresh.

As always with my on board acquaintances, we talked of our trips and how we liked to travel. My dining companion was a French speaker, and it was good to be talking in French again. I fluff a few words and a few tenses, but I don't think I drop any clangers. Hopefully four weeks away from Montréal hasn't killed off the young French side of my brain. My dining companion finishes his meal and returns to his sleeper, and I linger over my empty plates to gaze out of the window. The bay is beautiful this morning - a gentle deep blue that stretches to the horizon, merging with the hazy sky once we have lost sight of the Gaspésie shore. The waiter refills my coffee and (on request) my juice, and I enjoy this sunny start to my day.

Train 14: Cambpellton, NB

Train 14: farewell to the Chaleur: Matapédia, QC

Needless to say, I am not a happy camper when I wake up for the last time. I might have managed four or five interupted hours of sleep through the night, and I give up trying when I left the window blind to see that we are slipping quietly into Matapédia. It's here that three times a week the 'Chaleur' and the 'Ocean' part company. There's a short pause in the station, while train 16 to Gaspé is unhooked from the front of our train, and pushed back into the platform besides us. For a few moments, I look enviously across the platform to the coach cars of the other train, which is made up of older stainless steel cars. Every person in coach class seems to be deep in sleep.

Outside, however, it's a beautiful early morning. It's just after quarter past five in the morning, but I change my watch forward onto Atlantic Time now to make sure I don't forget. It also makes it easier to justify being awake so early. Our train pulls away from Matapédia about half an hour late. The 'Chaleur' will leave a few minutes later, and ply the scenic rail line around the Gaspésie peninsular that now appears across the Baie de Chaleurs to our left. The bay is calm, and across the blue water I can see the thick forests that coat the undualting landscape of the remote Gaspé countryside. I think of a distant friend and mentor who is somewhere along that coast, and watch the water between us slowly widen.

I consider my bag of food for this morning's breakfast. I have one remaining bagel, and some odds and ends, but nothing that really inspires me to start the day. I decide to save them for later, and go back to see what the service car offers. As you can see from the photo, the service car is pretty well named. It isn't a lounge, it's a car when passengers are serviced with drinks and snacks. There are two flat screen televisions for movies, and during last night two or three films were shown to entertain the children and families who were on board. However, the lack of seating was a big problem, and when I came through at one point last night, I found most people standing to watch the films. As originally designed, this bistro was much smaller, but an office for customs officials (for the train's original use, travelling from England to European cities via the Channel Tunnel) was removed to make a bit more room.

The counter is open, and I ask what they have for breakfast snacks. I notice a man from coach class sitting down with a coffee, a pre-packed bowl of corn flakes and a horrific looking microwaved 'English' muffin (note to all Canadians: THEY'RE NOT ENGLISH). Nothing much grabs me. The attendant points out that I can go back to the restaurant car, if I like, which is just behind this carriage. This is the first time anyone has mentioned the restaurant car; all the announcements up to this point emphasised the service car and at seat service for coach passengers. So I decide to wait until we have left Campbellton, and will splash out one last time.

Train 14: tossing and turning

This is, to be honest, pretty bad. I know that problems are always exaggerated when it's the middle of the night, and when you can't get any sleep, but 'Comfort' coach class on train 14 is pretty dire. The fancy modern coaches are revealing all sorts of quirks to make it difficult to get comfortable, let alone get any sleep.

As on other overnight VIA Rail services, there is a blanket and a pillow for everyone in coach, but this time no amenity kit (eye mask, ear plugs etc). The lights have been dimmed since 21.00, but the real problem is the noise. Sitting near the centre of the car in row ten, I'm kept wide awake by the noisy air conditioning vents that are beneath the seats in the centre of the car. When I go to the back of the car to use the washroom, I chat again with the two ladies travelling to Moncton. They have managed to spread out over a pair and a single seat, but they're having problems sleeping because there is no door between their end of the car and the vestibule between the carriages; the noise of the train running over the track is quite intrusive here.

I return to my seat and attempt to fiind my sleeping position. This takes some time, because as I mentioned earlier, the single seat is bordered by two very hard and immovable arm rests. And while the seat reclines in a manner which prevents you from intruding on the space of the passenger behind you, the sliding base of the seat and the rising plenum on which the seat is mounted reduce leg room significantly - a big problem for lanky blokes like me.

I toss and turn a bit, using my own ear plugs to try and drown out the noise of the ventilation. But to be honest one pillow simply isn't enough... my neck isn't supported, despite the chunky shaped headrests and whichever part of my body is propped against the armrests needs some cushionning to stop it going numb. To top it all off, since this is the first journey in which I've checked in my luggage, I've usefully forgotten to bring any extra layers of clothing, and being dressed for Montréal's sunny weather (in just a shirt) I'm now getting extremely cold under the spell of the fierce air conditioning. The blanket helps, but there's always a draft somewhere that keeps me awake.

I manage to sleep a few times, never for more than an hour or two at a time. Each time I awake, I notice other passengers awake trying to get comfortable again. Some have cleverly discovered the sack of pillows at the end of the carriage, and have pinched a few more to make themselves more comfortable. Each time I check my watch, the hands seem to have barely moved.

This is going to be a long night...

Train 14: into the night

We're on time as we head up the busy line towards Québec City. The 'Ocean' doesn't call at Québec City, but after passing through the peaceful towns of Saint-Hyacinthe and Drummondville, we reach Charny at about ten o'clock. A bus shuttle operates between here and Québec City. There are a lot of passengers boarding both coach and sleeper cars on both the 'Chaleur' and the 'Ocean' portions of our long train, so we make several stops. Each time the train pauses to allow people to board, before pulling forward to allow for the next section of the train to take on passengers. Once the last section of the train has pulled into the station, we're allowed off for a 'smoke stop'.

It's dark when I hope down off the train and take in the fresh night air. I have to step away from the crowd of cigarette smokers who are clustered close to the train, but it's a warm night for the time of year. Our train stretches away in both directions - although I'm near the front of the Halifax portion of the train, the Gaspé train is ahead of us, and there's not enough time to do a walk along the full length of the train.

The Montréal - Halifax 'Ocean' is now operated exclusively by the newer 'Renaissance' trains. I've heard very mixed opinions about these trains, and one complaint is that they don't include any dome or lounge cars. There are three levels of service on board the 'Ocean' during the peak season: Comfort coach, Comfort sleeper and Easterly ('Alizée in French). There's a functional 'service' car behind the coach carriages and sleeper carriages, but it really isn't much more than a place for passengers to buy snacks and coffee and to watch movies on small and uncomfortable bistro seats. It's also very small, offering much less space for relaxing away from your coach seat during the journey. Although Comfort class passengers don't get a dome any more, a vintage stainless steel 'Park' car like the one that tails off every Toronto - Vancouver 'Canadian' is included at the far end of the train for passengers in Easterly class. It's fitted to the more modern train by means of a specially adapted Renaissance coach... much of this service reveals this hasty patching together of a train that wasn't designed for this job. It's very flash, but it's not in the same league as the older VIA trains I've been travelling on, which are much grander and more comfortable.

For passengers to the more remote Gaspésie, however, things carry on as normal. Ahead of our part of the train, the 'Chaleur' is formed entirely of older stainless steel cars. I would much rather be spending a night in coach class in one of their squishy seats... age isn't everything, you know...

The coach attendants call 'all aboard' and I hop back on board. I have one more night ahead of me travelling alone in coach class. We pull out of Charny, and I do my best to bed down in my unforgiving seat for the night.

Seen from a train: southern Québec