The long, slow ride from NYC to Montréal -

The long, slow ride from NYC to Montréal


8:15am – Penn Station, New York City
If you believe in high speed rail (HSR), you have to have explored the alternatives. Traveling by plane after 9/11 is not a joy ride. Having to arrive two or three hours early on an international flight, going through security checks and hoping there are no delays has become the routine for air travel. Car travel gives us more flexibility, but aside from observing the scenery and watching out for less scrupulous drivers, there is not much more you can do with the time it takes to get to your destination.

The next 11 hours will be my story. I am traveling on the Adirondack, the daily train operated by Amtrak between New York City and Montréal. It covers a distance of approximately 381 miles. I am expecting outstanding scenery through the scenic Hudson Valley and Adirondack Mountains, and to catch up on my reading. All aboard?

9:03am – Along the Hudson River
The weather is gorgeous and the scenery as pleasant as expected along the Hudson River. The train is full and the Amtrak agent on board, suspecting that I am doing “something special,” asked, “Are you a reporter?”

Full disclosure brought me to tell him that I am riding this train to get a feel for the journey. He immediately volunteers that this route would be ripe for more travelers if there was faster service and it did not have to stop at the border.

10:25am – From Poughkeepsie onwards to Albany
My friendly Amtrak agent Jim (the one who thinks I am a reporter) comes to me with a homegrown solution that would shave two hours off the trip. It comes down to pre-border clearance, upgrading speed, eliminating a stop at Yonkers, a dedicated track on the Canadian Pacific line north of Rouses Point and no engine change at Albany. It is still not HSR, but Jim may be on to something.

10:37am – Arriving in Albany
Just spoke with an Indian couple who came to America in 1966 and raised six children, all of whom have been university educated. This charming couple is now retired in Tampa. They love Montréal and are on their first trip by train to this great city. This is what I like about the train—the space to move about and a proper atmosphere for good conversation. Weather and scenery are still good.

12:05pm – Saratoga Springs
We’ve passed Schenectady and are now arriving at Saratoga Springs. The engine change at Albany took at least 20 minutes. All these stops and delays are expected. The thought that crosses my mind, however, is, Why are we still running a railway like we did in a past era and time, even as China, Japan, India and Europe have embraced the benefits of high speed rail?

My coach class neighbours, hearing my talk with Amtrak Jim, agree that we need a rapid train. They tell stories about Europe and Japan. Neighbour Theo tells me you can set your watch by the train from Paris to Lyons. Is this the best that we can do in North America? It seems to be getting slower, and we are still far from the border. Weather and scenery still nice, though!

1:56pm – Leaving Port Henry
You see some beautiful scenery along Lake Champlain despite the current low ceiling and rain. People around me are working on computers, Blackberries, watching movies, surfing the internet, reading a novel or a newspaper, taking a nap, and having conversations on cell phones. Not that different from everyday life off the train. And that’s my point—rail travel provides a sense of normality and can still be an in-thing! All you really need is to give passengers more reasons to use it. Amtrak Jim and neighbor Theo agree!

3:07pm – Making our way to Plattsburgh and the North Country
You might think we are closing in on our destination. Think again. The good news is that we are past the halfway mark. The bad news is that we still have to pass the border and the train stopped outside Westport to let the southbound train pass by. At the border, we can expect a 90-minute wait, says Amtrak Jim.

Neighbor Theo is like me. Starting a vacation and doing an experiment on rail travel from NYC to Montréal. We both agree that Montréal is a desirable destination. Theo is a believer in rail travel. He makes a compelling and persuasive argument for it—comfort, better passenger interaction, and better use of one’s personal time. He is thoughtful and convincing.

As a travel executive, Theo has traveled a lot. Both of us are avoiding complaining about Amtrak. Yet one car has rain seeping in and the toilet does not function. The air conditioned temperature got so cold it was turned off. Now it is feeling stuffy. Can you believe we are in North America, traveling from the great mega-city of New York to Montréal, Québec’s largest city and Canada’s second-largest? And it takes 11 hours? Bottom line, we can’t blame Amtrak, but this rail route can be better. As passengers, we would be willing to pay for a more rapid and a more state of the art rail system. On this point, Amtrak Jim and neighbour Theo agree with me. And Theo would put together a great package tour!

5:50pm – Border crossing
Crossing the border is quite an experience. As many as six agents boarded the train and it was done in record time. Eighty minutes instead of 90! The agents were courteous and asked the usual questions. No incidents. Now we know we have a problem when a train stops for as much time. Think of a car waiting at border crossings on a holiday weekend. But this is every day, without traffic as an excuse. Neighbour Theo tells me that he is flying back.

6:23pm – Nearing Montréal
The trip is slowly winding down. A friend of mine, a journalist, who read my early accounts online, tells me that I am a masochist! Neighbor Theo says he got that right!

There is no doubt that this journey was revealing. Actually more than any masochistic tendencies I may have! Going to and from these two great cities, New York and Montréal, is worth the trip but this is not the 1930s. I still buy all the arguments in favour of rail travel. But a modern, advanced society like ours is expected to do better. My story is coming to an end, albeit slowly. Stayed tuned as we arrive at Central Station in Montréal.

7:30pm – Finally arriving in Montréal!
And we’re 20 minutes late. I will miss Amtrak Jim and I hope he will enjoy the benefits of HSR some day. He hopes so, too. “But get pre-boarding customs clearance done, John,” he says as he waves goodbye. Neighbour Theo says goodbye to me as well and tells me again that he will fly back.

More than ever, I am convinced that a high speed rail connection from Montréal to New York is the way to go. There is much to do and so much in common between those two cities. I will most likely never see Amtrak Jim and Neighbour Theo again, but our parting looks said it all—we shared an experience we know could be so much better.

I’m now home in my city for a brief vacation after an 11-hour journey! Throughout the trip, my dear Esther worked on her computer, patiently indulging my desire for a fuller understanding of this long, slow train ride. Now it’s time I take her out to dinner. She’s earned it!

[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s Delegate General in New York City]

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The long, slow ride from NYC to Montréal

  1. 34.6 mph (including the 90 minute border stop).

    Welcome to 1867.

    • 1867 also had a lot of horses lugging us around. We have progressed since then, but you will have to look skyward to see how.

      If one is in a hurry, and one asks Amtrak (or VIA) to take one anywhere, one is an idiot. But this is not an argument for high-speed rail.

  2. I've taken the train from Vancouver to Seattle and back, as well as the NYC-Montreal run.
    On the west coast, the immigration agents board the train *as it rolls*, then they get off at the next stop. If they can do this on a short, 2-3 hour ride, why not on the east coast?

    • This sounds like a pretty good idea. I wonder if part of the issue is the NY/Montreal train being fuller?

  3. Pre-clearing customs (or clearing customs at the other end rather than at the border) really is job number one for this route. A 90 minute delay where you just sit around doing nothing is brutal.

    I'm not really a huge fan of subsidizing HSR but I would think there is a reasonably strong economic case for connecting Montreal to New York and Montreal to Toronto (especially since the main train terminals are downtown).

    • The problem is that the train doesn't just go between New York and Montreal – there are a lot of stops along the way, with people getting on and off. For instance, this is the same train you would take if you wanted to go between either New York or Montreal and Lake Placid. So, pre-clearing immigration/customs is really a lot more difficult than it initially sounds. That said, there should definitely be something done to make it take less than 80 minutes if nothing goes wrong!

      • I'm not totally sure how it would work but I was thinking of something along the line of loading international and domestic passengers in different train cars. Maybe it's not worth the hassle of figuring out all the logistics of doing that at the various train stations but with an 80 minute wait at the border I'd rather just take the plane.

        • Have the passport checks for departures AND arrivals in Montreal – works as long as there are no stops on the Canadian side of the border.

  4. As a Canadian who recently moved to Boston, I was shocked to find there is no train service to Montreal – if I want to take a train to Montreal, I have to go to New York (4 hours SOUTH) first.

    • You can go to Albany and take the train from there.

  5. very interesting but i never travel by train . I know nothing about it . What I am worried of ,is that Obama wants it . And that could mean socialism like it used to be in Eastern Europe . Canada must not forget this .
    I need to be convinced !

    • Oh puleeze.

    • wow.

    • it’s not only train you know nothing about…

  6. I love the train. And every time I take it in North America I shake my head at how much of a backwater we are in so many ways.

    Toronto-NYC, if anyone's wondering, takes about 12 hours too. At least the NYC area and the Toronto area both have solid commuter rail systems…

    A friend of mine recently pointed out that Amtrak's Acela Express "high-speed rail", that they advertise all over the place, averages about 70 mph / 112 kph, about what "high speed" meant in the 1960s. I guess that's to be expected in a country that hasn't been able to pay its bills since about then…

    • Some regional trains in Europe are faster than the Acela in average. For example: The Nürnberg-München regional train is averaging at 100 kph with 200 kph top speed. The reason is, that this train needs to be fast, even though it's just a regional train. Otherwise the high speed track would be blocked to much by this train. Many other regional train have a speed of 160 kph but a lot of stops. Most of them are lower. 120 or even 80 kph.

      However German HSR is one of the slowest HSR systems in Europe. Stopping everywhere and rarely above 200 kph. Actually German ICE trains are allowed to be faster in France (320) than in Germany.

  7. Here is a Quebecer living in England for almost two years now. I use the train to go to work everyday and I absolutely love it. I complete my typical journey of 100 miles in about 65 min. I don't feel time spent on the train is lost. I read more than ever before. Train is a civilised way of travelling. We, North Americans, like the idea that we know best, but on this one trust me we are far away. That being said, to level what the British network offers (which is a level below Europe and Japan) would cost a lot but worth while. For example: London-Edinburgh (roughly Montreal-Waterloo) is just above 4hours long. And for all prebording procedures, Eurostar is doing it the right: you're pre-cleared by th French in London and the Brits in Brussels, Paris, or Lille, dead easy!
    It is feasable, its just a matter of how to finance it. Tough call

  8. There is no accent in Montreal when you're writing in English, not in Quebec. Whoever edited this is a doofus.

    • There is no accent in Montreal when you're writing in English, nor in Quebec. Whoever edited this is a doofus.

  9. Trains in the 1930s were faster and more reliable than most passenger trains in present day NA. They ran at clips of 70 to 90 MPH. US Customs were at Windsor Station. We have gone back a lot further than the 1930s & 1940s which was the Golden Streamlined Era of RRs.

    The slow pace of the Adirondack and the former Montrealer and Washingtonian has been a feature
    of railroading for several decades. Dwell time at Albany should not be so long. Border waits have become somewhat longer post 9-11 but they have been a problem for a long time.

    A comparable distance, the city pair London and Edinburgh in the UK takes about 4 1/2 hours.

    Railroads have to be seen by government as
    a public good and utility once again and put
    on a level playing field with highways and airways.

    Until that time we will have slow trains or no trains at all as has happened in Rigaud, Quebec on June 30, 2010.

    • When they eventually build High Speed 2, London to Edinburgh will be reduced to 3 1/2 hours.

      Though that's nothing compared to the new Shanghai to Wuhan line, averaging 328km/h (just over 200mph). If they were able to do that here (mountainous terrain and urban areas notwithstanding), Montreal to NYC would take less than 2 hours!

  10. So, you want massively subsidized awful rail travel removed, and replaced by even more massively subsidized high-speed rail. And you want it because you are fed up with what terrorism has wrought on air travel. Them shiny high-speed rails represent juicy targets themselves, John.

    In the interests of full disclosure as to your "journalist"-ic merits, here, would you care to impart among us what your boss Jean Charest thinks about the merits of taxpayers from other jurisdictions paying for a quick ride on the rails between Montreal and other cities?

  11. as a Canadian living in the Netherlands I am amazed on a daily basis as to what rail service can be. I am living in Utrecht and can be in Amsterdam in 25 minutes for a cost of like 11euros return. the route i use most regularly is utrecht to den haag. it about 70 kilometres, takes less about thirty-five minutes and it costs less than 12 euros return. know numerous people that commute this way daily and the love that they can work each way as Parisella describes. the domestic trains are nothing flashy, but are comfortable/fine. and most importantly, they are COMPLETELY hassle free. i returned last night from five days in Paris. 30 minutes domestic train from utrecht to rotterdam and then the thalys to paris covers the approx 450 kilometres in about 2.5 hours with efficient stops in brussels and antwerp.

    now there is no doubt that part of this due to proximity and population density that makes it all more affordable. but selective routing and smarter policies (like border pre-clearance) should be possible and affordable. and i would bet that ''if you built it, they would come'', in terms of increasing travel. for instance, in addition to paris, i have visited brugges, belgium and berlin in that last three months because it is possible. on our most ambitious day last month, we woke up on a sunday without other plans, got on a train at 1030 to antwerp, spent the day grazing shops and food and saw a museum, as well as the opera house's architecture, and then headed to Amsterdam to meet a friend for dinner. the availability of the rail system completely changes how one thinks about heading to other cities and countries and one can spend their time.

    • Do you believe that the true cost of your wow-this-is-cool half-hour zing into Amsterdam was 11 euros? You think the rail operator is making a profit on your 11 euros without some Dutch shmoe forking over some of his or her income in taxes for your comfy trip? Why do you feel entitled to his or her labour for this privilege?

      • 1) you will have to be more specific. are you talking all sunk costs into establishing the rail service from the ground up or the current operation of the train services. either way I am not sure. more than a million people take the train here per day. that is a lot of revenue.

        2) to the degree that there are subsidies of the rail service from government, as flattering as it would be, i don't think they were enacted to serve my wow-this-is-cool needs. the dutch see the national rail service as a common good and choose to treat it like one by subsidizing it. i know that you are opposed to government intervention and collective enterprise myl, which is your prerogative. but profit margins don't rule everyone's world, and not everyone shares your world view about the role of government and collective enterprise.

        3) while i am sure that some dutch tax payers might regret any additional costs they incur due to the operating of the rail service, i am sure others recognize the benefits it plays a role in realizing. for example, i am sure that the respective proprietors of the bar and restaurant that we enjoyed a couple drinks and dinner in that evening (the party probably spent about 200 euros combined that evening) likely appreciated the business, as would have the staff. i also suspect that a great many individuals are more than capable of understanding that this results in taxes paid back to the state off-setting (partially or wholly) any costs to the state of my 11 euro ticket.

        4) i take particular issue with your last line. "Why do you feel entitled to his or her labour for this privilege?". perhaps i am being overly sensitive but the sentiment invoked in that accusation is quite similar to the sentiment that underpinned slavery…entitlement to others labour. i am sure that you didn't mean to invoke such sentiments in characterizing my willingness to use the train service though, right myl? just a coincidence of course, no? anyways, as i said earlier, i don;t think the system was structured based on my whims, i am using the rail system as intended (i also never travel in peak periods, reducing any burden the system by my paying to use it), and my use of the train service is resulting in my spending money in the Dutch economy i would have otherwise been unlikely to spend.

        • 1) If more than a million people take the train per day, that is both a lot of revenue and a lot of cost. If revenue per head fails to cover cost per head (and YES of course any business worth anything includes suitably amortized capital costs), then a million people traveling just means greater losses. Maybe certain fixed costs mean that economies of scale ultimately mean that there is lower loss per head, but losses thery remain.

          • maybe certain fixed costs mean that economies of scale ultimately mean that there is lower cost per head? maybe? what you think they put a new train on for each rider?

        • 2) Did the Dutch ever vote in a referendum in which a majority of voters agreed there should be high-speed rail whose costs shall be so heavily subsidized by the taxpayers? Maybe there was a single-issue election on it?

          • not sure, but they have elections far more often then we do, and a diversity of parties. i was here for the last election. not a single party attempted to make hay out of cutting rail service subsidies, or service or anything else to do with the rail service. to the degree that we are taking up your purely rational, economic understanding of how the world works, if there was demand for such a position a supplier would emerge. i guess we can assume there is no such demand and by extension they support the status quo.

        • 3) The Vegas casino offers cheap hotel rates in the hope you will gamble heavily at their establishment. The American taxpayer did not fork out for your hotel stay. So please explain further why the appreciative restaurateur and the appreciative day-tripper should feel entitled to the labour of the aforementioned Dutch shmoe?

          • no but they shelled out for all kinds of thing that the hotel depends on. the airport its guests flew into. the roads traveled from airport to the hotel. the inspectors that examined the building of the hotel…. etc etc

            as i said before, at least implicitly, and i believe explicitly, there is strong support here for the rail system's subsidization. not sure what you find complicated about that. while i can understand that it does not align with your world view, it is a purposeful decision to balance the priorities of profit and a social good.

        • 4) Which brings me to your final objection. Allow me to rephrase, since you seem a little touchy over the thought that you are a slavedriving leech on the labour of others. Not that your heavily subsidized sojourn was not indeed such a drain on another's productive labours, mind, only that you seem touchy about it. So, rephrased: Why do you and your fellow travellers and the restaurateur who enjoyed your business ALL feel entitled to his or her labour for this privilege?

          • classy. willing to stand by such an uncalled for smear. i am not going to report your comment, or flame you. but i will wish aloud that you could exercise a modicum of civility in expressing your extreme views.

          • I must have poorly worded my rephrase section. Not once did I call you a slave driver. You chose to interpret it as such, so I thought I would give you a chance to unburden yourself from sole popssession of your self-imposed definition, by sharing it around.

            At one extreme end of thought (yes, even more extreme than my own), all taxation is a form of slavery, in that the fruits of our labour are confiscated. Like I said, that is a position far more extreme than my own. But, the more "we" as voters choose to confiscate the fruits of the labours of the productive for more than the essentials, the more the phrase I initially chose above (the sense of a privileged right to benefit from the labours of others for these "frills") becomes apt.

            This will be my only reply, I am happy to give you the last word on the other points, we just represent differences of opinion on the wisdom of taxpayer $ for these non-essential extras.

          • What is this crazy idea about poor labourers, what poor labourers? Have you ever been to Europe? Do you have any idea about the standard of living here? I’m not sure where you are based but the Third World conditions that a big part of American Society lives in because rich and the middle class refuse to pay taxes or to chip into the common pot so they can all have a higher standard of living (no American city scores very high in this category) is definitely not a what we should strive for. If I were you I would rather look at the poor exploited labourers of North America. We all profit from public services in Europe and except some crazy right wing populists and ultra conservatives with serious money background no one questions this system here.

        • Shorter MYL (ok, the chorus of amen's can stop now…): It's not that the high-speed rail exists that should bother anyone. It's not that you schlepped over to Amsdterdam for a nice visit. It's the ridiculously low price you paid for the schlepp, combined with the price the Dutch shmoe paid for it. I hope that helps.

          • Hello madeyoulook

            Subsidises on train infrastructures in Europe are the same that our hugely subsided aviation infrastructures. Canada has made a choice in the 1970s to invest massively in aviation instead of the trains. More recently, in the last decade, Pearson Airport have become on the biggest hub in the world. You know what, it was all paid by the taxpayers and our "hard and sweety labour". We could say the same with YUL, YYC, and YVR. Also, Bombardier is one of the most subsidise company in Canada.

            What is good for aviation should be good for trains, isn't?

          • You likely don't want to get me started on subsidized air travel and inter-city roads, and especially not on that parasite Bombardier. Suffice to say yes, yes, a thousnad times YES that what is good for aviation should be good for trains. Only at the no-or-very-minimal subsidy level.

          • one more time with emphasis. people here are ok with collective enterprise. in fact they desire it. the train is one example. like others here, i am happy to contribute to and benefit from that. i hope that helps.

  12. One can make a whole week-long trip from New York City to Montréal by making stops in
    – Beacon, to visit the world's largest modern art museum and eat in one of Hudson Valley's best Thai restaurant…
    – Poughkeepsie, to cross the Hudson River on the world's longest pedestrian-only bridge, stay in a great hotel, grab a show at the Bardavon…
    – Rhinecliff, and stay in a fabulous inn overlooking the River and the Catskills Mountain, eat breakfast while listening to jazz…
    – Albany, the State's capital where activities abound…
    – Saratoga Springs, where one can feast in great restaurants and stroll near quaint shop before heading to the horsetrack or a festival…
    All this, without a car… fabulous!

    Myriam Bouchard

  13. you are right ,Myriam . But travel for tourism reasons differs from business. And some want to go the big city , period . I liked your map .

  14. I’m taking this train in 3 weeks and already dreading the experience. Being used to fast, clean and comfortable European trains I’m already freaking out about the possibility of not working toilets or leaking roofs. I love trains and I’m not in a hurry, but a certain basic level of comfort should be expected from a North American service. How it is possible that there is so much talk and no action for so many years?
    In Europe it takes less than 8 hrs to go from Vienna to Zürich, which is a comparable distance, on a normal train (no high speed), with 7 stops, through the Alps (many tunnels) and it costs half or less of what NY > MTL does.
    Really high time to catch that train!