Mo & Terry Smedley
Cochrane, Ontario to Toronto to New York City
Lots of narrative and observations follow - you can skip to the pictures below if you suffer from adult attention deficit disorder.
We left Cochrane on Monday morning, riding the Ontario Northland Railroad's "Northlander" to Toronto. This is a fascinating train journey, because you start out the day in a remote, sparsely populated region of Northern Ontario and end up in the largest city in Canada. It was interesting to study the changes we passed through on the trip. Vegetation started with miles of muskeg, then Northern evergreen forest, followed by agricultural land, then increasingly dense residential areas, finally ending in the urban-industrial areas of Toronto. Changes in people and their appearance were also interesting - the day started with mostly Cree Indian passengers, many of whom had started their journey the previous day in Moosonee or Moose Factor Island (see yesterday's trip log). As the day progressed, the passengers became mostly white, and at some upscale communities South of North Bay, the designer clothes started showing up. For fun, I also made a few notes about the "perfume factor" - no perfume detected between Cochrane and North Bay, perfume and blonde hair started showing up (along with the desginer fashions) south of North Bay. However you look at it, this was a remarkable journey across the widest range of cultures, peoples and vegetation that I have experienced within a single day's rail travel.
After an overnight in Toronto (again at the Royal York hotel), we boarded Amtrak's "Maple Leaf" for the day-long trip into New York City. This trip was a contrast between some of Amtrak's worst and best features. There were issues with the food service - food quality was abysmal (plastic-wrapped fast food only, served up soggy in its own juices from the microwave), and as we've noted before the cafe car quickly runs out of food (especially the better choices). There was an unfortunately common attitude problem with the food car attendant - it was impossible to get through a meal transaction without receiving a lecture of one kind or another. Operationally, Amtrak is at the mercy of CSX on this route, and we experienced a two-hour delay between Rochester and Syracuse due to freight congestion and track work. That coupled with a one-hour delay clearing customs in Niagara Falls put us into New York City about 3 hours late, just minutes before 1 AM. So what's the good news? Once our train hit Albany and got on the Northeast corridor tracks, which are owned and operated by Amtrak rather than a freight railroad, speeds picked up markedly. I clocked (using GPS) our train running consistently between 90-100MPH between Albany and New York City. And on this section, freight trains go "in the hole" for passenger trains, so there were no delays of any kind once we left Albany.
Once we arrived at New York's Penn Station at 1AM, we walked right across the street to our hotel, the Affinia Manhattan on 7th Avenue and West 31st. The hotel accommodations were quite good, and included a full kitchen - which seemed a little odd for a Manhattan hotel. We spent the day exploring midtown on foot. We first walked up 7th to Central Park, and we enjoyed a very pleasant couple of hours exploring the Park. We got as far North as the Reservoir, which is more or less at 90th, so we put a few miles on our feet! On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral (where we listened to the majestic pipe organ), Radio City Music Hall, and Grand Central Station. We also stopped at Trump Tower (OK - we stopped there just to use the restrooms), and we saw Mr. Trump himself coming out of the restaurant. In fact, we were able to overhear a critical business conversation - I believe it went something like "Good job in there today, Brian". In any event, he looks in person just like he does on TV.
After dinner in the hotel dining room, we walked back up 7th Avenue to the Ambassador Theatre, where we saw "Chicago", featuring Usher in the role of Billy Flynn. We've seen "Chicago" several times, but this was the best performance by a long shot. Bianca Marroquin, who played the part of Roxie Hart, was especially strong, as was Brenda Braxton in the role of Velma Kelly. Usher was a real crowd pleaser, and played a remarkably strong part, given that we saw him on only the second night of his first Broadway appearance. What surprised us most was how small the theatre was. Tiny is the only word I can think of - there was virtually no lobby space, and only about 20 rows of seats on the main floor. We had near-perfect seats - center section, third row. We've never been that close to performers before - it was very exciting to be something like ten feet from the front of the stage where we could watch every nuance of their performances.
We walked back to the hotel after "Chicago" along Broadway and 7th Avenue, stopping for a little of the Times Square spectacle. There were throngs of people (tourists) everywhere, and we felt perfectly safe navigating that area of town at 11PM. Thursday morning, we walked back to Broadway to take a peek at the Ed Sullivan Theatre (David Letterman), Hello Deli, and stopped to gawk at the eight floors of shopping at Macy's in Herald Square.
We boarded our commuter train to Exton, Pennsylvania at a very crowded Penn Station shortly after lunch. Between New York and Philadelphia, our train was running between 110 and 125MPH most of the way. This is all corridor track, owned and operated by Amtrak. What a difference it makes to be running on track managed specifically for passenger transport! Baggage was something of an issue on the commuter train, and I was soundly lectured by the conductor for not being able to get all of our luggage off the train as fast as he would have liked. Of course he was not willing to help at all, only to offer me a lecture - this, too, is something of an unfortunate Amtrak trademark. We may have more of that problem tomorrow when we board a SRO commuter train back to Philadelphia, and another into Washington, D.C., where we'll board our overnight train for Chicago in the afternoon.
In Exton, we spent the evening with Gloria Stormes, whom we met on our American Orient Express trip some six years ago. Gloria and her youngest son Chris treated us to a wonderful dinner in their home town of West Chester, and after dinner we strolled through the town's main street shops. We've kept in touch with Gloria by letter and e-mail since we met, but haven't seen her in six years. It was wonderful to catch up with her again.