Like most Haligonians, I’d never taken the 22-hour overnight train journey from Halifax to Montreal, North America’s oldest passenger train.
Via Rail’s Ocean leaving from Halifax sits at the platform, surrounded by a cluster of passengers snapping photos of themselves beside the train while anticipating their departure. The Ocean is the only passenger train that serves Atlantic Canada, and has been doing so since the route’s inception 111 years ago, on July 3, 1904.
The route offers Economy, Sleeper and Sleeper Plus classes. The Ocean used to run six times a week; due to budget cuts it now only runs three times weekly. The main corridor leading to the sleeper plus cabins is narrow, making it a real challenge for passengers to pass one another without ducking into other cabins in order to make room. Once inside I am amazed at how efficient and compact the cabin is, complete with a tiny full shower, washroom, and two bunk beds that convert into a comfy couch.
Formerly named the Ocean Limited, its initial role was to carry Canadian immigrants arriving in Halifax to their new communities. During the world wars soldiers travelled by train to Halifax, then boarded ships carrying them to conflicts overseas. When the wars ended, troops returned to Halifax and boarded the train home again.
The route covers 1,346 kilometers of extensive track, passing through 28 communities: Truro, Amherst and Moncton rolling into the scenic splendor of the Matapedia Valley in Quebec, then along the St. Lawrence River ending its journey in Montreal. The view is a mix of verdant forests, red clay shores and white churches with their steeples pointed skyward.
Tatamagouche native Jimmie Le Fresne fondly recollects the Ocean. He grew up beside the now defunct Tatamagouche Train Station and it fuelled his imagination. He still lives right beside the station; the difference now is that he owns it and has converted it into the seasonal Train Station Inn. When he was seven the station had a spare line and he recalls in 1963 when the Ocean diverted through Tatamagouche due to derailments in the Wentworth area.
“The town knew in advance the train was coming in,” he recalls. “I was standing there with other kids and I could see it approaching. I was used to seeing freight trains, but this one was green trimmed. The staff could see the kids on the platform. The cooks were wearing white—white aprons and white hats, leaning out of the train as it slowed down. They threw cutlery out to us as souvenirs with the railway name on it—Canadian National Railway. Years later I was invited as a guest by Via for the Ocean train’s centennial anniversary
Part of the train’s appeal is that it forces you to slow down and see the world around you. The Sleeper Plus Class includes all meals and access to the Dome Car. Dating back to the 1950s, it boasts a bar and panoramic skylights. The Dome is the social hub of the train with its unobstructed views of the passing landscape. During the summer, passengers sample Nova Scotian wine and local cheeses, compliments of one of Via’s learning coordinators who don the Nova Scotia tartan while sharing their expertise on the provinces evolving wine scene.
The dining car features Maritime fare; salmon and lobster dishes are a favourite among the passengers. John and Kate, a couple in their mid-50s who have always wanted to explore Canada, travelled from Sydney, Australia and love the social aspect of the train.
“You meet people from all over with no set demographic,” Kate says. “You sharestories with them. We’ve been travelling by train from west through the Rocky Mountains to east for over a month now.” Via’s Wi-Fi connection is intermittent and only found in the two lounge areas on board.
Via Service manager Norma Babineau has been working on the Ocean for 30 years, and loves the family spirit on board when meeting new travellers. “People use this route for everything from medical appointments to concerts in Montreal,” says Babineau. “We even have grandparents who are returning from a visit with their children to welcome newborn grandchildren. They show us the family photos on the train ride back.”
The Ocean wends its way past fields glowing under the setting sun towards Montreal. In my small cabin with its vintage navy interior and large window view I fall into a broken sleep to the sound of the train clicking along the tracks. The next morning the conductor’s voice announces our arrival into Montreal’s historic train station, as I reflect on the fact that I’ve just taken the oldest continuously operating passenger train in North America.