Travelling the Maritimes VIA Rail
Have you ever thought how relaxing it would be if you could get on a sleeper train in London and snooze your way through to Amsterdam or board a train in Manchester and travel through the night to Frankfurt? Well, when the Channel Tunnel was under construction, this was part of the plan: Nightstar trains were even built to operate sleeper services through the tunnel; however, the birth of low cost air transport in Europe meant that the service never got on the rails.
After a few years gathering dust, some of the trains have found a fruitful life on the other side of the Atlantic, operating the 24 hour Ocean service between Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, three times per week; along with the more epic Canadian service, the Ocean completes the rail link across Canada and even following years of cutbacks, still aspires to offer a quality, long distance journey. We stepped on board at Montreal for our trip to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.
To Sit or to Sleep?
Passengers can choose between an economy seat or a two person sleeper cabin – we chose the beds. Sleeper class tickets come with the benefit of lounge access at Montreal station but, unfortunately, the lounge is so small that it’s not really any benefit at all. There are also few seats in the concourse area so we were forced to stand and wait. I suspect the design of the station doesn’t help with providing more seating, VIA Rail did however have a a welcome stand where passengers check-in and staff take reservations for dinner on the train – more on that later.
The Little Train
The first thing you notice when you board the Ocean is how narrow the carriages are. As they were built to fit on the British system they have quite a small gauge when compared to the standard Canadian stock. There was even a little bridge to help you step across onto the train.
Those lucky enough to be in a sleeper cabin got a small bathroom with shower, the room was too small to be photographed and requires a fair amount of balance when the train rocks back and forth during your shower.
Though all the sleeper and catering carriages originated in Britain, the last carriage is an old observation and bar car from the 1950s; however, access to this car is entirely dependent on whether you are travelling in peak or off-peak season. The inclusion of this heritage car adds to the atmosphere as it is a place to linger and meet other passengers; without it you’d spend a lot of time in your cabin. Only when the train calls at an intermediate station can you step off and see the size difference between the two different types of carriage: the 1950’s carriage could probably envelop the modern carriage.
As the older carriage is a heavy steel vehicle, it could obviously cause a lot of damage to the sleeper cars in the event of an accident so there is a rather useful buffer between the two in the form of a completely empty carriage that doubles as a handy yoga room.
On Board Services
The train travels through some rather isolated spots so you will be thankful for the on board Wi-Fi to catch up on work or research your trip. It is limited to the central buffet car meaning that you can’t use it in your cabin and although I don’t think wireless connectivity was planned back in the early 1990s, there were some useful stand up counters near the buffet where you could use a laptop.
Our outward and return journeys bridged the seasonal change between off-peak and peak service: We noticed a very clear difference between the two in terms of the passenger experience. Once into the peak season, the heritage car became the centre of activity – a route guide was provided and there were small themed decorations which made it feel more like a holiday journey – we were joined by a festive decorative lobster on our trip. The host was much more welcoming and presented a talk on wines from the Maritimes.
On our outward journey, I was expecting a long relaxing dinner where we could enjoy watching the Quebec countryside drift by, that’s the romance sold in the advertising. However, my dining experiences on the Ocean were rather disappointing, with strict 75 minute sittings – so no chance to have a relaxed meal and certainly not enough time to enjoy a bottle of wine.
A rant from a vegetarian – skip down if you’ve just rolled your eyes…
When it came the food, this is where VIA Rail let itself down: I am a vegetarian, I didn’t think this was unusual any more but my experience on this journey was one of repeated awkwardness – and hunger! Despite the VIA Rail website specifically stating that a vegetarian option was available on board, when I went for my dinner sitting, I was told that I should have booked a vegetarian meal in advance. There was no offer to “see what they could do“. The staff took the attitude that it was my problem for not booking a special meal in advance. When I challenged this, the server offered me a small, cold salad wrap which was served with some crisps; my fellow diners received a large seafood soup and a freshly cooked meal. As all meals were included in the price so I felt rather cheated.
Obviously, lunchtime the following day presented a similar scenario – I hadn’t booked in advance. I managed to get the same wrap and an accompanying orange coloured pasta dish, I think from the children’s menu. This was all a bit frustrating and I regretted trusting VIA Rail’s website.
Hungry and a little annoyed, I called VIA Rail as soon as I arrived in Halifax, knowing that I needed to arrange a meal for the way home only a few days later. Unfortunately, as I was calling less than 5 days before departure I was advised that there was no way to arrange a vegetarian meal. You have to wonder where these meal are coming from – how far do they have to travel to be served on board?
I engaged in a conversation with VIA Rail’s Twitter team to see if anything could be done, though I got a response, I was still advised to call up to 5 days in advance.
As VIA Rail sells the Ocean experience through its online marketing, I felt let down, both by the published materials and the service offered.
In anticipation of the same treatment on the return leg, I bought some food as insurance from a shop before boarding in Moncton. As soon as I had boarded the train, I asked the host to ensure that there would be something vegetarian available for the dinner sitting. Once seated for dinner, I was happy to see a vegetarian option on the menu. Wonderful – this must be the peak season service!
I ordered the veggie option and was told there were none left.
I was not impressed: only once I had bored the server with my experiences of vegetarian discrimination and recounted my efforts to secure a veggie meal did she agree to sort something out. Miraculously, the actual vegetarian option arrived on the table – though I’m fairly sure someone had already taken a bite from it…
The journey Experience
With the choice of a flight or a 24 hour train ride between Montreal and the Atlantic Coast, the decision to take the train to Halifax does require some appreciation of winding the hours by enjoying the scenery. For me, the most unique aspect was observing the changing architecture as the train passed through the small towns of New Brunswick. The train’s progress could be observed through the changing signs, visible on parallel roads, that indicated French, bilingual and then English speaking provinces. Obviously this does take a day of your time on the coast but it didn’t seem too onerous a journey.
The one aspect of the experience which I found unnerving, apart from the hunger, was the presence of on board staff. When they weren’t serving or setting tables, they would sit in the middle of the passenger areas lounging about. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be able to take a break along the way but it did feel quite intimidating when the passenger area was slowly overtaken by staff and you realised that you were imposing on their territory. It’s not something that I’m used to seeing.
Otherwise the journey was relatively smooth and efficient; the announcements were clear and the train arrived on time.
Author: Liam Henderson
Update: We contacted VIA Rail, however, they declined provide a comment to the review. Instead their Customer Relations department made contact to explain that they were looking into the meal situation on the Ocean and would be in touch with the web team to ensure the website reflects the actual choice available on board. I was assured that the vegetarian patties are supposed to look like that!