I Think I Can: An Amtrak Railroad Journey

Somewhere between the announcements of Governor David Paterson's NY Statewide Rail Plan and President Obama's High Speed Passenger Rail plan, I found myself on an epic rail journey between New York City and Montreal — one of the proposed high-speed rail corridors that figure into each of their plans. The trip would give me great tastes of the potential of train travel, as well as pretty awful bites of how often it doesn't meet that potential.

According to Amtrak, the cleverly-named "Adirondack" trip to Montreal takes 10 hours and 50 minutes (11 hours and 5 minutes for the return). I knew this when I purchased the tickets, but what I did not consider was the distance. I had traveled by rail for a comparable amount of time back on a trip from Nice, France to London, England. Yes, it was long, but hey, I was traveling nearly 900 miles from Nice to London!

With that in mind, I was dismayed by Google Maps estimation for distance and travel time between New York City and Montreal. Total trip: around 380 miles with a driving time of just over 6 hours. I couldn't imagine how this relatively short trip could possibly take 11 hours by train — and it didn't. In fact, it took 12.

The trip began well enough, despite the unceremonious underground hallways of Penn Station. The benefits of rail travel were immediately evident: arriving just 20 minutes prior to departure; keeping shoes, belts and all other articles of clothing in their proper places; descending to the platform and finding our roomy-enough seats on our own accord; all superior to the rituals of air travel. A near on-time departure and a lovely trip up the Hudson River to a scheduled, extended stop in Albany-Rensselaer was exceedingly pleasant. On the way there, we passed through former industrial sites and Revolutionary War-era waterfront villages that provided history lessons by their very presence. We traveled that first, enjoyable 140-mile leg of the trip in about 2.5 hours, about the same time it would take to drive.

With over 1/3 of the trip completed in less than 3 hours, it was hard to envision that the final 230 or so miles that lay ahead could possibly take 8 hours.

But the departure from the Albany-Rensselaer station marked the beginning of frustratingly slow speeds, frequent stops and a mind-numbing border crossing. The consistent start-and-stop action of the train between Albany-Rensselaer and the US/Canadian border — due to the imposed speed restrictions and track conditions of the industrial-owned tracks — was reminiscent of driving on the Long Island Expressway at rush hour. And while the natural beauty that filled our window as the train passed through the Adirondacks and along the banks of Lake Champlain left no doubt as to why this was chosen as one of the Top Ten Most Scenic Train Trips by National Geographic, I couldn't help but feel some resentment toward the wood ducks that flew just above the surface of the lake. They were seriously out-pacing the train.

(A quick side note: around Plattsburgh, NY, a terrific reminder of our interconnected, mega-regional economy came into view with the site of two, brand new, gleaming silver, double-decked passenger rail cars sitting on an adjacent track and proudly bearing the familiar NJ Transit logo. Manufactured at Bombardier's manufacturing site in La Pocatière, Québec, these cars go through final assembly at the company's Plattsburgh facility before heading down to the Tri-State Region, where they cart countless New Jersey-ites to and from jobs in Manhattan and to other New Jersey destinations along the way.)

By far the greatest frustration of the entire trip however, came at the US/Canada border crossing. Here, the train came to a screeching halt that left us staring at the same, quiet farm field for well over two hours as border agents made their way — seat-by-seat — to interrogate passengers and confiscate dangerous contraband that included a clementine and an apple.

The final leg of the trip to Montreal carried on at much the same snail's pace that had preceded the crossing. But by that point, any movement was refreshing and simply knowing that you are in the country of your destination helped the time to pass. The view from the train was also a planner's lesson in urban development in reverse — farms give way to scattered, exurban development which builds to more dense suburban and outer-ring urban development, finally culminating in the tall, dense metropolitan center of Montreal, complete with a station worthy of a grand entrance.

After our stay in Montreal, the trip back home took 11.5 hours, about what it was supposed to.

Like all great journeys, this trip played like a rite-of-passage story, with lessons learned at different mile-posts. But surely linking two major metropolitan areas less than 500 miles apart with reliable and efficient rail service should be less of an epic and more of a novella, right?

If things go well, federal investment in high speed rail as envisioned by the Obama and Paterson administrations will improve things. President Obama has won $8 billion in stimulus funds and proposed $5 billion more over 5 years, while Governor Paterson has proposed a statewide $10.7 billion, 20-year rail improvement plan. Among other things the plan seeks to double ridership on both the NYC-Albany and Albany-US border legs of this trip, reduce travel time through track construction and rehabilitation, and put in place a more efficient border crossing. These worthwhile improvements would help the entire system work better. While I'm under no illusion that a European-style, high speed rail trip to Montreal will be on the table any time soon, I'd be quite happy to see small, but important steps taken that give us the opportunity for US-style, medium-speed rail.