Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rose-coloured Reviews Via 1 Train Service

There are those who are to the manner born, and there are those who are still excited when the waitress gives us two after-dinner mints instead of one. I am firmly in the second category (I love each of my insurance company give-away pens with all my heart, and despair when I snag a pair of stockings after less than 10 wears). Those in the second category are stunned even the modest level of luxury on Via Rail's Via 1 class.

I have been devoted to Via since undergrad at McGill necessitated student six-packs, which are such a very good deal. And "comfort class", as the regular part of the train is known, is just fine--at least if you are of average height and don't mind bringing a bag lunch. The only people I can think of who would *need* Via 1 are the above-average in size...the business traveller could, I believe, make use of the Via wireless internet just fine from comfort class.

But despite being un*needed*, the comforts above Comfort Class are perfectly delightful and desirable when thrust upon a person (by, say, the travel arrangers at the Ottawa Writers' Festival). I had been in the Panorama Lounge before, keeping a business-travelling friend company, so I knew what delights lay ahead--a comfortable place to sit (otherwise, you wait standing in a line-up for non-reserved seats on the train) and free drinks, as well as a private bathroom.

But to get all this you have to pick-up your ticket at the general ticket desk, and when I arrived (early, natch) said ticket desk was experiencing a mel-down. Apparently, Wednesday last, Via computers all over the country ceased to function for an hour or so. My departure hour. When a security guard took my ticket voucher, though, I didn't know it boded ominous and just thought she was being helpful. "This is my first Via 1 trip," I confided. "I'm very excited to go in the lounge."

I guess I have seen people less willing to share in my excitement (those insurance pen/breath-mint incidents come to mind) but she was close. But, after we'd stood together a while staring at the ticket agent staring at her unusable computer, a bright spark flickered in the security guard's grim eyes. "Would you like to go in the lounge *now*? We'll take care of the ticket for you." And just like that she got what she wanted (rid of me) and I got what I wanted (free diet Coke at 9:17 am).

I actually thought that all the Toronto porters, guards, agents, etc., were unusually thoughtful that morning, particularly considering what inconveniences they were putting up with. But in truth, they actually didn't process my ticket voucher at all, just looked my name up on the manifest and assumed all was well, which made for a painless trip out and, on the way back, a horrible half-hour of staring at a teeth-sucking silent ticket agent who couldn't figure out how to go back in time with his (perfectly functioning) computer and make up a ticket billing for a trip I'd already taken. It could be that the Toronto agents are better-trained than the Ottawa ones, or simply that the Toronto folk shirked responsibility for setting something up for me, but I definitely think the Ottawa guy could've been nicer to me and my accompanying lovely festival volunteer in the endless period we spent together.

But ok, after all that, both trips were actually lovely, and pretty much identical. The seats in Via 1 are slightly wider and higher than comfort class, and there's enough leg room for the limbs of those well above six-feet (or for your laptop case, purse, and discarded boots). Then there are these weird sculpted tusks of pillows on the headrest. I think they are meant to keep your head from tipping onto your neighbour or into the window, but since I *like* to sleep pressed against the window (who knows why?) I wasn't crazy about it. Actually, though, there's plenty of room to get around the pillow.

Ok, everything else about this train-ride review is actually a restaurant review. The first train I took left at 9:30 am, and we were offered coffee, tea or juice; followed by pastries; then veggie chips; soda/cocktails; a three-course meal; coffee/tea; truffles, and maybe more cocktails if so desired, before we waddled off at 2:15. Sheesh. I didn't sample the pastries or the cocktails, but the coffee, soda and veggie chips (called "Yum-yums" but still good) were all delightful. On the return trip, it was 6:15pm to 10:10pm, so we had an additional round of cocktails/soda instead of the pastries.

I crashed out (slouched against the window) just before the lunch service, and my seatmate (as he told me later) and the server debated and then decided against waking me--they held my first course in reserve until I regained consciousness. My seatmate, by the way, was as nice and friendly as could be, while quite obviously making the best of the bad situation that was sitting with me. It wasn't personal; he just wanted to sit alone, and made no secret of this to the porters and servers that happened by. I felt that he should have been more discreet and pretended that it was his heart's desire to have to stand up every 1.5 hours so I could pee. However, when he finally did leave (he took someone's spot after they got off in Fallowfield) I put my feet on his seat.

Both meals were very good, though the lunch was mainly better than the dinner. There was a wide range of main courses, a fish, a chicken and a meat-meat each time, though if you are a veggie you have to order when you buy the ticket (which seems strange, given that it's 2008 and many random meals just happen to be meatless). Also, the first courses both ways had an animal-origin protein, and there were no choices about that. A seafood salad on cucumbers going out, and sliced beef on rice-edaname salad coming home. I enjoyed the seafood and picked off the beef from the otherwise lovely salad (when I first heard the term "edaname salad" about a year ago, I was puzzled, but now I like them), but it would seem easier just to go the greens and croutons salad route, which I think pleases most of the people most of the time.

I had tilapia with vegetables and tiny little potatoes cut into quarters for the lunch, and slided breaded chicken over linguine and vegetables and a very small amount of red sauce for the supper. Both meals were nice, but just by virtue of the content I liked the fish better (breaded chicken=pointless, in my opinion). I also spent some time trying to decide if the meals, which are served in little ceramic bins about the size of two decks of cards, with everything heaped inside, are the same amount of food one gets in a restaurant all sprawled out on a plate. I think it was, about.

There were services on the Via 1 that I didn't take advantage of--free newspapers, extra pillows, checked baggage service, possibly things that I didn't even know about. But the most famous of all, the truffles, I was ready for. How wonderful--I had a chocolate one and a white chocolate one on my respective journeys, and both were full of delight (er, if you definte delight as sugar, cocoa butter and cream).

Also, whatever class you travel, the rhythm of wheels on rails is a delightful lullabye.

I've seen them all and man they're all the same


August said...

I love the train, but I've had terrible experiences with VIA.

During the holiday season they overbook by 10-20% hoping folks will cancel or not show up. If you get on in Toronto it's fine, because seats in most cars are first-come, first-served. But if you get on at any point afterward on the trip west (I got on in Sudbury), you usually have to fight for a seat on one of the cars they add on to make up for the overbooking. What that usually means is a dome/observation car. That sounds like fun, except that the seats are smaller than on a Greyhound, and the last time I took the train they still allowed smoking in the 'lounge' area of those cars. So you sit in these tiny little seats with smoke wafting up from below. To compensate, they turn on the air conditioning, and then at 8pm they turn out the lights so people can sleep. Again, great, except that in that part of the country at that time of year it's already 30 below outside, so you wind up freezing have to death in a dark (no reading lights in a dome car) smokey room. I spent an eighteen hour trip that way. *Twice*. It didn't matter that I booked months in advance. All that mattered was that I didn't get on in Toronto. :/

Glad to hear your experience was better.

ferd said...

Whatever class you travel, the rhythm of wheels on rails is a delightful lullabye.

you should sell this phrase to via.

Laura said...

Sorry to say it, Rebecca, but you are now ruined for regular train travel. I know of what I speak... Since VIA 1 plied me with bonbons and booze, I have become a curmudgeonly VIA-regular person.

Still it was worth it. So, so worth it. ;)


Rebecca Rosenblum said...

August and Laura, I do not dispute that life is tough in the comfort class (I think it's nearly $3 for a can of soda or something ridiculous like that) but the train is so cheap (compared to planes) and so much more glamourous than the bus (I once fell asleep on a traffic median while waiting out a "meal break" stop on the Greyhound) that I will love it forever. And ever and ever.