All aboard the future

By Brody Flannigan | Trip Reports

Jan 23

A ride aboard VIA Rail Canada’s new Siemens Charger/Venture trainsets

As a railfan, I take the train any time I can. Not only is it a much cleaner and convenient way to travel, but I genuinely find it to be fun. When my employer gave me the opportunity to travel to headquarters in Montréal, I couldn’t turn it down and quickly booked a business class ticket aboard VIA Rail Canada’s train #26, the 14:20 Ottawa – Montréal – Québec service, and crossed my fingers in the hopes of being able to climb aboard one of VIA’s new Siemens Charger/Venture trainsets.

On the day of my travels, I arrived at Ottawa station very early to see VIA #33, which would become #26, arrive from Montréal. I had access to the Business Lounge thanks to my ticket, which afforded me a view of the tracks towards the Alexandria Sub. I savoured a delicious grilled cheese sandwich from the Ministry of Coffee shop located inside the station as well as a milky hot chocolate from the coffee machine in the lounge. Perfect for the cold day January day on which I was travelling!

Boarding train #26 at Ottawa

To my delight, #33 entered the station being operated with a Siemens consist. Unfortunately, rail traffic control sent the train to track 4, rendering the taking of any good photos from the business lounge nearly impossible. It is to be noted that #33 arrived “rear first”, i.e., being driven from cab car 2301. This demonstrates one of the biggest improvements over the current fleet: the cab car, which allows a train to change directions without a time-consuming “wye” maneuver.

The train being used for #33 and #26 was VIA Siemens trainset #1, the second set delivered to VIA, composed of locomotive 2202 and cab car 2301, the first delivered set being set #0. Unbeknownst to me, Transport Action Canada board member Tim Hayman was able to snap some photos of the train as it was being readied for #33 in Montréal earlier in the day.

There were a lot of VIA employees around the station, many of which seemed to have arrived on #33. Among them was a class of on-board service attendants undergoing training. Also brought to town aboard #33 were two employees from the sustainability department at VIA (in fact, they jokingly said that I had the entirety of the department in front of me). I had a pleasant conversation with them, and they mentioned that a lot of steps have been taken to reduce the garbage generated aboard the new trains (more on this later). They also mentioned in passing that Exporail in Saint-Constant, QC, had approached VIA in the hopes of acquiring an LRC car for their collection, though I didn’t get more details on this.

As the Venture train was being prepared for the return trip to Montréal, I snapped a photo of cab car 2301 alongside Craig Manor, being used as a buffer car on the consist which came in from Toronto on train 50, awaiting the trip to the M&O wye in preparation for the return trip to Toronto as train 645 later in the afternoon.

Cab Car 2301 Peeks out from behind Craig Manor

No mention of the Venture train was made when train 26 was called about 35 minutes prior to departure. Upon entering the train, the “wow” factor was immediate. Passengers were directed to take “any seat they want, except for the tables of 4” by the on-board train crew. I picked seat 6D in car 1, which is the rearmost forward-facing single seat.

We were also directed to place our suitcases in the overhead racks and to use the under-seat space for smaller items. There were no luggage racks adjacent to the door as seen in LRC and Renaissance cars. Instead, much smaller luggage racks are located at the opposite end of the car. The service attendant informed me that under the “new” baggage policy, which will presumably be applied on Venture trains when they officially enter service, passengers will have to pay a supplement to make use of these luggage racks. I see no problem with this, as I had no difficulty placing my fairly large suitcase on the rack above me. From my understanding, these racks are intended for very large pieces of luggage, such as sporting equipment or musical instruments (Or, as I have seen on a previous trip, pieces of a set for a play).

My seat: Car 1, 6D

I snapped a photo of my seat, which I must mention was very comfortable, much more so than the newer seats seen in LRC and HEP-2 cars. Contrary to what some have said, these seats do in fact recline. The lever to release the reclining mechanism is somewhat hidden, located below the seat cushion in the front corner. I quickly noticed one of the sustainability measures aimed at reducing trash on board, mentioned to me during the conversation with the friendly sustainability employees: The removal of the traditional brown Operation Lifesaver paper trash bags in the new trains, as they don’t allow garbage to be sorted into recycling, compost, and landfill waste. Instead, the service crew performed more walk throughs of the car to collect garbage, and passengers have access to divided litter bins at each end of the car. I must also commend VIA for the number of electrical outlets provided. In my single business class seat, I had access to four 120-volt outlets as well as an equal number of USB-A charging ports, integrated into the outlets. Very convenient.

Onboard the train, at least half of the passengers were identifiable as VIA employees, many of them on duty. Among them were the class of service attendants which had arrived on train 33. They were being given a business class experience to help them better understand what the passenger experiences. The atmosphere was cheerful on the train, especially among the VIA employees who seemed very proud of the result of many years of hard work toward these trains.

The train departed Ottawa about 10 minutes behind schedule. We were told this delay was due to an inspection being carried out on the train by the maintenance department. Upon departure, I noticed the first of a few Siemens pickup trucks that I saw along the journey. Presumably, these trucks carried maintenance personnel who were observing the train for defects.

As we cleared out of Ottawa station, the service manager came on the PA system and introduced themselves. They mentioned that we were on a brand-new train and explained that passengers travelling beyond Montreal would have to change trains at Central station. Though the sound quality on the PA system is noticeably better than on older trains, the new trains suffer from a small amount of feedback, occasionally causing a loud shrieking noise during announcements. Hopefully this issue will be fixed as it can be a bit disruptive.

One of the many overhead information displays on the train

After the service manager finished welcoming us onboard in both official languages, a pre-recorded safety announcement was broadcast informing us of the different safety features on the train, essentially following the script we are familiar with on the existing fleet. As this announcement was broadcast, the text was simultaneously displayed on the overhead information displays. The traditional station announcements made 10 minutes prior to arrival and upon arrival have been replaced by automated announcements which follow the same script we are familiar with (accompanied, of course, by the corresponding information being displayed on the information screens). As is current practice, upon entering Québec, the order of the automated announcements was reversed, with the French announcement being made first, followed by the English announcement.

VIA branded water glass

About 10 minutes into the journey, the crew came through and offered beverages from a brand-new service cart bearing a massive sideways VIA logo on the side, which I found to be a nice touch. The water I asked for was served to me in an actual glass as opposed to a plastic glass, another one of the measures the sustainability employees told me about. According to the service staff, three glasses are provided for each passenger. Of course, these glasses bear the VIA logo.

This is when I discovered what I found to be the biggest annoyance on these new trains. Compared to other trains, the lowest position on the footrest in business class is a bit higher off the ground, and it seems that the fold down table is lower and thicker than on the current fleet. This resulted in me being unable to make use of both the table and the footrest simultaneously, as the table would rest on my knees and therefore not be flat , posing a risk to my drink, which I wanted in my stomach and not on the floor. Considering that I am about 5’8”, I can imagine this could become unpleasant for taller passengers. Unfortunately, I cannot see how this issue could be rectified without redesigning a large part of the seats, so I have a feeling this issue is here to stay.

Lunch tray

Lunch service began as we passed through Maxville, a town known for hosting the Glengarry Highland Games and which was formerly home to a VIA station. On offer was some grilled chicken, served cold, or a cheese plate. I opted for the chicken option and was not disappointed. The meal was served on a tray much more compact than what I have previously seen, leaving a lot of room on the tray table. Surprisingly, the silverware provided was not engraved with the VIA logo, though it seems that this is not specific to the new trains, as the same was true on my return journey aboard a Renaissance consist.

After holding briefly for a CP freight train at De Beaujeu, we entered the Kingston Subdivision at Coteau. I decided this would be a good time to explore the train. Some of the more notable features were the flip-down seats provided near restrooms, as well as the presence of a water bottle refilling station at the entrance to the rearmost car.

I found that the train tended to sway side to side quite a lot, making walking through a little more challenging. Thankfully, handles are provided on the side of each seat, which means no longer having to awkwardly hold on to the back of a stranger’s seat to avoid falling over. Overall, though, the ride was extremely smooth and quiet. Despite being in the first car, the locomotive could not be heard at all, and the sound of the horn was barely noticeable.

Water bottle refilling station provided in the rearmost car

I felt the call of nature as we neared Dorval and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to look at the accessible lavatory provided in my car. Thanks to the handy restroom status indicator on the information screen, I was able to tell when the facility was free. Because of its accessible nature, the restroom door is electrically operated at the push of a button. Inside, the restroom is very spacious and was remarkably clean. I did find the door lock, which is engaged by a separate button from the one used to close the door, to be slightly confusing, as after pressing the button to lock the door, the green lights around the control started flashing. I would have preferred to see a lever style control which by its nature indicates the status of the lock, as seen in some newer British trains. It appears I was not alone in my confusion, and I noticed many passengers failing to lock the door as they used the facilities, as evidenced by the status indicator remaining green. The other slight disappointment in the restrooms was the soap dispenser, which did not work. I was however surprised to find a small information display in the restroom showing the next stop, which I think is very clever. 

As we approached Montréal, the service manager came on over the PA and made the standard announcement, and re-iterated that passengers continuing to Québec City would need to alight and cross the platform to continue their journey on another train.

We passed the Exo Pointe-Saint-Charles facility and saw the Farine Five Roses sign before ducking underground into Central station, pulling in alongside an Exo commuter train composed of some Multilevel cars, and the VIA LRC consist that would continue as train #26 to Québec City. Montréal being my destination, I alighted and made my way upstairs and towards the exit.

Overall, I must say that I was thoroughly impressed with this Siemens train, and can’t wait to ride on one again, despite the annoyance associated with the table clearance issue. Kudos to VIA Rail and the entire train staff for this wonderful train trip!

This trip report was not sponsored or endorsed by VIA Rail. Photography and text contributed by Brody Flannigan, title image by Tiernan Johnson.

Leave a Comment:

Leave a Comment: