Heading for Manhattan? Looking for a scenic, comfortable and economical alternative to flying, and a more restful option than driving the distance? You might enjoy the train, if you are not in a hurry.
I have travelled from Ottawa to New York City many times, often by car with family or friends, less frequently by air. Once I returned from New York to Ottawa on the overnight Greyhound bus via Montreal, a choice I mention here only to caution any picky travellers who may read this article that, at times, I can be a flexible, undemanding cheapskate.
In July 2009 I decided to try the train. The US national rail passenger service, Amtrak, operates a train named Adirondack daily between Montreal’s Central Station and New York City’s Penn Station. The Adirondack runs for long stretches along the banks of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, offering close-up views of waterways and bush country the highway does not reach. The watercourses form a historic transportation corridor linking Montreal and New York that was the theatre for nation-shaping encounters among French, English and First Nations people.
Rails snake along the edge of Lake Champlain, leading the Adirondack south near Ticonderoga, NY. From the lounge car, July 24, 2009.
The Adirondack route has a reputation for being picturesque. Carl Fowler has 30 years of experience selling Amtrak travel through his company, Rail Travel Adventures, which specializes in scenic train tours in the USA, Canada and Europe. Fowler ranks the Adirondack as the fourth most scenic Amtrak route (in a comment on a blog on Trains magazine’s website). All three trains that Fowler ranks higher than the Adirondack traverse mountains in the American West. The Adirondack is the most scenic Amtrak route in the East.
Looking east toward Vermont across Lake Champlain at Port Kent, NY. From the northbound Adirondack, July 27, 2009.
Between Plattsburgh and Saratoga Springs or Albany, the more interesting view (Lake Champlain) is from the east side of the train; that is, from the left side of a train heading south toward New York. The opposite is true between Albany and New York, where the Hudson River is to the west (right side when heading southbound).
If your coach is too crowded to enable you to switch sides, or if you wish to enjoy the view through larger windows, you can move to the lounge car (sometimes termed a café car). In my experience travellers can linger for long periods in the lounge car because many customers prefer to take their food back to their coach seats.
The lounge car sells pre-packaged food and snacks as well as “soft” and alcoholic beverages. Healthier items appear to have been added since my trips on the Adirondack in 2009. The menu can be viewed here: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/508/956/Adirondack-Cafe-Menu-201110.pdf
The train has free Wi-Fi that Amtrak describes as a basic service that “supports general web browsing activities. Due to limited bandwidth onboard the trains, our Wi-Fi does not support high-bandwidth actions such as streaming music, streaming video or downloading large files.”
Lake Champlain near Ticonderoga, NY. From the lounge car, July 24, 2009.
There is a drawback to the Adirondack but I can suggest an alternative itinerary. The drawback is that combining the VIA Rail trip from Ottawa to Montreal with the Adirondack makes for a long travel day. The weekday schedules in effect on April 14, 2013, require a 6:29 am departure on VIA Rail from Ottawa, arriving at Central Station at 8:23 am. The Adirondack leaves Central Station at 9:30 am but does not reach New York’s Penn Station until 8:20 pm.
The Ottawa transfer on the return leg is more problematic. If the Adirondack arrives in Montreal on schedule at 7:06 pm, making the last VIA Rail weekday departure for Ottawa at 7:15 pm might be possible for a sprinter. Unfortunately, about 25% of Adirondack trains arrive late. My own return to Ottawa entailed a Métro ride to Montreal’s intercity bus station and a long wait standing in line for the Greyhound to Ottawa.
It is important to note that VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak are separate rail systems. If you miss one system’s train due to the late arrival of the other system’s train, you have to work out the problem in accordance with the conditions attached to the ticket for the train you missed.
I devised an alternative itinerary after learning, 48 hours before my long-planned trip, that VIA Rail engineers would go on strike the morning of my departure, July 24, 2009. I did not have to implement the alternative because the strike did not begin until noon and the engineer on my crack-of-dawn train from Ottawa to Montreal seemed to be as anxious as I was to avoid delay.
The alternative is to drive to Plattsburgh, NY, park the car, and board the Adirondack there. This should save Ottawa residents a couple hours on the way to New York City and about four hours on the return, in my estimation. There are two main reasons for the savings of time. First, Ottawa-Montreal and Montreal-Plattsburgh are two sides of a triangle while Ottawa-Plattsburgh is the diagonal shortcut (hypotenuse). Second, border agents can process a single auto more quickly than they can handle a trainload of passengers. Amtrak schedules a one-hour stop for US customs southbound, and an hour-and-a-half for Canadian Customs northbound.
The sights missed by boarding at Plattsburgh, such as the Montreal skyline and the crossing over the St Lawrence River, probably are already familiar to most readers.
Google Maps estimates that the drive from Ottawa City Hall, via the Cornwall border crossing, to the Amtrak station in Plattsburgh takes three hours. I would allow at least another hour or 90 minutes for delays at the border and, if you are unfamiliar with the two-lane roads in northern New York state, for finding your way. Amtrak recommends arriving at the station “at least 30 minutes before scheduled departure,” but as the Plattsburgh station offers no services it would not surprise me if some passengers arrive on the platform only 10-15 minutes ahead. For me, this itinerary would boil down to an 8:00 am departure from my house in Orleans and the promise of an early lunch in Plattsburgh, instead of dashing out of the door at 5:45 am headed to the Ottawa VIA Rail station.
The Plattsburgh station is adjacent to downtown and Google lists 19 restaurants within a half-mile. Long-term parking is not available at the station but the Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce confirmed on April 15, 2013, that parking is still free at the “downtown parking lot” at the corner of Durkee St and Bridge St, a half mile from the station and near many of the restaurants. I suggest reconfirming with the Chamber (518-563-1000) before going.
The Adirondack requires reservations. Rail tickets booked at http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak can be printed at home. Adult tickets one-way from Plattsburgh to Penn Station were priced at $72 for travel on Sundays and $65 for the rest of the week, when I checked on April 14, 2013. (Fares are the same from Montreal.) Some travellers qualify for discounts. For example, CAA/AAA members can get 10% off; seniors (aged 62+), 15% off; and children aged 2-15, 50% off.
According to the schedule effective April 7, 2013, the train leaves Plattsburgh at 12:35 pm and arrives at Penn Station at 8:20 pm. The sharp curves around lakes and mountains north of Albany limit speeds. The northbound Adirondack takes 45 minutes less, leaving Penn Station at 8:15 am and arriving at Plattsburgh at 3:12 pm.
Amtrak’s website has more information about the Adirondack. The schedule (effective April 7, 2013) is at: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/298/343/Adirondack-Schedule-040713.pdf A route guide that provides information about the historical significance of the cities and towns along the way can be read at: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/307/184/Amtrak-Adirondack-Train-Route-Guide.pdf
I hope this article is helpful. I would appreciate your comments if you ride the Adirondack. Please email them to DavidMcLellanATRogers.com. (Replace the AT with 1654@).
April 15, 2013