The first thing I noticed this morning was that we arrived at the station 20 minutes prior to departure rather than two hours early. We checked our bags and boarded. There were no lines, no security checks, no one taking their shoes off or putting their laptops in a plastic bin to be X-rayed. So far so very, very good.
After we boarded I noticed the seats. There were no seat-belts and the seats were larger and much more comfortable than anything other than first class on a flight. In general, there was a lot more room. The windows were enormous.
We pulled away from the station, slowly at first but it was so smooth. I don't know what I was expecting but we just glided out of the station and pretty soon we were moving past the back of businesses and apartments. Trains run through the less upscale parts of a city and the large windows afford a better than necessary view of the seedy underbelly as it were.
Our trip to Montreal was on the south shore of the St Lawrence, rural of course, farms and small towns. There seems to be more time to think on a train. Well OK, there _is_ more time to think. The overall travel time from Quebec City to Montreal was almost the same as by car, about 3 hours. It's tempting to just sit and gaze out the window at the ever changing scenery. But the train had wireless Internet so that settled it for me. Speaking of laptops, cellphones and other 'approved electronic devices', if you need to make a call, you just do it. We travel right next to the main road so there are relatively few areas not covered by cellular service.
Oh yeah, the train couldn't have had more than 20% occupancy which is why I'm writing this. Granted the average traveller may well be in more of a hurry than I am, but surfing, replying to email and writing this essay are all activities that I would normally engage in anyway, so the train ride really can't be considered a major inconvenience.
I should mention that the leg from Quebec City to Montreal is on the Canadian National Railroad's Viarail Canada. Viarail calls trains 'a more humane way to travel'. It was a modern, well appointed train, while the leg from Montreal to New York was on an older Amtrak train. The seats were a bit closer together, the legroom not quite as ample, the windows were a bit smaller, but from what I'd guess it was about %65-70 full. If that were the first train I'd ridden I'd still be impressed.
Back in my previous, unenlightened life, I vaguely remember political discussions about cutting the subsidy off for Amtrak and letting 'market forces' put unprofitable routes out of business. Given the high price of gasoline these days I doubt if such discussions take place very often but here is yet another area where a government can act to subsidize an industry that is not profitable in order to improve the standard of living for it's citizens. In fact, given the lack of profitability of most railway routes, there is very little chance that a private company will ever invest in railroads. Unless the federal government continues to subsidize them, most routes will disappear.
There are high speed trains in some parts of the world, in countries that believe in public transportation. The US, apart from major cities like New York and Chicago, believes in public transportation more as a way to allow poor people to get to work in the city than as real options for travel. Bus lines typically operate at a loss and light rail is extremely limited in its breadth of coverage. There is also the small matter of the status quo. Automakers in the US wield extraordinary political power. The motivation for the federal government to invest in public transportation is simply not there.
The leg to New York is called the Adirondack and it has exceptionally nice scenery through the eastern half of upstate New York. The porter in Montreal called the left side of the train Lakeside, for Lake Champlain, and the right side Riverside, after the Hudson river from Albany into New York City.
The dining car opened at about 10:30. That's cool too. I'm discovering all the comforts of 19th century travel for the first time. As an aside, our micro-waved 'Sante Fe' chicken sandwich listed literally dozens of ingredients. It's better not knowing what they all are. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, sometimes it's just ignorance.
I don't think our speed in the Adirondack route has exceeded 50 km/h from Montreal to the US border. It's not exactly a 200 km/h Maglev. But speed isn't really the primary reason for this little experiment.
We stopped at the US border in Rouses Point, NY and were boarded by customs officials. I overheard one of the train employees saying we would have about a 45 minute delay. It's an hour now and counting. All non US or Canadian citizens were directed to the dining car for a little extraordinary rendition, or something. I'm a US citizen, my wife is Canadian, we live in Canada and each time I return to the states I'm a little more uncomfortable with security. Each time US residents seem a little more paranoid. Maybe I'm imagining things. We were finally on the way after about an hour and 15 minutes.
I'm fairly opposed to nationalism no matter what country is screaming it at the top of their lungs but so far this train ride is starting to feel like a stereotype. It's the fast, modern, friendly Canadian railway versus the slow, older, inefficient US system. As we hurtle through upstate New York at 20 mph, the engineer has informed us that 'some signals ahead are red and the law requires the slow speed'. At this rate we won't have to worry about rush hour in New York City.
The signal lights must have turned green up ahead because we've doubled our speed. Going slow, even when you're not in a hurry, is frustrating. This is much more what I thought a train ride would be. But, no sooner did we get going though then we are stopping in Plattsburgh to wait for the nicotine addicts to relieve themselves. How it is that tobacco and for that matter, alcohol, are still legal is beyond my puny eggshell mind to grasp. Hopefully there will be a liquor store within a mile or so of our hotel. I'll need a drink by then.
Our route takes us down the western side of Lake Champlain which seems to stretch forever, supporting an endless number of pleasure boats. In the distance to the east we can make out the Appalachians. It's quite a nice view and one that we'd miss if we were on highway 87 a few miles to the west. In the distance to the west we can see the Adirondacks. Upstate New York is beautiful there's no doubt about that.
The man made scenery visible from the railroad is quite unlike that seen from the highway. One has the impression of glancing into a private, uncared for place. There are abandoned buildings, backyards, rusted out old schoolbuses and forgotten toys. It's as if you are looking into human nature rather than looking at the facade that people show to the roadway. it will be interesting to see the City from this perspective.
It's 6 PM and the dining car has run out of food. I would have had a cup of coffee for dinner but they've run out of plastic lids as well. Perhaps Amtrak was surprised at the level of occupancy. It's a long ride though and due to the signal light problems, it's running an hour and a half late. They've been running it hard for the last few hours and maybe they've made up some time but when these old trains try to make up time, they shake hard enough to make reading difficult. The dining car is due to reopen once we leave Albany so maybe another Sante Fe chicken sandwich is in my future. The guy sitting ahead of us called a friend a few stops ago and got the number of a Dominos near the station in Albany. He had to run around the station a bit but he made his connection. The smell of fresh, hot pizza when you're hungry is it's own unique kind of pain.
There are two restrooms at the front of my car. The door on one is jammed and won't open and the other has been occupied for about half an hour now. I fear the worst. If I really need to I can go to another car. I think we still have 4 stops before Penn Station and we are already 5 minutes late. According to the schedule we are now two hours and ten minutes behind. An attendant just opened the locked restroom door and carefully looked inside. No one was in there, which is a good thing.
We made it to New York 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. It was long dark by the time we arrived so the trip into the city wasn't as colorful as I'd hoped. According to the porter that we eventually located, there were only 2 porters in the entire Penn Station at 9 PM on a Friday night. He also told us that the train from Florida was 6 hours late, so we should feel fortunate. I didn't feel so much fortunate as exhausted. That was a long day that started at 5:30 AM as we left the house for the train station in Quebec City. But the total cost of our one way trip was under $200 and the electric train didn't spew an ounce of greenhouse gas into the sky.
We got to our return trip on time a week later and sat in the same two seats. That was a mistake as the smell of the restrooms was already noticeable at the time of departure. As the day wore on, the entire car took on the odor of a portable toilet. The train shook it's way north out of the city and was actually only about 10 minutes behind schedule when we arrived at the Canadian border.
Of course, as luck would have it, 2 days prior to our trip, British authorities arrested alleged terrorists planning to destroy aircraft flying between Britain and the US. We were boarded by US border patrol officers on the US side of the border who delayed us for an hour as they searched for suspects trying to flee. There are any number of witty remarks I could make at this point about speeding away on Amtrak. Alas, no suspects were taken into custody. So we proceeded across the border where the Canadian border patrol, not to be outdone, kept us for an hour and a half and actually removed some unfortunate person from the train.
We arrived in Montreal 2 1/2 hours late in stench that was by now suffocating. I fell to my knees and kissed the concrete, Canadian soil. Travel in Canada, whether by air or by train is reasonable but if you are unfortunate enough to have to pass through the US, it's advisable to think long and hard about the necessity of the voyage.
Amtrak had me at hello but by the time the journey was done, government subsidy, and a substantial one, will have to find it's way to my pocket before I do that again.