CANADA

The Ocean

From Halifax to Montreal Aboard Via Rail’s Historic Ocean

The Park Car at the rear of Via Rail’s “The Ocean”

In the bullet lounge of The Ocean’s Park Car, tea and coffee now, drinks any time and a demonstration of how a lobster trap works later.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

I’D HAVE CALLED him the bartender, but J.F. Harrison’s official title is “learning coordinator.” Well, okay, but he’ll still pour you a drink.

Harrison’s domain is the Park Car, the last unit on The Ocean and a marvel of early-1950s stainless-steel design and endurance. It has a lounge and a step-up bar and “it’ll be here long after I’m gone,” says Harrison. As will, with luck, The Ocean, the oldest continuously running “named” passenger train in North America, in business since 1904. In fact, it follows a route laid down in 1876 that was built to connect the Maritimes to the rest of Canada. Like The Canadian, the trans-continental train to Vancouver, it helped cement Canadian confederation. That achievement is subtly noted on the wall of the Park Car, where six clocks tell the hour in each of Canada’s time zones.

The travel time between Halifax and Montreal hasn’t changed much over the years—officially, 21 hours—but in 2012 service was reduced from six times a week to three, raising concerns that the historic train may be on its last legs, despite the fact that, while admittedly popular with tourists, it’s also still used by locals. Nine of the 17 places it stops en route are flag stops, meaning that the would-be passenger waves the train down. On today’s run, Harrison estimates, about 150 of the 190 passengers are locals, including all 100 in the coach seats.

Harrison provides those of us who begin our trip in the Park Car—which is highly recommended—with a glass of champagne and, later, with a framed photo showing us relaxing in the car’s mid-century leather chairs. Later, he’ll host a tasting of two Nova Scotia wines, one red, one white, paired with cheeses from the province, demonstrate how a lobster trap works and point out various scenic highlights along the 1,346-kilometre route—thus earning his title “learning coordinator.”

We in the sleeping-cars section (the only ones with access to the Park Car), besides having private compartments whose seats transform into bunk beds at night, get a second, mid-train lounge car (today with entertainment by a Nova Scotia folk duo, Acres & Acres) and a dining carriage with linen-topped tables.

The Ocean’s countryside isn’t as awesome as is the Rocky Mountains’ portion of The Canadian route, but there are a variety of vistas—well-ordered farms, untamed wildernesses, dramatic seascapes and distinctively Maritime and Quebec towns—to keep the eyes occupied.

There’s also a booklet Via Rail produces that goes into more depth about the passing places and terrain. Shortly before midnight, for instance, we stop at Matapédia (pop. 700). The booklet explains that we are near the site of the 1760 Battle of Restigouche. I’d never heard of it, but it is, I read, significant: the defeat of the French fleet here by the English “marked the end of France’s military interventions in Canada.”

With this knowledge I drift off, awakening to porridge, cereal, fruit and yogurt and our 9:50 a.m. arrival in downtown Montreal—just 45 minutes late.

 

ACCESS

The Ocean operates year-round. The Park Car is only added from June to October.

For more information visit the Via Rail website at www.viarail.ca.