Across North America by Rail
August 20-September 5, 2005
Origin: New York Penn Station
Terminus: Toronto Union Station
Boarded At: Depew, NY
Detrained At: Toronto Union Station
Host Railroad: CSX (Depew-Niagara Falls, NY); CN (Niagara Falls, ON-Toronto)
Time Performance At Detraining: Oddly enough, almost on-time despite our lengthy border crossing delay--hurray for timetable padding!
- GE P42DC 50
- Budd Amfleet I Metroliner Club Car 48971 Phase IVb*
- Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25082 Phase IVb
- Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25072 Phase IVb
- Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25050 Phase IVb
- Budd Amfleet II Amcoach 25037 Phase IVb
Accommodations: Business Class aboard a converted Metroliner Club Car.
Club Car Attendant: ?. I did not catch the man's name but he was a total jerk. At Depew, I boarded and moved into the Club Car, where the Business Class seats where. The attendant (With puffed up Joe Piscopo hair, he resembled a heavy that Bruce Willis does away with in Die Hard) looked at me with a suspicious scowl and asked me: "Are you in business class?" I replied that I was. He then jerked his head in the direction of those seats and barked: "Get back there." Unlike my previous ride in Business Class on the Central Coast Pacific, I did not receive a free drink or any snack pack.
Scenic Highlight: Niagara Falls--or at least the one second I saw it in the distance before a bridge obscured my view as we crossed the Niagara River.
Border Crossing: At Niagara Falls, Ontario, we stopped and were boarded by at least eight Canadian Customs and Immigrations officers. They spread out and interrogated each passenger. A young kid came up to me and asked me a series of questions that lasted about five minutes. For some reason, we continued to be delayed as a large number of Canadian passengers gathered outside. Apparently, the Canadians removed a family from our train, but I do not know why. We waited at the station so long that I nodded off. When I woke up, we were still stopped at the station. We eventually got clearance to board the Canadian passengers and we left Niagara Falls. Ironically, due to a padded schedule, we were only a few minutes late according to the timetable.
Goodbye Amtrak: At Niagara Falls, our Amtrak conductors, who had been incredibly stressed out in their tone and demeanor, left along with the Die Hard heavy. In their place came a Via Rail Canada crew, which was welcome, considering the Amtrak on-board crew they replaced. While at Niagara Falls, Ontario, we were not allowed to leave our seats and the Club Car was closed, so that meant no food. With the new Club Car attendant on board, and starving, I went to the snack bar as we waited. God bless the man, he served me. Unfortunately, all the Amtrak food was gone--even the Amtrak snack bar sign had been removed! In its place were Canadian food items--even the soft drinks had been swapped out! The Via Rail Canada food choices were not inspiring--even if healthier: pasta salad, turkey on a croissant.
Overall Grade: F. This train, was without doubt, the worst train I had ever been on--at least until Via Rail Canada took it over. The on-board crew was terrible; the toilet on the club car was filthy and covered with trash on the floor; the border delay inexcusable. It was as if Amtrak was doing its best to scare customers away from the international routes they have supposedly come to dislike so much. Though Via Rail's crew was an improvement, the Maple Leaf essentially became another Corridor route once it left Niagara Falls, Ontario. This train should be about the best that both passenger railroads have to offer. In its current form, it is not. As a postscript, I met a gentleman on The Canadian a few days later who rode this train two days after I did. He complained about all the things I did: rude crew; dirty train; and a long border crossing delay.
GO Transit Toronto Commuter 29 August 2005
GO Transit has several commuter train lines, but most are geared to a morning commute into Toronto and an afternoon commute into the surrounding towns. The Lakeshore Corridor line, however, runs both ways all day and I selected it to ride to Oshawa.
GO Transit have an annex at Toronto Union Station that is slightly more modern looking and features more food court or newsstand options than the main station. I bought a day pass as I had been told that this was equivalent in price to two one-way tickets.
The journey aboard GO Transit's three-level Bombardier coaches really impressed me. The ride was very smooth and efficient. Part of this journey was scenic as it did live up to the line name, as we skirted Lake Ontario.
GO Transit does not employ conductors to take tickets, but inspectors do randomly board and ask to see tickets. This occurred on my ride out. If you cannot produce a ticket, there is a fine.
Via Rail Canada #1, The Canadian 30 August-2 September 2005
Origin: Toronto Union Station
Terminus: Pacific Central Station, Vancouver
Host Railroad: CN
Time Performance At Detraining: About one hour late.
- EMD F40PH 6441
- EMD F40PH 6437
- Budd Baggage Dormitory 8615
- Budd 62-seat Coach 8123
- Budd 62-seat Coach 8124
- Budd 62-seat Coach 812?
- Budd Dome Lounge ("Skyline Dome" in CP/Via parlance) Skyline Dome 8516
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8301 "Abbot Manor"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8338 "Rogers Manor"**
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8326 "Franklin Manor"
- Budd Dome Lounge Skyline Dome 8512
- Budd Diner 8409 "Fairholme"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8315 "Carlton Manor"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8328 "Grant Manor"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8307 "Blair Manor"
- Budd Dome Lounge Skyline Dome 8507
- Budd Diner 8412 "Kent"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8327 "Fraser Manor"
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8331 "Jarvis Manor"*
- Budd Manor-class Sleeper 8324 "Dunsmuir Manor"
- Budd Dome Observation Lounge ("Bullet Lounge" in Via parlance)
Accommodations: I originally was booked for an upper berth section, the cheapest of The Canadian's "Silver & Blue Class" sleeper accommodations (This still ran to C$1,263!). Each Manor-class sleeping car has three sections, which harkens back to an earlier time of rail travel. Sections are essentially glorified coach seats which face each other. At night, the two seats push down together into a lower berth, while an upper berth comes down from the ceiling. What little privacy is provided by curtains. As an upper berth passenger, I would have had to face backwards the entire journey, sharing my small space with another passenger across from me. Worse, considering I had brought my laptop, there was no AC plug. When I boarded, I found that my section had been double-booked with a New Zealander woman. I was moved to another section and then eventually told I had upgraded myself to a double bedroom in another car! I never had paid for an upgrade. I later found out that Via Rail had dropped three sleepers from our train due to tour cancellations. Via Rail had to juggle passengers and in such situations, upgrades certain passengers. Thank goodness! I had the second highest level of accommodations (only the drawing room in the Bullet Lounge was pricier). My new room, Room D, had two large beds (one came down from the wall and one came down from the ceiling); an enclosed toilet; a mirror and sink; and an AC outlet.
Sleeping Car Attendant: Originally Mark, who kept telling the Kiwi and I that everything would work out about our double-booked section but seemed busy with other matters. When I moved on Rogers Manor, my attendant was Tony, who was very friendly and professional. Tony was always ready to answer questions about the train or its equipment at our rest stops. Via Rail swapped out its entire crew at Winnipeg. My new attendant was Leo, who was not as outgoing as Tony, but professional and helpful.
Scenic Highlights: The first day features the many lakes, forests, and hills of Northern Ontario, all of which are gorgeous. It gets a bit more boring once you reach Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But things pick up again with the Canadian Rockies in Alberta and British Columbia.
On-Board Food Service: Marketed as a "luxury" train, The Canadian I rode featured two dining cars for Silver & Blue Class passengers. Breakfast was first-come, first serve. The dining car served lunch and dinner in two seatings. You usually acquired your seating ticket on the first day from the dining car steward, or during breakfast on subsequent days. The downside was that your ticket reserved your lunch and dinner, i.e., if you had early call for lunch, you had early call for dinner. The Skyline Dome "activity cars" featured some muffins and Danishes for breakfast. The Bullet Lounge had some hors d'oeurves or continental breakfast food on the first and last morning. "Comfort Class" passengers, that is, those in coach, had to settle for a coffee shop in the first Skyline Dome. The menu here was limited but the one meal I ate in it was very good (I did not like the menu in the dining car that day. The coffee shop attendant gave me my meal here for free, even though he did not have to). All passengers could use the "take out window," which was also in the first Skyline Dome. This was not a window so much but a room that sold snacks and some microwaved hot food. I was not impressed with the latter. Lunch for Silver & Blue Class passengers was a bit fancier than my tastes-things like stuffed Portobello mushrooms. Dinner, however, was very good with excellent Canadian Prime Rib and strip loin steak with Rosemary Butter Sauce. Breakfast was not that impressive, actually no better or worse than Amtrak breakfasts.
The Canadian Experience: Many call this train the best in North America. Most of the passengers were from abroad: England, Germany, or the United States. I met very few actual Canadian passengers. Almost all of the passengers I met were retirees. Many on the train crew knew my name or who I was. After a few days, it dawned on me that the reason they knew me was that I stood out-I was perhaps the only man in Silver & Blue Class under 35 and one of two under 60. Though most every passenger I met was friendly, I felt out place. I met very few people who were experienced rail travelers or who were interested in railroad history.
Just Say No to Jasper: The Canadian makes very few stops as it travels across Canada. Unless flag stops are scheduled, the train made about two stops a day and these were generally around 30 minutes. At Jasper, Alberta, however, the train was scheduled for a 90 minute layover and my second sleeping car attendant told me about shops that passengers could visit in town. However, as we neared Jasper, we were running one hour late and the train manager (The Canadian had no conductor as such) announced that we would only have 30 minutes in Jasper. That proved barely enough for a cursory fast walk along the main street in Jasper. Considering that The Canadian is a "luxury" train, would it have killed Via Rail or CN railroad to have allowed that extra hour layover, even if it caused us to remain late? I definitely felt cheated by this.
Overall Grade: B. I know this may shock some travelers. Let me first say that I am glad to have traveled on The Canadian. I was especially thrilled to ride about a Budd streamliner--with dome cars no less--that harkened back to the Golden Age of passenger rail travel in the 1950s. But even considering I was upgraded to a double bedroom, I felt Via Rail was overcharging for the experience. Yes, the train crewmembers were all friendly. Yes, the dining car staffs were terrific. Yes, the scenery is fantastic in Ontario and in the Canadian Rockies. But it was not as if I was sleeping on silk sheets and had a personal butler. It was still a train. A large part of my disappointment too was feeling out of place on a train that was largely full of senior citizens. It felt more like a cruise than a rail trip.Continued in next section