2014 Amtrak-VIA Circle Trip: Day 10

Day 10 (Saturday, May 31, 2014) of my Amtrak-VIA circle trip began aboard the Lake Shore Limited, which continued to lose time as it trundled westward. By the time we departed Erie, Pennsylvania, we were 1 hour, 21 minutes late. We made up some of that by Cleveland, pulling in 1 hour and 2 minutes late.

Of course it was dark during the trip so there wasn’t much to see. I remember seeing the station at Rochester and maybe Buffalo but not the depot in Erie.

I managed to doze some, but those seats are just not that comfortable for overnight travel. I never spoke to the guy next to me. It was well past 10 p.m. before they turned off the overhead lights.

I had thought about getting something to eat after I boarded No. 49, but I was glad that I got a sandwich earlier at Subway.

I don’t know what it was, but the train seemed awfully crowded and the people aboard seemed more active and alert than usual for the late hour. Everyone finally settled down after a while and the noise level dropped.

After disembarking in Cleveland, I put my carry-on bag and camera bag in the trunk of my car, which I had left at the station. I snapped a few photos of No. 49 to have a record of the last train on my circle trip.

I claimed my checked baggage, sent a text to my wife that I was back – No. 49 had arrived at 4:38 a.m. – and headed home. My wife and I would later go out for lunch but not before I tried to catch up on my sleep.

* * * * *

I wrote the bulk of this trip report more than seven months after it was over and still feel a sense of satisfaction for having done it.

I had read articles in Trains magazine over the years about similar circle trips. One in particular by the late George Drury was titled “Amtrak’s Iron Lariat” and stood out in my mind.

You can’t do that anymore because the Sunset Limited had has yet to resume operating east of New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla.

Although I’ve traveled extensively on Amtrak over the years, seldom had I done anything comparable to my 2014 Amtrak-VIA Rail Canada circle trip.

The closest such experience occurred in 1981 when I had rode Amtrak from my then home in downstate Illinois to Chicago and on to Los Angeles via the San Francisco Zephyr and Desert Wind.

I then rode the Southwest Limited to Kansas City, flew to Chicago on Midway Airlines, and took the combined Broadway Limited/Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C., via Pittsburgh.

I flew back on People Express to Indianapolis. Remember People Express?

But that wasn’t a true rail circle trip even if I had traveled nearly from sea to shining sea on Amtrak.

Then my life went in different directions and opportunities for long-distance railroad trips fell by the wayside in favor of shorter, although quite enjoyable, occasional trips.

Any undertaking of the magnitude of a cross-country circle trip has a number of back stories and I’ll wrap up this series with a few of those.

* * * * *

Although this trip had been years in the making, I didn’t finalize the arrangements until a month before I left.

I booked the trip through Accent on Travel, a travel agency based in Klamath Falls, Ore., run by Ted and Sylvia Blishak.

They’ve run display advertisements in Passenger Train Journal that have been headlined, “you’ve seen our ads for years. Have you called us yet?” The ads emphasize their specializing in booking trips aboard the Canadian.

I don’t know anyone who has booked a trip with them, but one of my fellow railroad club members suggested that I call them.

I actually sent an email that opened with a play on their advertisement headline. Initially, Sylvia responded but Ted soon took over making the arrangements.

We were working against a tight deadline to get everything arranged because the Blishaks were leaving in late April on their own trip aboard the Canadian. At least once, I had to email Ted about something and he responded from the train.

Although I laid out to him what I wanted to do, the trip as he originally booked it was not quite what I had in mind.

He had me making a same-day connection from the Canadian to a corridor train to Montreal and staying overnight there.

I would then take Amtrak’s Adirondack to Schenectady, New York, and pick up the Lake Shore Limited there.

Initially, this routing appealed to me because it would make it more of a transcontinental journey and give me another VIA train to ride. I last had ridden the Adirondack in the early 1980s.

But the connection in Toronto was just two hours. What if the Canadian was super late?

Ted said I would be rebooked on another VIA train, but when I looked at the schedule I saw that by the time that later train arrived in Montreal it would be evening and I would have no time to see anything before leaving the next morning at 9:30 a.m.

I was concerned about that two-hour connection, particularly after reading how the Canadian, like the Empire Builder, had experienced some very later running over the winter.

I told Ted that I didn’t want to travel across Canada on my dream trip wondering if I would make the connection.

So Ted booked me on the somewhat convoluted return from Toronto whereby I rode the Maple Leaf to Syracuse and had to wait six hours for the Lake Shore Limited to arrive going back west, backtracking nearly 150 miles that I had covered earlier in the day.

I suppose only a diehard railfan would do that. But even some railfans would flown home to Cleveland.

However, I had never ridden the Maple Leaf route between Toronto and Buffalo and it would give me some more “new miles” on Amtrak as well as cross the Niagara gorge.

I thought about picking up the Lake Shore Limited in Utica, New York, which would have cut the wait for No. 49 to just over four hours.

But I decided to stay with Syracuse and in retrospect I’m glad that I did. I don’t know what kind of station Amtrak has in Utica, but Syracuse was probably nicer.

As it turned out, I would have made that connection to the VIA train to Montreal. But I enjoyed my afternoon in Toronto. Riding VIA to Montreal can wait for another time.

* * * * *

Under normal circumstance a Chicago-Seattle trip on the Empire Builder would be a real treat and one of the highlights of my year. I had not done a trip of that length since 1999 when I rode the Empire Builder from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago after the National Railway Historical Society convention in Sacramento, California.

But the fun of riding the Empire Builder was somewhat overshadowed by the anticipation of riding the Canadian. I enjoyed the Builder a great deal, but the Canadian was a more enjoyable experience. Then again, I enjoyed riding all of the trains that made up my circle.

I also found myself vaguely disappointed by the service aboard the Empire Builder. I had read articles that suggested that Amtrak provided a level of service, including food service, aboard Nos. 7 and 8 that was a cut above that provided on other long distance trains.

Yet I found the service aboard the Empire Builder to be no different than what I have experienced on other trains, including the Capitol Limited and City of New Orleans.

Maybe the Empire Builder used to be special, but that was many years ago.

* * * * *

How special was the Canadian? The headline over the Don Phillips column that was published in the February 2014 issue of Trains proclaimed it the best train ride in the world. Is that true? I can’t say. I’ve never ridden trains around the world. Presumably Mr. Phillips has and he means the best train ride you can find today, not of all time.

Still, I have to wonder how the Canadian of the 21st century compares in service quality with the Canadian of the 1950s under Canadian Pacific auspices or even with such trains as the Twentieth Century Limited, Broadway Limited, Capitol Limited or Panama Limited to name a few widely regarded as among America’s best in service quality.

Does the dining car of the Canadian of the 21st century compare favorably with the dining offered aboard those trains? What about the quality of the sleeping car service?

I never rode any of those trains, so it would be tough for me to make that comparison.

But based on what I’ve read about them in books and magazine articles it might not be a fair comparison because of differences in how people viewed train travel in that long ago era and how the railroads instructed employees to behave toward their passengers.

In the heyday of the aforementioned trains, travel was more formal. People dressed up to travel and employees were deferential to their passengers.

Ever read the detailed instructions in the Pullman Company manual about how to do a “simple” task such as serve a cocktail at the bar?

Captains of industry, finance and government made up the clientele of those famous Chicago-East Coast trains. They expected a level of service similar to what they enjoyed in their hotels and private clubs.

I didn’t see many if any of those people aboard the Canadian, even if some of passengers might have been men and women of means.

The environment was quite informal. No one dressed up to dine. The employees were courteous and service-oriented, but they did not interact with the passengers as though there was a great social divide between them.

I imagine that the service aboard the Canadian is similar to what you would get aboard an Iowa Pacific excursions or a private rail car for which you’ve paid bucko bucks to travel.

I’ll let others argue about whether the Canadian is the greatest train ride in the world.

I’ll also let others argue about whether the current route followed by VIA’s Canadian measures up to that of the former CP route. I’m not going to go there.

The Canadian of today is the only Canadian that I’ve experienced. Some might say that’s a shame because it used to be that . . .  Sorry, but I’m not going to play that game.

Having ridden the Canadian once, I can see where train lovers want to ride it again and again. I’d love to go back and ride it during the winter. Maybe someday I will. For now, though, I’m satisfied to have ridden it just once.

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