A tale of last-minute Moonlighting - Part One

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, March 12, 2018

I spent the past week taking my fourth transcontinental journey aboard North America’s last great streamliner, VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, and my third with an informal group of both current and retired railroaders and train travel connoisseurs called the Moonlighters because its annual winter trips are timed to coincide with a full moon for optimal nighttime viewing from a darkened dome car. I wasn’t sure that I would make this year’s trip, being pressed for both time and finances. However, sudden availability in my schedule and a special discount on VIA helped push me to make a last-minute booking (literally one day before leaving home in Washington, DC) and join a couple dozen other Moonlighters on the westbound Toronto departure on March 3 (conversely, over 100 members of the group journeyed east and arrived in Toronto that morning).

Stranded passengers in Washington Union Station on Mar. 2.
All photos by Malcolm Kenton

Last-minute trips tend to be full of surprises, and no two trips on the Canadian are the same. This trip was certainly no exception to either rule. The adventure started with my departure from DC on Friday, March 2, a day that brought some of the highest winds the Mid-Atlantic has seen since Superstorm Sandy on the tail end of a nor’easter that some in DC were calling “windmageddon.” Flights were canceled by the hundreds. Luckily, after sizing up my options, I decided to redeem Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a Bedroom on the Capitol Limited. My plan was to take the train to Toledo then the connecting Amtrak Thruway bus to Detroit, where I was scheduled to have just over six hours to connect across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario and take a 1:45 PM VIA Corridor train to Toronto with four hours to spare before the Canadian’s departure.

This bridge over Sandusky Bay is among the
rare daylight sights from a late Capitol Limited.

With Amtrak’s mobile app showing train 29 to be on-time, I arrived at Washington Union Station at 3:00 PM to find it a madhouse. No northbound trains up the Northeast Corridor had left since 11:00 AM and all the hallways and waiting areas were stuffed with stranded passengers. ClubAcela was more full than I had ever seen it. Shortly after 4:00, it was announced that all Northeast Corridor service was canceled for the rest of the day, at which point the bulk of the waiting passengers cleared out. But the ClubAcela attendant kept saying that train 29 was going to go out, even as it got to be one, and then two, hours passed its scheduled departure time.

I had booked a late evening flight to Detroit as a backup (other westward flights had been departing) and was ready to bail on Amtrak and start making my way to BWI Airport using the B30 Metrobus, but my gut told me to stick with the rails, and it turned out to be right (though the flight did also take off and land on-time). The Cap was boarded shortly after 6:00 PM and finally pulled out of the station at 6:30, only to be held just outside the station while CSX signal maintainers cleared the line ahead. By the time we were finally on the move, the train was nearly four hours late, but we were rolling along at normal track speed. I was sated with dinner in the diner and settled into one of Amtrak’s largest beds for the night.

Detroit's QLine streetcar at its downtown terminus.

I awoke Saturday as we were pulling out of Cleveland at sunrise, four and a half hours late, and partook of an unplanned-for included breakfast in the diner before stepping off at Toledo at 9:30 AM. Since the Lake Shore Limited form New York, which was also hours late, had just left before my train, the Thruway bus to Michigan (which collects passengers from both trains) was about 80% full and ready to go. It left Toledo at 10:00 AM and made it to the Detroit Amtrak station just after 11:00 AM, taking a detour through downtown and up Woodward Avenue due to highway closures.

I then took my first ride on Detroit’s QLine streetcar (part of why I wanted to go via Detroit/Windsor in the first place), a fast, smooth cruise back down Woodward Avenue during which the Brookville Liberty streetcar switched seamlessly back and forth between overhead wire and battery power. I walked from the line’s downtown terminus three blocks to the entrance to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and hopped on Windsor Transit’s Tunnel Bus for a quick passage across the border.

A 4-car LRC consist for VIA train 76 readies for departure from 
Windsor, ON's newly rebuilt station on Mar. 3.

I cleared Canadian customs by 11:40 AM, leaving plenty of time to find an ATM, get lunch in downtown Windsor, and ride Windsor Transit’s Route 2 bus up to the VIA Rail station (my first visit since it was renovated in 2012) to make the 1:45 departure for Toronto.

The ride on a crowded four-car LRC train was fast and within seven minutes of schedule, with a number of passengers on and off at intermediate stops. I made it to Toronto with enough time to grab dinner and a set by an R&B/soul outfit at The Rex before returning to Union Station’s Business Lounge as requested at 8:30 PM to check in with the Canadian’s crew, reconnect with fellow Moonlighters, and board the gleaming streamliner 45 minutes later. Departure was delayed as we waited for connecting passengers affected by a freight train derailment earlier in the day that blocked the VIA line from Montreal and Ottawa, but we got underway around 10:50 PM, time we easily made up as we rocketed northward through the night, me comfortably ensconced in an open section lower berth.

To be continued in Part 2 on Wednesday.

The CN Tower rises above Prince Albert Park's darkened dome
as VIA train 1 prepares to leave Toronto on Mar. 3.
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