Sunday, September 22, 2002

UK's loss is Canada's Renaissance

To Union Station in Toronto to view the new VIA Rail Renaissance Train. The PR effort behind showing off the train to the public does them credit - although a lady was wailing on the platform that she couldn't buy a green VIA polo shirt. There were 400 visitors in the first hour.
VIA Rail Canada has purchased 139 new passenger cars, the first major purchase of passenger rail cars in more than 20 years. The words 'new' and 'train' seldom go together.
These made-in-Britain railcars, manufactured by GEC-Alsthom in the mid-nineties, were bought as a job lot at far below market price. The market value was stated by VIA as $400-500 million but they paid a "fraction" of this amount. Final assembly on some of the cars was carried out by Bombardier in Canada.
The new cars were originally commissioned by European Nightstock Services, a consortium of railways from France, Germany, Britain, Denmark and Belgium, for operation on overnight trips through the U.K.-Europe Channel Tunnel with destinations in the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Chaotic management of the UK rail network, the cancellation of the London rail 'bypass' and increased competition from budget short-haul airlines sank the project.
The new equipment will expand the total VIA passenger fleet by one third, allowing VIA to improve service on the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor; introduce new services between Montreal - Halifax/Gaspe and free up equipment to respond to increased demand on the Western transcontinental service. There is also talk of a Toronto-Ottawa sleeper.
The cars we saw were magnificent and certainly made you want to book a trip. Every car includes 50 seats, a seat for a passenger in a wheelchair, adjustable lighting, a luggage compartment and plugs for computers and cell phones (from January 2003). The Service Car has waiter service, a take-out counter, a suite for passengers with disabilities, a lounge with standing area for drinkers (hurrah!) and an electronic message board for displaying route information. The only criticism I would have is that the corridors in the sleeping cars are very narrow and would be difficult for outsize persons to negotiate.

Bras d'Or in 2003

A public affairs spokesman for VIA Rail told me that they "had sold a lot of tickets for the Bras d'Or for next year." The Bras d'Or is a summer-only tourist train between Halifax and Sydney (about 230 miles). When asked about the future of the line , he said "if the owners lift the track then it's SOL!"
This is a world-class trip aboard a magificient 1950's streamliner complete with observation cars, table service and live entertainment. The ride through Cape Breton stands comparison with any of the great railway journeys anywhere with wonderful views of the lake, countryside and wildlife. Get on it while you still can.

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