To and From Toronto Rail Fest
July 14-15 and July 19-20, 2004
Living in the San Diego area as I do means not being able to often join the Rail Fests organized by Kevin Korell and other On Track On Line members. But about once a year I can't resist the lure of the rails. This year I joined the group for 4 days of fun in Buffalo and Toronto: Toronto Rail Fest.
Time requirements however made it impossible for me to travel entirely by rail, but I did my best in that respect. I flew back and forth between San Diego and Chicago, and used Amtrak otherwise to join up with and depart from the group. My rail itinerary was pretty simple. Lake Shore Limited to Buffalo, join the group, Maple Leaf to Toronto, then returning via the Maple Leaf to Syracuse, and the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. It didn't quite work out that way, but we'll talk about that later.
I travel enough on Amtrak to have accumulated some Guest Rewards points, and get many more from primary use of the Amtrak MasterCard. As a result, I was able to book one direction of my trip between Chicago and Toronto, including sleeper accommodations on the Lake Shore Limited, using Guest Rewards points. The other direction I paid for.
My Southwest Airlines flight itinerary was even simpler. July 14: Flight 794 departing San Diego at 11:20 AM and arriving arrive in Chicago Midway at 05:20 PM. July 20: Flight 2899, departing Midway at 01:35 PM and arriving in San Diego at 03:40 PM.
July 14, 2004 -- San Diego Departure
I like Southwest Airlines for relatively short flights and often use them for western area trips (in California, to/from Las Vegas, etc.). I'm a "Rapid Rewards" member, but never have accumulated enough segments to cash in. Still, the Rapid Rewards program simplifies things a bit, such as checking in for a flight.
I arrived at the San Diego airport about 2 hours before departure, checked in via automated kiosk (having no baggage to check), passed through security smoothly, and awaited my flight, which departed about 20 minutes late. This was a small worry for me because I had booked a fairly tight connection of only 2 hours in Chicago.
However the flight went smoothly. I ate my carry-aboard sandwich shortly after take off (lunch time in San Diego) and did a crossword puzzle for the rest of the time. We arrived in Chicago about 15 minutes late.
As planned I walked rapidly to the Chicago Transit Authority Orange Line station at Midway Airport, boarded a train and was in downtown Chicago soon thereafter. I had time to get some chips and a soft drink at the temporary Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago Union Station before the lounge attendants lead us to track 23 and the train.
Amtrak Lake Shore Limited # 48
I was assigned to room 01 in car 4810. I found that easily although there was no attendant at the car door. The attendant did come by after a few minutes and lifted my ticket. I asked him to turn down the upper bunk at his convenience and a while after we had departed I walked one car forward to the dining car.
I was seated immediately. They were serving Dining Car Menu #3 (caution: large PDF page) on that trip. I had the Turkey Tenderloins -- very good. I didn't make notes about my dining companions (a couple and another single male) but as I recall we had a nice conversation. One sour note though -- the dining car seats are much too narrow for those of us who aren't, ah, slim. I fit in an airline seat just fine, but was hanging over the edge in that dining car seat.
After eating I returned to the room, where the bunk was down as requested, and got ready to turn in.
July 15 -- Arrival in Buffalo
The train ran about an hour late all night as best I can tell from waking up occasionally and using my scanner to figure out where we were. Once I woke up because it got too quiet -- head end power was off for about 15 minutes from 4:45am. I saw rain off and on in western Pennsylvania and New York state.
I was up before 6am for the scheduled 6:49am arrival. As we were running late I had time to sample Amtrak's French Toast in the dining car that morning. Very good.
We arrived at the Buffalo-Depew station about an hour late. In a light drizzle, I took one of the waiting cabs to downtown Buffalo and rendezvoused with the Rail Fest group in the Doubletree hotel restaurant there.
For a full report of our activities in Buffalo and Toronto, please see the main Toronto Rail Fest Report.
July 19 -- Departure from Toronto
Amtrak train #64 (#97 for Via Rail Canada), the east bound Maple Leaf, departed Toronto on-time, arrived at the border about one hour late, and departed Niagara Falls NY about 1:30 late. The Customs process went smoothly for me as I had nothing to declare, my birth certificate and retired military ID in hand, and my driver's license ready to show.
Because of continuing lost time I was fearful of missing my connection in Syracuse so, along with Brad Smith who was also going to Chicago, I detrained in Rochester. I learned later that we would have made the connection scheduled for 8:50pm with a few minutes to spare.
However my first order of business in Rochester was to attempt to protect my sleeping compartment reservation on the west bound Lake Shore Limited. I feared that when I didn't show in Syracuse, it would be released and made available to someone on the train. So I spoke to one of the station agents in Rochester about it, explained the situation, and watch as the agent called an agent in Syracuse to explain and ask them to inform the conductor on the train that I would be boarding in Rochester.
That accomplished and it being after 6pm, our next objective was dinner. We found a cab and went to a hotel in downtown Rochester. The food there look a bit too expensive (to say the least) so we decided to walk to another place we had seen advertised. But it no longer existed! So, what to do?
As we walked back toward the hotel we saw three people on a street corner, a man with a TV camera and a woman with a microphone, and a third woman. They looked like they would know where to find food at this time of night on a Monday. So we approached them. They were apparently waiting to do a "live interview", but took a few moments to help us with a couple of suggestions. We opted for the "Dinosaur Bar-b-que" which was about 3 blocks away.
I can't say very much good about the food, but the building was marvelous -- a 1905 Lehigh Valley Railroad station, long abandoned as a station of course. See the photo on the restaurant's web site.
After dinner we started walking, then caught a cab on the street to get back to the Amtrak station.
Lake Shore Limited # 49
Our train arrived about 25 minutes late in Rochester. Brad was in coach and I in sleeper and it was already 10:35 pm so we parted there. Again there was no attendant at the car. I made my way to the 4911 car and room 03, which I found made up for 2 people (both bunks).
Yes, the word had never been passed to the train crew that I was boarding in Rochester. In fact they were just about to give my room to some Boston passengers who had been in coach. But after I explained to the conductor the situation and why I was boarding in Rochester it was all sorted out and I kept the room. I asked the attendant to un-make the lower bunk as I prefer to sleep in the upper, keeping the lower space for my luggage and so on -- this also makes it easier to use the Viewliner Standard Bedroom in-room toilet in the middle of the night.
I felt a bit guilty about the confusion regarding the room because the coach passengers were apparently a family of four first-time Amtrak riders, trying to split the night so as to get better sleep. But I had paid for the room and had done all I could to get the word to the train crew, so I didn't feel too guilty, and in fact I slept well that night, about 6 hours straight.
July 20 -- Arrival in Chicago
I got up around 6am and made my way to the dining car for more of that French toast. I didn't notice the menu number this time though. I had a good breakfast while talking to a woman from Chicago, along with a grandma and young grandson who had boarded in Waterloo IN, on their way to outing in Chicago.
At 8:15 am we were in the southern part of Chicago. After a couple of stops for freight traffic, we got to the Amtrak yard area about 8:45am, dropped some mail cars, and after just 8 minutes began backing into Chicago Union Station. We arrived and were stopped at the platform of Track 24 just 11 minutes late at 9:06am -- officially "on time".
So, the "Late For Sure Limited" isn't always late.
Orange Line, Midway, and Departure from Chicago
I had over four hours at this point to get from the train to the plane, so I took my time. I picked up a sandwich for later at Union Station, strolled to the nearest Orange Line station on the Loop, and enjoyed the ride to Midway.
Once there I checked in for my flight (again via computer terminal), passed through security, and waited. This time I ate my sandwich in the airport, then boarded my flight for an on-time departure and on-time arrival in San Diego.
Except for the lateness of the east bound Maple Leaf, and the ensuing confusion over the room on the Lake Shore Limited, I have a very good trip to and from the Fest. I probably wouldn't do it again exactly this way, but I enjoyed it this time.
The Toronto Rail Fest was superb, well planned and well executed. It was purely and simply fun. I'm looking forward to the next occasion when I can come east for one of these get togethers. I hope all who read this will consider joining us. For info about future Rail Fests, just keep an eye on the Miscellaneous Train Travel Items Forum on the On Track On Line Forums.
For more information about traveling by Amtrak, see our Amtrak Travel Tips.