The Toronto RailFest 2004 would feature rides on Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subways and streetcars, and GO Transit commuter trains. For a "Pre-Fest" activity, plans were to visit Syracuse to ride its On Track commuter train, and Buffalo to ride its NFTA light rail line.
Planning for this Fest, aside from the above challenges, went smoothly. That was partially due to my decision not to do any individual route guides this time. I felt that I did not know the various rail systems well enough to write about them. It would be a learning process for all! Instead, I just did a short overview of each TTC route.
We had a total of 13 participants from all over the United States, representing California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. Most of us came by train, some by bus, and some even had airplanes in their itineraries. A few made this Fest part of a longer personal trip.
Chapter 1: Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Although one person was already en route to join us, Wednesday was the day that many of us began our journeys to Toronto. Our Pre-Fest group began to follow its itinerary, while others who would meet us later in the Fest set out from home.
Chapter 1.1: Kevin, Michael
I decided that rather than paying for parking at Metropark for six days, I would park at work in Weehawken (where I pay for parking anyhow through payroll deductions), and then take a ferry to Manhattan and the free connecting bus to Penn Station.
Michael and I started out from home and had a quick, trouble-free drive up to Weehawken. After parking my car in the parking garage, we walked over to the ferry dock. This particular ferry is only for UBS employees and for guest of the nearby Sheraton Suites Hotel next door. I could ride it for free with my employee ID badge, but I was not sure if Michael would be allowed, since he was neither a UBS employee nor a hotel guest. I was willing to pay a fare for him, but there is no place to purchase tickets on the New Jersey side of this route. So instead, I decided we would take a short bus ride up to the Port Imperial ferry dock, where we would both pay but at least there would be no potential hassle. We walked over to the public bus stop and waited a few minutes for a bus to arrive.
Chapter 1.1.1: NJ TRANSIT Bus Route 158, Weehawken-Lincoln Harbor, NJ to Weehawken-Port Imperial, NJ
A short bus ride along the waterfront brought us to NY Waterway's Port Imperial Terminal. There, we purchased our tickets and boarded the awaiting vessel.
Chapter 1.1.2: NY Waterway Ferry, Weehawken-Port Imperial, NJ to New York-38th Street ferry terminal, NY
It was an eight minute ride across the Hudson River to Manhattan. Of all the people involved in this Fest, we could say that our journey included travel by water!
Chapter 1.1.3: NY Waterway Shuttle Bus, New York-38th Street ferry terminal, NY to New York-Penn Station, NY
On the Manhattan side there are many "free" shuttle buses (actually paid for in the ferry fare) that fan out to different parts of Manhattan. We took the 34th Street bus. It runs clear across that street, and also serves another dock on the East River for a ferry that runs across to Long Island City. We got off at 34th Street & Eighth Avenue, and walked a block south to the entrance to Penn Station.
Something on the corner looked new and different outside Penn Station. They were building a temporary sky bridge over Eighth Avenue at 33rd Street to be used by the press corps for the upcoming Republican National Convention, which would be held about six weeks later. The bridge connected Madison Square Garden with the Farley Post Office building.
Once down inside the station, we went to our usual meeting place near the overhead departures board, and waited for the group to assemble.
Chapter 1.2: Piotr Dzwonek, Steve Weagant, Skip Howard, Alan Burden, Kevin Korell, Michael Korell
This was our Pre-Fest group. It was the intention of this group to leave New York a day earlier than the rest of the participants, and use the time to visit Syracuse and Buffalo, before boarding the MAPLE LEAF to Toronto.
Chapter 1.2.1: Meeting at New York-Penn Station
Piotr Dzwonek arrived on a NJ TRANSIT North Jersey Coast Line train from South Amboy. Skip Howard had come down earlier that day on an Acela Express train from Boston. Alan Burden arrived by MTA-New York City Transit subway. Steve Weagant, who had made our Fest a small fraction of a two nation, coast-to-coast journey, arrived on an Amtrak Keystone Service train from Trenton, NJ, where he had spent the previous night. Steve's report on his trip from Chicago to the East Coast before the Toronto RailFest is here.
When all six of us had assembled, we waited to hear the announcement for Train 281. Knowing it would be on Tracks 5, 6, 7, or 8, we were ready to head in that general direction. The train did board on Track 6, and we were off to the races to get down the stairs and find seats together. When we got aboard the train, we had no problem sitting in the same section of one coach.
Chapter 1.2.2: Amtrak Train #281, Empire Service; New York-Penn Station, NY to Syracuse, NY
The consist of Train 281(14) was:
701 P-32DM locomotive
48914 Amfleet I cafe
21681 Amfleet I coach
21682 Amfleet I coach *
21089 Amfleet I coach
21063 Regional coachclass
* (We were here)
Our trip on Amtrak's Empire Service up the Hudson Valley was rather smooth, although we did begin to slowly lose time. We stopped a couple of times on Metro North trackage, presumably to wait for a local train. We arrived in Albany a little late, and departed there late as well. We did step off the train briefly to stretch our legs during the short layover, and noticed that they had not yet started working on the fourth station track, nor had they demolished the old station to make room for it.
I knew from the schedule that we should have passed Train 250 along the way, and that it should have had the Turbo equipment assigned to it. We had not passed a Turbo, so I became concerned about my plans to ride that equipment on our return journey from Albany the following Tuesday morning. Then as we left the Albany-Rensselaer station, I saw in the yard all of the Turbo trainsets, and knew that something was wrong, since one of them should have been in New York City by then.
West of Albany we encountered several freight trains, and we kept changing tracks in order to dodge them. Still, it became evident that we had to consider our options for Syracuse.
Since we were about half an hour late, we would not have had time to ride the On-Track City Express commuter train. Had On-Track been completed to the Transportation Center as it should have by now, it would have been less of a concern. But we would have had a 15 minute walk (or a shorter cab ride) to get to the nearest On-Track station at Carousel Center.
We still could stop in Syracuse and have dinner at the mall, or even just hang around the station until the next train on our original itinerary, 283. Then the rains came. It was pouring as we went through Utica and Rome, so the weather made Syracuse less attractive to us.
Chapter 1.2.3: Syracuse, aborted visit #1
Due to the weather and our poor timekeeping, we agreed unanimously to forego Syracuse, and to instead remain on Train 281 to Buffalo. We walked up to the cafe car, where we found the conductor. After we explained that we did not want to make a stopover in Syracuse, he cheerfully took our Syracuse-Buffalo tickets, thereby allowing us to remain on the same train.
Then there was a little regret, as some schedule padding brought us into Syracuse close to the scheduled time. But it was still raining, and we had already surrendered our tickets, so Syracuse was literally a wash.
We might reschedule Syracuse in the future as part of an Upstate New York Fest that would include a round trip on the Adirondack Scenic Railway out of Utica.
Chapter 1.2.4: Amtrak Train #281, Empire Service; Syracuse, NY to Buffalo-Exchange Street Station, NY
Now we set our sights on Buffalo. Although our train was running a little late, our group was actually a few hours ahead of schedule due to our skipping Syracuse. We would arrive in Buffalo before dark and be able to get a little extra sleep once at our hotels.
Train 281 lost some time once more as freight trains were in our way. For one stretch we moved pretty slowly behind one until we were able to pass it. We arrived at Buffalo's Exchange Street Station 20 minutes late.
From the Amtrak station, we walked three blocks to Main Street. Luckily the rains had let up, so our walk was not too bad. We purchased our tickets for the light rail and then awaited the next departure.
Chapter 1.2.5: NFTA Metro Light Rail; Erie Canal Harbor to Allen/Medical Campus
We were at the Erie Canal Harbor station, which is the usual end of the line. The tracks go a little further south of here, and there is one more station that is only used during events at the nearby HSBC Arena.
Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's Metro Light Rail runs on the surface of Main Street in downtown Buffalo. It then ducks into a subway under Main Street and remains underground for its journey to University. Fares are free if traveling on the surface portion only; if a trip involves using the portion of the route in the tunnel, then you must pay. Like most modern light rail systems, fares are on the proof-of-purchase system. Inspectors board trains in the subway at random to check for fare evaders.
Piotr was staying in a hostel on Main Street, just adjacent to the Theater station. So he got off there, and agreed to meet us at our hotel in the morning. The other five of us, all booked at the Doubletree Club Hotel, continued one more stop to Allen/Medical Campus, where we detrained and walked three blocks to our hotel.
Chapter 1.3: HaRRy Sutton
HaRRy Sutton started out from his home in California on Wednesday. He flew to Chicago and later that day boarded the eastbound LAKE SHORE LIMITED for Buffalo, where he would arrive the following morning. For HaRRy's own details of his journey, click here.
Chapter 1.4: End of Wednesday's activities
After we all checked in, we agreed to meet in the hotel's restaurant for breakfast the following morning. We then split up, although some of us later made use of the hotel's business center in the lobby to read our e-mail and go over some last minute plans for the rest of our journey.
Chapter 2: Thursday, July 15, 2004
Thursday was a day of travel, in various directions. Mike Hammond and Ted Patchell started out from Ohio and Pennsylvania respectively on their Greyhound bus journeys to Toronto. Meanwhile, HaRRy Sutton was headed from Chicago to Buffalo aboard his train, while another group headed west to Buffalo and onward to Toronto. The largest group rode the light rail line in Buffalo and then boarded the train to Toronto.
Chapter 2.1: Ed Findlay, Jishnu Mukerji
Ed came down from Boston Wednesday night on overnight Amtrak Train 67. In Penn Station he met Jack Suslak, who was completing an evening of subway riding after attending an Elton John concert in the city and before returning to Boston. Ed then did his own subway riding around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens until it was time to return to Penn Station to catch the MAPLE LEAF to Toronto.
Jishnu took a NJ TRANSIT Midtown Direct train from Short Hills to New York Penn Station.
Ed and Jishnu met up at around 6:30 AM while they were both on a line to show their credentials for crossing the border. Together they then boarded the MAPLE LEAF.
Also expected as part of this group was John Corbett. Nobody knew at the time that he was already up in Rensselaer, NY and would board the same train there.
Chapter 2.1.1: Amtrak Train #63, MAPLE LEAF; New York-Penn Station, NY to Albany-Rensselaer, NY
The consist of Train 63(15) was:
708 P-32DM locomotive
48159 Amfleet I cafe
44658 Amfleet I coach
21033 Amfleet I coach
21251 Amfleet I coach
82025 Regional coachclass
** In Albany-Rensselaer, P-32DM 708 was removed, replaced with 823 P-40 locomotive ALB-TWO.
The MAPLE LEAF trip up to Albany was pretty uneventful, save for a short delay due to trackwork.
Chapter 2.2: Ed Findlay, Jishnu Mukerji, John Corbett
John Corbett joined Ed and Jishnu on the MAPLE LEAF in Albany-Rensselaer, although he was sent to a different coach where he remained throughout the rest of his trip to Toronto. John reports on how he got to Albany, here. I later found out that John stayed Wednesday night in the same Econo Lodge in Rensselaer that Michael and I were booked in for the return trip the following Monday night.
Chapter 2.2.1: Amtrak Train #63, MAPLE LEAF; Albany-Rensselaer, NY to Buffalo-Exchange Street Station, NY
John's report details this segment of the trip on the MAPLE LEAF from Albany to where the rest of the group boarded in Buffalo.
Chapter 2.3: Skip, Alan, Piotr, Steve, Michael, Kevin
The five of us who were guests at the hotel met downstairs in the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Piotr meanwhile took the light rail one stop from Theater to Allen/Medical Campus and joined us there.
Chapter 2.3.1: Breakfast at the Doubletree
Breakfast was cafe style, very informal. There was nobody waiting on tables; we had to go up to a counter and request and pay for what we wanted. We pulled some tables together so our large group could sit together, and then we watched a cable news channel on television while eating breakfast. Some of us also used the hotel's complimentary Business Center next door to catch up on e-mails and the OTOL Forums.
Chapter 2.4: HaRRy Sutton's progress
We made periodic calls to "Julie" to check on the status of the two trains that mattered to us today: the westbound MAPLE LEAF and the eastbound LAKE SHORE LIMITED. The latter train was still carrying HaRRy Sutton towards Buffalo and his meeting with the rest of the group in Buffalo.
HaRRy called me upon his arrival at the Buffalo-Depew station, and about 15 minutes later, he entered the hotel restaurant and joined us at the large table where we were sitting together.
Chapter 2.5: HaRRy, Skip, Alan, Piotr, Steve, Michael, Kevin
We ended up spending a LOT more time at the Doubletree than we did riding trains, but then Buffalo has little to offer other than its NFTA Metro light rail. Even after HaRRy joined us and got something to eat for himself, we sat around for a while killing time. Then, those of us who had been guests of the hotel the previous night checked out and had our luggage held for us. The hotel even held HaRRy's luggage even though he had not been a guest there. The hotel staff was courteous and offered to take us all (including Piotr and HaRRy who had not stayed there) to the train station in their van. That would alter our plans a bit, but it meant one less ride on the light rail and it avoided two three-block walks to and from the light rail stations. Since it looked like it was going to rain, we took them up on their offer.
Chapter 2.5.1: NFTA Metro Light Rail; Allen/Medical Campus to University
Our first "official" ride together in Buffalo was from the Allen/Medical Campus station to the northern end at University. Twelve minutes and seven almost identical stations later, we had arrived at the University terminus. Knowing that we had plenty of time, and that this is a barrier free system, we got off and took the escalator upstairs. I wanted to go outside anyhow because I was curious how far a hotel on my listing was from the station.
While we were outside, somebody spotted a Subway restaurant across the street, so we decided to take our break then and have lunch as long as we were off the train. Our location for lunch was not etched in stone. Although I had figured we would eat someplace downtown along Main Street, it was the right time for lunch, so this would suit us fine.
Chapter 2.5.2: Lunch at Subway
We walked across the street in a moderate rain, and got on line for our lunch. This Subway store was quite busy. Again, we were in no rush, so it did not matter how long we spent for lunch.
Once we were all satisfied, we prepared to head across Main Street once more to the station. By now the rain had gotten harder. The seven of us hustled around the puddles and back into the station. When we had all reassembled, we went down the escalator to the platform and boarded the next inbound train.
Chapter 2.5.3: NFTA Metro Light Rail; University to Erie Canal Harbor
We boarded our train for what would be a 21 minute, end-to-end journey. Except for HaRRy, we all had already ridden the entire system. After the eight underground stations, we emerged into daylight on the downtown section of Main Street, to find that it was still raining lightly. Obviously the light rail vehicles operate slower on the surface than they do in the subway tunnel, thanks to traffic signals and the ability for pedestrians to cross the street anywhere if they choose. Main Street is a transit mall, so only pedestrians and the light rail vehicles can use it.
Although it was raining, there was much more humanity on the street than the previous evening. Had it been sunny, there would have been a lot more people outdoors enjoying summer Thursday lunchtime concerts. The downtown stops are all convenient to the major hotels and office complexes.
The sixth stop on the surface is Erie Canal Harbor, the regular end of the line. We got off there, crossed the street, and stood under the canopy to await a northbound light rail car.
Chapter 2.5.4: NFTA Metro Light Rail; Erie Canal Harbor to Theater
We headed north once more up Main Street. Piotr had to stop off at his hostel to get his luggage, so we decided to detrain with him at the Theater stop and wait for him. From our vantage point we could see the ramp leading down into the light rail tunnel portal.
While Piotr was inside, we heard some police sirens. We saw some police cars driving on the transit/pedestrian mall, but we never found out what was going on. It appeared that the next light rail car was several blocks away, and it had been ordered to halt for whatever the police activity was. We didn't see any light rail cars in the southbound direction either, so apparently they were held in the tunnel.
Chapter 2.5.5: NFTA Metro Light Rail; Theater to Allen/Medical Campus
Piotr returned, and the next car had not yet made it to the Theater station. Had it not been raining, we probably could have walked, since we only were traveling one stop, scheduled for about one minute travel time on the timetable. Eventually, the light rail vehicle did reach us. We took our short, final ride on NFTA Metro, and alighted at Allen/Medical Campus once more. We then took our now familiar walk back to the Doubletree Hotel.
At the Doubletree, those of us who had left our luggage retrieved it. We then had a few minutes to wait until our van ride to the train station. Again, we sat and killed time in the lobby. I got what would be my final internet access of the week by visiting the Business Center one last time. Soon the hotel's van pulled up by the front door, so we were all off to the station...or were we?
Chapter 2.5.6: Doubletree Hotel van; Doubletree Hotel to Buffalo-Exchange Street Station
The hotel meant well with their offer, and certainly none of us thought that it would run into any snags. But once we began to load our luggage in the back of the van, and our bodies in the seats, we found that there simply would not be enough room to carry all seven of us and our belongings. The woman driving the van said she would have to make two trips. Alan and HaRRy stayed behind to ride the second trip. Now we no longer had the luxury of unlimited time; we had a train to catch in about half an hour. Our driver did very well getting us to the Exchange Street Station, and she left quickly to return for the others. Meanwhile, the hotel had another van that had just returned from the airport, so that driver took Alan and HaRRy to the station before the first van got back.
Now the seven of us were all at the station in advance of the train. All we needed was the train. Jishnu called me as the train was leaving Buffalo-Depew station, so we knew we had about ten minutes before we would see the train, which was running about 15 minutes late.
It was still raining pretty heavily, but although we had the option of waiting indoors, we elected to be on the platform when the train came. The area is protected not only by a short canopy but by the presence of I-190 directly overhead.
Soon we saw the lights of the engine come around a bend, and the MAPLE LEAF approached the station.
Aboard the train, we had now merged into one group of ten people. Those of us who boarded quickly found Ed and Jishnu in our coach, and also saw John in the next coach. This trip from Buffalo to Toronto represented our largest group together on an Amtrak train on this fest. There still were three more people who would be joining us the following day.
Chapter 2.6.1: Amtrak Train #63, MAPLE LEAF; Buffalo-Exchange Street Station, NY to Niagara Falls, ON
Soon after we boarded, we were given forms to fill out for Canadian Customs. This kept us occupied for the short distance to the international border.
It's only 23 miles from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, NY. After making that brief stop, our train came upon the Whirlpool Bridge. We crossed it slowly, seeing the actual falls to our left. On Canadian soil, our train continued to the Niagara Falls, Ontario station and stopped.
Chapter 2.6.2: At the border
Our Amtrak crew detrained, and Canadian Customs officers and a VIA Rail Canada crew boarded. Customs personnel took about one hour to go through the train and clear everyone. Their work was completed long before the train was scheduled to depart, so we were allowed to get off and walk around. I went into the station and picked up VIA Rail Canada timetables and other information. Steve went across the street to a bank to get Canadian currency from a machine.
Back on board and still with time remaining until our scheduled departure, I noticed that the cafe car had been restaffed, restocked, and reopened even though we had not yet left Niagara Falls. Except for the Amfleet equipment, this was now a VIA train, so Amtrak's idiosynchracies did not apply! Besides drinks being sold in slightly different metric measurements than they are in the United States, the VIA crew also sells slightly different menu items. For dinner, I ate a delicious chicken sandwich that I could not have gotten on any other Amtrak train.
Chapter 2.6.3: Amtrak Train #63/VIA Train #98, MAPLE LEAF; Niagara Falls, ON to Toronto, ON
We departed from Niagara Falls, Ontario on time at 5:45 PM. We moved swiftly on CN's double track line through St. Catherine's and Grimsby, and passed through the city of Hamilton, which is no longer served by long distance trains. Then we ran into trouble at Hamilton Junction, where our line meets the line that runs to London, Windsor, and Sarnia. We sat for quite a while waiting for a train to pass. Alan later heard on his scanner that the dispatcher forgot about us; so we sat there longer than we should have. In all, we lost about 25 minutes.
We soon rolled slowly into the Aldershot station to make our stop there. After that, we resumed track speed for the rest of our journey, making one more intermediate stop in Oakville. After this we could see the skyline of Toronto ahead but slightly to the right as our train skirted the shore of Lake Ontario.
We fast approached Toronto while we whizzed by GO TRANSIT commuter stations along our line. Finally we passed through a series of track junctions and came into Toronto Union Station, making our final stop on the station's Track 9.
Chapter 2.6.4: Group disperses
The ten of us detrained and went downstairs. Our main function was to find a meeting place for the next few days. I had only been through this station once before, and did not remember much about it. Together we came upon a round VIA Rail Canada information booth in the center of the upper level waiting area. We agreed to meet there in the morning before the first official train ride of our Fest.
We parted ways here. Our hotel accommodations were scattered around the city, so we were on our own.
It just so happened that John and Jishnu were staying at the same hotel in which Michael and I were staying, so we traveled together. John first got some Canadian cash from an ATM machine. Then we went downstairs and found the entrance to the subway. We took the Yonge-University-Spadina Subway under Yonge Street six stops to Bloor-Yonge, and switched there to the Bloor-Danforth Subway which we rode just one stop east under Bloor Street to our stop at Sherbourne.
After we left the system we saw our Clarion Hotel Selby diagonally across the street, and we made our way to the building, which was actually an old Victorian mansion. We did take note that there were a couple of convenience stores still open for business along Bloor Street. This was a vibrant area of the city.
At the hotel we all checked into our respective rooms, and agreed to meet for the hotel's continental breakfast the next morning.
Chapter 2.7: End of Thursday's activities
In our room I got a call on the hotel telephone from Brad Smith, who had come into town by taking Amtrak's Wolverine Service from Chicago to Detroit, and then an unforgettable ride down Woodward Avenue on a Detroit Department of Transportation bus. He then took the Transit Windsor Tunnel Bus into Windsor, followed by another Transit Windsor bus to the Windsor VIA station. Finally, a VIA Rail Canada train brought him into Toronto. Who says you can't go by train from Chicago to Toronto anymore? :)
Anyhow, when Brad called from his Days Inn west of downtown, I was able to let him know where and when we were to meet the following morning. I also called Mike Hammond's cell phone and left a message for him so he would know where we would be meeting. That left only Ted Patchell, who I had no way of contacting. I hoped he would figure out where to meet us on Friday morning.
And so ended Thursday, the day on which all thirteen participants got to Toronto by various means and then scattered to the hotels of their choice.