Note to self: Next time you plan to go on a 2-month cross-country train trip, don’t move house the day before. I did it this time, and, well, let’s just call it a learning experience. Enough said.
I got to the VIA Rail station in Halifax a few hours early, thinking I’d have plenty of time to pick up my ticket, check my luggage, and decompress. The Sunday train was scheduled to depart at 1 p.m., but the lines to the ticket counter and baggage check-in were already snaking around the benches and back out the front door by 11 a.m. It was going to be a full house on board.
I’m glad I came two hours early rather than just one, which had been my original plan and is VIA’s official advice on their website. When I’d bought my rail pass a month ago, the Wednesday train was just getting ready to depart (the “Ocean” leaves Halifax for Montreal three times a week – Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday) and there were only about three dozen or so passengers waiting to board. I figured there would have been the same number today, the Sunday train, but noooooo. I had to stand in line to get my printed ticket, stand in line to check my baggage, and stand in line to board the train.
Good thing the seats on board are comfy and include pull-down footrests because my feet badly needed some lovin’ after all that moving and standing and waiting.
The boarding procedure started around 12:30 with an announcement directing passengers travelling in sleeper class to board through Gate 2. At least I think that’s what the announcement said. It could also have been informing people that there was a sale on summer footwear in aisle 7 or a nuclear warhead was headed towards Halifax and we should all make our peace with God, and duck and cover.
Here’s what I heard:
“Passengers alfkjds hfodjsa hioafiod sleeper ekljl hfdjsalfj hfodjsafd ywiohlke y9ou Gate 2.”
The VIA Rail station in Halifax is a beautiful old building with ceiling-high windows that open wide to let in the sunlight and fresh air. It’s also a cavernous echo-y space that is not conducive to PA system announcements. But after the garbledygook man had finished his say, people with much nicer looking luggage than mine started heading out Gate 2, so I assumed that was the sleeper and executive class boarding call.
Speaking of which… I don’t remember VIA separating boarding times according to class. This was new to me. I’m used to it for plane travel, but not for trains. Was this part of the VIA restructuring a few years ago to appeal to a better-luggaged class of travellers? If so, it made me decidedly uneasy. I always thought of train travel as the “great leveller”, like subways, where billionaires had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with street people. Maybe VIA always had this system in place and I just never noticed it before. But more on VIA-by-class later in the blog.
“Passengers alfkjds hfodjsa hioafiod economy xhoiur hfdjsalfj hfodjsafd ywiohlke y9ou Gate 1.”
At around 12:45, the snake that I’d been standing in suddenly jumped to life and started slithering through Gate 1, so I assume Garbledygook man had just called us hoi polloi to board. I wish he’d also called us a taxi, because the distance from the station building to the designated train car was easily three city blocks if it was a foot and my carry-on luggage was growing heavier and heavier with each step. It took about 10 minutes and half a dozen hopeful inquiries to VIA attendants guarding the non-economy class car entrances (from the advancing hoi polloi) before I finally reached the right car.
I must say, though, it was worth the hike. I was seated in a repurposed Renaissance car, which (I think, but don’t quote me on this) was formerly non-economy class. The seats were deep and wide, the headrest was cushy, the windows were expansive, the blinds were fully functional, and there was luggage storage above, below and behind each seat and a double-sized fold-down table that not only fit my laptop but also my mouse.
There were also power outlets at each seat, which made it handy for recharging my laptop after a session in the service car, which, as I later found out, was the only place on board that had wifi but ironically was also the only place on board that didn’t have power outlets.
I settled next to a window in a double-seater, thinking I’d have a chance to stretch out later for a nap (there’s nothing like sleeping on a train!), but then a young woman appeared next to the aisle seat and asked if the seat was free. It’s hard to smile when your dreams of train napping have just been shattered, but I nodded yes anyway and she settled in next to me. We chatted a bit (she was only going as far as Amherst), and then she and her smartphone headed off to the wifi-car where she remained for most of the rest of her trip.
At Amherst, another young woman sat down next to me, heading for Montreal. She was 33 years old, but this was her first time on a train. After exchanging a few pleasantries with me, she confessed that she’d had a terrible time getting her ticket, and that in fact she’d had to drive all the way from her home in Oxford to Truro (about a 45-minute drive) to get it. I thought that was very strange and asked her why she hadn’t just gotten her ticket at Amherst or online. She said that the Amherst station didn’t issue tickets anymore (it was now a “ghost” station that was being decommissioned), and that she hadn’t been told about the online option. So when an attendant came by, I asked him about this strange and not-very-user-friendly procedure, and he looked very surprised. He said that not only could tickets be purchased online, but virtual tickets could be scanned as if they were paper tickets, and if a passenger didn’t have a paper ticket or the right kind of phone to display a virtual ticket, he or she could just show the ticket attendant one piece of government-issued ID and then be good to go.
This was a revelation for the young lady from Oxford and for me as well (the part about the government-issued ID). When I’d initially bought my rail pass, I was told I HAD to have a paper ticket (since I have a prehistoric cell phone that doesn’t do virtual tickets) and that I couldn’t board the train without one. If, however, I only need government-issued ID, then that takes a load off if at some point I decide to book a last-minute trip online and don’t have time to grab a printed ticket at the station before boarding the train.
At Moncton, four hours into our journey, quite a few people got off. Before the next lot got on, I shifted across the aisle to get away from the sun. (Second note to self: don’t sit in east-side seats in the morning or west-side seats in the afternoon and evening. At noon or at night, you can sit anywhere.) The single seats in the Renaissance cars are like little bachelor apartments on a train. You have everything you need within arm’s reach, and it’s all yours. No sharing required. I think I prefer the single seats because when I’m in a double seat, I tend to shrink back so I won’t interfere with my neighbour’s personal space. This makes it uncomfortable for me and actually give me less space than I should have.
I really enjoyed my little bachelor apartment and stayed there for the rest of the trip to Campbellton. We arrived on time (around quarter after 11 at night), and after I’d picked up my baggage in the very clean station with the very clean washroom, I took a very clean taxi to the very clean Campbellton travellers’ hostel, which is where I am now and where I’ll stay for the next three days until the next train from Halifax to Montreal passes through town on Wednesday.