Still waiting in Gaspé

Posted by Justin Franz
on Monday, November 19, 2018

VIA's Chaleur at Port Daniel, Quebec. Photo by Justin Franz
Earlier this month, fans of Canadian passenger trains got a rare piece of good news: VIA Rail would soon call on Churchill, Manitoba. again. For more than a year, this remote community on the edge of the Arctic has been without a critical connection to the outside world.

But Churchill isn’t the only town that’s waiting for its passenger train to return. Dec. 11 will mark seven years since VIA Rail’s Chaleur pulled into Gaspé, Quebec, a city of approximately 15,000 on the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula.

Prior to 2011, the Chaleur ran from Montreal to Gaspé three times a week and the easternmost part of the journey ran on, without question, one of the most scenic pieces of railroad in Atlantic Canada. For dozens of miles, the former Canadian National branch line runs along the rugged coast, passing sandy beaches and crossing tall trestles. Near Port Daniel, the railroad goes through a tunnel and closer to Gaspé it passes within sight of the Percé Rock, a famous rock formation out in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence.

A passenger is greeted at Chandler, Quebec. Photo by Justin Franz
Unfortunately, scenery doesn’t always pay the bills. Due to a limited amount of freight business on the line, CN rarely invested in the route and did just enough to keep the dozens of bridges along the line standing. In the mid-1990s, the branch was spun off to a short line, but again, deferred maintenance continued. In December 2011, VIA replaced the Chaleur with a bus between New Carlisle and Gaspé due to the condition of a number of bridges. Two years later, in August 2013, VIA suspended the train entirely.

In May 2017, the Québec government announced it would spend $100 million to repair the rail line from Matapedia to Gaspé. Since then, some freight service has resumed on the west end of the railroad, but the more-scenic east end remains quiet. In a statement to Trains Magazine, VIA officials say that they “wish to resume service in the area once the tracks are deemed safe for passenger rail operation.” If and when that actually happens is unclear.

What is certain, however, is that if trains ever do return to Gaspé, I plan on booking a ticket.

The view from the dome. Photo by Justin Franz
Some 20 years ago, my father and I made the first of a half-dozen trips to photograph and ride the Chaleur. While the scenery was always the primary draw for us, the Gaspé line also offered a glimpse at old fashioned, branchline railroading that was quickly disappearing from North American. Everytime the Chaleur pulled into New Richmond, New Carlisle or Chandler it was a major event for the town. The depots were a beehive of activity with people welcoming family members home or seeing off longtime friends. It didn’t matter if the timetable only called for a brief stop, the Chaleur almost always lingered a little longer than necessary. No one was in a rush. Life moved a little bit slower.

Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait much longer to have that experience again.

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