Riding VIA Rail’s Bras D’or, Halifax to Sydney

Waking early after a few days of sleeping in (even if just a little) was difficult. But given the day’s activity, I couldn’t wait. I was taking a train.

Yes, a train. A month on the CBC special hadn’t dampened my spirit one bit. And the free coupon one of the VIA product managers had arranged for me gave me the perfect opportunity to ride more trains. (If I could, I’d probably take the train back to Calgary.)

The Bras D’or (in English, “Golden Arm”) is a rail cruise VIA runs from Halifax to Sydney in Cape Breton. It’s a 10 hour ride, arriving in the early evening. You spend the whole day on the train, save for one scheduled stop at Port Hawkesbury.

I was the youngest person in the waiting room. A seniors tour was on the train, as were several other couples travelling on their own. There were two or three others, not counting myself, who didn’t have grey hair. But that was fine with me.

This was the first train I would board where I didn’t know anyone – not the crew, not the passengers. It was a peculiar feeling. No more unsettling than how the interior mirrored the CBC train. The coach cars had extremely similar layouts, but none of the clutter. The Skyline car (#8505) was a spitting image of the one we’d had (#8502), except for the TV in the coffee shop. The Laurentide Park is a bare six digits in serial numbers from the Banff Park … the only visible difference is the painting in the Mural Lounge. It almost felt like home.

Breakfast, in the form of fresh fruit and a small bowl of cereal, came not long after departure. We rounded the Bedford Basin and began our trip out to Truro. From there, we’d go through Stellarton, New Glasgow, Antigonish, before arriving at the Canso Causeway. We’d cross into Cape Breton and pause for a while at Port Hawkesbury. Then north(ish) through Cape Breton to North Sydney, Sydney Mines, and then into Sydney itself.

I started wandering about not long after the empty breakfast tray was taken away. I found the dome cars in marginal condition – the glass was either blurred or contained many small cracks. The windows are a decade old, and are in need of replacement. The scenery is no less beautiful, just difficult to take pictures of through the windows.

I ended up in the coffee shop of the Skyline car, where the windows are large, very clean, and defect-free. Not a perfect place to take pictures, but there was an added benefit – this was where the crew sat when not doing rounds. They recognized my CBC vest. They asked if I had been on the CBC special.

The next few hours passed quickly as I slowly got to know the crew. There was the Service Manager, Ken, and his staff Lisa, Joanne, and Desmond. (Desmond is also a service manager, but wanted the quieter trip of the Bras D’or, and takes a seat behind Ken, who has more seniority.) But that’s not the entire crew – two of Cape Breton’s finest represent Cape Breton Tourism on board, Angela and Stephanie.

By the time lunch had rolled around, I had gotten to know some of the staff; listened as Stephanie, Angela, and Lisa tried to write down the lyrics to “Coal Town Road”, a traditional Cape Breton tune; and been offered a rail fan’s dream. While Ken and I discussed some of the finer points of rail travel, he leaned in, grinned, and asked if I’d like to see the cab. I thought he meant while we were stopped. He meant while we were running.

Amongst rail fans, a cab ride is like winning an Oscar. It’s an award bestowed by your peers, and an honour to be treasured. Mostly because the official route in getting a cab ride is long, convoluted, and extremely difficult. (We found this out on the CBC train when we tried to get Daryl into the cab to shoot video.) I did my best to agree eagerly, without looking too eager.

This was kept very hushed, because there was a problem with Ken letting me go in the cab. And it wasn’t the engineers – it was another rail fan. Another man on board, from the Hillsborough and Salem Railroad, is what rail fans describe as a “foamer” – someone who foams at the mouth when talking about trains. They’re a little too fanatic to trust entirely. This guy had been pestering Ken since the trip started to go in the cab, but there was no way Ken was letting him in the cab. I guess I was calm and patient enough to be deemed “safe”. The trick was getting me in the engine without anyone seeing me.

But I would wait until after lunch, which was served just out of Antigonish. It was wonderful to just sit and watch the countryside go by. The explosion of colours were already visible in the vast forests. The most fantastic reds, fresh greens, and bold yellows I’ve ever seen. We’re only in the early stages of fall here in Nova Scotia – I can only imagine what it will look like in a week or two.

Lunch was cold, but no less delicious. I’d never had cold scallops before. A little chewy perhaps, but still tasty. It even came with a selection of local wines from the Jost Vineyards. (I have to say that while I did end up having both the white and the red, neither rated particularly high with me. I thought we’d have to rotate through the Skyline coffee shop, as we’d done with the CBC, but the staff delivered it to our seats.

The Canso Causeway was built in the 1950s to join Cape Breton Island with Nova Scotia. It’s was a huge project. Due to the depth of the chasm, no bridge would work. Instead, rocks fill the massive gap allowing for a highway and a rail crossing. A small canal allows transit from one side to the other through locks. The locks don’t control water levels, just ensure that the current is controlled.

Port Hawkesbury isn’t really much of a stop. But it’s necessary to change out crews. The rail line runs on CN to Truro, then on CB&CNS north to Sydney. The Cape Breton crew comes on at Port Hawkesbury. That means a half hour for us to wander around and do very little.

Actually, it’s supposed to be an hour. But Port Hawkesbury isn’t exactly a riveting location. That’s why the stop is only 30 minutes. The rest of the stop comes a few miles down the line at Orangedale.

Orangedale is a small community, but somehow has ended up with the best rail museum in Nova Scotia. It’s not large by any means, but has preserved the station building in its original state, and has several pieces of rolling stock on their grounds.

But that’s not all. As part of our stop, we get a mini-concert. When the Bras D’or originally started three years ago, Cape Breton Tourism staff would act as tour guides, pointing out interesting features and telling stories. Today, the system is mostly automated. According to Angela, it does a pretty good job. As a result, Stephanie and Angela’s jobs are somewhat reduced.

One of their jobs is to sing traditional songs from Cape Breton and Nova Scotia. Stephanie is an accomplished guitarist, and sings like an angel. (Stephanie is moving to Toronto in October. Music industry, please take note!) I couldn’t help but stop and listen for a time. Even when I wasn’t in the station house, you could hear her voice clearly.

Resuming our trip, Ken pulled me aside and asked me to hide for a few minutes in the kitchen. That’s when Howie appeared. Howie was one of the two engineers, and had come down to get snacks and coffee for him and Everett, the other engineer. The two of them led me through the coach cars, and through the baggage car (it’s quite odd to see one of those empty). At this point, I put in my earplugs, and followed Howie into the engine room of #6409, the train’s sole locomotive.

The last time I’d been inside an engine room was with Peter in Melville. It had been loud then, and the engine was idling. Now it was under load. Howie had been through there so many times it probably didn’t faze him at all. I was glad to have earplugs. We emerged into the cab, where Everett met me with a big smile. Howie immediately offered me his seat on the left side – Howie sat in a fold-down seat mounted to the rear wall.

Riding in a cab really brings the idea of an “iron horse” to reality. The ride is not smooth (especially on rough track), and even with shock-absorbed seats, I nearly flew out of my chair more than once. Howie and Everett didn’t seem to have any trouble at all. (Of course, they make regular runs on this stretch of the CB&CNS and know every little detail. While I was missing the tour on the train, I was receiving my own personal version from the engineers.)

The scenery around Bras D’or Lake is almost indescribable. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Reminiscent of the west coast, northern Ontario, Lake Ontario, and Scotland all rolled into one. (I’m going on assumptions of Scotland, mind you. I haven’t been there, but I have seen many pictures and video.) And with the fall colours beginning to take hold, it’s a gorgeous place to witness first hand.

Which made my trip all the more poignant. Little did I know when I boarded the train this morning that the Bras D’or might be meeting the same fate as BC Rail’s Cariboo Prospector. CB&CNS wants to abandon the line north of Port Hawkesbury, due to lack of income (most of the mines on Cape Breton have closed) and maintenance. Right now, there are two freight trains and one passenger train a week.

That would mean that next week could be the final run of the Bras D’or, through some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen. It’s a terrible shame, since to follow the same route of the Bras D’or is quite a challenge in a car. Roads don’t come event remotely close to some parts of the track. While a highway does follow the west bank of Bras D’or Lake, I doubt the view is the same.

The abandonment is not yet certain, but is expected. This has left the Bras D’or’s crew with a lot of questions. They work together extremely well, and would want to continue the trend next year. However, there’s no way to know if the train will even run next spring. So until official word comes, they must wait.

The residents of this area are also saddened with the news. It’s the only place where I’ve seen signs that read: “Welcome VIA”, sitting on the side of the railway. An elderly man in North Sydney even came to see the train pass, holding a sign that said: “Best Wishes VIA. We will miss you!”

As we passed Sydney Mines, it was time for me to leave the cab. We didn’t want the other rail fan to see me leave the engine in Sydney. I didn’t quite make it back into the coach cars, though. I ended up spending some time in the near-empty baggage car talking with the VIA staff as they took a final break before arriving at the station.

I could have walked to my hotel. But I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, nor was I too keen on carrying my bags that far right away. I opted for the five dollar, four minute cab ride. But I was checked into my room and sitting in the bed a scant 10 minutes after detraining. A record since I started riding trains a month ago.

Sydney is an industrial town. In other words, there’s not much in it for nightlife. (Even the Bras D’or crew admitted to that.) But I wasn’t really interested in doing much anyway. All I wanted were a few pictures, a good meal, and a good night’s sleep.

A fairly lengthy hike brought me down to the harbour area. That’s where Sydney has a fairly extensive boardwalk along the edge of the harbour, running for about a kilometre or so. A pretty good location for getting pictures of the city at dusk. A little further down were more hotels, the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club, and an office building or two. I stopped into the Crow and Moose in the Delta Hotel for what were supposed to be the best fish and chips in the area. I couldn’t complain.

Sydney has one of only two casinos in Nova Scotia. You’d think it would be clearly marked on signs and easy to find. I looked briefly, then decided that it wasn’t worth my time. My lucky streaks seem to tend towards life experiences, not money. Knowing my luck, I’d probably lose my shirt the moment I entered the door.

Returning to the hotel, I curled up for a good night’s sleep. It would be another early morning.

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