Riding through the floods Part 4: Toronto to Chicago by rail… and taxi

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Thursday, August 4, 2011

Covering the passenger rail beat is always a challenge, but sometimes you stumble across more opportunities than you bargained for.

That was especially true this past May and June, when a simple train trip to North Dakota turned into a week-long, international rail odyssey after Mother Nature unleashed her fury across the Upper Midwest (part 1). Now, I'm trying to get home after a week of alternate routes, rental cars, and unplanned train rides (part 2). 

Highways and airlines alone do not adequately serve North America's traveling public. But the passenger rail systems of both America and Canada need a lot of investment, as my trip underscores. Here's a blow-by-blow account of a week-long adventure that contributed to the research behind two stories in the September 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, the monthly Passenger column (page 18) and a News story (page 8).

It's Saturday morning, Day 6 of my trip, and I'm anxiously watching the clock aboard VIA Rail's Canadian, leveraging the train's tardiness against the scheduled departure time of VIA Corridor train 73, my connection at Toronto that will help get me home. The Canadian's generously padded schedule should have put us into Toronto on time Saturday morning, but those long freight-related waits at Hornepayne the previous day resulted in 75-minute delay that VIA 2 just couldn't overcome. 

Still, when we finally pulled into Union Station, I had enough time to retrieve my checked bag, buy a ticket on train 73 to Windsor, and get in the long boarding line without having to rush. A thunderstorm as we hightailed it out of Union Station with four almost-full stainless steel (HEP-2) coaches gave way to hot and humid sunshine at the Woodstock, Ont., stop and at VIA's Windsor station, located just outside of town at Walkerville, Ont. 

The 4 hour, 25 minute trip wasn't high speed by any means. We had some 90-mph running before the stop at Aldershot, but also long stretches of bouncing on jointed rail, 17 minutes waiting for eastbound train 72 near Brantford, Ont., and 10 minutes of restricted speeds into Walkerville on decrepit VIA-owned track that — like cleaning a closet - has yet to make it to the company's "let's fix this today" list. Still, the midday Saturday coach-only train was full in spite of the slow running times.

The unplanned trip through Canada provided a long-sought opportunity to test a glaring "passengers must make own arrangements because we can't afford to do it" case of international non-cooperation between VIA and Amtrak, now that there are no through trains between Ontario and Michigan.

Ever since the Toronto-Chicago International was dropped (and the train reverted to a Michigan-sponsored Port Huron-Chicago service renamed the Blue Water), the only way to get across the border without an overnight stay is to take a taxicab between the Detroit and Windsor stations as connections between Amtrak 350 / VIA 88 eastbound and VIA 73 / Amtrak 355 westbound.

In both cases, the Chicago-Toronto trip is a day-long ordeal for which, as an Amtrak timetable footnote admonishes, "connections are not guaranteed." I had tried the eastbound journey four years ago and bemoaned the scarcity of cabs at Amtrak's Detroit station — not to mention the drivers who hemmed and hawed about taking someone across the border to Windsor.

That didn't happen coming west. Three blue and yellow Veteran Cab Company cars were still lined up in back of the Walkerville station when I straggled in as the last passenger off train 73 (had to get that photo, of course). 

Driver Sam explained the cost in advance: $20 (U.S or Canadian) which included the bridge toll, plus the meter. The metered fare to the Amtrak station off of Woodward Ave., in the New Center section of Detroit, turned out to be $27.50, so I gave him a mix of Canadian and U.S. currency totaling $55, including the tip. The rail tickets, both "walk-up" fares bought that Saturday, were $106.22 for VIA Toronto-Windsor and $27.20 for Amtrak Detroit-Chicago. 

Here's how the Windsor-Detroit taxi transfer timed out:

VIA Train 73 arrives Windsor (Walkerville)

3:55 p.m.

Taxi leaves VIA station

4:02 p.m.

Drives into Windsor-Detroit tunnel

4:08 p.m.

Arrives U.S. Customs auto line on Michigan side

4:11 p.m.

Finally pulls up to Customs agent

4:17 p.m.

Agent asks "what were you doing in Canada?" (long explanation)

Takes passport, drivers license, makes phone call 

4:18 p.m.

Returns documents, taxi leaves

4:21 p.m.

Taxi arrives at Detroit Amtrak station

4:37 p.m.

The former International passenger train between Sarnia and Port Huron was never this quick — and never could be, because train passengers are naturally suspicious in the eyes of both nations' border gendarmes.

Considering that the customs stops for the Adirondack at Rouses Point, N.Y., and Cantic, Que., or the Maple Leaf's two stops at Niagara Falls are scheduled for a minimum of 90 minutes each (time that passengers will never get back for the rest of their lives), this Windsor-Detroit crossing isn't such a bad deal. Veteran cab's phone number is (519) 256-2621.

And Wolverine Service train 355 from Pontiac, Mich., to Chicago was right on time leaving Detroit at 6:18 p.m. and Dearborn 22 minutes later. The café car was open and serving, the beer was cold, and the warmed corned beef sandwich was thick and tasty. Not quite measuring up to VIA's rack of lamb the night before, of course, but far superior to the offerings of the food cart on train 73 earlier that day.

But an on-time arrival at Chicago? Not a chance! The fun began just outside Ypsilanti, Mich., at 7:06 p.m.

You know it will be bad when the lights and air conditioning fans go off immediately after a stop - then come back on. That's the head-end power being switched to standby to conserve fuel, because the engineer has been told by the dispatcher to expect a long wait.

We were stabbed at Ypsilanti for 51 minutes waiting for Wolverine 352 from Chicago, 2 hours late from a combination of bad track and long patches of inoperable block signals east of Kalamazoo on Norfolk Southern trackage.

NS has been trying to sell its Kalamazoo-Detroit line since 2008. Like BNSF's Devils Lake Sub in North Dakota, NS can route through freights elsewhere. On this once double-tracked, 90-mph - now pathetic - corridor, there are no passing sidings for the 25 miles between Ypsilanti and Chelsea, Mich.

Do the math: If trains are limited to 15-mph restricted speeds because every signal is red, then have to wait for each other on top of that, delays are compounded. That's exactly what happened to my train on the night of June 4. 

The operating crew was properly understanding, informative, and cynical as they explained the signal problems and track conditions to increasingly agitated passengers. "Hopefully, the next signal will be good and we will be able to go faster - not a lot faster, though, because there are speed restrictions on the track," explained a conductor.

I wrote (selfishly), "when a train is stopped, buy beer and food before other passengers figure out that they might run out." But soon after, everyone was invited to get a bottle of water and a snack pack of crackers and cookies from the café car.

After almost 2 hours of 15-mph running, the train was pulled into Battle Creek 3 hours late, and stayed that way into Chicago, arriving at 1:58 a.m.

The track will continue to deteriorate while officials work out a pending sale of the Kalamazoo-Detroit trackage to the state of Michigan (a complicated issue covered in the September 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, as a direct result of this strange roundabout trip from North Dakota.) 

Anecdotally, Amtrak's attempt to get both Norfolk Southern and Canadian National to sign off on revised schedules for the Wolverines and Blue Water that more accurately reflect today's running times (as a result of speed restrictions imposed on June 1 by CN and NS) has been met with indifference by the freight carriers and the Federal Railroad Administration because the request has languished for over a month, according to informed sources.

Besides, if the signal system continues to be unreliable while NS takes its own sweet time to fix it, what good are new schedules anyway?

The lack of outrage by all concerned — including Amtrak top management — is appalling. But hey, that's passenger railroading in 2011. Stay tuned. 

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