Border Crossing and Home


…Is this the “Maritime Sailors Cathedral” mentioned in Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, I wonder?

Anyway, until 2004, it was pretty easy to start out on a train trip from Kitchener, go some distance, and return from the other direction, all by rail. A journey where you don’t double back feels lime more of a perfect journey, in some ways. You see something new throughout the entire length of your trip.

From Kitchener, you could go to Toronto. From Toronto, you could go to Montreal. From Montreal, you could go to New York. And from New York, you had multiple ways to head to Chicago.

The missing link, of course, is Amtrak’s International, the Chicago-Toronto train that disappeared due to dwindling ridership, a frustrating border crossing (which no doubt contributed to the dwindling ridership) and a Michigan State government that wanted to pay Amtrak decent money to let their passengers go to Chicago and arrive at a decent hour in the morning. And, fair’s fair: if they’re ponying up the funds, who is Amtrak to say ‘no’?

So, sadly, without the Chicago to Toronto train, getting back across the border into Canada can be difficult, but there is a way that you can try. Amtrak has since upgraded its Chicago-to-Detroit trains, speeding up travel speeds to over 100 miles per hour. You arrive in Detroit with (hopefully) four hours to get across the border to VIA’s Windsor station, where a VIA Train can take you the rest of the way. In between is the newly opened Detroit Streetcar, and Windsor Transit’s Tunnel Bus — a municipal transit operation that recalls long-forgotten cross-border operations that used to run between Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York, or the El Paso PCC streetcars that crossed the Rio Grande to Juarez, New Mexico.

It was a bit of a risk, however. Amtrak’s Wolverine is scheduled to arrive in Detroit at 1:40 p.m. VIA Rail’s train from Windsor to Kitchener (via a connection in London) is scheduled to depart its station at 5:45 p.m. That gave me exactly four hours and five minutes to get across Detroit, get through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, clear Canadian Customs and get across Windsor to the VIA station in order to board my train.

You would think that four hours and five minutes is plenty of time, but then we encountered problems that delayed the Wolverine’s arrival in Detroit by an hour. Then I got out of the station to see a Detroit streetcar passing by and, even though service operates at every ten minutes, I still had to wait thirty minutes to get aboard the next streetcar. Finally, the Tunnel Bus was half an hour late.

Fortunately, there was no serious line-up of cars in the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. And Canadian Customs took the passengers on board the Tunnel Bus and whipped us quickly through security. And Windsor Transit’s one route between the border and the VIA station operated at ten minute intervals and was a straight line. I ended up arriving at the station with 30 minutes to spare. Not a problem, but a lot closer than I would have liked it.

Still, I did get to ride the Detroit Streetcar and the city’s People Mover (the original Scarborough RT cars are still functioning quite well, there), and the Tunnel Bus was interesting. And now I’m on the final leg home.

The last big train trip had many great memories for me, but was pushing it for being too long at 11 days. Six days of travel seems like enough for me. I’ve had good memories, and good pictures. And nearly 5000 words added to The Sun Runners.

Pictures of my last day’s journey can be found here.


Kenosha Scrubbed, So LaGrange, Instead


Erin is convinced that Kenosha exists in a Brigadoon state, and each time I come close to visiting it, something happens to make it disappear. Numerous times I’ve expressed an interest in going to visit the reconditioned Toronto streetcars there, but we end up diverting on the i-94, or we end up in Chicago too late for me to take the only Metra train going there and back. Or something.

Today, I woke up in my seat in Indianapolis at 6 p.m., which is exactly where Amtrak’s Cardinal should be. But we aren’t moving. Turns out that a private railcar that the train was pulling at the rear popped over the rail as the train entered Indianapolis Union Station. This damaged the coupler to the point where the crew couldn’t disengage it from the rest of the train. We were looking at staying in Indianapolis for hours until possibly buses would come, but instead the crew decided to take the luggage out of the baggage car (which was between the private car and the rest of the train) place them wherever space was available on the train, and abandon the baggage car in Indianapolis. Doing this allowed us to leave Indianapolis Union Station two hours late, at 8 a.m.

This was better than bussing it, but the damage had been done. Now that we’d been thrown off our window, we now had to compete with every freight railroad for space between Indianapolis and Chicago. We moved slowly, and we stopped frequently, and we finally pulled into Chicago Union Station at 2:15 p.m., 4.5 hours late, and nearly 2 hours too late to head to Kenosha.

Oh, well. But it was late enough that I could check into my hotel room for the evening and drop off my suitcase there. Then, after a brief rest, I decided to have some fun in Chicago itself.

At Erin’s suggestion, I visited Anderson’s Books in LaGrange, Illinois. This interesting commuter suburb is well built up around the Metra commuter rail station that’s just 30 minutes away from Chicago Union Station. The trains are frequent and roll most hours of the day and night. There’s good density here, and a vibrant feel that is homely. It’s quiet, and only a half-hour away from the hurly-burly of the big city.

Anderson Bookstore was a nice place to visit, and I talked up Erin’s books (they had stocked Plain Kate previously), and then I spent a little time at a pizzeria for some excellent Chicago Deep Dish.

One benefit of being trapped on a train for 4.5 hours longer than expected, you do get some writing done. I finished a column for the Kitchener Post and over 900 words on The Sun Runners. I hope to push that over a thousand later this evening. So far on this tour, I’ve written nearly 4,000 words, and have pulled the story over 80,000 in total. I am finding that it is more complicated than I’d expected and it may pass 100,000 before some serious revision can be done.

Tomorrow, I board Amtrak’s Wolverine for Detroit, and then VIA Rail to take me from Windsor to Kitchener, and some interesting things to bridge the gap. See you at home!

Pictures of my two days can be found here.


Cardinal AppalachianSo, today, I set my alarm to wake me at 4:20 a.m. so I could be early enough to catch the hotel shuttle to a monorail to a commuter line to a connecting train pausing at Washington, DC, so I could board the Cardinal. After that, I was going to spend 24 hours in a seat (albeit business class) until I got to Chicago at 10 a.m. local time Thursday morning. That has to push the patience of even the most ardent train fan.

All things considered, though, I think it’s worth it.j

The Cardinal is a thrice-weekly train operated by Amtrak that is reputed to be the most scenic to operate east of the Mississippi. After leaving DC, it passes through rural Virginia before heading into the wilds of West Virginia and the Appalachians. The highlight is the New River Gorge. While it initially doesn’t look like much, as you head along, you notice that the river gets faster, and the hills on either side get steeper, and taller. Pretty soon, what communities you pass cling to a narrow ledge between river and cliff. The tunnels you pass through are long and dark.

Although I personally rate the Adirondack about as high for scenery, I don’t think I’m seeing the Cardinal at its full potential. The wild weather that passed through New York yesterday (which I somehow managed to duck around) has stuck around for some heavy clouds and fog. Right now, it’s so green, it’s frustrating: all of the trees are getting in the way of my mountain views. I didn’t have that problem in Jasper! But imagine what this run must look like in the fall? Even in the spring, there are some breathtaking views. It’s no wonder this run often sells out.

The Internet connection is spotty, so no pictures until tomorrow.

Newark, Hoboken, and Oculus


Having taken the Adirondack from Montreal to New York yesterday, today was an exploration day.

A confession: when I went to New York City in 2010, back when Erin was premiering Plain Kate, I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed to the point where I didn’t enjoy it. New York remains one of the great cities of the world — possibly one of the greatest — but it is just so huge and expensive and unrelenting that I, a boy who grew up in the thick of downtown Toronto, found myself crushed by it. That and the $20 pastrami sandwich bought near Times Square kind of ticked me off.

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, or an overgeneralization, as I found much to like in New York when I went a bit off-centre. We ate some of the best pizza ever at Lombardis in Little Italy. I enjoyed the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn. And though I don’t think I could do the MTA justice in one day, there is one rail system I could explore thoroughly: New York City’s “other” subway, the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH).

As a Canadian, I’m kind of used to my public transit coming in nice little compartments. Local transit agencies in Toronto and Montreal operate the streetcars and the subways. Vancouver’s Skytrain is a local interest. If there is another class of train, it’s usually suburban commuter rail. The idea of an entire agency running what is essentially a second subway in a city kind of blows my mind. But they exist. Twice, in fact. New Jersey’s Port Authority runs PATCO, Philadelphia’s second subway (after SEPTA’s two-line network) extending from the downtown across the Delaware into Camden, New Jersey and beyond. The Port Authority Trans Hudson crosses the Hudson River, serves Midtown New York with a branch near Penn Station, and has a terminal at the World Trade Centre.

There’s a tale about the PATH and the World Trade Centre terminal during the September 11 attacks. After the planes struck, and few people knew really the extent of what was happening, PATH decided not only to suspend service, but to not let anybody out of the World Trade Centre and put them on trains to New Jersey instead. This they did with commendable efficiency, emptying the station. One last train went through, evacuating all the remaining personnel, and by 9:30, there was nobody left in the World Trade Centre terminal. Only one empty train, left behind, was lost when the World Trade towers collapsed.

It strikes a chord to imagine those moments, being on the last train out of the station. Like being on the last plane out of Beirut Airport. The stranded train cars were damaged by the collapse, of course, but not destroyed. They were recovered and retired, and are now a part of the collection at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut.

So, today, I left my hotel at Newark Airport, took New Jersey Transit to Newark Penn Station, and boarded the PATH train for the World Trade Centre. I visited the new terminal, with its great hall called Oculus, that rose from the ashes of the World Trade Centre. Impressive is putting it mildly. I also visited the 9-11 memorial. Strange as it sounds, though you can still hear the city around it, that place feels quiet. I also toured the PATH terminal at Hoboken, and rode the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line. I ate lunch at a neighbourhood dinner in Bayonne, New Jersey. Though a little rough around the edges, they did not stint on their cheese or their bacon on their grilled cheese and bacon sandwich.

Sometimes, the best way to photograph the CN Tower is from a distance. Up close, you just strain your neck. Similarly, perhaps the best way to experience New York is across the river from it.

You can see my photos of the day here.


Adirondack 2: This Time He's Going South!


After spending a night on the town on Montreal’s Metro (yes, I know, but I also had smoked meat and poutine), I had a decent sleep in a very bare-bones hotel room with a comfortable bed. I got up early, took the Metro to Central Station and had breakfast and did some writing while I waited to board the Adirondack.

This tour will have some spectacular scenery, I’m told. The Cardinal is supposedly one of the most scenic Amtrak routes on the network, especially for east of the Mississippi, but the Adirondack between Montreal and New York is also listed as one of the most scenic. And, this I know to be true, having taken this route from Philadelphia to Montreal on October 2015, in time to catch the fall foliage.

The Adirondack travels alongside Lake Champlain through the Adirondack mountains. The scenery is rugged, and the rails hug the lake. Further south, the train follows the Hudson Valley into New York City. Both of these are some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen from the train, and I’ve been through the Rockies. I’m also impressed that the Adirondack is dirt cheap. A coach ticket (which is all they have) costs just $69 to go from Montreal to New York, with potential connections to any of the major cities on the Northeast Corridor. And there’s wi-fi (although it’s been pretty spotty, as I type this).

Today, I hope, will be a writing day as well as a travel day. I’m going to be about 10.5 hours in a train, with lots of leg room and a tray that puts my computer at the right height. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We’ll see how it goes.

14:30: Currently about a half hour late, but nobody’s complaining. I can hear camera shutters going off in the car, as everybody takes pictures of Lake Champlain.

Riding on the Adirondack presents a bit of a quandary. Heading southbound if you want the best views of Lake Champlain, you need to sit on the left side of the train. However, if you want the best views of the Hudson Valley, then you need to sit on the right side of the train. Your best bet may be to get a round trip ticket, and sit on the east side going in one direction, and the west side going in the other. Decide for yourself if you want the spectacular views near the beginning or the end of your journey…

18:11: The border took 30 minutes longer than scheduled, but since then, we’ve been steadily making up for lost time, and are about to depart Albany on time for the run to Penn Station. The scenery thus far has been beautiful, and promises more beauty in the next couple of hours.

22:44: Have finally checked into my hotel near Newark Airport. The hotel shuttle was full. You know, if you get so many people checking in via your shuttle, guys, you should probably run your shuttle more often. But the place is clean and smoke free, and has decent wifi. It’s been a long day, but well worth it. The Sun Runners has now advanced by 1,300 words, 1,100 of them coming today.

My photos of this day can be found here.

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