Amtrak Adirondack Returning to the RailsWritten by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
Amtrak’s New York City-Montreal Adirondack train, the only Amtrak service that was discontinued because of the COVID virus, is finally coming back. Its first northbound run from Penn Station New York will take place on Monday, April 3. Southbound service from Montreal will start the next day, Tuesday, April 4. Montreal and the communities in Upstate New York on the train’s route are the last Amtrak stops to get their service back.
The schedule will be different from the pre-COVID schedule, a result of which several commentators blame the poor state of the railroad on the Canadian side of the border. The new northbound schedule (Train 69) calls for a departure at 8:40 AM; 25 minutes later than the pre-COVID schedule, and arrival at Montreal at 8:16 pm; 65 minutes later than the prior departure time, for a net increase of 40 minutes in running time. The scheduled running time from Rouses Point on the border to Montreal is 3:43; 37 minutes longer than the prior schedule. In both cases, that includes time for customs and immigration inspection, although there are plans to move those functions into the Montreal station, as is done at Vancouver for trains to and from Seattle. The new southbound schedule (Train 68) calls for a departure from Montreal at 11:10 AM; 50 minutes later than the prior schedule, and arrival into New York at 10:15 PM; 85 minutes later than the prior schedule, for a net increase of 35 minutes in running time. The train is scheduled to leave Rouses Point at 2:10 PM, with 70 minutes’ standing time for customs and immigration. The initial one-way end-to-end fare is now set at $70; $63 for seniors and persons with disabilities.
Without the train, most of the communities on the route had little or no alternate transportation. Saratoga and Fort Edward are on the route of the Ethan Allen Express, which formerly terminated at Rutland, Vt., but which was recently extended to Burlington. That route branches off from the Adirondack route immediately south of Whitehall. There are no intercity buses serving Whitehall, Ticonderoga, Port Henry or Westport. The train used to serve Port Kent, south of Plattsburgh, when a ferry ran across Lake Champlain to Burlington, but the ferry has been suspended, and so has the Port Kent stop. Buses between New York and Montreal stop at a convenience store about two miles from downtown Plattsburgh, but the train was the only direct link from elsewhere to Plattsburgh’s downtown area. There is limited local bus service between Plattsburgh and Rouses Point on weekdays, but not on weekends.
I used one of those buses to visit the Plattsburgh and nearby towns last summer, including taking the local buses to Rouses Point and other places in the vicinity. Many of the “locals” expressed their desire to have their train back, and said they were eagerly waiting for that to happen. It has been a long wait, as Ryan Finnerty of North Country Public Radio reported from Plattsburgh on May 4, 2021: “Passenger train service between New York City and Vermont is slated to resume later this summer, but North Country residents will have to wait.” He also reported that Gary Prophet, President of the Empire State Passengers Association (ESPA), “expects that passenger traffic on the line will recover quickly once service resumes. He noted that ridership has already recovered substantially on the longer-distance, non-commuter lines that primarily serve recreational travelers catching a train from places like Western New York.”
That was almost two years ago, and today, stories from local media are significantly more upbeat in reporting that the train is returning to service. On March 12, Saratoga’s paper, the Saratogian, reported that elected officials including New York’s two Senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (both Democrats) and local House member Elise Stefanik (a Republican) had announced the train’s impending return. The report said, “All ABOARD for the Capital Region and North Country economies!” (emphasis in original) and continued: “In FY2019, the last full fiscal year before the pandemic impacted the State of New York, Amtrak’s Adirondack line had 117,490 riders, a 5.1% increase in ridership compared to FY2018. The rail service also provides tourists traveling from economic centers such as New York’s Capital Region, New York City and Montreal with access to the North Country, boosting the region’s economy.” Four days later, Samantha House reported for the Syracuse Post-Standard, “All aboard! An Amtrak train ride that traverses the Adirondacks while connecting New York City to Canada is making a post-pandemic comeback.” Her headline: “Amtrak’s beloved Adirondack route from NYC to Montreal is coming back.”
Advocates like Prophet are glad to see the train coming back, but Prophet himself had some concerns, which he expressed to me. He said that the late arrival in New York would hurt connections for passengers going further south, which could also hurt ridership on the train generally. The late arrival at Montreal would be problematic too, because it would be after dinnertime for most people, after an all-day ride on the train. He said, “Our main concern is to get a customs facility in Montreal Station. That would cut the time by 1½ hours.” The new schedules call for end-to-end running times of 11½ hours northbound and 11 hours southbound. If those runs could be sped up as Prophet claims, future running times would be ten hours or less. In summary, Prophet said, “We’re pursuing bringing back the connecting bus to and from Lake Placid and pushing for faster service into Montreal.”
Connections are essentially non-existent under the new schedule, which would only be useful for travel between the immediate New York area and the immediate Montreal area, both with their local transit. Prophet expressed his hope that the connecting bus that ran between Lake Placid and Westport will return soon, but other connections are gone. The ferry that ran between Port Kent and Burlington is a thing of the past. Prophet reported that the boats have been sold, but Amtrak extended the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington last summer, so Vermont’s biggest town now has direct rail access again.
More important, though, it is impossible to take a VIA Rail train to Montreal, the Adirondack to New York, and another Amtrak train south from there, all on the same day. The reverse trip is impossible, too. While it is possible to take the first train on VIA Rail from Ottawa or Quebec City to Montreal early in the morning on weekdays (but not on weekends) and catch Train 68, it arrives in New York too late to make a connection even as far south as Philadelphia. There are connections on New Jersey Transit, but not for anywhere south of Trenton, unless one takes SEPTA. Going north, it is possible to catch Amtrak Train 170 on weekdays or Train 150 on weekends and connect with Train 69 at New York. By the time it arrives in Montreal, all VIA Rail trains have already left. There is an early bus from Boston and Springfield that would connect with Train 68, but nothing going to New England after Train 69 arrives at Albany. There was never a connection from the Lake Shore Limited (Train 48) to Montreal, but it worked the other way at Schenectady on Train 49. That will no longer be the case, as the connection time will be reduced to a risky 55 minutes. In effect, the Adirondack route will not make useful connections.
So the last hole that the COVID-19 virus had punched in the Amtrak network will soon be plugged. It will again be possible to take a train from New York City to the quaint and scenic communities in the Adirondacks, along the historic Delaware & Hudson line (now part of Canadian Pacific and in the process of becoming part of the new CPKC), or to Montreal. It will again be possible to view the mountains from the left side of the train or Lake Champlain from the right side. It will also soon be possible to take the reverse journey, from Montreal, Plattsburgh, or a small Adirondacks town to New York City. The schedule will be longer than in the past, and going anywhere from New York or Montreal on another train will require an overnight stay. I don’t know how much the Adirondack might be improved in the future, but essentially everybody missed it while it was gone and is glad that it will come back soon.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also Chair of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.