If you’re considering the train between NYC and Montréal, think again. It’s probably not for you. I took the train both ways this past month, and here’s my report (Adirondack trains #68 and 69, daily service both ways between NYC and Montreal, circa summer 2008).
Time, Schedule, and Customs
The ride is pleasant, but as long as you’re not in a hurry and can hold up for a long time with naps, books, mags, audio, or movies on a laptop (AC provided). What is six hours by car or bus (not including customs) takes twelve by train (not including customs).
Customs takes maybe an hour or two, and if you board this train, expect this delay. Amtrak puts this little matter in fine print, which means that many people are unaware and quite irritated during the process. My train going south was without incident, but going north customs were obviously checking to see if your name was on a list. A couple people were seemingly randomly questioned, one person turned away due to a criminal record (DUI), and all this holds up the entire train.
If your train is late before getting to the border, customs will take even longer, as it did for me. A Canadian customs officer explained that a late train throws the entire procedure even more off schedule.
My theory on customs is thus: customs on the train are lengthy because everyone on board must be processed before the rolling stock moves forward again. On bus or car the passengers are fewer so the delay may be smaller and affects fewer. By airplane, passengers are processed individually upon arrival, so random interrogations or riffraff don’t hold up the entire cabin.
If you’re thinking about taking the train, and you can’t handle the prospect of delays two hours or more, don’t take it.
- Skip the cafe car unless you’re a fan of bagged chips, canned sodas and beers, and microwaved sandwiches. Bring your own food if possible.
- AC outlets are below the window, but the power goes out occasionally when the train is idle. (No on-board internet access.)
- Cell phone reception comes in and goes out as you travel away from civilization.
- Bathrooms on trains, in buses, at road stops — ALWAYS GROSS.
The view westward, especially around sunset, is nice but repetitive — body of water after body of water with many docked boats in upstate New York, plains and farmland in Québec. I didn’t experience the view east and frankly I didn’t see much on the west going north because my seat was between windows and I slept most the way.
If view is important to you, you might want to queue early and aggressively for prime seat choice. The same goes if you’re not riding alone and want to sit together when the train is sold out. Going south, left is east, right is west. Going north, left is west, right is east.
I would take the train again if it fit my schedule, which is to say when I don’t mind not knowing when I arrive. The bus is marginally less comfortable, and I get headaches if I read whereas on the train I’m fine. The train is marginally cheaper, but that’s hardly a factor after other differences. I’ve heard the overnight bus is a nightmare with twilight transfers and customs procedures.
But I recommend bringing your own:
- snacks and beverage;
- ear plugs (as long as you don’t have to worry about missing your station);
- neck pillow, inflatable or otherwise, maybe a sleep mask if you really want to get your nap on;
- blanket or long-sleeved or long-panted comfortware (because the train is AC cold and/or drafty);
- laptop with movies (but alas, no internet);
- plenty of stuff to read and write while you have half a day to do nothing else;
- expectation of untimeliness; and
- companion who you don’t mind napping, talking, or not talking with for 12 hours.