Review: Via Rail to Montreal (and back)

I’m tak­ing the train today (Jan­u­ary 14th) from Oshawa to Mon­tre­al (and back).  While we could have dri­ven (I cer­tain­ly have before) and we could have flown, the Via Busi­ness class tick­ets were cheap­er than the coach air­fare.  Add to that the trip to Pier­son (our air­port) from Oshawa and the trip from Montreal’s air­port to down­town makes the flight pret­ty much as long as the 4 hour train trip.

Via Business Class Cabin

Via Busi­ness Class Cab­in

My first impres­sions were very good.  The 0723 trip from Oshawa is on VIA’s newest equip­ment.  This pro­vides two 4 per­son and two 2 per­son fac­ing tables and only sits 3 peo­ple across the width of the car in busi­ness class.  The remain­ing seats all include indi­vid­ual tables and stan­dard AC pow­er is pro­vid­ed for every seat.  Wifi is pro­vid­ed by gim­bled satel­lite dish­es (which also pro­vide tele­vi­sion in the lounge), but this was not work­ing for our trip this morn­ing.  We used Rogers EDGE (3G was not again avail­able) using a cell phone as a per­son­al access point.  Walk­ing through the car, more than half the peo­ple in Busi­ness Class were using lap­tops.

In fact, my impres­sion of the train was that most of the cars were busi­ness class and only one car for each of Ottawa and Mon­tre­al were avail­able for coach.  For most of the trip, some­where around 80% of the busi­ness class seats were filled.

Ice Fog Rising from Lake Ontario

Ice Fog Ris­ing from Lake Ontario

My Mon­tre­al bound trip was seat­ed on the south side of the car.  It’s -25C out­side and the view of lake Ontario and the sun­rise was spec­tac­u­lar.  The ice fog was lift­ing off the lake in sev­er­al lay­ers and we were able to take quite a few pho­tographs on the trip towards Coburg.  The cold may have played hav­oc with the satel­lite and it def­i­nite­ly delayed the train as some sig­nals required some con­vinc­ing to work.  The trains to Ottawa and Mon­tre­al also trav­el togeth­er until Kingston, where they split — and the cold pro­duced a delay there, as well.

Via Business Class Tables

Via Busi­ness Class Tables

A hot break­fast was served short­ly after we left Oshawa.  In this case it was a ham-onion omlette.  The food was sur­pris­ing­ly good and sur­pris­ing­ly ample.  The entree was accom­pa­nied by fruit, cof­fee and juice.  Our cheer­ful atten­dant kept the cof­fee and even the juice flow­ing.  In the end, due to the delay, they broke out the wine (but no hard liquor) but that might not nor­mal­ly hap­pen on the morn­ing trip.  We def­i­nite­ly enjoyed the wine and were not thus annoyed that the trip was late.

For our return trip, we took the 1800 trip out of Mon­tre­al back to Oshawa.  I had fid­dled once too much with my phone, so I don’t have any pic­tures of the trip, but it was already dark out­side and the trip was in the old­er Via equip­ment.  Unlike the morning’s trip, we were not able to reserve the lone table these cars poss­es, but this turned out to be a good thing: we met an employ­ee of a cus­tomer of ours and had a grand evening of con­ver­sa­tion around the table.  The old­er cars are com­fort­able — the lone table pos­si­bly more com­fort­able than the mul­ti­ple tables pro­vid­ed by the new­er equip­ment.  The only prob­lem is that the table seats four peo­ple while the four tables on the new­er equip­ment seat 12.  The new­er equip­ment also has tables for each indi­vid­ual seat (much like an air­line) that are very ser­vice­able while the tables pro­vid­ed for the indi­vid­ual seats on the old­er equip­ment are much more “tem­pera­men­tal” to be gen­er­ous about it.

Our new com­pan­ion proved to be a won­der­ful addi­tion to our trip.  His job had him tak­ing the train to both Mon­tre­al and Ottawa often and he was able to fill us in on many of the secrets he had learned.  One such secret pre­sent­ed itself imme­di­ate­ly.  There were three choic­es for din­ner: the can­nel­loni, the pork chops or the salmon.  Our com­pan­ion advised that he’d had and enjoyed them all.  I felt like hav­ing the salmon and Adam was also par­tial to the salmon.  How­ev­er, since there were only about 10 peo­ple on the train that night, very few dish­es had been loaded onto the train and of those, some had been reserved by oth­er pas­sen­gers.  Reserved?  Yes.  That’s one par­tic­u­lar secret.  If you call the day before your train, you can make your meal choic­es ahead of time and not be faced with a cer­tain choice run­ning out.

Since we hadn’t, I end­ed up with the can­nel­loni and Adam end­ed up with the pork that was his sec­ond choice.  Before our din­ner was served, the drink cart wheeled around.  They had a good selec­tion of beer, and the Slee­man seemed a good start to the evening.  Din­ner arrived steam­ing hot and by the time it had, we were also hun­gry.  I think they wait­ed for the train to pass the sub­urbs of Mon­tre­al (the Dor­val stop) before serv­ing din­ner.  I had been resigned to the can­nel­loni, but I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised that it was both good and a good por­tion.  I end­ed up eat­ing my desert first due to the fact that they’re served with din­ner in sep­a­rate dish­es on your tray.  I might have not real­ized that it was intend­ed to be desert if it weren’t for our new companion’s com­ments.

The remain­der of the trip home was filled by many returns of the drink cart and many sto­ries and much good con­ver­sa­tion.  The com­put­ers were for­got­ten and the inter­net was most­ly a mem­o­ry.  Via Rail fea­tures an excel­lent selec­tion of wines and sev­er­al good Por­tos.  Being eng­lish speak­ing, we had called it “Port” to which our fran­coph­o­ne porter could not asso­ciate the bot­tle.  When she final­ly sug­gest­ed “Por­to” … well… good times were had.  We even sug­gest­ed (due to the lack of oth­er patrons in the car) that she sit a spell and share the por­to and the good con­ver­sa­tion, but while friend­ly to a fault, her pro­fes­sion­al­ism pre­vent­ed it.

Hav­ing tak­en the train sev­er­al times to Mon­tre­al or Ottawa, I can high­ly rec­om­mend it to any­one con­sid­er­ing the trip.  You might squeeze an extra hour into your day by tak­ing the plane, but I doubt it.  Not only is it dif­fi­cult to make the trip by air faster, but it’s also bro­ken up into many unpro­duc­tive stages and (now days) involves sev­er­al rather inva­sive search­es.  Frankly, giv­en dri­ving times of under 12 hours, I think I would even pre­fer dri­ving to the has­sle of fly­ing in the cur­rent cli­mate of para­noia.  But the Via Rail trip requires no such com­pro­mise.  The trip is as quick as it needs to be, offers a good envi­ron­ment in which to work or relax and offers both excel­lent food and excel­lent spir­its to make the trip more plea­sur­able.

The only lament I could have is that the overnight sleep­ing ser­vice is no more (for the Mon­tre­al to Toron­to or Ottawa to Toron­to cor­ri­dor).  I had tak­en the sleep­ing ser­vice sev­er­al times in the past and it was a won­der­ful alter­na­tive to air­planes for arriv­ing at your des­ti­na­tion prompt­ly at 0800.

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