On board the Montreal-Senneterre train: travel on the rails of the North

On board the Montreal-Senneterre train: travel on the rails of the North

The country is vast, populated by silver birch, black spruce and jack pine. Rivers at her feet. Walleye, pike and speckled trout swirl among the rocks and sparkling splashes of water. “You’re on board train 603. It’s the most beautiful thing, we’re not hiding it! Ricky says to his passengers as soon as they leave Montreal. On the 717-kilometer railway line to Senneterre, the Abitibi regional train will transport its passengers in a cheerful and, above all, very folkloric atmosphere. Here we stop where the passengers want! Travel on a train that has nothing to do with a TGV… and that’s a good thing.

“The train will be full today. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate. There I am, just me,” joked the rail operations manager, nicknamed Ricky, as she exited Montreal Central Station at around 7:30 a.m. Train 603’s journey will include crossing Quebec’s highest railway bridge – the bridge over the Rivière du Milieu at La Tuque – to reach Senneterre station about 14 hours after its sunset departure. A route that is part of the legendary Transcontinental Railway that once helped colonize Abitibi.

A few seats are already occupied in the only passenger car on the train. Some other people will continue to get in. First at Joliette and Shawinigan stations. Then wherever you want, between Hervey-Jonction and Senneterre, over a distance of around 384 kilometers.

“Here, we drop you off wherever you want!” explains locomotive engineer Michel Gingras. “Any decimal place in a thousand is fine as long as you let us know in advance.” (In the railroad world, miles still take precedence over kilometers when calculating distances.)

To board the train, all you have to do is stand in plain sight at the edge of the platform and wave. “At night there are people who wave their torches or flash their headlights on their four-wheelers,” adds an amused Pierre-Luc Tessier, who is also a locomotive engineer.

canoe camping

“We’re a bit like a taxi,” Ricky says to two incredulous friends who boarded the train in their canoe in Joliette and are looking for a drop-off near the village of Parent some eight hours later.

“The best place is about a kilometer after the village. At this point you can take the canoe off the train and put it straight into the river without portaging it,” says the flight attendant, Doc Martens at her feet, to Anthony Dupuis and Vincent Landry-Arcand, who nod in surprise at receiving such personalized service .

This is the first time the two men have taken a regional train in their boat. “We’re going 210 kilometers down the Bazin River and then down the Gatineau River to Grand-Remous,” they explain to Le Devoir. A 10 day canoe camping trip through idyllic countryside – and in the likely company of a few flies and mosquitoes.

“It would have taken us the same amount of time to drive there [jusqu’au début de la descente]but someone should have brought our car back,” they argue.

indigenous communities

Just before the engine drivers help the two adventurers get their canoe out of the baggage car, Basile Roch, a regular on train 603, which crosses several Aboriginal communities, takes his guitar and bag to head to Parent, his cottage.

“It’s beautiful there. There’s a trout pond there,” he says, wearing a black leather jacket with fringes down the back. But this time, Joliette resident Atikamekw won’t have time to tease the fish for his two-week stay in the forest. “I’m going to chop wood to build another chalet. »

A new oasis of calm where his guitar melodies and his childhood memories will follow him. “I’ve been riding this train since I was a kid,” he says. When I was little we used to go shopping in Senneterre and take the train back to the forest in Clova [un village d’une cinquantaine de personnes situé plus loin sur la route]. »

Likewise, Chanouk Newashish, a young Atikamekw videographer from La Tuque, dives into his memories every time he boards train 603 to spend a few days in his community in Weymontachie. “My family had a cabin on the edge of Lake Blanc. You’ll see there’ll be water on both sides of the train over there in McTavish. It’s like we’re sailing on the water,” he slips, his eyes shining.

Back then, passengers could smoke on the train, and there was a dining car at the end of the convoy. “We weren’t allowed to go there because it was also a bar, but we still went there in secret,” he continues with a smile. The whole train smelled of smoke! »

At night, the kids pulled out their pillows and slept in little alcoves behind the seats, he says.


“There are also some who slept upstairs in the luggage racks,” adds François Béland, who is driving to his chalet near Bourmont at mile 188.45 today with his friend Robert Mailhot. “That’s where we’re going to get off. »

Like other passengers, the two men have no choice but to take train 603 to their chalet, which can only be reached by train. You are not worse off, on the contrary. “We let ourselves be driven and meet the other regular guests,” say the two companions. It’s like an election train. »

Sometimes people play music and stories of hunting and fishing circulate from one seat to another, says Michel Rousseau, who spent 30 years traveling the railway line to get to his camps in Coquar.

Today the man, his family and friends packed the baggage cart with boat motors, a ladder, fishing rods and an impressive array of trash cans. “We have clothes, food, tools. “And maybe a few beers too…

“We are very pleased that the train has resumed operations three times a week [depuis le début de l’été] ‘ adds his daughter-in-law Tatiana Tessier, clearly pleased that Via Rail has decided to end its pandemic plan. “We went crazy with a train once a week. You can only reach our chalet by train. »


This decrease in departure frequency also impacted other services offered on Via Rail’s 603 line. Vaccines are sometimes sent by train, as are medical samples. The mail also comes on board. And some people get their groceries delivered by train from Senneterre to Clova wharf.

The only thing missing from train 603 today is a carriage with a panoramic dome in order to be able to fully enjoy the charm of its journey. “When I was young, there was one. You could see everywhere,” remembers François Rousseau, who sits opposite his father Michel as the train approaches their camp in Coquar. When the whistle blows and the doors open, it takes the friendly band just a few minutes to unload all of their gear from the baggage cart. “Hi! See you Thursday night! Ricky yells and waves at them.

Then the train makes its way back to Senneterre, sinking deeper and deeper into the attraction of Abitibi. “It is a wonderful journey. There are lynxes, mooses and wolves that sometimes run on the tracks in front of us,” say locomotive engineers Pierre-Luc Tessier and Michel Gingras.

A spectacle that also unfolds through the windows of the passenger car and can only be observed at the speed of a regional train.

To see in the video