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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Maple Leaf

It's 8:35 a.m. on Monday, February 19, 2001, and I've just arrived at Union Station in Toronto, where I will be taking the Maple Leaf to Rochester, New York.

The purpose of my visit to Toronto was to attend a wedding last night. Since I arrived Thursday night on the International, I did have some time to explore the city's transit system, though. On Friday, I took the subway downtown to Union Station. Toronto's subway was built in the 1950s or 1960s, and features stations of a plain, 1950s-type design. However, the stations are immaculately clean, and very frequent service is provided all day long. When I arrived at Union Station, I spent some time looking around this magnificent edifice. I noticed that the GO Transit commuter train service has its own waiting room in the east end of the building, and I picked up copies of its various timetables. GO Transit runs a coordinated train-and-bus service, with frequent rail service on the east-west Lakeshore route, but with limited commuter service (mainly during weekday rush hours) on the other five routes which extend northwest, north and northeast. Looking at the timetables, I noticed that two of these lines pass quite near my cousin's home on northern Bathurst Street, and I decided that on Monday morning, when I will be traveling in to Union Station during the morning rush hours, I will try to take one of these trains.

Toronto's transit system also features a network of trolley lines, referred to by their historic name "streetcars." On Friday, I decided to take Route 510, which runs from Union Station along the waterfront, then north along Spadina Street to Bloor Street, where it connects with the subway. This line -- which appears to have been constructed within the last few years -- runs on a dedicated right-of-way in the middle of Spadina Street, with platforms provided at all passenger stops. The trolley line terminates in a tight loop inside a tunnel next to Union Station. I boarded this trolley at Union Station and took it to the end of the line at Spadina and Bloor. Interestingly, for the first part of the ride, the trolley was nearly empty, but as we proceeded along Spadina, it began to fill up, and soon reached the point that not only were passengers standing, but the driver had to skip some stops because there was simply no room for anyone else aboard! At the final stop, the trolley goes down a ramp into the subway station, where passengers can easily transfer (at no additional charge) to the subway.

Yesterday afternoon, I again rode the subway to downtown. This time, I rode the eastern branch of the line all the way to its terminus at the Kennedy station, then continued on the Scarborough Rapid Transit -- a separate line, also operated by the Toronto Transit Commission, and which connects with the subway at Kennedy. This above-grade line -- which was constructed only 15 years ago -- uses special three-car trains. Its next-to-last stop is Scarborough Center, a large shopping center, which was the destination of most of the passengers in my car this Sunday morning. On my return trip, I got off the subway at the Main Street station, and boarded streetcar line #506, which I took to the center of town.

This ride was a real thrill. Every newly-constructed light-rail line in North America has a dedicated right-of-way for at least most of its length, with platforms provided at every station. And, as far as I can determine, every other North American city with historic trolley lines (as opposed to newly-constructed light-rail lines) -- which, to the best of my knowledge, include only Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco -- retained them because the lines ran, in whole or part, on dedicated rights-of-way, including (with the exception of New Orleans) tunnels under the downtown area through which buses could not run. But this Toronto trolley line -- as well as a number of others -- runs entirely in the middle of the street, with vehicular traffic using the very same lanes as the streetcars! In some cases, there are only two lanes of traffic (with cars parked along the side of the street), so that a stopped streetcar blocks all traffic proceeding in that direction; in other cases, there are four traffic lanes, and passengers have to wait along the curb and then cross a lane of traffic to board the streetcar. My ride on this line was a truly fascinating experience. This streetcar line is well patronized, and serves a real transportation purpose for residents of the areas through which it passes.

This morning, my cousin Dov drove me to the Richmond Hill station, the northern end of the line for one of the five rush-hour-service-only lines extending out from Toronto Union Station. Richmond Hill is served by four southbound daily trains and five northbound trains, with my 8:00 a.m. departure being the final train of the morning. The Richmond Hill station has a large parking lot and a small, modern brick station building, at which an agent is stationed to sell tickets during the two hours in the morning when trains are scheduled to depart. I purchased a one-way ticket for $3.85 and boarded the train, which consisted of seven bi-level cars (of the same type used by Metrolink in the Los Angeles area and Tri-Rail in southern Florida) pushed by an engine in the rear. The cars have seats arranged in facing pairs of four, but do not have any tables between the pairs of seats. The train left promptly at 8:00 a.m. and made three more stops on the way to downtown Toronto. Quite a few passengers boarded at all of the stops, and by the time we pulled out of the last station, Oriole, all seats in my car were occupied and at least one person was standing. (Luckily, I was able to stow most of my luggage under the seats, as no other luggage storage space is available on this commuter train.) I was told that GO Transit hopes to add another car to this train soon!

For the last part of our trip into Toronto, we followed the beautiful Don River Valley, which cuts deeply into the terrain just east of downtown Toronto. The tracks run right along the river, and the line is quite scenic, with a number of high viaducts towering above. (One of these viaducts, which carries Bloor Street over the river valley, is particularly interesting, as it also carries the eastern line of the subway, which is underground for almost the entire way, except for a brief appearance above-ground to cross this deep valley on a viaduct which also carries the roadway above the subway tracks.)

We arrived on Track 1 at Union Station at 8:40 a.m., two minutes late. This GO Transit train had proved to be a very delightful and convenient way to reach Union Station from the suburban area that I was staying in. I detrained and walked into the station through a narrow passageway that led to a room just east of the Great Hall. I noticed that the departures board showed my train as leaving on time at 9:40 a.m. from Track 9, with boarding to begin at 9:10 a.m. After looking around the majestic Great Hall, I walked down the ramp to the boarding area under the tracks, where VIA has provided seating adjacent to each gate (similar to the arrangement found at most airports).

Two other trains were also boarding at this time, destined to Ottawa and Montreal, respectively. There were rather long lines for these trains, with fewer passengers waiting to board our train. About 9:15 a.m., boarding for our train commenced, with passengers being allowed to go up the escalator to the platform in groups of about 20 at a time.

When I arrived at the platform, I found that our train was actually on Track 8 (on the opposite side of the platform from Track 9). Today's Maple Leaf is pulled by F-40 engine #268 (still used on this train, apparently because the Canadian crews are not qualified on the newer dual-mode Genesis engines) and includes three Amfleet I coaches and a cafe/Business Class car at the rear. (Interestingly, one of the coaches, #21033, was on Train #286 which, just two weeks ago, collided with a CSX freight train near Syracuse, New York, injuring most passengers aboard. This car was apparently at the rear of that train, and presumably was not seriously damaged as a result of the accident.)

I headed for the rear car, where my Business Class ticket entitled me to sit. To my dismay, I discovered that this car, #48223, was not really a Business Class car, but merely had coach seats on one side of the serving counter and tables on the other. This was not what I expected when I made my reservation for Business Class. At least there are tables on this train, although I didn't have to have a Business Class ticket to sit there! Well, I will complain to Amtrak and perhaps receive a refund or voucher for at least the $14 supplemental Business Class fare. (Neither the VIA attendants nor the other passengers seemed to realize that this car did not have the more spacious seating to which a Business Class ticket is supposed to entitle you.)

On the adjacent Track 10 were two VIA trains -- both the train to Montreal and the train to Ottawa. These two trains were made up of LRV cars, except that the rear train had a "Heritage" coach in the rear for VIA 1 (first class) passengers. The first train departed on time at 9:30 a.m., and the rear train departed one minute later. Then our train departed promptly on time at 9:40 a.m.

Right after we departed Toronto, the cafe attendant came by to collect tickets -- in keeping with VIA's policy that all on- board service employees can perform any passenger-related task. It soon dawned on me that she had kept not only the ticket itself, but also the stub that is supposed to be returned to the passenger. So I went back and told her that I hadn't received my stub back. She seemed a little surprised that I was entitled to my ticket stub back, but did give the stubs back to me, as well as to the other eight passengers sitting in my car. (Subsequently, the service manager pointed out to her that she had collected the wrong ticket from one of the other passengers.)

I watched as we proceeded along the Toronto lakefront and then swung a little inland, following the Lakeshore line used not only by Amtrak and VIA, but also (as far as Burlington) by GO Transit. We stopped briefly at Oakville and Aldershot to pick up some additional passengers. Both of these stations have modern but relatively attractive station buildings. The Aldershot station has a very large parking lot, which I observed to be quite full. I also walked through the other three cars and counted about 85 passengers aboard, with about half of them in the front car.

After our stop in Aldershot, we reached Hamilton Jct,, where our route swings to the left, leaving the line heading towards London, Windsor and Sarnia (this is not the line that the International takes -- it proceeds on a more northerly route, via Kitchener and Guelph). We now started swinging to the left, around the westerly arm of Lake Ontario, visible to the left of the train for a few minutes. Then we passed the very large historic Canadian National station in Hamilton, which still appears to be in good condition but is no longer used by VIA or Amtrak trains.

I decided to obtain a free beverage, to which my Business Class ticket entitled me. An announcement had previously been made that the coffee machine was not working, so that no coffee, tea, or other hot beverages would be available. I did obtain a can of orange juice, and I moved over to a table, which offers much more comfortable and spacious seating than the rather cramped seats in the coach section of the car. When we came to our next scheduled stop, Grimsby, we went by without stopping, since no one was scheduled to get on or off here. We then passed through a semi-rural agricultural area, and soon crossed a river on a high bridge, with the stone abutments and stone arches of a former single-track bridge visible to the right of the train.

At 11:11 a.m., we stopped at St. Catharines, which has a classic brick station that is still staffed by an agent. A number of passengers got off here. During our station stop, I heard the engineer receive a train order permitting us to proceed. Soon afterwards, we crossed a drawbridge over the Welland Canal.

After we departed St. Catharines, the service counter in the cafe car closed down (although there was no announcement made to this effect). The arrangement between VIA and Amtrak regarding the operation of the Maple Leaf is quite different from that in effect for the operation of the International. In the case of the International, the change between VIA and Amtrak crews is made on the American side of the border. Moreover, on the International, the cafe car is operated all the way from Chicago to Toronto by a VIA attendant, with the same supplies being available for the entire journey. On the Maple Leaf, by contrast, the crew transfer takes place on the Canadian side of the border, and the cafe car is operated on the Canadian side by a VIA attendant, while in the United States it is operated by an Amtrak attendant. As a result, all of the stock of food and beverages must be removed from the train at Niagara Falls, Ontario, and replacements from Amtrak stock must be loaded on the train. Thus, the stop in Niagara Falls, Ontario has to take a few minutes, at least.

We arrived at the Niagara Falls, Ontario station at 11:31 a.m., three minutes early. I detrained, along with a number of other passengers for whom Niagara Falls was their final destination, and took some pictures of the beautiful brick station, with arched windows. The interior of the station has been completely remodeled with a dropped ceiling and is not particularly attractive, but the outside retains its original charm. Interestingly, the facade on the east side of the station has been rebuilt in a modern style, with a stairway visible through large glass windows,

Our stop in Niagara Falls, Ontario lasted for 11 minutes. We then crossed the deep gorge of the Niagara River, with a beautiful steel-arch railroad bridge, built by the Michigan Central Railroad, immediately to our right. At the ends of the bridge, the original stone abutments of an earlier bridge (presumably the famous Suspension Bridge) are visible. It took us only two minutes to cross the bridge, and at 11:44 a.m. we stopped on the other side of the bridge for U.S. Customs and Immigration inspection. Our railway bridge is also used by auto traffic, which crosses on the lower level, and the U.S. Customs station for auto traffic crossing the border is just below us, with a stairway leading up to the tracks. Soon, two customs agents boarded the train. Their inspection of the few people in my car was rather cursory, with no one being asked for passports and no luggage inspected. To our left, I noticed an abandoned stone building, overgrown with vines. Perhaps this is the original station building.

The customs inspection lasted for nearly an hour. At 12:43 p.m., we proceeded forward, and four minutes later, we arrived at the Amtrak station in Niagara Falls, New York. Even after the lengthy customs inspection was completed, we still had over 40 minutes to wait at the Niagara Falls passenger station before we could proceed on our way. Why so much time is built into the schedule here is not clear (on the westbound trip, half an hour less is allowed for border formalities and restocking of the train), but the reason probably is that Amtrak does not want its Empire Service train delayed by lengthy waits for customs clearance.

An announcement was made that passengers were free to step off the train to smoke or get some fresh air, so I detrained and walked into the station. There was another trainset between our train and the station, and to reach the station you had to walk around the rear of the other train. The Amtrak Niagara Falls station is a modern brick building which seems to have been built in the 1950s. Its waiting room features modern seating and white-painted cinder-block walls. The station is located in a rather remote area, although a timetable posted on the wall indicates that hourly bus service is available to the center of town. A main road runs adjacent to the station, but there doesn't seem to be any direct access from that road to the station, and you have to take some roundabout route to get there.

Since I had plenty of time to spare, I made a call to my cousins in Rochester to let them know that the train was (at least so far) on time, took a few pictures, and reboarded the train. I took out some sandwiches that I had brought with me and ate them at a table, accompanied by another can of orange juice that I had obtained from the VIA cafe attendant before he closed down the cafe car. I noticed that two maintenance workers were attempting to repair the defective coffee maker (they apparently succeeded, since hot beverages were available once we departed from Niagara Falls).

We departed Niagara Falls on time at 1:25 p.m., and proceeded east and then south, primarily through industrial areas, although for a short period of time we ran along the Niagara River and passed underneath the Peace Bridge. Our next stop, at 2:00 p.m, was the Exchange Street station in downtown Buffalo. This is a small, modern brick building, located in the shadow of overhead expressway bridges. Right beyond here, we joined up with the Amtrak main line coming from Chicago -- a route that I've traveled on many times previously. This was the end of the new mileage segment for me.

When I walked back to my seat, I noticed a young man who had boarded at Exchange Street sitting in the adjacent seat. Since I had no reason to sit there any more, I moved my backpack and seat check to my table in the front of the car, where I would be spending the rest of the ride. Soon, we passed the abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal, a huge station complex built by the New York Central on the outskirts of the city. I was on a train that stopped at this station in the late 1960s, when much of the main waiting room was closed off and the entire place had an aura of decay. It was abandoned soon afterwards, but the building still seems to be structurally sound, and every so often there is talk of rehabilitating it.

After our next stop, the Buffalo-Depew station, where we left a few minutes later, I walked through the coaches and counted about 140 people aboard. The third coach (which had been used by VIA for passengers who were destined for Canadian stations) was still largely empty, but the other cars had at least one person sitting in almost every seat. Then I returned to the table section of the last car and spent the rest of the trip doing some work on my computer.

About 3:05 p.m., an announcement was made that we will be arriving at Rochester, and we pulled into the station at 3:06 p.m., six minutes early! I detrained, walked through the modern station, and found my cousin Joel waiting to take me to his home, where I would be spending the night.

My trip today from Toronto to Rochester on the Maple Leaf was very pleasant, even though I did not receive the Business Class seat that I had paid for. The two-hour delay for the border crossing seems inexcusable, though, and the crew and other passengers indicated that the train is often late despite the long time period allowed for customs. Indeed, one of the guests at last night's wedding told me that they drove from Teaneck to Toronto in eight and one- half hours -- while Amtrak takes 12 hours for this trip! Something must be done to speed up this train if it is to become a viable transportation option for travel between Toronto and New York.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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