VIA_voiture_skyline_dome_car

One of the main reasons I decided to travel all around Canada by train for two months is VIA Rail’s fabled Dome Car, also known as the Party Car. The double-decker Dome serves as a caboose to the “Ocean” from Halifax to Montreal as well as to trains on a few other routes. There’s nothing like sitting on top of the world (which is what it feels like when you’re up there), getting a bird’s eye view of the passing sights. When I think back on my previous train trips between Halifax and Montreal, the Dome Car is one of the first things I remember.

But it won’t be one of the first things I remember when I look back on this trip. In fact, the Dome Car won’t be part of it at all.

When VIA announced sweeping changes to its routes and trains a few years back, one of those changes was to move the sleeper cars in the “Ocean” from the front of the train to the rear of the train, and move the coach class (economy) cars to the front. The positioning of the sleeper cars effectively created an impassable barrier between “we the people” in coach class and the Dome Car. In other words, what had been open and equally accessible to everyone on the “Ocean” train, regardless of ticket price, became the exclusive venue of the well-luggaged crowd.

I only found out about this on the first day of my travels. I was so angry that I even considered cancelling my trip. I’d used my reward points to buy my ticket from Halifax to Campbellton, so I still could have cancelled my 60-day rail pass (which officially only commenced when I boarded the train in Campbellton) and gotten all my money back. I did not at all agree with  VIA taking away a beloved and long-standing attraction from all classes of travellers and giving it exclusively to one class. To me, train travel is the ‘great leveller’ and the Dome should be accessible to everyone.

Besides – and this is what galled me the most – they took it away. We had it all along, and then they took it away. If the Dome car had always been for the exclusive use of sleeper class patrons, then that would have been different. But the Dome Car on the “Ocean” had been for everyone’s pleasure, and then suddenly it was taken away and given to only a certain few. That right there is the crux of the matter.

When I first heard from one of the attendants that I, as an economy class traveler, could no longer access the Dome, I honestly didn’t believe it. I thought he was joking. But then I started to hear stories from fellow passengers about getting barked at by “guard attendants” whose sole job appeared to be preventing the hoi poloi from wandering into parts of the train that were now off-limits to them. One woman was almost in tears when she described to me how she’d tried to take her 8-year-old grandson down to the Dome Car and had been harshly halted, turned around, and unceremoniously marched back to the cheap seats. She said she wasn’t even “allowed” to go into the dining car, as it is now almost exclusively reserved for the sleeper class, and if you don’t have reservations, you can’t eat there (who woulda thunk that you needed to make reservations to dine on VIA Rail???). But take heart, ye peasants in economy – for just 5 bucks a pop, a freshly nuked container of cup-a-soup awaits you in the service car. (But not THAT service car on the far side of the diner [it’s for the sleeper class patrons]; your service car is over there, at the tail end of the coach class cars, and features two tables that you can share among the 300 of you. You’re WELCOME!)

As is my wont, I decided to test the waters of this VIA-style class segregation. So, I slipped past the economy service car attendant while his back was turned and sauntered as casually as I could into the dining car. It was around 10 p.m., and the staff was clearing away the dinner dishes and setting up for breakfast. I asked one of the servers if the wifi reached the restaurant from the service car and, if so, if I could sit there for just a few minutes to check my emails since the service car was full. The server nodded yes and pointed to an empty table next to the door. I sat down and started to check my emails.

Within a few minutes, what I presume was the manager came and asked me to move, since I was in their way of setting the tables. I said I hadn’t finished what I was doing and the service car was full. So she gestured towards the “other” service car (the one that was exclusively for the use of sleeper patrons) and told me I could use the wifi there. So off I went.

Night and day! That is how I would describe the difference between the service car in economy and the one in sleeper class. The biggest difference was that it was nearly empty. There were only three women there compared to around 30 men and women in the other service car, and it was blissfully quiet. No-one was talking and the TV was off. One woman was poking at an iPad, and the other two were reading books. We all sat a discreet, civilized distance from each other.

And was it just my imagination, or was the ride significantly smoother in this service car, too?

The tables were also different. There were several of them , and they were much more generous in size than the ones in the economy service car. Plus, the booth cushioning was broader and deeper and cushier. When I was just starting to really enjoy my unexpected foray into how the other half lives, my laptop battery gave out, so there was no reason for me to linger there any longer. I reluctantly traced my steps back through the now empty dining car and into the raucous coach class service car, wondering for an instant if I shouldn’t make a break for it and head for the Dome Car while I still had the chance. But then I reckoned that it was night-time and I wouldn’t be able to see anything, anyway, and I also had to get off soon at Campbellton.

I have nothing against people paying more and getting a better class of service – better food, better seats, better sleeping quarters, more attendants, etc. That isn’t my beef. I’m all for people getting what they pay for. My beef is that the Dome Car on the “Ocean” used to be accessible to all classes of travellers, and now it’s only accessible to one. That isn’t right, that isn’t fair, and that isn’t the Maritime way.

Shame on you, VIA!

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