For those of you who might not know, “Amtrak” is the VIA Rail of the United States. In fact, ever since 9/11, Amtrak has become the VIA Rail of Canada as well, at least on the runs from Toronto to New York, Montreal to New York, and Vancouver to Seattle. The Toronto-New York line, called the Maple Leaf, runs through Niagara Falls on its way to NYC, so when I booked my round-trip VIA Rail jaunt from Toronto to Niagara Falls, I ended up on an Amtrak train.

The cars on the Maple Leaf run are generally older, which means the individual seating area is larger than on the newer Renaissance cars on the Ocean (the VIA Rail route that runs between Halifax and Montreal). The seats are cushier as well, and the ride is much quieter and much, much smoother than on the new and newish short-haul commuter trains running the rails in Southern Ontario and Quebec. It could just be that the track between Toronto and Niagara Falls is smoother than the other tracks, but I don’t think so. The newer train cars, just like the newer buses, are less about comfort and shock absorbers and more about cramming in as many paying bodies as possible. As a nod to a bye-gone era, each seat on the Maple Leaf cars still has ashtrays (now welded shut, lest anyone be tempted) and a white disposable doily on the headrest that gets changed with each run (or at least I hope it gets changed with each run).

I like the old Maple Leaf cars. I like how the luggage rack overhead is one long berth-like row instead of individual compartments. I think you can fit more things on top, and you can see your stuff as you roll along. I like keeping my eye on my stuff. It helps to remind me to take it with me when I go.

I’m on the Maple Leaf now, heading back to Toronto from Niagara Falls. As the train was pulling out of the Niagara Falls station, a canned announcement informed us that the wifi only works in the US, but it worked long enough for me to send three emails that I’d been waiting to send all day. Finding wifi was a full-time job in itself in Niagara Falls. I was told that MacDonald’s had it, so I took a half-hour bus ride there and conscientiously bought some “food” so I could use the wifi (just like I always buy a few timbits if I use the restroom at Timmies – fair is fair). Unfortunately, I could barely get online (it was, bar none, the slowest Internet I’ve ever used), so I couldn’t send the documents I’d wanted to send. Thanks to Amtrak, they’ve now been sent, so all’s well that ends well.

Something else that is different between Amtrak’s Maple Leaf cars and the VIA Rail Ocean cars – there’s no space between the seats on Amtrak. On the Ocean cars, you can peek through the gap between the seats and see what your neighbours in front and back of you are up to. Sometimes you can read along with them or watch the video they’re watching or even get in on their conversations, but you can’t do that on the Amtrak cars. I’m thinking maybe they specifically move the seats closer together when they know I’m going to be on board, you know, because of all the complaints. Or maybe they’re just always close together like that.

I was on an Amtrak train from New York to Charleston last year (the Palmetto). I splurged and bought a business class ticket because it was on sale and was actually cheaper than the coach class ticket, so I guess technically it wasn’t really a splurge, but in any case, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, even if I really had to splurge. For most of the 13-hour trip, I was the only one in the car, and there was so much room between the seats that even if you stretched your legs way out, you still couldn’t kick the seat in front of you. You also got complimentary drinks and a newspaper. Free is good; high quality for cheap plus freebies thrown in is even better.