Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tracking Canada via VIA Rail

Upgraded to Business 
Montreal Station
Quebec Station
So, I missed the connecting train to Ottawa. The reason quite simply was my incoming train got in late. Not by a few minutes but an hour and more. It was something I never fathomed would happen in super-efficient Canada. It’s no unusual occurrence for us in India, where we expect a train not to be running on time. So much so, on that elementary blackboard found at all stations to hand-scribble the train status, it’s not startling to find ‘late by 3.5 hrs’ or even ‘18 hrs’, starring unflappably at you, this despite a certain Mamatadi’s claims. In fact, a minor delay like an hour is considered par for the course. Not in Canada, though, where every second is accounted for and the electronic train-info boards proudly flash an efficient ‘On Time’.
“This is a rare incidence, very rare,” the service manager of my coach gravely tells me, as I run up to him yet again, wondering what I’d do in an alien city with no Plan B chalked out. So apologetic and ashen faced was the official at having put a “passenger through immense trouble” that I felt the need to reassure him! “You can place the blame on the Indian aboard,” I joked. But he was in no mood for humour and continued to look solemn.
I was on board VIA Rail’s Train 25, travelling from Quebec City to Montreal. The train’s scheduled arrival was 4.11 pm and considering the record punctuality I had booked myself on the 4.50 pm connection to Ottawa. A transfer time of half-an-hour-plus was ample, I thought, having been told about the systematic Canadian stations with bold signage, alert staff and platforms clubbed in one section. Changing trains at Montreal Central Station, where platforms are underground, would have basically meant going up an escalator and coming down an adjoining one.
It was a wet, grey and stormy day and my train would slow down at regular intervals. By default, I held the weather responsible for the delay, till the service manager mentioned a freight locomotive up ahead on the same track being the cause. “Don’t worry madame,” he had assured in a French lilt, “there are handful other passengers who were to take connecting trains. VIA Rail will compensate.” I wondered what was in store, imagining a parallel situation back home, where I would be running from pillar to paan-chewing officer, trying to manage a refund, spend some hours in a packed waiting room or think about other means of transport to get going.
As we arrived in Montreal an announcement over the train’s public address system asked all passengers who had missed their connections to stay back on the platform. There were 17 of us and the moment we disembarked, we were received by two smart officials of VIA Rail, who besides (yet again) profusely apologising, announced we had all been accommodated on the next trains to our various destinations. Ah relief! Not just that, as compensation we had been upgraded from Economy to Business Class and additionally were being given C$ 15 coupons for buying ourselves a snack. Now, that sounded scrumptious. The list of compensatory rewards, however, didn’t conclude there. We were asked to keep the ticket stubs carefully as these entitled us 50 per cent refund on the fare paid for both legs of the journey, which would be adjusted against a future train reservation. Phew! Missing a train had never felt so good.
The way the entire situation was handled was faultless. There was clockwork precision at each step and I felt we commonplace passengers were given a treatment usually reserved for someone like a state guest. I realised that’s the beauty of discipline the welfare state of Canada/the West is well-known for. Till the train episode, I had found the regimented mindset of the country and its people a tad too binding and sorely missed the chaos of home. Post-that I began appreciating it. Though I still won’t exchange our commotion and its brand of vibrancy for that strict order, an improvement of our systems—basically bringing in commitment and transparency—involving dealings by the common man could definitely do with a complete overhaul.
Quebec to Montreal is around 270 km (train route) and the journey takes three hours between French Canada’s two largest cities. Quebec city, a Unesco world heritage spot, is French, friendly (yes) and boutiquishly charming. Montreal, in comparison, is hip and happening, and has a devil-may-care attitude, especially towards rules. “We do things differently from the rest of Canada,” is their common refrain.
The train stations too reflect the individual personalities and in that respect while Montreal has a contemporary buzz, the château-like heritage Quebec railway station, Gare du Palais, is a delightful place to be: warm and inviting, with a string of restaurants and cafés serving appetising fare. I explored the latter a bit before experiencing pre-boarding formalities that were parallel to air travel, with specific rules for luggage check-in (see factfile) and sequential boarding. Only ticket holders are permitted on platforms which, to me, appeared bereft of any emotion. No chaiwala, no crowd, no noise! What a contrast to the hustle-bustle of an Indian platform where the world converges and at times entire families come for a send-off which translates into waving good-bye till the train is out of sight.
A similar reserved air greeted me within the chair car coaches which albeit had delightfully aesthetic and spotless interiors (when will we ever get close to those standards?) relaxing ambience, attentive service and quick wi-fi internet connectivity. Its large windows conferred a sense of the country’s vastness as the train cut across acres of farmlands and conifer/deciduous forests, passing or stopping briefly at quiet stations like Sainte-Foy, Charny, Drummondville, Saint-Hyacinthe and Saint-Lambert before arriving in Montreal. I was booked in Business Class (earlier called VIA 1) and the ticket included a meal and complimentary Canadian wines. The food was presented and served with a flourish and I relished the experience, even though the vegetarian option was rather sorry, but it was more than compensated with a sinfully-delicious dessert.
Train travel is not an everyman option in Canada. The Quebec-Montreal regular Business Class fare is C$ 158 (Rs 7,900) whereas in India a similar distance and class is around Rs 950. The rates are flexi and fluctuate by the hour depending on demand. However, there are a variety of deals/discounts (economy special fare, discounted, supersaver etc) on offer. By the time I checked fares online and eventually booked, I was left poorer by a few dollars. But what a way I was compensated!

Click image to zoom
Quick facts:
Book train tickets at:
Baggage: Maximum of 2 pieces per traveller, with a maximum dimension of (26 x 18 x 9 in) and each weighing up to 23 kg
Accommodation: The luxury Fairmont hotels ( were built in the early 20th century, specifically for train passengers. So it’s in order to stay there and absorb history.
Quebec: Fairmont Château Frontenac
Montreal: Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth

Published in The New Indian Express, January 2011


Vivian, VIA Rail's virtual tour guide said...

Very sorry that your train was late & you missed a connection, and happy to hear we were able to accommodate your travel to Ottawa without too much inconvenience. Looking forward to reading more about your Canadian adventures!

Vivian is Virtual
VIA Rail's tour guide

bs said...

Thanks Vivian.
VIA Rail was an interesting experience.

Anonymous said...

you should seriously write a one or a mystery!
i loved this one...made me feel like I was right there....and the descriptions were beautifully done:)