It’s 11:50 a.m. on Monday, February 4, 2008, and
I’ve just arrived at Central Station in Montreal, where I will be
boarding VIA Train #22 to Quebec City.
Yesterday, I arrived in Montreal on Amtrak’s
Adirondack. I had reserved a room at the Glamour Hotel on St.
Denis Street, which was near the Champs de Mars Metro station.
Not finding signs at the station pointing me to the Metro, I ended up
going out to the street and walking several long blocks to the
Square-Victoria station. Montreal had experienced a major
snowstorm last Friday, and although the streets and sidewalks had been
cleared, the sidewalks were covered with a thin but irregular layer of
packed snow, which made it difficult to push my wheeled suitcase.
And when I finally found the entrance to the Square-Victoria station, I
had to walk down a long passageway to the station. Once I located
the right train, the Champs de Mars station was only two quick stops
away, and my hotel was about two blocks from there. In all, it
took me about an hour to reach the hotel from the station, although it
should have taken much less time than that.
The previous evening, I had reserved the room at the
Glamour Hotel via Travelocity.com. The price I was charged – $60,
including tax – seemed quite reasonable, and I did not expect anything
really fancy. When I checked in, the clerk had no record of the
reservation, but when I showed him the printout from Travelocity and
told him that I had just made the reservation last night, he said that
that explains why he did not receive information about it, and he
honored the reservation (keeping a copy of my confirmation for his
A sign in the lobby informed guests, in a sentence
that is a model of clarity and lucidity, that the “hotel management is
currently undergoing some renovation works.” That was evident in
the frayed carpeting in the hallways and some peeling paint and rust in
my room. The room was certainly not luxurious, but it was clean
and a decent value for the money. The hotel also had wireless
Internet, which I took advantage of. I hadn’t gotten very much
sleep the previous night, so I after checking my e-mail, I decided to
go to sleep.
This morning, I got up and went down to the lobby
for the Continental breakfast, which consisted of corn flakes and
coffee. I then spent about an hour walking through Old Montreal,
which was just a few blocks from my hotel. I returned to the
hotel, checked my messages again, and checked out of the hotel about
10:45 a.m. I headed back to the Champs de Mars station, but
instead of taking a train directly back towards Central Station, I went
the other way. I took the Orange Line to the Jean Talon station,
where I changed to the Blue Line to Snowdon, and then took the other
end of the Orange Line to the Bonaventure station. It turns out
that this station is connected directly to Central Station by
underground passageways – something that was easy to figure out going
back to Central Station, although the signs coming from Central Station
are not all that clear (which is why I did not succeed in finding the
direct connection yesterday).
When I got to Central Station at 11:50 a.m., I went
over to a kiosk to obtain my ticket. VIA has one feature that
Amtrak has not adopted yet – the confirmation you receive when
purchasing your ticket on the web includes a barcode which you can scan
at the kiosk! Interestingly, though, when I did this, the machine
asked that I insert my credit card as an added security measure.
When my ticket came out, I noticed that it contained two coupons – one
for each leg of the journey – as part of a single ticket. I
looked at the departures board, which informed me that my train would
be leaving from Track 13, with boarding scheduled to commence at 12:00
Soon, a line formed in front of the gate. I
would ordinarily have joined this line, but VIA Rail assigns seats in
advance, even to coach passengers. So nothing would be gained by
standing on line, and I remained in my seat and took out my computer to
start writing these memoirs.
At 12:11 p.m., the gate opened and an announcement
was made that our train was ready for boarding. As I passed
through the gate leading down to the track, my ticket was inspected and
marked with a red pen. When I reached the track level, I was
shown the way to my Car 3. Also, since I was carrying a suitcase,
a backpack and a green cloth bag, I was asked to check the
suitcase. My friend Tom had warned me that this might happen -
apparently, due to the limited storage space aboard, passengers on the
Renaissance equipment are permitted to bring with them onto the train
only one piece of luggage. The checking procedure consisted of
bringing the bag over to an employee on the platform who, after asking
me whether I was going to Ste. Foy or Quebec, took the suitcase, placed
it on a baggage cart, and gave me a claim check.
As I was checking my suitcase, another train pulled
into the track on the other side of the platform. That was
Train 52 from Aldershot/Toronto, scheduled to arrive at 11:45
a.m. However, the arrivals board had indicated that the train was
running late (or, was, as they say in French, en retard), and it would
not be arriving until 12:15 p.m. It turned out that the train
from Aldershot was actually arriving on Track 13, while our train was
on Track 14. It didn’t really matter, as each track was on the
opposite side of the same platform.
I boarded Car 3 of our train and walked down to my
assigned Seat 8S. Renaissance cars have 2-and-1 seating, and
passengers traveling alone are, to the extent possible, assigned the
single seats. The seats – which are raised about a foot above the
level of the aisle – are quite roomy and comfortable, with more leg
room than Amfleet I coaches, but there is limited space for storage of
luggage. There is a tiny storage compartment above your seat,
which is too small even to put a coat, and storage space is also
available below the seat, but that space is very awkward, as it slopes
backward at about a 30-degree angle. I later noticed that another
passenger had succeeded in putting a suitcase about the same size as
mine under their seat, but I decided to put my backpack, green bag and
coat in a storage compartment towards the front of car (actually, few
passengers used this compartment, and there would have been plenty of
room there for the suitcase that I had checked). I subsequently
also noticed that there was a coat rack in the back of the car where I
could have hung my coat.
There are 49 seats in each Renaissance coach car –
16 rows of three seats, and a single seat on the left side at the very
rear of the seating portion of the car, opposite the coat rack.
The first four rows of seats are arranged around tables (with seats
facing the table in each direction), thus making it possible for groups
of four to sit together. Behind these four rows of seats is the
luggage compartment, and the rest of the car has 12 rows of
forward-facing seats, with a single seat in the rear, and restrooms in
the very back of the car. My car was quite full, with all but
about 10 of the 49 seats occupied by passengers. But since I had
a single seat all to myself, it really didn’t matter to me how many
other seats were occupied – there was no issue of passengers putting
their bags on adjacent seats to discourage someone else from sitting
I was rather hungry so, even before we departed
Central Station, I took out a package of salami and a roll, made a
sandwich, and had it for lunch along with a bottle of Snapple and a bag
of potato chips that I had purchased on the way to the station.
We departed Central Station on time at 12:30
p.m. As we pulled out of the station, I noticed two kinds of
commuter rail equipment waiting for the afternoon rush hour.
There were electric MU cars used on the line to Deux Montagnes (this
line formerly featured ancient electric engines that were over 75 years
old when retired only about ten years ago) and standard coaches powered
by diesel engines, used on the line to Mont-Saint-Hilaire, which
follows the same route that our train to Quebec City does. I
noticed that the diesel train in the station was powered by ex-Amtrak
F-40 engines 287 and 319.
Soon, we crossed the Victoria Bridge over the St.
Lawrence River and, at 12:42 p.m., we made our first stop at St.
Lambert. Three passengers boarded here, and one of them took the
seat directly in front of me. Our stop lasted for two minutes,
and we departed one minute late at 12:44 p.m.
There is no dining or lounge car on these
Renaissance trains, but limited beverage and food service is provided
by an attendant who comes through the aisle with a trolley cart.
When the attendant came through my car, I obtained a cup of tea from
We continued through suburbs of Montreal,
paralleling Route 116 for part of the way. At 12:55 p.m., we
passed through McMasterville – the next-to-last stop on the commuter
service to Mont-Saint-Hilaire – after which I noticed a high mountain
looming in the background. I guess that this mountain – the only
peak that I observed along the entire route – must be Mt. St. Hilaire,
which gives the town its name. Then, at 1:08 p.m., we passed the
St. Hyacinthe station, which is a stop for some VIA trains, but not
Our next station stop was Drummondville, where we
arrived at 1:33 p.m. and departed on time two minutes later.
Several passengers detrained here. The Drummondville station was
on the opposite side of the tracks from where I was sitting, but it
appeared to be a large, classic brick building that is still in use by
The scenery for most of the way consisted of farms,
forests and rural villages. Everything was covered with over a
foot of snow, so it made for a very pretty sight, but the scenery
wasn’t especially exciting.
At 2:18 p.m., we again slowed down, and soon we
passed southbound VIA Train #25, which was waiting for us on a siding
and consisted of seven Renaissance cars pulled by engine 903. I
now decided to walk through the train. I found that Car 4,
directly behind us, was also nearly full, but the last car on the train
was closed off and used only by the crew. In front of our car was
a first-class car, with gold seats (the seats in the coach cars are
blue). The passengers in this car were being served a tray meal,
but otherwise, the car seemed to be nearly identical to the coach that
I was sitting in. Since it didn’t seem appropriate for me to go
any further, I returned to my coach, where I remained for the rest of
At 2:56 p.m., we crossed the frozen Chaudiere River
into the town of Charny, and we came to a stop at the Charny station
two minutes later. Our stop lasted for only one minute, and when
we departed at 2:59 p.m., we were four minutes early (since no
passengers are carried locally between Charny and Quebec, the train can
Just past the Charny station, we turned left,
heading north towards Quebec City. This part of the ride would be
new mileage for me (up to here, I had previously covered the same route
when I took the Ocean/Atlantic between Montreal and Halifsx in
1994). Then, at 3:05 p.m., we crossed the landmark Pont du
Quebec, the longest cantilever bridge in the world when built in
1917. The bridge is particularly famous for an accident which
occurred during its construction, when the center cantilever span
collapsed and fell into the river as it was being lifted into place,
resulting in a number of fatalities and a significant delay in the
completion of the bridge.
As soon as we reached the north end of the bridge,
at 3:08 p.m., we came to a stop. Five minutes later, an
announcement was made that we are stopped for a signal. This is
first time on the trip that we have been delayed for any reason, and it
now looks like we will not arrive at our final destination on time
(although this is of no concern to me).
Finally, at 3:18 p.m., we moved ahead, and we
arrived at the Ste. Foy station at 3:21 p.m., 11 minutes late.
Ste. Foy has a fairly large modern brick station. It now serves
as a suburban station for Quebec City, but it once served as its main
train station (in 1976, the Gare du Palais in Quebec City was closed,
and all trains terminated at Ste. Foy until the Gare du Palais was
reopened nine years later).
We departed Ste. Foy at 3:23 p.m. and proceeded
west, following a rather roundabout route which eventually curves
around north, east and then south, terminating at the Gare du
Palais. At first, the train follows the bluffs along the St.
Lawrence River, with spectacular views over the river and the Pont du
Quebec that we had just crossed. I moved to the left side of the
train so that I could take in these views. We then turned sharply
north for a short distance and continued heading northeast along some
more bluffs, with more panoramic views to the left of the train.
It’s interesting that by far the best scenery on the route is on the
very last segment – between Ste. Foy and Quebec City.
Finally, we crossed and then recrossed the St.
Charles River and, at 3:48 p.m. – 18 minutes late -- we pulled into our
final destination, the Gare du Palais in Quebec City. Given the
name of this edifice, I had anticipated that we would be arriving into
a “palace.” Imagine my disappointment when I saw our train
pulling into a non-descript chamber, with an ugly concrete high-level
platform straddling two tracks and dark ceiling supported by concrete
columns. It looked more like a dungeon than a palace!
I detrained and, after having my picture taken next
to the train by an attendant, walked down the platform towards the
station. This was the first opportunity I had to check out the
entire train, and I noticed that – like the southbound train we had
passed along the way – our train consisted of seven cars, pulled by
engine 913. The rear three cars were coaches, and then there were
two First Class cars, with a service car between them (the service car
contains a lounge area which is accessible to First Class
passengers). The first car on the train was the baggage
car. As I passed the baggage car, I noticed that my suitcase had
already been placed on the platform, waiting for me to pick it
up. I was not at all inconvenienced or delayed by the requirement
to check my suitcase; in fact, the whole procedure reminded me of a
similar experience I had many years ago when I flew on a turbo-prop
plane with very limited space for baggage.
Okay, maybe the platform area was less glamorous
than I expected, but perhaps I’ll find the “palace” once I walk into
the station building. Again I was disappointed. I entered
an undistinguished modern room with a low ceiling and nothing but some
modern-looking seats for waiting passengers. It seemed to me that
the station had been grossly misnamed.
But there was more. The exit from this small
waiting room led down a short flight of stairs to a pair of doors, and
they opened up into a grand, classic space, with a high ceiling,
decorative brick walls and steel trusses supporting the roof.
This was undoubtedly the waiting room of the historic Gare du
Palais. Part of this large space has been converted to stores,
but there are still benches and other seating available to the public
waiting for trains.
And it got better yet. After passing
underneath an arched window, I came to the original ticketing concourse
at the entrance to the station. This room features a dome, with a
map of the Canadian railroads embossed in stained glass at the
apex. To the right, as you enter the station, are the original
ticket windows, and under an historic sign for Canadian National
Railways and the Quebec Central Railway, you can still purchase tickets
for VIA trains!
I began to realize what must have happened.
When the Gare du Palais was abandoned by CN in 1976, its trainshed was
torn down and an ugly modern office building was constructed in its
place. Then, when train service was restored nine years later,
the new building made it impossible to restore the original tracks
behind the station building, so new tracks had to be installed to the
west of the original station building. So the non-descript
concrete platform with the dark ceiling was constructed, together with
the undistinguished waiting area. But passengers still enter
through the grand entrance of the original station, buy their tickets
at the original ticket windows, and can wait, if they choose, in the
original high-ceilinged waiting room. All in all, the Gare du
Palais does still largely live up to its name!
It was now about 4:00 p.m., but my friend Tom would
be taking a later train that would not be arriving until 7:00
p.m. I decided to walk around the Old City of Quebec for a while
and then return to the station to meet Tom at 7:00 p.m. I
discovered that the Old City is situated high above the station, and I
had to climb some steep and narrow roads to get there. I spent
about an hour in the Old City and then descended back to the station
via a different route. I found the Old City quite interesting,
but did not enter any of the historic buildings, figuring that I would
do that tomorrow or the next day. About 5:30 p.m., I returned to
the station. I sat down in the historic waiting room (which was
practically deserted at this late hour), took out some food for dinner
(some of which I had purchased from a small store in the Old City) and,
after eating, continued working on these memoirs.
My friend Tom’s train arrived only one minute late
at 7:01 p.m. We walked one block to a bus stop, where the 800 bus
immediately arrived. The bus took only about ten minutes to get
to D’Estimauville Street, where we got off. We had to walk
several blocks to our motel, but Tom pointed out that we actually could
have gotten off the bus a stop or two earlier, which would have been
much closer to our motel.
My trip to Quebec City on VIA was very enjoyable,
and I’m now looking forward to spending a few days exploring this
interesting and historic city.