2014 Amtrak-VIA Circle Trip: Day 9

Day 9 (Friday, May 30, 2014) of my Amtrak-VIA circle trip began with my having a breakfast bar in my room that I had brought with me. It was the first day of the trip that I had not eaten breakfast aboard a train, whether Amtrak or VIA.

I checked out and walked through the construction zone to get to Toronto Union Station. Unlike on the previous day, I managed to find the station’s great hall.

There was limited seating in the concourse area, but most people were standing in line anyway. A VIA representative checked out tickets and our passports before we were permitted to board.

The passenger cars said Amtrak, the locomotive said Amtrak and the timetable identified it as the Maple Leaf for New York.

But this was VIA Rail Canada No. 97 and VIA crews would operate it to Niagara Falls, Ontario.

I was booked in business class, which was the back half of an Amcafe car. The VIA attendant lifted my ticket and then went about setting up wares to sell.

A little while later, he came back and demanded that he also lift the “receipt” that had been attached to my ticket. When I pointed out that it was my receipt he replied, “I know.” He never explained why he had to lift that.

Because part of the journey was operated by VIA and the other part by Amtrak I actually had two tickets aboard the same train. One ticket read Toronto to Niagara Falls and other read Niagara Falls to Syracuse, New York.

I settled into my seat and the train left on time. Between Toronto and Niagara Falls we traveled Canadian National tracks that were also used by GO Transit.

Unlike the Cascades in western Canada, the Maple Leaf makes intermediate stops and offers local service within Canada. The stations looked nicer and the track was well maintained and fast.

The scenic highlight of the Canadian portion of the trip on the Maple Leaf was crossing the Welland Canal. We had a short delay there as things got cleaned up follow a freighter going into the locks.

The scenery was also a bit more interesting than I expected as we passed over some high bridges and deep gorges.

As we neared Niagara Falls, the VIA attendant packed up his stuff and prepared to go off duty, taking his merchandise with him.

An Amtrak attendant would board in Niagara Falls, New York, with her merchandise, which took a while to get set up.

We had to back into the Niagara Falls, Ontario, station because a CN executive train was sitting on the station track.

The Amtrak operating crew boarded the train in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This was one of the few stations I observed in Canada that was multimodal.

The Amtrak conductor looked at my ticket but did not lift it. We were 34 minutes late leaving, partly because of the time consumed by the backup move.

The tracks cross the Niagara gorge and I had hoped to get a view of Niagara Falls. What I had forgotten is that two railroad lines cross the gorge and join on the U.S. side and we were on the northernmost of the two lines. I got a somewhat glimpse of the falls.

I can see why Amtrak and the New York Department of Transportation want a new station at Niagara Falls.

We had to make a backup move to get to the existing station, which is located on the edge of a CSX yard.

Shortly after coming to a halt, the U.S. customs agents boarded the train. They were equipped with weapons and tasers and that was a bit intimidating.

But a lot of nefarious people would like to get into the United States and wreck all kinds of havoc and border checkpoints like this exist to keep them out.

The customs agents were polite and didn’t ask many questions as I had expected them to do. I remember being asked how long I had been in Canada, but I wasn’t asked why. The inspector took my passport and said she would bring it back soon.

Presumably, they run the passports through a scanner that checks names against a list of known terrorist, criminals and others the U.S. government wants to keep out. I got my passport back, but it still took several more minutes to complete the inspection and checks.

This lengthy process has been a sore point with some passenger train advocates, who have noted that Amtrak passengers are subjected to longer delays than are airline passengers and those driving into the county.

Amtrak has compensated for that by scheduling a long dwell time in Niagara Falls. The customs inspection did not need all of that time so we were able to get out and walk around while awaiting our 12:30 p.m. departure.

Even with all that time to kill we still managed to depart one minute late.

We were 22 minutes late into Buffalo Depew station, 45 minutes late at Rochester and 52 minutes late into Syracuse. In this case, I didn’t mind the delays because I had a long layover in Syracuse.

We passed by the derelict Buffalo Central Station, which still looks kind of grand even in its current condition.

I bought an Angus burger in the Amcafe and got my complimentary business class beverage. The further east we went, the more the business class section filled up.

The Syracuse station was more pleasant and larger than I expected. I was thinking it would be one of those prefab jobs like the Amtrak station in Cleveland.

But the Syracuse station also serves intercity and local buses and has a gift shop and Subway sandwich. I got dinner at the latter.

The Amtrak waiting area is separate from that for the intercity buses. I watched CSX freight trains pass by, read newspapers and photographed a pair of westbound Empire Service trains making their stops in Syracuse.

The Lake Shore Limited arrived in Syracuse nearly an hour late. I decided to check my large suitcase to Cleveland rather than lug it aboard. It was nice not to have to deal with it.

The boarding procedures in Syracuse left much to be desired. The Lake Shore Limited is a long train. Ideally, a station agent in Syracuse would have announced before the trains arrival at which location passengers for which stations should board.

But that didn’t happen so when the train came to a halt we had to look for open doors and an Amtrak crew member. I think I remember them scanning the tickets on the platform.

Before the train arrived, I was approached by a man asking where I was going. I said Cleveland and he asked if I would make sure his kid got aboard the train OK.

I agreed to do that but in the confusion of the boarding fire drill I lost track of the kid. I was a little surprised at just how many people were boarding here. Amtrak must board a heck of a lot of passengers in Syracuse.

Getting aboard the train was only one part of the fire drill. Then I had to find an open seat. The coaches were crowded and the crew didn’t provide any instructions as to where the open seats were. This is an all-reserved train and there had to be a number of open seats equal to the number in the mob on the platform. I found an aisle seat and sat down.

We pulled out 56 minutes late and for a while I listened to my scanner as we went westward. I sent a text to my wife that I had boarded the last of the six trains I would ride on my trip. As much as I enjoyed riding those trains, I was also looking forward to getting home.

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