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.
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.
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.
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.