Travelling to NYC

This thread has been created to hold comments accumulating elsewhere on travel by air, rail or bus from Toronto to New York.  The discussion started with my observation:

By analogy, I offer my own recent flights to NYC which took about one hour flying time each way. They also included nearly two hours of “get to the terminal early for international security checks”, flight delays at both ends (the return trip was almost two hours late leaving), and delays on the tarmac to obtain a gate. We actually sat in EWR on the ground for almost as long as we had been in the air. The speed of the trip was better than driving, especially in the winter, but an elapsed time of 8 hours from arriving at YTZ to being out of the terminal at EWR is only slightly faster.

Translate that to the transit experience and you will see why I have a problem with folks who only look at the “whoosh” factor as a train speeds by people who used to board a bus a five minute walk from their homes.

25 thoughts on “Travelling to NYC

  1. Speaking of the “whoosh” factor of trains one cannot help but surmise that a decent train service between Toronto and New York would consume considerably less time that 8 hours, not to mention being a lot more comfortable.

    Steve: The “Maple Leaf” service from Toronto to NYC does not exactly “whoosh”. Southbound, it leaves Toronto Union at 0850 and arrives in NYC Penn Station at 2150 including three hours to get from Niagara Falls, Ont, to the point where one is leaving Buffalo, mainly for Customs & Immigration. Coming back, it’s a tad faster leaving NYC at 0715 and arriving in Toronto, at least on the schedule, at 1942 with a slightly shorter delay at the border.

    With those departure times — imagine when one has to be up to be at the railway station — and a 12 hour journey, the rail service has a hard time competing even when air travel is a mess.

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  2. Steve:

    The “Maple Leaf” service from Toronto to NYC does not exactly “whoosh”. Southbound, it leaves Toronto Union at 0850 and arrives in NYC Penn Station at 2150 including three hours to get from Niagara Falls, Ont, to the point where one is leaving Buffalo, mainly for Customs & Immigration. Coming back, it’s a tad faster leaving NYC at 0715 and arriving in Toronto, at least on the schedule, at 1942 with a slightly shorter delay at the border.

    I lived in Malaysia for 5 years and traveled to Singapore regularly. There are two land crossings between the two countries and a lot of cross border travel and the speed of the crossing for public transit and pedestrians is frankly amazing.

    The key requirement for bus passengers is that passengers must exit the bus, clear immigration to exit, wait for the bus, board the bus, cross the bridge/causeway, exit the bus, clear immigration to enter, and wait for the bus again. However it takes all of 10-15 minutes at each station (in the vast majority of cases).

    Train crossings are more convenient because the railway is Malaysian territory so exit formalities are done at the Woodlands border crossing in Singapore itself. Once entering Singapore many train passengers would take a taxi or bus to the nearest MRT station rather than continuing on to the railway station at the south end of Singapore (although the station closed a few years ago so all train trips terminate/originate at Woodlands now).

    I know that the Niagara Falls, Fort Erie/Buffalo and Windsor/Detroit crossings aren’t as busy as Johor – Singapore (although Windsor – Detroit is a good approximation) … but we can do a lot better facilitating public transit movements across borders.

    To compare…crossing the Canada-US border on the International took 1 hour-1.5 hours at each immigration post. Crossing the border from Malaysia to Singapore took 30 minutes (including 20 minutes waiting in line each at Malaysia and Singapore Customs & Immigration).

    Cheers, Moaz

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  3. Re: public transit and Canada-US border crossings, Transit Windsor actually runs a bus into downtown Detroit. It has been a long time since I’ve used it, but I recall it being an incredibly quick and easy way to cross the border.

    Taking the bus to NYC (which is quicker than the train last I checked), on the other hand, has been a customs nightmare the twice I have done it. We don’t lack the ability to make things painless, just the will to do it.

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  4. Ian Alexander said: Taking the bus to NYC (which is quicker than the train last I checked), on the other hand, has been a customs nightmare the twice I have done it.

    I’m going to be taking that trip next month … not looking forward to it.

    Cheers, Moaz

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  5. Moaz: since 9/11/2001, the US and Canadian governments have done their best to make border crossings slower and less convenient. It’s basically a policy choice. Of course they could do it quickly and efficiently like Singapore and Malaysia, but they choose to delay and hassle people instead.

    This serves no real purpose except to discourage international travel – it doesn’t catch any “bad guys” or anything – but that’s what we’ve been living with for the last 12 years.

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  6. And this is why I won’t be travelling anywhere to the USA anytime soon; NO ONE deserves to be treated like this when crossing the border. Also, my past personal history should have no bearing on my present travelling anyplace.

    If the USA and Canada want to catch terrorists, they both should make their intelligence services better, not harass people (and little children who are handicapped.) All this shows is that people have no way to deal with senseless tragedies like 9/11 other than to bring heavy-handed laws to deal with the aftermath of it.

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  7. I have generally had very good experiences flying from YTZ to EWR. One advantage is with having a NEXUS card to speed through customs on the US side. I travel with carry-on only as much as I can, so I can usually be off the plane, past the automated NEXUS/Global Entry kiosks and on my way to the train in minutes. The AirTrain to the NJ Transit rail station is usually pretty efficient and I get to Penn Station NY in under 30 mins if everything lines up. With Porter, the only tricky thing can be the weather since their planes aren’t able to fly above it. High winds can delay their flights on what would otherwise appear to be ideal flying days.

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  8. As someone who’s been to NYC many times, the fastest and most comfortable way to get to NYC is flying. Although it can be expensive and have flight delays, the point to point trip is almost always fastest. If you book early, I have often seen prices as low as $300-$330 for a round trip.

    That said, the next best route is driving to NYC in a personal vehicle. Leaving early in the morning, say 5am, one can be at the border by 6:30, cross the border in about 10-20 minutes (if you are a Canadian citizen). One can be in NYC by 1-2pm. That is about a 8 – 9 hour trip. To save money always fill up on gas in the US as it is a lot cheaper and carpool. Splitting the gas with family or friends makes driving quick economical. In the winter it can be treacherous, so I prefer to fly or avoid going during busy holiday times.

    Going to NYC by bus in my view is an uncomfortable and long ride. I’ve taken the night bus to NYC and that takes about 10-12hrs and one does not get much sleep on the bus with all the bouncing and shaking. It is cheap though. The cost can be as little as $1 but typically averages to about $150 round trip. I’ve never taken the day bus as my trips to NYC are typically for the long weekend so I prefer not to waste daylight hours stuck on a bus.

    As for the train, I don’t see the value of taking the train and spending an entire day on the train unless your visit is lengthy, say 1 week. The train is a milk run that is slow and wastes daylight hours that could be put to better use. It would be much better if they had a night train with sleeping cabins where one can leave Toronto at say 8pm and arrive in New York by 8am. I read before that this service existed before but was cancelled due to low demand.

    Steve: With the current border situation, it would also be tedious to be making the US to Canada crossing just as one was getting up in the morning. Going south, do you really want to be dealing with US Customs & Immigration who would probably be at the end of their shift?

    Coming from Europe, overnight trains are very common and are popular for short weekend getaways are you save time by travelling by night and maximizing the daytime hours spent at your destination. If a night train existed I think more people would be encouraged to take it. The other strange thing about the train is the cost. It’s prohibitively expensive to go from Toronto to NYC. A good price I’ve seen is about $300-$400. If this was a sleeper car, that would be ok, as it doubles as a hotel for the night. This cost is for plain economy seating. That’s on par with flying if one can get a cheap flight by booking early. This leaves zero incentive to take the train. I would be curious to find out Amtrak’s ridership numbers of how many people actually take the Maple Leaf service all the way from Toronto to NYC or vice versa.

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  9. VIA’s website show the ‘Maple Leaf’ arriving at Niagara Falls, ON at 1016, and departing Niagara Falls, NY at 1223… that’s two hours, not three. Still way too long.

    Given the US/Canada border has spots like this (or Google ‘Haskell Opera House’), I’m not even sure what the point of border controls is.

    In addition to the customs delays, the ‘Maple Leaf’ takes longer than driving (inp art) because it does an ‘L’ shape (east from Buffalo to Albany, then south to New York). The timings from Buffalo to Albany, and from Albany to New York are both competitive with driving.

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  10. Part of what bothers me the most is there were recent talks re the Montreal – New York train (Adirondack) about having US bound passengers clear customs in Montreal (in a bonded area at Central Station) before boarding. No mention was made of giving the same privileges to the train leaving Toronto. In the case of the Toronto-NY train, the whole train could be bonded after clearance pre boarding with one coach used in Ontario for “shorts”.

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  11. Who said the bus is faster. I took a trip to NYC last summer, I left Toronto at 5 am and didn’t reach NYC bus terminal till 8 pm. Going through customs was extremely long both ways but especially long coming back into Canada surprisingly. Let’s just say the five passengers that were sitting at the back of the bus never got back on.

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  12. This is definitely the major advantage of Europe, where for countries under the Schengen agreement there are no customs to pass through at all. A train from, say, Munich to Venice would pass through Austria en route and take 5-6 hours at most.

    Possibly the greatest feature of the train – and this even applies to old Viarail – is the lack of having to pass through any overzealous security, or even having to arrive early. I stayed in Innsbruck, Austria for several weeks a few years ago, and could readily hop on the train to Munich, Zurich, or Italy, all of which were at most two hours away. The only “customs” going to Switzerland amounted to some customs officers boarding the train at the border and inspecting a few (but not all) passports.

    If there’s any further point to make it’s simply that public transit – and *all* transit – infrastructure is unquestionably and vastly superior in much of Europe.

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  13. To follow up on Ian’s comment regarding the “Tunnel Bus” between Detroit & Windsor:

    The bus (which can be boarded in either Detroit or Windsor) stops at the customs plaza. Passengers exit the bus, enter the customs building and are cleared, after which they re-board the bus.

    Excepting any traffic backlogs at the border (out of the control of Transit Windsor), the whole process usually takes no more than 10 or 15 minutes.

    I work in downtown Detroit and have several co-workers who live in Windsor that take the “Tunnel Bus” bus daily. For them, it’s far easier (and less expensive) than driving across the border and paying for parking in Detroit.

    For tourists from Windsor (or other points in Canada) looking to use this as a gateway to Detroit and the US, be advised that public transit in Detroit is abysmal. I am fortunate that I am able to take one bus from home (in an inner-ring suburb) to downtown. What I can’t do, however, is deviate from my route to or from work, or plan to leave early (or arrive late) to accommodate appointments: there are five trips into downtown in the AM and five trips out of downtown in the PM.

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  14. The Amtrak Adirondack service (Montreal-Albany-NYC) is due to be handled by a Customs post at a dedicated track at Montreal Central in the near future, processing both arrivals into Canada and preclearing into the US. That will require deletion of the Canadian intermediate stop at St Lambert, similar to the lack of intermediate stops between Vancouver and Washington State on the Cascades route. The likelihood is that at least one more service (an extension of the Vermonter service currently terminating in St Albans VT) will be added when issues of track condition and agreements with CN over the train path from Cantic to Gare Central are overcome.

    The VIA97/98-Amtrak Maple Leaf *could* have a similar service if three things were to happen – the first would be a US preclearance facility at Toronto Island Airport which would allow shared use of US officials between YTZ and Union, the second would be construction of a dedicated secured platform for Maple Leaf (which would be hard to justify given the demands on Union space as it is) and the third being the deletion of all the intermediate stops. The uncertainty that the Welland Canal crossing introduces into on-time performance doesn’t help either. The cutbacks in rail service in Niagara also means that only one of the three trains from Niagara Falls NY to NYC can be connected to even by local rail and a short taxi ride.

    My perception is that the government of Canada and the province of Ontario don’t really care very much about transborder (or in Ontario’s case intercity) train service and will go along with whatever someone else wants to pay for. In Canada’s case the footdragging over Vancouver-border track capacity improvements and CBSA moneygrabbing in the run up to the Winter Olympics were disgraceful given that in the context of the Games budget the sums involved were not very big at all. One imagines even small changes to the status quo in the GTA (such as asking Amtrak to truncate Maple Leaf to Niagara Falls ON, extending the other two Empire Service trains there, arranging for a preclearance post and bus/rail connecting service to Toronto/Aldershot-SW Ont/Kitchener) would be met with some lobbying by the likes of Megabus whom the current lassitude likely suits quite well.

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  15. The train from Toronto is the third daily departure of the ‘Empire Service’ from Niagara Falls NY, and gets into NYC late. An option I have used several times over the years is to drive to Buffalo Depew (free parking) and get an earlier train. The first from Depew leaves at 4.46am and gets to NYC at 12.50pm, about 8 hours. A fourth train from Depew is the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago, (9.08am-6.35pm). Adult fare is currently $62.00.

    Such a trip is an adventure, and if you think of it as a waste of time, then fly. I once connected from the 4.46am onto a Florida train, which gets to Orlando a day later.

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  16. Isn’t Winnipeg next door to Detroit?

    Actually, most of the problems crossing the border with the US is because of ignorance by some members of Congress, who think Canada is some backward country. They don’t know where Canada is. Maybe thinking Canada is like Mexico. Including some Canadians, who think we directly elect the Prime Minister or the Premiers of the provinces.

    Steve: Er .. ah .. you are joking, yes? The greater Windsor tourism board is probably upset with the confusion.

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  17. In 2010 I took my boat down the US river system to the Gulf of Mexico and on to Corpus Christi. Crossing into the US in Michigan was no problem as I had purchased a cruising permit from Homeland Security. It took about 10 minutes for the agent to come and inspect our boat, take our passports and documentation back to her office, enter the information in the computer then come back with our custom clearance number. She told us if we were stopped by Homeland Security to give them that number and they could see when and where we cleared customs.

    In Galveston Bay we were boarded by a different branch of Homeland Security, there are 3 Branches. They asked to see our passports and documentation which we gave them. They wanted to know how we entered the US without having our passports stamped. Apparently they did not know they are not stamped at the Canadian border. I gave them our custom clearance number and they did not know what it was for. I told them to enter it into their computer and they would see when and where we crossed into the US. He then asked me what colour the agents uniforms were in Michigan. I said all black; the uniforms of the boarding part were black shirts and green pants. I was then informed that their computers would not talk to the other group’s computers.

    They then asked what station I had crossed at. I told them Drummond Island Michigan. Forty minutes later they said they had been calling the station but no one answered. As it was the week before Christmas I said it was probably closed for the winter but it was a sub station of Sault Ste. Marie Michigan and that my agent’s last name was Horton. (She reminded me of the Dr. Seuss book.) After 2 hours and 40 minutes they finally contacted the Sault, and got agent Horton to confirmed our legal entry into the US. It is a wonder that anything gets done correctly.

    While in Washington 4 months later a motorcade went by with at least 4 different types of police cars. I muttered under my breath “how many police forces do they have here?” A woman behind me with a Homeland Security badge said that there were 57 federal agencies with their own police force plus the DC Metro Police department. She then told me that Pennsylvania Ave. had either 3 or 4 different police agencies responsible for it. The DC police did the road, the Secret service the land between the sidewalk and the White House and the National Park Police for the park on the other side of the street. I can’t remember if there was a fourth department for the sidewalks. You apparently cannot be arrested by any department unless you are standing in their jurisdiction. It is no wonder that the US has such a deficit since each group needs to do everything on its own.

    This past summer I cruised in Northern Lake Michigan and the US side of Huron. As it was very windy I kept my large Canadian flag tied up. When the winds finally calmed down 2 weeks later I untied my flag. We were boarded by Homeland security 15 minutes later. This year I am not flying my Canadian flag in US waters.

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  18. If you wanted to have Toronto-New York trains precleared in Canada then I think that the dedicated secured platform should be built at Bathurst Yard. This is not a very good location for commuter trains but long distance rail travellers won’t care. Since the train wouldn’t stop between Toronto and Niagara Falls, NY, passengers coming from points in between would take a GO train to Niagara Falls, ON and then a shuttle bus across the border to Niagara Falls, NY. In order for this to be useful I think you need two projects: build a new rail crossing (probably a tunnel) along the Skyway Bridge so that trains do not have to go the long way through Hamilton, and build a new crossing over the Welland Canal; both projects would be expensive, and would also be used by GO trains that stop in east end Hamilton and Niagara Region.

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  19. Andrew said:

    In order for this to be useful I think you need two projects: build a new rail crossing (probably a tunnel) along the Skyway Bridge so that trains do not have to go the long way through Hamilton, and build a new crossing over the Welland Canal; both projects would be expensive, and would also be used by GO trains that stop in east end Hamilton and Niagara Region.

    I suppose that in a far future with an electrified GO train network such a tunnel to Hamilton East might be combined with an wholesale redevelopment of the Hamilton waterfront into something post industrial and people friendly.

    In the nearer future I’m curious to know more about plans for all-day rail service to Niagara Falls … other than Glen Murray’s announcement last year. I’ve heard nothing.

    Cheers, Moaz

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  20. Regarding stopping for customs at the border (& the inherent delay/inconvenience), Vancouver to Seattle on Amtrak works wonderfully – U.S. Customs clears everyone at Pacific Station in Vancouver, then no stops until the train is stateside. (same thing coming back, except Canada Customs of course)

    Too bad such service doesn’t exist at Union Station – an express train (dayliner or overnight) with minimal stops (major centres only) might actually become viable.

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  21. Interesting thread. But also depressing because it reminds me that we’re not gonna see any high-speed rail in my lifetime.

    Steve: There is far more to be fixed with rail passenger service than the provision of high speed lines, especially for a once-a-day train across the border.

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  22. W.K. Lis:

    Actually, most of the problems crossing the border with the US is because of ignorance by some members of Congress, who think Canada is some backward country. They don’t know where Canada is. Maybe thinking Canada is like Mexico. Including some Canadians, who think we directly elect the Prime Minister or the Premiers of the provinces.

    That, and the fact that many of them believe that because the terrorists came through Canada, Canada has a porous and crappy border, therefore there can no longer be an undefended border because Canada can’t be trusted. I would love to see the USA again, but not like this, so as I said, the traveling to the USA is over for me (even not having a criminal record isn’t worth the hassle.)

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  23. I agree that US and Canadian border guards have something up their ass and can be a pain. As someone of East Indian decent, I don’t think I’ve ever been profiled, but I also try to show up having shaved and I’m always polite and smile and don’t look like a hobo.

    Beyond that, if you want to get through customs fast, get a NEXUS pass. It boggles my mind how few people have them. I’ve had mine since 2008, at the time it was $50 and I can’t count the number of hours it has saved me going through US immigration at Pearson and then the priority lane for security after. It’s a bit more now, but seriously, if you go to the US even once per year for 5 years, I assure you it will pay off.

    Steve: This sort of advice works well for airports where each traveller is controlling the length of their trip by eliminating or reducing queuing for customs. However, on a train, the clearance is only as fast as the most difficult of all of the passengers. Pre-clearance, either at the boarding point, or as a rolling operation while approaching the border, is the only way to decouple travel time from border time.

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  24. What Neville said. Last summer I just went to Montreal on ViaRail for about $35 each way and avoided all the customs and airport bother. Enjoyed it more than NYC too.

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  25. Having travelled extensively in Europe, as well as between Canada, the US and Mexico, I can vouch for the US and Canadian border processes being the most tedious and cumbersome among developed countries, including Russia and Belarus. However, an hour or two to enter the US or Canada on land doesn’t compare with the 12 hours or more that I saw on the Polish/Ukrainian border (the latter of these does not count as a developed country).

    My impression is that in North America there is a vast “security” industry which sucks mightily on the government teat, an integral part of the military-industrial complex so accurately identified by President Eisenhower 53 years ago. This is a culture suffering from terminal overdose on cost-plus contracts, to the point it has to buy technology from Russia (and Ukraine!) to launch most of its space surveillance hardware. It spends billions on “border security”, both in the US and in Canada, for what? In the meantime, Schengen works, with no checks whatsoever, and bordering Schengen it’s not that bad (apart from basket cases such as Ukraine). There is no reason why a Schengen-style agreement cannot be implemented between the US and Canada, other than that a huge sucking machine would lose its teat.

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