Maple Leaf Roundtrip
My big trip involved Canada's Via Rail as well as America' Amtrak, even though the equipment remained the same. As a dual citizen that seemed appropriate. It has been 51 years since I last traveled by train. (I'm not counting as train travel a few hops between L.A. and San Diego in the 1990s)
I currently live in Toronto, Canada, and have an Indian film producing partner who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., who suggested we meet on the same train to discuss a meeting we were to have in New York City with a man flying in from India. I considered all the positive aspects of the proposed trip as compared to flying. The cost was approximately half of an air ticket. Taxi fares saved at both ends would amount to $140.
The time might be rationalized, too. Thirteen hours from Toronto to New York is kind of rough compared to an hour's flight but when one adds forty minutes to the airport by cab, the airline's demand for a two hour advance arrival at the airport on out of country flights, another forty minutes at the other end to get in from the airport - we've minimized the spread by perhaps three and a half hours. Well, that extra time on the train could be well invested in some reading and general relaxation. And perhaps some nostalgia.
Ah, the nostalgia. The old familiar "All aboaaaaaard," and the "puff, puff, chug, chug" of the steam engine building up momentum. A little romance is good for the soul, I thought. But those are sounds, I soon learned, that are long gone.
A sweet, elderly lady behind the wicket in Toronto's Union Station sold me my tickets. They now need one's passport number to have on file when selling tickets to the U.S. I obtained a telephone number from her so as to call it in, since I don't carry my passport when not traveling.
I had booked a hotel on Manhattan's West Side and was disappointed when the Via Rail lady informed that the train would be arriving at Grand Central Station in New York. To economize I decided to use public transportation which meant I'd have to use the 42nd Street Shuttle to get to one of the West Side subways in Manhattan. Happily, I subsequently learned that the lady had it all wrong. The train was heading for Penn Station. Well, as a man once said when asked what he knew about Canadians, "Nice people. Not very bright, but nice." Never mind, soon I would be served by American efficiency and know-how.
About a half hour out of Toronto, the train stopped and we were informed that a freight train had run over a person walking across some tracks somewhere ahead of us. All train traffic had to stop. Passengers who were heading for nearby locations, such as Hamilton or Grimsby, would be ferried by taxi. Those of us making the long haul were stuck. For precisely two hours.
At Fort Erie, N.Y., these trains are scheduled to stop for one hour and fifteen minutes to allow U.S. Customs and Immigration to do their thing. But, of course, if the officials feel they need more time, they can hold up the train as long as they wish. They decided to grill one passenger for an extra hour or more. The 13 hour trip had now become a 16.5 hour voyage. If I recall correctly I had once flown from L.A. to Bucharest, Romania, in exactly the same amount of time.
But I got to New York in one piece, had a chance to stretch my legs a few times, did catch up with some reading and had a highly successful meeting the next day, thus I'm not complaining.
The return trip brought surprises. I'm not a morning person and the only option for the return schedule was 7:15 a.m. At that time of the morning, I don't track too well, and Penn Station, at any time of day, can be quite confusing. In days gone by (I'm 78 now) I relied on asking people for directions. People were generally brighter in the 1940s and 1950s. That was before the drug generation burned out their brain cells with things they smoked or sniffed or injected into their hapless bodies.
First a passerby pointed a finger into a direction that brought me to the 8th Avenue Subway. I wheeled back and asked a man leaning up against a pole where I might find Amtrak. He pointed me into the right direction. I then found a large open area with big crowds of passenger milling about.
There was a huge sign on a wall listing names and number of trains and schedules, etc. What I couldn't find was a track number for my train. Also, unlike at airports, I couldn't find counters with clerks behind them. Then I spied an enclosure around a desk with a uniformed Amtrak official. I asked him where I would find "The Maple Leaf" going to Toronto. He was really a nice man.
He came out of his enclosure and led me a few feet from where we could clearly see a sign he pointed out - Number 9. That was the track I needed, he explained. He added that the train wouldn't start boarding until 7 a.m. O.K.
I looked at my watch. It was 6:59. A full minute to play with - no rush. I moved into the crowd that was now moving toward an escalator to the Number 9 track. At the top of the escalator was a uniformed lady who inspected the tickets. She examined mine carefully. It probably looked different from Amtrak-issued tickets because it was issued by Via Rail. She satisfied herself that it was O.K., and waved me through.
Down on the track another uniformed man was ushering passengers onto the train. By Golly, it looked like a much nicer train than the one I had come on. Shining, ribbed, gleaming chrome walls. On the way down they seemed to direct some of us to an entrance at the front and another toward the rear, depending on destinations, so I decided to ask the Amtrak man to be sure I got on the right car. "Is this for passengers to Toronto?"
"TORONTO???" The man was shocked. "This train goes to Boston!"
Presumably, because the woman at the top of the escalator had waved me through, he had assumed I was headed for Boston. Had I not asked, I might have, indeed, done so.
"Where do I find the train to Toronto?" I now asked with growing concern. I had some seven minutes left for departure time.
"You're at Nine East. You want Seven West!," he replied.
"Where do I find that?"
"Just go forward and then upstairs."
I bolted forward, schlepping my two bags. At this point, with close to cardiac arrest after negotiating the stairs with my two bags, I found myself in a new hall. I became a bit frantic. A uniformed man gave me the wrong direction again and then a second one did likewise. I finally found the track on my own and got on the train just in time for departure. Four Amtrak officials had given me the wrong directions and the wrong information. So much for American efficiency and know-how.
And so much for train travel in North America. I may try it in Africa or Asia some day, wearing a pith helmet and carrying some live chickens for consumption along the way. But in North America, I'll stick to the miserable planes.