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Trip Report


Transcontinental Los Angeles to New York via Canada
Southwest Chief, International, Maple Leaf, Empire Service

February 12-20, 2001
Section 2 of 3

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International

It's 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2001, and I've just arrived at Chicago Union Station, where I will be boarding Train #364, the International, on my way to Toronto, Ontario. I arrived yesterday from Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief and stayed overnight with my cousins Debbie and Aaron. This morning, I got a ride to the Edgebrook Metra station with friends of my cousins, and I boarded the 8:00 a.m. Fox Lake train, scheduled to arrive in Union Station at 8:27 a.m. Upon our arrival at Union Station, essentially on time, I walked over to the general departure lounge for Amtrak trains. (Although I had arrived yesterday on the Southwest Chief in a sleeper, which entitled me to use the Metropolitan Lounge upon my arrival, today I would be traveling by coach.)

Usually, this lounge is extremely crowded, with hundreds of passengers waiting for the departure of their trains in the late afternoon and early evening. But this morning, it is virtually empty. I counted only 30 people waiting for trains at this hour of the morning, when few Amtrak trains depart from Chicago. One nice thing about this station is that all of the public phones have been upgraded to include jacks for modems. I needed to send out some important e-mail, and this proved to be a great convenience. I also made a few phone calls.

At about 9:15 a.m., a general boarding call was made, and I went over to Track 16, where our train was ready for boarding. Today's International is pulled by engine #515, formerly painted in the "Pepsi-Can" scheme but now repainted in Amtrak's Phase IV scheme, and includes only three cars -- coach 34098, coach-baggage car 31036 and dining car 38025. The appearance of a diner on this train is rather unusual, since it does not feature full-service dining, but merely snack and beverage service. There is also no reason for a coach-baggage car to be on the train, since no checked baggage is handled. Obviously, this is a low-priority train for Amtrak, and it is assigned whatever spare equipment is available. To the best of my knowledge, this is the shortest Superliner-equipped train that I have ever traveled on. Although the use of Superliner cars on this train has been criticized by some rail passenger advocates, who believe that they should be assigned exclusively to long- distance trains, the very spacious and comfortable seating that they afford is much appreciated on this train, whose Chicago-to-Toronto run extends for over 12 hours.

As a through passenger to Toronto, I was assigned to sit in the rear coach. After taking a picture of the train, I walked through both coaches, and noted that there were about 25 people in each car. I found a seat near an electric outlet so that I could plug in my computer.

We left on time at 9:30 a.m. and proceeded through the rather ugly industrial South End of Chicago. On the scanner, I heard a defect detector announce that we had 16 axles on our train. That was quite a change from the Southwest Chief which, due to the numerous freight cars on the rear, had as many as 116 axles for much of the trip! Our first stop was Hammond-Whiting, Indiana, at 9:58 a.m. About ten passengers boarded the train here. Soon, at Porter, Indiana, we left the east-west Norfolk Southern line and turned north on the ex-Michigan Central line heading towards Kalamazoo. This line (from Porter to Kalamazoo) is now owned and operated by Amtrak, with four daily passenger trains in each direction, it being the only major piece of track operated directly by Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor. It features pleasant, semi-rural scenery, with many interesting and historic stations.

An announcement was now made that the cafe car was open for service. Initially, there was a long line, but when the line subsided, I walked back to get breakfast. Dining cars, of course, are not designed for the selling of snacks and beverages, and there is no counter behind which the attendant can stand. So the attendant used the middle of the car as a serving area, and blocked off access to the rear of the car (where the conductors set up shop) with two plastic boxes. Three of the eight tables in the front of the train were used to display the condiments and other items available for free, leaving five tables for use by passengers. The attendant, who wore a VIA uniform, told me that Amtrak usually assigns a Superliner coach-cafe car, with a food- service area on the lower level, to this train, but that on occasion a dining car or a Sightseer lounge car will be substituted.

For breakfast, I had a bottle of orange juice, a cup of coffee, and a bagel with cream cheese. I sat down at one of the tables (the car was otherwise unoccupied at this point), and read the morning's newspaper.

During breakfast, we passed through Michigan City, Indiana. Although our train does not stop here, one train in each direction does. Michigan City features a very attractive historic brick station, but the station has been converted to a restaurant, and Amtrak passengers are relegated to a small plastic Amshack.

I noticed that a number of segments of the right-of-way along this line were fenced with rather unattractive chain-link fencing that appeared to have been installed rather recently. Apparently, this is part of Amtrak's program to upgrade this line for higher-speed trains. The effectiveness of the fencing is rather limited, since there are numerous grade crossings, and anyone who really wants to walk onto the right-of-way can still easily do so. The fencing, though, does detract from one's enjoyment of the scenery.

Our next stop was Niles, Michigan, where we arrived at 12:08 p.m. Eastern Time, having crossed into the Eastern Time Zone when we entered Michigan. The Niles station is a magnificent stone edifice built in 1891, and still used by Amtrak as a manned station. The building appears to be in excellent condition, and the conductor explained that part of the station serves as a ticket office/waiting room, while the remainder is used by Amtrak's maintenance-of-way crew. Although our stop lasted for only two minutes, the conductor told several passengers that they were welcome to step off the train and smoke a cigarette on the platform (since smoking is not allowed on board the train). Of course, I also got off and took several pictures. A few passengers boarded and detrained here.

After passing several other noteworthy station buildings, including the one at Dowagiac, also served by only one daily Amtrak train, we arrived at Kalamazoo at 12:51 p.m., six minutes early. This gave me plenty of time to step off the train, take a few pictures, and walk inside the station. About a dozen passengers got off here, and a few passengers got on. Kalamazoo features a beautiful, sprawling brick-and-stone station, which also must be over 100 years old. It is still used by Amtrak, and the large interior space also houses a local bus company and a small restaurant. Unfortunately, the modern partitions installed in the interior of the building are not in keeping with its historic character, although the original wooden ceiling and benches do remain. North of Kalamazoo, the tracks are owned by Norfolk Southern rather than Amtrak.

At 1:17 p.m, just south of Springfield, Michigan, we slowed down to pass the southbound Twilight Limited from Detroit. Then, we switched over to the Grand Trunk line and, at 1:25 p.m., we pulled into the Battle Creek station. We were nine minutes early, and an announcement was made that passengers were welcome to detrain for a few minutes if they so chose.

The Battle Creek station is quite a contrast to those at Niles and Kalamazoo. Unlike those stations, which are built in a classic, decorative style, the Battle Creek station -- designated a transportation center, since it also serves buses -- is of ultra-modern design. It features a sloping roof and round columns, with a large concrete expanse in front of the building. One's overall impression of the place is so startling that it looks like it came straight down from the moon! There is not even a sign with the name of the station outside on the platform.

After taking a few pictures, I walked inside the building and made a few phone calls. The architecture of the interior is just as strange as the exterior, with the seating consisting of circular black-cushioned couches, with their backs covered with a type of corrugated sheet metal. Overall, this is one of the most bizarre Amtrak stations I have ever seen!

A final boarding call was made about 1:31 p.m., so I returned to the train and reboarded. The conductor mentioned to me that the old Grand Trunk station still stands about half a mile down the tracks, and I watched as we passed by this beautiful brick-and-stone building, which features two decorative towers. The old station seems to have been beautifully restored and now is being used for some private purpose. It is quite a contrast with the new transportation center!

I then walked through both coaches and counted about 25 passengers in the first coach (including four on the lower level) and 40 passengers in the second coach. On the seat checks for passengers traveling to destinations within the United States, single-digit numbers were used to indicate the passenger's destination (rather than the three- letter code normally used), and the seat checks for passengers traveling to Canada were marked with a single dash.

At 2:01 p.m., we came to a halt in the middle of some fields. On the scanner, I heard the dispatcher telling us that there were several freight trains ahead of us. Almost immediately, the conductor made an announcement on the loudspeaker as to the reason for our delay. We waited for over ten minutes for a freight train to pass us on a siding to the right, and finally, at 2:16 p.m., we resumed our journey on this single-track railroad, having lost over fifteen minutes waiting for this freight train. We have been early arriving at the last two stations, but we will probably be late at every station from now on.

I now decided to move into the dining/cafe car, where I could spread out some papers on one of the tables. (Although Superliner seats are very comfortable, it's nice being able to sit at a table as a change of pace.) Soon, we passed a defect detector, which announced "no alarm." This is the term used in Canada for what would be termed by American railroads "no defects." Since the Grand Trunk railroad is part of the Canadian National system, the Canadian terminology is now being used. Another change I noted was that our Amtrak train is now designated by the CN dispatchers as #88 (with the southbound train being #85). The conductor explained that all CN freight trains are assigned three-digit numbers, with passenger trains being given two-digit numbers.

At 2:52 p.m., we arrived at the East Lansing station. This is a modern concrete building, with a wooden-frame front, located in front of a cinder-block warehouse. (The location is not quite as bleak as it sounds, as Michigan State University is located on the other side of the street). Again, I stepped off the train, along with several people who wanted to smoke. Quite a few people were waiting to board not only our train, but the westbound Train #365, scheduled to depart at 2:45 p.m. (and also running a little late). The conductor had told me that 32 people, all headed to Canada, were scheduled to board the train here, and the boarding passengers were assigned to sit in the first car, where there was more room. Due to the large number of boarding passengers, our stop lasted for four minutes, even though we were running late. When we departed at 2:56 p.m., we were 21 minutes late, most of the delay having resulted from our wait for the westbound freight train.

Our train moved forward only slightly, then stopped in order to trigger the signals at the adjacent grade crossing. We then proceeded ahead for a short distance, and again came to a halt. This time, we had to pass two trains on a siding -- first, a freight train, and then our westbound counterpart, Train #365. The westbound International was pulled by engine 510 and included coaches 34026 and 34087 and coach/cafe car 35002 -- the type normally used on this train. After we finally resumed our eastward journey at 3:04 p.m., I walked through the first coach and counted 45 passengers aboard that coach -- a net increase of 20 passengers since our previous stop. There are now a total of about 85 passengers aboard the train. We continued through a rural agricultural area, with the ground covered with a light coating of snow.

Our next stop was Durand, where we arrived at 3:30 p.m. Only a handful of passengers boarded here, and the stop lasted for only a minute, but the friendly conductor permitted me to get off and take a picture. Durand Union Station is a real beauty. This brick-and-stone building, with a peaked roof and circular towers, is situated right on a diamond, with the station designed to serve both railroads. Although it is no longer staffed by an agent, the waiting room is open for Amtrak passengers. The remainder of the building houses the Michigan Railroad Museum, and an historical plaque is located in front of the structure.

It would have been nice if we had arrived here a few minutes early so that I could be afforded the opportunity to explore this fascinating station a little more closely, but under the circumstances, I considered myself fortunate to be able to step off the train here at all!

When we departed Flint, I took out a salami sandwich that I had brought with me and went back to the cafe car, where I purchased a can of root beer and a bag of potato chips, and sat down at my table to eat a late lunch. At about 3:50 p.m., we came to a halt again. The conductor explained to me that I was in for a "treat": the two main tracks that we ordinarily would have proceeded on were occupied by freight trains, so to "expedite" our train's passage, we would be running parallel to the main tracks on a yard lead. After a switch was hand-thrown, we proceeded very slowly along the yard lead for a few miles (the rule being that you must be able to stop the train at any time if some obstruction comes into view). It took us 25 minutes to proceed through the yard, which ended at the former location of the Flint station (now razed), where the yard lead is converted into a main track, and we could proceed ahead at normal speed.

We didn't have very far to go before we reached the new station at Flint, our next stop, where we arrived at 4:19 p.m. Again, I briefly stepped off the train while a handful of passengers detrained and a similar number boarded. The current Flint station is constructed of stylized concrete blocks in what I would term "Amshack-style" architecture -- a boxy, unadorned design, with an overhanging roof, similar in concept to the stations in Rochester, Richmond, Miami and Minneapolis (although considerably smaller than those stations). The station is located adjacent to a large bus garage, which features the same unattractive architectural style. When we departed at 4:21 p.m., we were 46 minutes late, having lost another 25 minutes due to our leisurely sojourn through the Flint yard.

An announcement was made that the cafe car would close after our next stop, Lapeer, so I brought all my belongings back to my seat. I also stepped off the train during our brief stop at Lapeer at 4:40 p.m. The Lapeer station is an historic frame structure -- the first such station building that I've seen along the route of our train. It is painted gray and appears to be in good condition. Although unstaffed, the waiting room is open for Amtrak passengers. The station also is used as a meeting place for the local train club, and three cabooses, painted in the colors of three different railroads, are on exhibit on an adjacent side track.

Although the timetable allows nearly one hour and 20 minutes for the trip from Lapeer to Port Huron, our final stop in the United States, the conductor assured us that it should take us only 50 minutes to get there, the rest being make-up time. In fact, it took only 46 minutes for us to reach the Port Huron station, where we arrived at 5:27 p.m. - - just 12 minutes late, due to the make-up time built into the schedule.

I stepped off the train and walked over to the station -- a small, modern structure, built out of cinder blocks and faced with stucco. A slanted roof does give the building a little character, though. I attempted to make a phone call, but the only public phone was located outside of the station, on the platform, and right next to the engine. The noise of the engine would drown out anything heard over the phone, though, so I quickly gave up. I stepped into the rather austere looking station, took a picture, and got back on the train.

I returned to my seat and turned on my scanner. Soon, I picked up a conversation on Channel 87, used by VIA. The question was presented as to whether we can accept standees on board a VIA train. The answer was that VIA's official rule probably is not to take standees, but that it is hard to turn them away, and that one possible solution is to permit these passengers to board but not collect their tickets. If a definitive answer were needed, the questioner was told to call VIA's head office in Montreal. Then I heard that we will be having 40 standees on the train tonight! That should be interesting, as ordinarily there are three coaches on the train, and reservations were probably taken on that assumption. On the other hand, it would seem that the tables in the dining/cafe car could be used as revenue seating if necessary, that certainly being preferable to requiring people to stand!

About 5:50 p.m., an announcement was made that all passengers should return to their seats and remain there, so that a head count can be taken. This was followed by the statement that within an hour, the train will become sold out -- thus confirming what I had heard on the scanner earlier.

Although the Amtrak conductor had indicated to me that the train need not spend any significant time at Port Huron if it is late in arriving, we actually spent half an hour in Port Huron, and did not pull out of the station until 5:56 p.m, twenty-one minutes late. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that we pushed out of the station. Port Huron is now a stub-end station, requiring all trains to back in or out. It seems that the track in front of the station used to lead directly to the tunnel under the river connecting Port Huron with Sarnia, Ontario, but that historic tunnel -- built in 1891 and commemorated on several plaques now attached to the exterior wall of the station -- was replaced several years ago by a new tunnel with a higher clearance, and the old tunnel is no longer used. The tracks leading to the new tunnel are just to the north of those ending at the station, and it would seem that a direct connection could easily be constructed that would eliminate the necessity for the back-up move, but I presume that this would cost some money that neither Amtrak or VIA nor CN is willing to spend to accommodate the one passenger train a day that uses this station. So, for now, our train has to back up in order to leave the station.

We reached the end of our short back-up move in only two minutes, but then I heard on the scanner that we would be held ten minutes for a westbound freight train passing through the single-track tunnel. While waiting for the westbound to pass, the VIA service manager came by to collect tickets. Several years ago, VIA abolished the position of conductor on passenger trains, with the engineer being the only operating member of the train crew, and thus having sole control over the actual operation of the train. The conductor was replaced with the service manager, who assumed all the passenger-service-related functions of the conductor, but does not control the operation of the train (except to radio the engineer that all passengers have boarded and that he may proceed ahead).

I asked the service manager whether the train would fill up at Sarnia, and he replied that a number of passengers will be boarding at Sarnia, and that the train will become oversold at London (where we are scheduled to arrive at 8:00 p.m.). I suggested to him that the extra passengers be accommodated at the tables in the dining/cafe car, and he replied that this would be done, but that even so, some passengers would have to stand. We'll have to see what materializes.

The wait for the westbound train ended up being far longer than the ten minutes predicted. After half an hour, the service manager announced that the freight train had gone into emergency inside the tunnel, and that a "task force" was investigating the situation and trying to determine what happened. Since this was the only way of getting into Canada, we would have to wait for this problem to be resolved. Well, it doesn't look like we will be arriving in Toronto anywhere near on time tonight! But I'm seating comfortably in my Superliner coach, with plenty of room to work, and with my computer plugged in. I don't have anywhere in particular to go tonight, so it doesn't really matter if we get to Toronto a little late.

We waited and waited, with no further announcements. Nor did I hear any informative comments on the scanner. (I presume that the may have been some communications on a channel to which my scanner wasn't programmed.) Finally, at 7:04 p.m., a westbound freight train began to pass us to the left. The train proceeded very slowly, and not until ten minutes later did it clear the switch over which we had to proceed, permitting us to move ahead. We had waited for one hour and 15 minutes for the tunnel to be cleared of the westbound train!

Almost immediately, we entered the tunnel, and within three minutes, we were through the tunnel and into Canada. We arrived at the VIA station in Sarnia at 7:18 p.m., one hour and 21 minutes late. The Sarnia station is a classic brick building, with a sloped roof and decorative wood trim. Here the Canadian customs agents boarded the train. The customs inspection went rather quickly, with most passengers being merely asked whether they were bringing in alcohol, tobacco or firearms. Other than a man sitting across from me who was an Israeli citizen, I didn't see anyone asked for their passport, and no one's baggage appeared to be inspected. Nor did I see anyone taken off the train. The customs inspection took only 25 minutes, and at 7:43 p.m., customs released the train, and the waiting passengers boarded. There were about 40 people who boarded at Sarnia. Amazingly, the boarding process took only three minutes, and we departed the Sarnia station at 7:46 p.m. We had spent only 28 minutes there, instead of our scheduled dwell time of one hour, so we were now only 49 minutes late.

All passengers boarding in Sarnia were directed to my coach, which already was more than half full. I removed my backpack from the adjacent seat, and a woman who boarded in Sarnia sat down there. She was traveling to Toronto for the weekend, along with three companions. They all live in Michigan, but chose to board the train in Sarnia, thereby avoiding the long delays built into the schedule between Port Huron and Sarnia. Due to the crowded condition of the train, the four of them were unable to find seats together, and had to sit separately in single seats.

We proceeded ahead a short distance, but then we stopped and backed up. It seems that we had to switch over to a different track, and the switch was west of where we were located. Then, after a further delay, an announcement was made that we were waiting for VIA Train #83 to arrive, and that that train had precedence over us since it was running on time (it is scheduled to arrive in Sarnia at 8:19 p.m.), while we were late. The VIA train finally passed us at 8:11 p.m., and we resumed moving two minutes later. Around this time, an announcement was made that the cafe car is now open for service.

We stopped briefly at Strathroy, which has only a small shack to shelter waiting passengers, at 8:43 p.m. When we departed Strathroy, I walked through both coaches, noting that only a handful of seats in our car were unoccupied, and relatively few seats were available on the upper level of the first coach. However, only two of the 12 seats on the lower level of the first coach were occupied. Then I retrieved another sandwich that I had stored in my luggage and brought it to the cafe car, where I purchased another root beer and sat down to eat. I noticed that the various condiments had been consolidated onto one table, leaving seven open tables in the section of the car open to passengers. I also saw the service manager help out the cafe car attendant in filling orders -- something that an Amtrak conductor would rarely think of doing. Soon, the service manager came over to the passengers sitting at the tables in the cafe car and asked everyone to return to their seats so that the seats in that car could be made available to the passengers boarding at London.

At 9:05 p.m., we arrived at the station in London. Since it was dark, it was hard to see what remained, but the London station was imploded several weeks ago, with videos of the event being publicized on the Internet. (From what I understand, the building that was imploded was an architecturally undistinguished modern building that will not be missed.) At least 40 or 50 passengers boarded here, and our stop lasted for four minutes. Many of the passengers were directed to the cafe/dining car, where they were seated at the tables. When we departed London at 9:09 p.m., we were one hour and nine minutes late.

I now returned to my seat and did some more work on my computer. At 9:39 p.m., we made a very brief stop at St. Mary's which features a classic brick station that still appears to be staffed by an agent. Then, at 9:56 p.m., we stopped at Stratford, where one passenger got on and six got off. Stratford has a classic brick-and-stone station, which is staffed by an agent who was on duty when our train arrived. We could have left a minute or two after we arrived, but instead we waited here for ten minutes, apparently to allow a westbound train to clear the track ahead of us.

I dozed off for a little while and then got up and walked through the train. Virtually every seat in the two coaches was occupied, including those on the lower level of the first coach. I then went to the cafe car, where I obtained a cup of tea and a Danish and sat down at a table. About 20 people -- mostly high- school students who had boarded in London -- were sitting at the seven open four- person tables in the front of the car, although the rear section of the car was still unoccupied. Since there was no place to put any luggage, the students' belongings were placed in the aisle, and you had to walk around them to get to the service counter.

At 10:37 p.m., we stopped in Kitchener, which also has a classic brick-and-stone station staffed by an agent. Several passengers boarded here, and since no seats were available in the coaches, two girls sat down at my table (now filling all four seats). I remained at my table for another few minutes, then walked through the coaches again and returned to my seat.

Soon, we began to pass through the picturesque town of Guelph, We slowed down considerably while going through Guelph, where the rail line at one point runs down the middle of a street. Guelph also has a beautiful stone-and-brick station, still open when we arrived at 11:01 p.m. About a dozen people got on here, and a few passengers got off. Among those detraining were several students who were sitting in the dining car. They had to detrain from the second coach. At 11:03 p.m., two girls started walking down the stairs in my coach. A few seconds later -- before they had a chance to detrain -- the train started moving. Luckily, the service manager was able to have the train stopped after we moved only a few feet, and the girls were able to get off.

Prior to our arrival in Guelph, an announcement was made apologizing for the lateness of our train, and stating that all passengers were entitled to a 50% travel credit for their next trip on VIA within the following six months. Well, it seems to me that if that is what VIA is offering, I should also get a credit -- or, to use the American terminology, a voucher -- from Amtrak. This would compensate me not only for the lateness of today's train (which really means rather little to me), but also for several aspects of the much longer trip from Los Angeles to Chicago which I was not completely satisfied with. I didn't feel it fair to demand a voucher for the rather expensive Los Angeles-Chicago trip in a sleeper, but a voucher for the shorter, less expensive Chicago-Toronto trip would be fair compensation under the circumstances. So I think that I will request one.

Our next stop was Georgetown, where we stopped briefly at 11:27 p.m. Georgetown has a very attractive stone station. Georgetown is the end of the line for a branch of GO Transit, the local commuter rail operating authority, which operates four daily round-trips during rush hours from Georgetown to Toronto. In the yard adjacent to the station are stored a number of bi-level sets of GO Transit commuter equipment. We are now only about 20 miles from Toronto, well within the range of suburban commuter service. Then, ten minutes later, we stopped at Brampton. Here quote a few of the students got off. The classic brick station, adjoined by a large parking lot for commuters, was closed at this late hour.

As we approached our final destination, Toronto Union Station, an announcement was made that VIA's Train #50 to Montreal, scheduled to leave at 11:30 p.m., would be held for the arrival of our train, and that passengers would be able to transfer to that train across the platform. Train #50 provides overnight service between Toronto and Montreal, and was reinstated last year after having been discontinued for many years. This train has a rather leisurely eight-hour schedule to Montreal -- a route that is covered by other trains in only five hours -- so a delay of half an hour or so can easily be made up.

We finally arrived at Toronto Union Station at 12:09 a.m., one hour and nine minutes late. I detrained and noticed that Train #50 was not across the platform, but rather in front of our train and on the same track. I walked down the platform to get a better view of the train. At the end was dome-observation car Banff Park, followed by sleeper Chateau Levis and coach #4121, which appeared to be quite full. There were other cars which appeared to be coupled in front of the engine, and I did not find out why this was done (presumably, a set of equipment had to be deadheaded to Montreal). In any event, this was a magnificent train, and VIA is to be applauded for restarting this service, for which there is clearly a demand.

I continued down to the lower level of the station, where my cousin Dov met me and drove me to his home in northern Toronto.

Today's ride on the International was a very enjoyable experience. The United States part of the ride was made even more pleasant by a conductor who not only went out of his way to permit passengers to detrain briefly at each stop -- even when we were running late -- but also took the trouble to talk about details of the operation of the train. The Canadian part of the ride was very different, since it was dark and the train was much more crowded. But the Superliner equipment on the train made the ride far more comfortable, even though I had someone else sitting next to me for our four-and-one-half-hour journey from Sarnia to Toronto. I'm very glad that I took this trip by train, and am looking forward to next Monday's trip on the Maple Leaf.

Continued in next section

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