Maple Leaf train – NYC to Toronto trip report

There are a number of trip reports for the Maple Leaf train (such as this one for the return trip), but I noticed a few details were often lacking so hopefully I can fill in some gaps here. I’ll be avoiding discussion of scenery and most other qualitative aspects as I think other reports cover these well. Instead I’ll be focusing on the parts of the trip that a person who hasn’t taken this train before would likely want to know (including a few that tripped me up).

Getting to Penn Station is fairly straight-forward from anywhere in New York City. We entered through the 7th Avenue entrance as we usually do and then walked west toward the Amtrak lounge at the west end of the station.

For most other trains from Penn Station, one normally waits in either the lounge (referring to the general large lounge here, not ClubAcela) or the open station area just west of it, watching the overhead screens intently so one can rush to the appropriate numbered track as soon as it is announced. However, for the Maple Leaf, there are special queues that have been setup specially for that train. When we took the train on December 19, these lines were located just south of the Amtrak lounge and had decent-sized signs showing that they were for Amtrak train number 63. If we hadn’t happened to walk around the south side of the lounge, though, we may have missed these entirely and waited by the overhead screens instead, which would have delayed our boarding (though we likely still would have made it on).

There are two queues at Penn Station setup for the Maple Leaf – one for passengers travelling to Canada (including those to Albany for some reason) and one for everyone else. We got to the station about 45 minutes before departure and there was one person ahead of us in the Canada line. It’s probably fine to arrive later, as we didn’t start boarding until 15 minutes before the train departed and we didn’t have trouble finding a pair of seats in coach, though that may differ on busier days.

When it was time to board, the Canada line went first and here we encountered our first (and perhaps only) surprise. The person who was checking our ticket said that we hadn’t got our travel documents verified (or something like that) and vaguely directed us to some booth “behind the elevators”. Thankfully, it wasn’t too hard to find (toward the south end of the station area just west of the Amtrak lounge) and we got in line behind a few people who were either checking bags or getting their documents verified for the Adirondack (apparently everyone on the Maple Leaf had already done this).

Needless to say we were a bit nervous, since our train was departing in less than 15 minutes and we still had to do this verification, whatever it was. But the three or so people ahead of us were handled fairly promptly and we got to the front soon enough. When we did, the person there checked our passports, asked us how many bags we had, and then gave us bag tags (which no one ever checked, but may be helpful if you’re worried about losing your luggage) as well as two paper slips indicating our travel documents had been verified.

We then rushed back to the line for the Maple Leaf, which had mostly finished boarding. We were told to wait until everyone else had boarded (fairly nerve-racking as we didn’t know how full it would be) and then were allowed to have our tickets checked again. This time we had the paper slip that the agent wanted and so were allowed to take the escalator down to the track.

When we got to the track a conductor asked us where we were going in order to direct us to an appropriate car. We said we were going to Toronto, but also added that we had a business class reservation for the final leg (while the first leg was in coach). The conductor said he was glad we mentioned that (presumably since it changes which car he would have recommended) and he directed us to the coach car immediately ahead of the combination dining and business class car.

We easily found a pair of seats on the left side of the train (which gives you a good view of the Hudson River, as well as the foamy plume of Niagara Falls when you get there) and settled in for our trip. Virtually all of the seats are facing forward (unlike the Cascades train, where half face backward) so it’s easy to see where it’s headed.

We pulled out of the station within a minute of our scheduled departure time and headed north along the Hudson. The trip was mostly uneventful until the Canadian border – we stopped for half an hour in Albany to switch engines (during which time the power outlets were off, but otherwise the power and wifi worked well) and had a couple other opportunities to stretch our legs, but we chose to remain on the train.

The train was probably the most full between Albany and Rochester, as this was mid-day on a Saturday, likely a better time to board for most people than early in the morning. Outside of that period we usually had an empty pair of seats across from us so one of us could stretch out or lie down if needed.

When we got to the Niagara Falls station on the New York side we waited for about 20 minutes, likely because we made good time until then and were a bit early for our border crossing. Then we pulled out and crossed the Whirlpool Bridge, watching the mist of Niagara Falls and the falls itself as we crossed. One can also see the derelict Michigan Central Railway Bridge (with its high fence blocking any potential crossings) and the NEXUS-only approach lanes for vehicular traffic that shares the Whirlpool Bridge via a lower two-lane deck.

The train stopped very soon after crossing the bridge, at the Ontario-side Niagara Falls station. Here we were told to remain seated until customs officers arrived and then a few minutes later were directed to disembark the train (bringing all our luggage, as instructed) and walk over to a special customs area of the Niagara Falls station. The train crew helped us with our larger luggage items so it went pretty smoothly.

Once inside the customs area, the process was fairly normal – similar to what you would expect at any airport. Most people had made it through customs within half an hour of disembarking and we were directed to the general waiting area of the station once we’d been processed. Another half an hour of waiting there and we were allowed to re-board the the train.

Since we had paid the extra US$1 fare for business class on the final leg of our journey, we boarded first when business class was called. The business class area is at the back of the rearmost car, just behind the dining area (separated from it by a curtain), which is behind the four coach-class cars that made up our journey’s train. We were offered a tea, coffee, or water as the train departed and an arrival time was announced in-person by the conductor as soon as it was available (it sounds like the arrival time is sometimes delayed several minutes by traffic on the Welland Canal (during which time Bridge 6 is lifted and our crossing is thus unavailable), based on the conductor’s earlier-voiced concerns, but we didn’t run into any issues there).

We arrived in the heart of Toronto at Union Station approximately 10 minutes ahead of schedule. There is a special egress door at the rear of the business class car, which allowed us to quickly disembark without passing through the dining area.

Aside from the confusing queuing and document verification setup at Penn Station, our Maple Leaf experience was pleasant and stress-free. It’s a good option during the holiday season if you have a free day (or don’t mind doing your work on a train) and want to avoid the delays and cancellations endemic to air travel at that time of the year. Other benefits over air travel include a lack of time-wasting TSA lineups, substantial free luggage allowance (2 25-pound personal items plus 2 50-pound carry-on, for a 150 pound per-passenger total), and free decent wifi.

Of course one is also free to walk about the train as they like – no “you must be seated for take-off and landing”. This might make the ride more enjoyable for children versus an hour or more locked in their seat on a plane. While I noticed that most cars were fairly quiet, the dining car is generally more lively and parents often take their kids there so it may be a nice place for the more restless or noisy among your party. Overall I noticed a number of families with kids walking along the cars; the trip appears fairly child-friendly. And if you opt for business class, your kids can look out the back of the train as it meanders through the Niagara Region, Mohawk and Hudson Valleys, and cities and towns along the way.

Feel free to post any questions or comments about my trip or a Maple Leaf trip you’ve taken or are planning. I’d be happy to respond.

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