Saturday, 18 February 2017


Long Twin Silver Line

I’m unsure why I love trains as much as I do. There is no railroad tradition in our family, three generations of engineers but nary a Casey Jones. One hundred and fifty years ago this newborn country was stitched together with rails and ties; maybe locomotives, coaches, freight cars and cabooses just chug through Canadian blood. Maybe because we kids gleefully flattened pennies beneath steel wheels in places we weren’t supposed to be. Maybe because when Dad took me downtown for a Saturday adventure we rode the train through Mount Royal seated backward and looking at history in a way. And don’t the mystery trains, the love trains, the peace trains always run on time all down the line in music, literature, film and art? People, get ready.

Manhattan and Montreal, islands, are 600 kilometres apart, a short flight or a six hour drive. The least efficient yet most civilized way to traverse the distance is aboard Amtrak’s silver Adirondack, ten and a half hours from station to station, Penn north to Central. Two fares on Train 69 totaled $178 (US). Travellers to Canada were sequestered in the last coach. My hasty and imprecise headcount indicated about 18 of us. There were plenty of seats and room to move. The luggage racks were more spacious and accommodating than an airplane’s cabin, so like some assholes who fly but don’t quite get the geometry of confined, common spaces, you could’ve perhaps hauled a steamer trunk into the car without checking it. The wi-fi was free although I’m uncertain as to why anyone would want to stare at a screen rather than a big window of rolling landscape; the views even in bleak February were spectacular. This ride is about the journey. And you can get up and move around.

Before the wheel, the introduction of the horse to the continent by the Spanish, and before the great railway boom of the 19th century, there was water. Leaving New York City the Adirondack hugs the eastern bank of the Hudson River. New Jersey is on its other side. The train then traces the western shore of Lake Champlain, a 200-kilometre-long natural boundary between New York State and Vermont. The tracks then parallel the course of the Richelieu River which drains from the lake into the Saint Lawrence near Montreal. Amtrak’s lengthy right of way is essentially the primitive technological enhancement of a natural and ancient highway.

Train 69 had barely departed the dank, subterranean maze of Penn Station before its first stop in Yonkers. This is the problem with the Adirondack, it stops everywhere, seemingly every 25 minutes or so; there’s never an opportunity to build up a good head of steam. In Albany the locomotive and the crew were changed, nicotine addicted passengers gathered on the platform underneath the NO SMOKING sign and lit up. The café car sold food that wouldn’t warrant inclusion in a gas station snack cooler. Unbelievably, the toilets were not breeding grounds for pestilence and disease. The Canadian border authorities at Lacolle were SWAT uniformed, terse and very obviously armed – a disconcerting sign of the times. The inspection delay ran about 45 minutes. The Adirondack left New York one minute behind schedule and arrived in Montreal half an hour early.

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