Winter 2012

A slow 3 tickets Maple Leaf Trip across the boarder from Toronto to Buffalo

107 miles scheduled in almost five hours (average speed 22 mph) is the Maple Leaf I took today from Toronto to Downtown Buffalo. In reality the slowness is because of the boarder crossing and fact the VIA and Amtrak crews switch entirely including all of the food (and menus in the café car). It took us 2 hours and 22 minutes to go the 2 miles (I walked it once and it was closer to 4 since pedestrians have to go via the Rainbow bridge, not the Whirlpool bridge we crossed) across the boarder.

I checked out of my youth hostel in Toronto and walked down to the station at about 7:55 and arrive to a nice long line-up for my train. The departures monitor claims boarding has started (it says it begins 30 minutes before every train). I wonder around a bit and get in line, at about 8:10 the line finally starts moving, I walk up to the platform and see the Ontario Northlander (another oddball train) entering the station with three coaches. I quickly photograph it with a staff member even ducking beneath my camera. I get on the train and notice the doors to just two coaches are open towards the back of the train, plus the Amfleet-I café car at the rear. The first coach is an Wifi Amfleet-I for anyone going within Canada, the front coach is for anyone going across the boarder. The intermediate door is locked from the front 3 coaches, two Amfleet-IIs and an Amfleet-I, I can tell from the windows.
The train leaves a minute early at 8:19 with an announcement for the train to Oakville, Aldershot, Gimsby, St. Catharine’s, Niagara Falls and continuing into the US to New York City. Amtrak does Canada the favor of announcing all the stops, why can’t they here. The VIA crew also makes the customary announcement in French as well. She also notes that the café car will close after St. Catherines and won’t reopen until past the US boarder at about 12:30.
8:24 Exhibition as we quickly leave Toronto on decent track.
8:30 slow down and stop to go through a large train yard, VIA’s maintenance facility and see three Rocky Mountaineer Goldleaf domes freshly painted (apparently they had to be sent this far east to get panted). There are also 3 locomotives on flatcars with the Brazilin flag on them (guess that is there destination) plus some random other private trains.
I wonder up to the café car that is entirely signed for VIA, all regular Amtrak menus gone, complete with a VIA menu serving VIA food and only giving change in Canadian currency. My plan for the morning was donuts (assuming there would be regular Amtrak food). I only have US twenties and have spent all my loonies. I first try and charge a piece of banana bread but am told the minimum is $5 so I change my order to their egg sandwich which is awful, really an egg salad sandwhich. My card is imprinted; they don’t have a swipe reader like Amtrak does now. I decide to sit in the café car as we speed down GO’s decent high speed track. I realize we have just a crew of two, the café car attendant plus just one on board service manager (VIA only has operations crew on the head end). I am sitting in front of her and don’t hear the usual dispatcher chatter. The front of the train does radio arriving Aldershot ten minutes, which we do at 8:59 although there is no business. I also realize the attendant has not announced all of the stops either. There are also boxes everywhere in the café car because of the fact everything must be switched in Niagara Falls. I try AmtrakConnect and it comes right on but doesn’t connect to the internet. I look at the wifi map and it says service in the US only. Amtrak Cascades works fine in Canada, I wonder why this train does not.
9:05 we leave GO trackage and the line to Windsor beyond slowing down significantly going through a yard and then on the outskirts of a city (Hamilton I bet). A man walks into the café car to ask if there is a duty free at the boarder (I am almost sure there is not).
9:33 slow down but down stop at the little VIA shack in Grimsby.
9:44 cross somes wetlands.
9:49 slowly enter St. Catherines when the café car operated by VIA will close. It has a nicely restored platform with a GO transit wheelchair ramp (for its summer runs to the falls) and some of its valuators but no tactile warning strip. It is also home to the Niagara Regional Literary council.
9:59 cross the canal and I watch both the on board services manager and the café car attendant both helping to pack up the VIA food before Niagara Falls when it will be reloaded on tonights northbound maple leaf. On Amtrak you would never see the conductor handling food (granted he needs to be more concerned about the operation of the train).
10:05 ten minutes to Niagara Falls
10:13 an announcement that we will be soon arriving into Niagara Falls (only in English) for two stops, first for the engineers (VIA switching to Amtrak) and than for passengers, the crew changes here in Ontario and were told the Amtrak crew will direct us for the boarder crossing. Our first stop is at 10:15 as I see a GO bus pass by. At 10:18 we proceed forward into the station, I see our Amtrak crew and even the café car attandant with a large cart of food to sell on the train (strange I thought she would be boarding at Niagara Falls, NY). I am amazed at the number of people getting on our train here it includes the odd British couple from the Canadian who are loading quite a bit of luggage including their skis onto the train with help from our Amtrak conductor.
10:31 announcement to remain in our seats from our New York conductor, including that the café car will be closed until 12:35pm when we leave Niagara Falls, NY, time for the slowest — miles between stations on Amtrak. This should be relatively quick there is only one car of passengers (plus a few in business crossing the boarder), and start going across the Whirlpool Rapids bridge by an unused railbridge going slowly on jointed rail in terrible condition. The roadway of the bridge is open for Nexus holders only. There also some CSX workers inspecting the track. We continue along ruff jointed rail (some of the worst I have ridden on) by new subdivisions and stop somewhere at 10:44 for customs I suppose before backing up onto the stub platform. I get cell service and start the process of catching up with phone calls. The agents come, about ten of them, first two with the initial questions including a hand-held passport scanner (they didn’t have one the last time I crossed from Montreal) and I am asked for my drivers license because there having a hard time scanning my passport. Another one comes up with the standard fruits and vegetables questions and asks to verify our luggage. No dogs though this time. Then I am told I am done and a few more come and keep asking questions, why? Eventually the foreign tourists (two sets from the UK that I know of) are escorted off the train, told the ESTAs they have completed on line are not accepted, and they need six more dollars to complete the older land boarder form. I watch a dump truck empty a nearby dumpster. The train is far too hot. I miss the immigration room in Vancouver where going through customs both ways felt fast and efficient. I end up wondering to the next Amfleet-I coach to use the wifi (the Amfleet-I do, the IIs don’t)
11:59 see the second British couple reboard. At about 12:05 they announce that we have cleared customs and invite us to step off the train and I do my visiting the simple waiting room. There is also a sign for customs and boarder inspection in a separate wing of the station where they must process the non-nationals. Our car has gotten very hot and the conductors have opened up the rest of the train. I here the double horn and we leave at 12:37, the conductors start collecting tickets. A person has a VIA ticket and the conductor has to go ask his partner what to lift. I get both my tickets lifted deciding that Amtrak can get its $6 dollars reimbursed from VIA. I hand over my first of four tickets that form my trip back to New York with less than 24 hour stopovers. That is the only VIA ticket with a price on it, we pass the junk yard of the day. The conductor makes the usual announcements, no smoking wear your shoes and the like. There is quite a contrast between the three large Albany-based men that are our crew now and the two petite ladies that were running the train on VIA territory.
12:49 – We pass a quarry as we slowly leave Niagara Falls, NY.
It is an uneventful ride through the suburbs down to Buffalo-Exchange Street where we arrive 1 minute late at 1:47. I walk into the station (open Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm). I find the friendly agent and asks him if there is a baggage room in the station. He tells me afraid not but lets me dump my backpack on an old coach in the station office in back of the ticket window, as long as I am back by 4 o’clock (station closing time).
Now it is time to railfan the Buffalo Metro that destroyed Main Street, built in the 1980s when Buffalo was on a severe decline already that is underground outside of downtown and on a dedicated transit mall within downtown. The first stop is walking around the old Eire Freighthouse, now used as the maintenance facility for the metro with paths around all sides. I then started walking up the transit mall, buying my $4 day pass and getting the first 3 underground stations before it was just before 4 and I rushed back to the Exchange St Station to grab my backpack. I finished the last 5 underground Metro stations with my backpack before meeting an old family friend at University Station where I am spending the night.