Saturday, October 28, 2006

A More Human Way To Travel

This receipt is all that's left of a very memorable trip to St. Catharines, Ontario, to visit my brother at Brock University. Some say it was motivated by laziness, as I did have the option of driving, but turned it down. There is some truth to that statement, but considering the experience, it was a choice I would gladly make again.

The day began at York University, where I had gone to their pub nite the evening before. At seven, I caught the 196 back to Downsview - the earliest I had ever been on the TTC. The bus wasn't crowded, but there were a significant number of people travelling away from York University at that hour. Some were students who probably crashed on campus (the nearest blue night service is on Jane or Finch, a long walk from campus, especially at night), while others were clearly commuters who transferred onto the TTC. The subway downtown was more typical of the rush hour, but clearly less crowded than the Yonge line. Moving against the GO Train crowd at Union Station was interesting, to say the least.

I made my way to the Great Hall and to the departures area, and waited in line at gate 13 for train 97, the Maple Leaf. Just after 8, the train began boarding. When we were lead up to the platform (which was not the outdoor platform 13, to my disappointment), the staff separated passengers bound for Canadian destinations from those heading across the border. I was led up to the second coach from the head end, behind the cafe car.

Train 97, the Maple Leaf, is a joint service operated by Amtrak and Via Rail Canada. Train 97 leaves Toronto Union Station at 8:30 am and arrives in Pennsylvania Station is New York City at 9:45 pm, becoming train 64 south of the border. On the northbound trip, it leaves Penn Station at 7:15 am as train 64, and arrives at Union at 7:42 pm as train 98. The train uses Amtrak equipment for its entire run, with a sleek P42DC locomotive pulling silver Amfleet II coaches. On the Canadian leg, station stops are at Toronto, Oakville, Aldershot, Grimsby, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. In Canada, the train is staffed by VIA Rail Canada, with a crew change at Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The train left on time, and I quickly relaxed into my seat, which was on par with a first class airline seat. They recline and have padded footrests, in addition to tray tables, power outlets and reading lights. The cafe car had light refreshments, and I had a muffin for $1.75, which is pretty reasonable compared to a coffee shop.

Two Southern Ontario Railway locomotives were switching the Clarkson refinery, and we sped past them just before stopping at Oakville to detrain passengers. There were far more GO passengers waiting, with plenty of Oakville Transit action at the bus terminal. The next stop was Aldershot, which was much more deserted, but did have some CN locomotives working the Aldershot Yard lead. Grimsby was next, with a single passenger waiting to board. The station, pictured above, is now an antique shop, but VIA has build a pretty nice shelter for passengers. After Grimsby, the train sped along, blowing the horn for every crossing, something very rare in the city. The train crossed a high bridge over Jordan Harbour, and the escarpment provided a scenic background to the vineyards and orchards along the tracks. Nearing St. Catharines, the Schmon Tower of Brock University could been seen rising above the trees, and the on board service manager soon came around to notify us of the stop.

I stepped off onto the platform at the historic Great Western station at 10:30 and snapped a picture of the train as it continued on to Niagara Falls. The train was 25 minutes behind at that point, but unless you checked your watch, you would never have know. It slid silently off into the distance, as the other passengers got into cars and taxies. I walked up Great Western Street onto St. Paul, and waiting for the next St. Catharines Transit Bus, a D40LF on route #3 Pelham Road, which took less than 10 minutes to reach downtown.

St. Catharines Transit operates a hub and spoke system, with almost all the routes operating from the downtown terminal. Like Peterborough, the service operates based on a hub system with timed transfers (not to be confused with a time limited transfer). All routes arrive and leave the downtown terminal at the same time, so there is no worrying about a missed connection. Also, the rear doors are completely controlled by the driver - there's no push bar, pressure pad or sensor. This eliminates problems like those in Brampton, where people often do not understand how to operate the doors. Finally, the transfer policy is interesting, as you have to surrender your transfer to the driver when you connect. This isn't really a problem though, because any two points in the city can be reached by only transferring once. It does, however, mean that I didn't get a souvenir. Travel times are fairly quick, with a one way trip on all routes taking no longer than 30 minutes, but the winding nature of the routes can be intimidating to visitors.

At the downtown terminal, I transferred onto the 16 Brock - Glenridge and rode an Orion V on the fifteen minute run to Brock. The bus was a 1991 model, but had no trouble climbing the steep escarpment.

Shortly before five, my brother and I left his residence room, hopefully to catch the 5:00 #16 back to the downtown. However, it left two minutes early. It was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed me to see some Welland Transit classics and Niagara Transit Orions. The next one came shortly, and like the one before it, it left 4 four minutes ahead of schedule. At the downtown terminal, Lee and I parted ways, with him meeting friends to prepare for a Mexican themed party. Brock students do get free transit, which they often use to get to and from the bars off campus. As they say, it takes six Brock students to screw in a light bulb. One to do it, and five to throw a party for no reason. I boarded a 1984 Classic, one of the oldest in the fleet, and rode 15 West St. Catharines back to the station, arriving at 5:45 for the 6:10 departure.

As I stepped into the waiting room and took a seat, I could tell there was something strange. The station agent, announced that the train was running late, and that even though it was due in twenty minutes, it had not yet reached the border. I suspected I would be in this situation, but what happened next was something I didn't expect.

Before I even arrived at the station, arrangements had been made for Coach Canada to honor the tickets. It was too late to call a cab to get back downtown, but it pleased me to know that the company would go to such lengths to make sure I was able to get to my destination. The station agent could have easily hid in the back of the ticket office and avoided the passengers. However, she was either at the window or in the waiting room talking to passengers and keeping us updated on the situation. She even made the station's phone accessible to anyone who needed to make a phone call - long distance or otherwise. When the train finally did arrive, exactly an hour behind schedule, the agent came out into the rain to keep order, as passengers for the Niagara-bound train had begun to arrive.

The train boarded quickly under the supervision of the same crew from the morning, and soon, we were off through the night. I reclined my seat, pulled up the footrest and feel asleep between Grimsby and Aldershot. We arrived at Union at nine, and I caught the GO bus back to Brampton.

Some people say that inter-city travel by train is nothing more than a novelty in corridors where other forms of transit are present. I disagree. VIA Rail Canada has proven itself as being a sustainable, luxurious, and relatively inexpensive method of travel, when compared to other downtown-to-downtown services in the Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Quebec corridor. It does have some issues with schedule adherence, and they will not likely be solved unless the government commits to dedicated high-speed tracks in the corridor. Until then, trains will continue to be late, but VIA Rail staff will take care of you like no one else. It really is a more human way to travel.

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