Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 4 - Niles, MI to Toronto, ON
June 28, 1999
The AMTRAK-paid taxicab ride to the Niles AMTRAK station took about 20 minutes, and I got to the old station in plenty of time to catch the next train on my itinerary, the International. I had lived in Lansing, Michigan, for many years back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and used to ride this train, as well as its Chicago to Port Huron predecessor, the Blue Water Ltd, quite a bit. When the Blue Water service was first initiated, in the middle 1970', the train used Turboliner equipment, which was AMTRAK's state of the art back then. When the service was extended to Toronto, in the early 1980's. I believe, the schedule changed, as did the equipment. Back then, the consist would alternate between AMTRAK Amfleet equipment and VIA Rail Canada LRC equipment, if I recall. I had not been in Michigan for several years, and had not ridden this train for the last 14 years, so I was curious to see what type of equipment the train used nowadays.
Since my ticket was written from Hammond/Whiting to Toronto, I was not sure if I needed to inform the agent at Niles that I would be picking the train up here rather than at Hammond, and was not sure if my seat would have been sold when I didn't show up in Hammond -- not that I was worried that there may not be any seats left; I just wanted to make sure AMTRAK had the proper ticketing for my slightly revised itinerary. I walked into the station after the taxicab dropped me off, and there was only one agent on duty, and two or three people ahead of me in line, one of whom didn't appear to know where she wanted to go on AMTRAK. So I stepped outside to wait, then I would try the agent again. As I was waiting, an announcement was made that Train #364, the eastbound International, would be approximately 20 minutes late, and that it was now passing through Michigan City. It did not matter how late this train would be, since I had confirmed hotel reservations at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto for the night. I finally caught the ticket agent and he told me that, since I had gotten the "3-region fare" on AMTRAK, there was no need to do anything with the ticket, and because of the 3-region fare, I was not due a refund for the unused 73 miles of my trip. That was what I thought, but just wanted to make sure.
The International soon appeared at the Niles station, led by a VIA Rail Canada unit (an F49PH, I think) and consisting of 5 AMTRAK Superliner coaches. I found a seat in the "Toronto car," which was not very crowded today -- in fact, I never got a seat partner on the entire trip. At the end of the train was a dome car, which I thought at first may have been the "custom class" car, but I later found out that it was not a custom class car -- in fact, the International does not even carry a custom class car any more. The dome car was apparently being deadheaded somewhere on the end of our train. I did not observe where, if anywhere, it was removed from the train, and it may have gone all the way to Toronto with us. The lower level of the last Superliner coach in the consist today was the snack car.
The International left Niles 24 minutes late and left Kalamazoo 22 minutes late. The tracks between Portage, Indiana, and Battle Creek, Michigan, are owned by AMTRAK, and running speeds are fairly fast on the well-maintained route. I continued my video, and was especially interested in our trip through the western side of Kalamazoo, since I had gone to graduate school at Western Michigan University back during AMTRAK's infancy in the early 1970's. The apartment complex I lived in is still visible from the railroad line, as is much of the campus of the University, including the football stadium. A few miles past Kalamazoo, the International slowed to a snail's pace for several minutes as we let westbound Train #353, the Lake Cities, pass. Because of this slight delay, our train left Battle Creek 30 minutes late.
Just past the Battle Creek station is a new water park, which was interesting to see. Since it was a hot day, the water park was pretty busy as we went past. Then, as soon as the International switched off the AMTRAK-owned trackage and onto the Grand Trunk Western trackage, the freight delays began again. A few miles west of Lansing, we had a 30-minute delay as we passed through a busy industrial area adjacent to a power plant, as we had to wait for some freight traffic. One of my fellow passengers, who was from China, sat with me for a few minutes when he saw my map books, and asked me several questions about Michigan and about AMTRAK service in general, and, specifically, why there are so many freight delays on AMTRAK. I tried to answer his questions as best I could.......
The East Lansing AMTRAK station has changed little since I last used it back in the early 1980's. There are a couple newer and nicer signs on the platform, but that was the only change I noticed. There were a fair number of passengers boarding in East Lansing, but not nearly the number of passengers which I was used to seeing back in the 1970's and 1980's. We left East Lansing 53 minutes late. I was assuming that, on the next segment of my trip, on board VIA Rail Canada's Canadian, I would see more on-time arrivals and departures. Again, no problem on this day, since I had confirmed hotel reservations for the night.
We left the Durand station 55 minutes late, but did not leave Flint until 4:49 PM, 1 hr 10 minutes behind schedule. There were numerous delays due to freight trains in eastern Michigan. Between Flint and Lapeer, the conductor came through and gave everyone a customs declaration form to fill out and present to the authorities as we crossed the border. One peculiarity about this train is that you need 2 tickets to ride the train from Chicago or anywhere in Michigan into Canada. The first ticket stub reads "Chicago, IL [or Hammond-Whiting, IN in my case] to Canadian Border," and the second ticket reads "Canadian Border, MI to Toronto, ON." Many novice rail travelers may not notice that, but when I first bought my tickets back in January, I was only issued a ticket from Hammond/Whiting to "Canadian Border," so I asked the Orlando agent about that, and he told me that Train #364 did not go all the way to Toronto! He told me that I would have to get off the train at "Canadian Border," (the Port Huron station? Sarnia station?) and take a bus to Toronto. Of course, I knew that was not true, so informed him that Train #364 does in fact go all the way to Toronto, and he didn't believe me, so he called the main AMTRAK reservations center, and found out from them that what I told him was in fact true, so he issued me a second ticket, from "Canadian Border, MI" to Toronto. The entire reservation cost about $50 more I believe, with the extra segment added. Over the years, I have been in many situations when I have known more about AMTRAK services and routes than AMTRAK employees -- not a good situation! So, the moral for Train Web readers is -- if you ever book a trip on the International, make sure your tickets have the right destinations on them! If I hadn't have noticed that glitch, what would have happened? Would I have been kicked off the train in Port Huron and told to hitchhike to Toronto??
We left Lapeer 1 hr 9 minutes late, and I made a final trip to the snack car before crossing the border into Canada. I asked the bartender if I should start using my Canadian money once we cross the border, and he said I could use either American or Canadian money across the border. I also asked if I would still be able to get a beer once we crossed into Canada, and I was told that no, the International could not sell beer in Canada. We finally got to Port Huron, and, thanks to much padding in the Chicago-Port Huron schedule, we only arrived 34 minutes late, and departed only 30 minutes late. It was good that we were able to "make up" time into Port Huron, but I assumed we would be delayed at least another hour at customs in Sarnia, so we would probably still be running an hour or so late throughout the evening. The tardiness itself would not matter, since I had a confirmed hotel reservation, but I was afraid I may miss some of the scenery I wanted to see in southwestern Ontario due to darkness.
Port Huron, Michigan, is a crew change point, and, in Port Huron, the AMTRAK crew left the train, and a VIA Rail Canada crew boarded. As we left Port Huron, the train backs out of the station in order to get aligned for the Canadian National main line through the St. Clair tunnel and into Canada. Upon departure from Port Huron, the International magically became VIA Train #88, and no longer AMTRAK #364. The VIA conductor welcomed everybody aboard, both in French and English. In a few minutes we arrived at Sarnia, Ontario, and the Canadian customs agents boarded the train and did their thing. I was told that I need to have either a passport or a birth certificate to get into Canada on AMTRAK/VIA; however, the customs agent did not even ask for those documents when she got to my seat. In fact, this border crossing was one of the most "painless" I have ever experienced. Either I look too honest, or the customs agents were in a good mood that day. And the entire customs inspection was done in record time. We left Sarnia only 8 minutes late. I remember many times back in Michigan when the westbound International would be 2 or 3 hours late due to customs delays.
After customs, the local Sarnia-Toronto passengers boarded, and we were soon on our way again, as I gave the VIA conductor my "Canadian Border to Toronto" ticket. I was able to see much of the southwestern Ontario scenery and video it during the daylight hours after all. And the train was still not overly crowded, and I remained with no seatmate. We left Strathroy 4 minutes late, and London 4 minutes late, even though we had arrived early into London, Ontario. At one point west of London, we waited for a Canadian Pacific freight train to cross ahead of us, then we actually followed the same freight on a parallel track for a few miles, so I got some good video of the freight. I had made a couple more trips to the snack coach for soft drinks, and decided to begin using my Canadian money. The same attendant accepted it, but I somehow believe he would have preferred that I used American money. For me, "when in Rome (or Canada), do as the Romans (or Canadians) do!" After all, I was now in a foreign country.
We left the St. Marys, Ontario, on time, and about that time, it began to get dark, so I quit the videotaping for the day. There is a CN marker sign right before the St. Marys station which says "Portland." I thought maybe VIA had changed the route at first, but a few yards past the "Portland" sign was a sign by the station which said "St. Marys." There were a few more freight delays in the early evening, so we finally arrived at Toronto Union Station at 11:23 PM, only 12 minutes late.
I had overnight reservations at the Royal York Hotel, which is located across the street from the Toronto Union Station. At home I have a videotape called "The Great Canadian Train Ride," narrated by Doug Jones (circa 1993), and in the video, he shows the bellmen from the Royal York carrying passenger's suitcases in one of those wheeled "luggage racks" from the hotel to the VIA platform at Union Station, so I half-expected a bellman to be waiting for the International to assist the passengers who were staying at the Royal York, but to no avail -- no Royal York bellman was there! Since I had been to Toronto at a convention last fall, I knew the layout of the underground "PATH" system between Union Station and the Royal York, so I carried my suitcases through the station and into the "tunnel" which goes beneath Front Street and into the hotel. When I checked in to the hotel, there seemed to be some confusion about my reservation, and I was offered a different room "in the same class" as my original reservation, but which was a bit less expensive, so I took it. I have a feeling that my original reservation was lost. The room I was put in did not have a full bed, but was a "studio" type room with a bed which folded out from the couch. It was not exactly what I had expected, but for just one night, it was quite adequate. It took me a while to find the pillows for the bed, however, so I called the front desk and asked, and was told that the pillows were -- where else? In the television console! (right where one would expect them, eh?) So I soon went to bed -- tomorrow would begin the "highlight" of this year's trip -- the Canadian.
Web page by Matthew J. Melzer.
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