To Halifax and Back by Train

Oliver and I were off this weekend to Halifax, and I decided that we should take the train from Sackville. Not only would it allow Oliver and I to spend more time together, but it would means we wouldn’t have a car to lug around (and park) in downtown Halifax, and Oliver would get to ride the train, which he really enjoys (as do I).

We left Charlottetown at 10:30 a.m. for a 12:43 p.m. departure, and had plenty of time to spare in Sackville (it’s amazing how much of the bridge-to-Moncton run is taken up on the Sackville to Moncton portion; it’s less than an hour and a half from Charlottetown to Sackville).

Much to my surprise, there’s a full-fledged VIA station in Sackville, complete with waiting room, luggage check and, most important for our purposes, a free parking lot. I think we’ll switch all of our arrivals and departures by train to Sackville from now on: it’s closer, much less crowded, and you don’t have to experience Moncton at all.

The train from Sackville to Halifax was marred by a problem with the rails downstream, apparently caused by a freight train, so we and our 70-odd fellow passengers were forced to transfer to buses at Amherst for the balance of the trip. The train left Sackville at 12:43 p.m. and we arrived in Halifax by bus about 5:45 p.m., almost two hours late. VIA was helpful and efficient about all of this, and Oliver seemed delighted by the prospect of adding a third method of transport to our day, so we were none the worse for wear as a result.

Going up on Friday and back on Sunday gave us a good view of the contrast between the old VIA rolling stock and the new “Renaissance” stock that’s gradually taking over the eastern line.

How these new cars can be called “Renaissance,” I don’t know. They were acquired after a cancelled European contract left them available: the cars have a storied history as part of an ill-fated overnight Chunnel train project; VIA bought them out of storage in 2000.

In coach class — now re-branded as “comfort” class — the old VIA stock is open and roomy. There are two large seats on either side of the aisle, a wide overhead luggage shelf, plenty of leg room, and everything is on the same level.

In the Renaissance cars, there is 25% less seating, with one seat on one side and two on the other. There is a tiny luggage compartment about each seat that appears not to fit most luggage (our modest daypack didn’t fit), much less leg room, and a foot-high step up into the seats (read “foot-high precipice for children to fall off” or “foot high impendent to mobility-impaired people to conquer”) and, despite taking out 1/4 of the seats, the cars been more like airplane cabins than trains: cramped and claustrophobic.

Perhaps the greatest indignity of all is that the Renaissance trains don’t include the Dome Car (VIA inexplicably calls this the “Park Car,” a term I’ve never heard a real person use; even the conductor calls is the Dome Car).

I heard a lot of chatter about the new cars on both ends of the trip, and nobody seems impressed. Even the train conductors, if pressed, appear willing to admit that the new cars are a big step backwards.

It’s too bad that VIA has taken this tack, especially now that energy and transportation issues are again coming to the fore and efficient rail transport has a chance of winning new converts.

Our train trip back from Halifax to Sackville was, thankfully, actually by train. Despite the aforementioned Renaissance cars, the trip was pleasant. One plus for the Renaissance setup is that the snack bar, replaced by candy machines on the older cars, is staffed and has a broad selection of snacks. They were nice enough to heat up the tasty samosas we’d purchased earlier in the at Pete’s Frootique in their microwave. The train pulled in to Sackville on time at 4:43 p.m., and we pulled into our driveway in Charlottetown, with a brief stop for a snack on the way, at 6:30.

All said, we’d do it again.


oliver's picture
oliver on December 13, 2004 - 17:42 Permalink

Samosas! That’s the quintessential rail food for me, because most of the rail riding I’ve done was in India. Vendors on the platform would walk up to train car windows to sell them to you. I think the commoner window option was omellete, but samosas were my favorite.

oliver's picture
oliver on December 13, 2004 - 18:06 Permalink

Just to be clear: This is not the Oliver of the blog entry proper, who no doubt would have more thoughtful and eloquent sentiments to express on the topic of riding trains with his dad.

Alan's picture
Alan on December 13, 2004 - 18:41 Permalink

I think they are park cars because they were all named after the great provincial parks of Canada. I think I went to Ottawa in the Tweedsmuir Park once, a BC location. My last trip by train last August, my only Maritime moment of 2004, was in a Renaissance car, a private bedroom from Montreal to Moncton, where I met the folks and immediately drove them back here to Ontario. The lack of a dome car and its nice tiny pub, the scene of many a happy travel evening for me as a younger adult, is a sad passing. I spoke in my terrible French with a Gaspe shrimp fisherman and a Montreal movie maker about separation over ales for hours one night. In the morning you met again for coffee on the approach to Montreal. The new sleeping cars promite a sterile, isolated experience.

Now I am off for a samosa as you have me thinking of that great Halifax treat that I have recently discovered in a whole-foods kind of place here called Tara over on Princess. If they could just get a King of Donair…

Pat's picture
Pat on December 22, 2004 - 08:40 Permalink

There are two types of cars that have domes.
One is a tail-end observation car, which includes sleeping space, a central lounge, and, rearmost, the observation room — as well as a dome of course. This is the <park> car, so called because each is named for a Provincial or national park. Access is usually restricted to sleeping car passengers.
The other car, and the one you are likely referring to as “the dome car”, is officially the <skyline> car. It is layed out(on the Ocean equipment) with a dining area at one end — equipped with vending machines — and a lounge at the opposite end.

Alex's picture
Alex on December 24, 2004 - 20:38 Permalink

On older VIA trains, there are 2 “dome” cars:

- “Park” car, on the end (with rounded observation lounge) for sleeping car passengers only.

- “Skyline” car, in the middle, just forward of the dining car and for coach car passengers (and sleeping car passengers if they wish).