Railroading North America

06/ Halifax

06-a-breaking-train-for-gaspe-_-matapedia0017-bw-usemeDAY 6
Montreal, Quebec to Halifax, Nova Scotia
Aboard VIA Rail Train #014 ‘The Ocean’
Saturday, October 25, 2008

VIA Rail Canada’s train, The Ocean, heads north and east from Montreal six evenings a week (Tuesdays excepted) up south side of the St. Lawrence River. In October it leaves Gare Centrale after dark, methodically picking its way from central Montreal to the outskirts where, on the evening I was aboard, it stopped and sat for a while. Too long awhile: Do trains, like ships, have pilots who guide them to and from stations? The terminal railroad in St. Louis used to have engines and engineers who did precisely that, years ago. I look for someone to ask, but find no one.

It is a formidable ride. Even with a time change (by dawn we will have left the Eastern Time Zone behind and jumped an hour later into the Atlantic Time Zone), the trip takes 19 hours and covers 1346 kilometers.

the-ocean-0140153Travelers are separated for boarding — the coach passengers have a different gate and longer lines. Sleeping car passengers are shepherded from the lounge down an escalator and then sent along the train periodically be shunted along by friendly VIA Rail stewards. It is a long trek to the front of the train to my car. This is a long train, but it will get shorter at Matapedia when the front six cars are broken away and sent to Gaspe.

Samuel, the service attendant for my car stops by to brief me after I return from dinner. I have mastered everything except the light switches. I have searched the room and my private bathroom almost to the point of despair for electric sockets. I finally find plugs both in both the bathroom and the sitting room. I kill the rest of the power in my I-Phone and plug it in.

Samuel is apologizing about how the train has been assembled. To get to my dining car and the private First Class lounge I must first pass through several Coach Class cars teeming with undesirable people below my class. However, it appears worth the effort. There is free coffee, Samuel tells me. And free newspapers and room to spread out.

“What about chocolate?” I ask. Maybe one of those chocolate fountains?

“No chocolate. No food. No snacks. But there will be a movie tonight.” But he doesn’t know what it is.

“Maybe it will be ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’,” I suggest. Samuel has never heard of it. “It ends with this huge train crash,” I tell him.

He thinks this is hilarious and we are instant friends.

My room is cold even though the temperature is set at 24 centigrade.

I am determined to learn both centigrade, re-learn the twenty-four hour clock and work on metrics while in Canada. I have set my iPhone and computer to 24-hour clocks. I have made up a conversion chart on my iPhone and refer to it regularly. Twenty-four degrees centigrade (which is 80-degrees F) should have me quite warm. I put my hand on the window and decide a strong wind is kicking at the side of the train. I figure out the window shade must be an insulator. I pull down the shade and instantly the room warms.

The bed is surprisingly large and comfortable. Beds run across the car instead of up and down on the outer edge of the car. I think this makes for a smoother ride.

I wake in the middle of the night. We are in the middle of a small town. Snow is on the ground. The homes are Spartan, functional and 19th century. We pass a Chrysler/Jeep dealer, and then a Sears, both tiny. I decide this must be Sayabec and wait to see if the train will stop again in 22 minutes — if it does we will be in Amqui. In 22 minutes we crawl past a town but do not stop.

I decide I have no idea where I am.


At Matapedia the train stops. It is 4 in the morning and a few passengers and crew pile out to have a smoke while the train is broken apart. The front six cars and engine will go to Gaspe. The remaining sixteen cars and engine will continue on to Halifax. I step out onto the platform and walk around.

On the platform, the waiter who served me last night, strikes up a conversation. He has worked for the railroad for 24 years and makes the run from Halifax to Montreal round-trip once a week.

He points at red lights in the distance. It is the Gaspe portion of the train. The Gaspe train, like the rolling stock serving western Canada, is composed of cars built in the 1950s. These older cars are popular in the west because of the sleeping car arrangement, he says, and because, unlike the new stock on the Halifax train I am riding on, they have dome cars. But the older and newer rail cars are not compatible so you cannot walk from one end of the train to the other. Engines are attached to both sections in Montreal. At Matapeda the sections are disconnected and the trains sent in different directions.

“Would you like to go aboard the Gaspe train and see the dome car?” the waiter asks. I am enthusiastic. The older trains have observation dome cars. The newer ones do not.

We walk to the stairs of the Gaspe section on the other side of the platform from our train, but the waiter is reluctant to board without permission.

“Boarding without permission is not done,” he says. “We could be carried off to Gaspe.” In a moment, his radio crackles and we have permission — the Gaspe engineer has promised not to carry us off to Gaspe.

We pass through a coach car where everyone is sleeping and climb up into the dome car. It is empty and very 1950s and retro. He is rightly proud of the car and the train. We retreat to our train and the Gaspe train glides away in the dark, and moments later we do the same.

At Campbellton not long before dawn we enter the Province of New Brunswick and the Atlantic Time Zone. On the platform the smokers have again gathered, but this time they surround an immaculately dressed and distinguished gentleman. He shakes hands with each of the crew as they approach him with clear respect. Most ask to have their picture taken with them, and he jovially complies.

I watch this for a while, then sidle up to one of the crew and ask who the gentleman is.

“Sir! That is Richard Robichaud!” he says with gusto.

Why is everyone wishing to have his or her picture taken with Mr. Robichaud, I ask. “Because after 35 years he is retiring. This is his last run.”

What services have Monsieur Robichaud performed for this line, I inquire. “Why! He has done as little as possible! Thirty five years! Hardly anything ever!” The man roars at this, as do I. In truth, he has run dining cars for many years and in the middle of the night his colleagues are so fond of him that they have come to greet him and to say goodbye.

Mr. Robichaud is straight out of central casting and could play a role as President of the Line, himself. In fact, that is who I had begun to think he was.

I approach Mr. Robichaud, shake his hand and offer him my congratulations. His wife is traveling on this final trip with him and she inquires why I am on this train. I explain, ending by telling her I hope to go to Churchill on the Hudson’s Bay and see the Polar bears.

“Make sure you trot right up to the first one you see and pat him right on the nose,” a crew member near by says. “Polar bears love to be patted on their noses.”

Mrs. Robichaud cannot keep a straight face, nor can I.

“And after I pat his nose…?” I ask.

“He eat you right down — chomp, chomp and chomp.”

In the morning Samuel , my car attendant, stops by my room to ask if I want the compartment returned from bedroom to sitting car. I ask him to leave it as a bedroom and he is not surprised. Most people prefer their compartments to be left as beds, he says.

I ask him about the train. He says there are nine crew members on the Halifax run today, plus two engineers. There were 24 cars — 6 went to Gaspe. VIA Rail Crews stay together and go to Halifax to Montréal and back once a week together. He is paid hourly and expects to be laid off in January for a few months. It is a good job with good benefits and retirement and he has done this for 5 years. He doesn’t think he will make this a career.

How did he find this job? His girlfriend found it listed on the Internet and he applied. He’s kidding, right? “No, really. She did.”

Samuel is well educated, young and articulate. He struggles to remember all of the things he did before joining Via Rail (pronounced “Vee-Uh” I confirm). He has been a jack-of-all-trades from working in a Blockbuster Store to living in France and being in a Canadian government program much like Americacorps, which sends young people out to do volunteer work. He particularly loved western Canada.

I ask him who besides Americans and the British ride the trains. Many Germans are coming, he says, and they are buying Breton. There are also a lot of Japanese. This is, however, a slow time of year, unlike summer when it is crazy. The level of service is much better now than it is in summer. But January to March is even slower.

I ask him whether the Maritimes and New Brunswick are also French speaking like Montreal. He says he was raised French and is bilingual and many areas are 50/50 French-English speaking, while others are mostly English.

When I ask him the population of Canada, he is uncertain but stops a young woman passing by who gives lectures on some trips (although not on this one). “When I was in Cambodia, a Cambodian told me Canada has 30-million,” she says. She and Samuel look at one another, and then decide that particular Cambodian didn’t know what she was talking about. So. They are not really sure what Canada’s population is.

But the Cambodian was right.

Google shows Canada’s total population is 31,612,897.
(Photograph, breaking the trains at Matapedia for Halifax and Gaspe); retiring Dining Car chief Richard Robichaud and his wife at Amherst Station)


Montreal to Halifax 1,346 km / 836 miles
Time of Travel: 21 hours 50 minutes (scheduled)


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