The Man With a Train in His Basement
January 10, 2013 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Jason Schron loves VIA Rail trains so much that he built a full-size replica of one of their cars in his basement. "His first memory is being lost, at age 2, crying on a Toronto-to-Montreal VIA Rail passenger train. That’s when the obsession began. 'For me, being on the train is … this wonderful cozy comfy space, especially when the weather is terrible outside; it’s sort of this microcosm of comfort,' he says." P.S. It's worth checking out Schron's YouTube video tour embedded in the first link: The Guy With a Train in His Basement.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (65 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
That is incredibly cool.
posted by The World Famous at 1:39 PM on January 10, 2013

I adore this. So cool.
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:41 PM on January 10, 2013

When I was young, I used to get the cardboard-cutout trains that VIA handed out to kids. Don't know if they still do that (I hope so). So much fun.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:44 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

this guy likes trains
posted by growabrain at 1:45 PM on January 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

This really is glorious nerd week, isn't it?
posted by maudlin at 1:46 PM on January 10, 2013

Of all the things to build - a VIA train. I honestly thought that no one really loved VIA like that.
posted by GuyZero at 1:48 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Train To Nowhere by Savoy Brown.
posted by fairmettle at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

His first memory is being lost, at age 2, crying on a Toronto-to-Montreal VIA Rail passenger train. That’s when the obsession began.

Childhood trauma leads to adult fetish? Whodathunk?
posted by Thorzdad at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Most excellent TMTOTH.
posted by Melismata at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2013

Kind of a cool documentary about the train he has replicated, the CN Turbo Train (1) and (2)
posted by KokuRyu at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love that he doesn't seem to treat it like a museum piece; it's meant to be enjoyed. His kids must have a total blast in there: "His children punch tickets, and his daughter especially loves wheeling the beverage cart down the aisle" (from the Star article).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd love to hear the geek-fest conversation you'd get by putting this guy in a room with the British man who converted his entire apartment into the bridge of STNG's Enterprise.... think of the building tips and hints!
posted by easily confused at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is wonderful. There really is something about settling down in a seat on a train, especially on intercity routes.
posted by carter at 1:59 PM on January 10, 2013

The Via Rail train we took from Montreal to Halifax and back was excellent. Love this guy's project!
posted by maggieb at 2:04 PM on January 10, 2013

I was hoping for LRC, but I guess Turbo Train will have to do.
posted by ckape at 2:18 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I quite like trains and I would travel by train preferentially over plane (though I LOVE flying) -- but VIA/passenger trains in Canada in general have some serious problems. Very expensive, not many places it goes -- and getting stopped for ages to let a freight train go through.

But we still need to bring back trains. Planes are terrible for the environment and we really should avoid flying whenever possible. Flights from Toronto to Ottawa, Toronto to Montreal, even Toronto to NYC - these should all be replaced by high speed trains. (Yes, Toronto is the centre of the universe and probably should be the hub for every train EVER. I like the Beijing-Toronto-Shanghai run myself).
posted by jb at 2:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

When I was 11, we took the train from Vancouver to Toronto at Christmas (1967-8). It took three days and three nights. The outside of the cars were shiny stainless steel, and the inside of each car had its own flavour - some combination of wood, metal and probably cigarette smoke. The dining car had real silverware and linen tablecloths, and the staff were always polite, even to us kids. Mostly we ran back and forth from one end of the train to the other (which is where the politeness comes in). We slept in fold-down beds in a berth, and ate in the dining car. The part that sticks with me is going from car to car while crossing the prairies. It was -35 F outside, and the little area between cars was covered in frost. You could go from one car to another without freezing, but you could feel the cold wind from below, see the frost, and smell the ancient diesel. At night you could look out the windows and see miles and miles of cold, dark land. That's my idea of Winter. Once we lay under the seats in the observation car at night and watched the stars go by.
posted by sneebler at 2:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [21 favorites]

About 30 years ago, I planned a vacation around Via Rail. At the time I lived in Boston, and I took a jet to Toronto and caught a train to go to Vancouver. I had a sleeper because it was going be three nights.

The high point of the trip was going to be going through the Rockies, but I didn't get to see that part. The rail workers went out on strike, and the train stopped in Calgary. I'll give Via credit: they gave me a jet ticket to Vancouver.

The problem was, I arrived a day early. Fortunately, the hotel where I had reservations came up with a room for me.

But the whole thing left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I do have to say that the rest of the train trip was pretty neat, though Saskatchewan and Manitoba were flat and featureless.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:20 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in to share my hate for trains (yeah, you, Amtrak!). Until I saw this guy's replica. Very cool.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:25 PM on January 10, 2013

If you think that Amtrak is run on a shoestring budget, VIA makes their funding look outright lavish by comparison.

A fairly substantial portion of Via's passenger railcars were built in the 1940s (with one currently-inactive car dating from 1939). Their engineers and mechanics have gone through what can only be described as heroic efforts to keep them preserved (and in surprisingly good condition considering their age). They're currently completely overhauling their small fleet of Budd RDCs, the majority of which were retired and scrapped by other railroads many decades ago.

When VIA's supply of usable WWII-vintage railcars finally started dwindling in the early 2000s, they purchased a mothballed fleet of partially-built sleeper cars from 1992 that were originally intended for a never-implemented Eurostar sleeper service. As no other railroads were interested in the aging and mostly-unfinished shells, VIA got a great deal, and hastily converted many of the cars to 'normal' coaches.
posted by schmod at 2:37 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

That is awesome stuff. There are also model RR nerds who build scale replicas of particular rail lines (with some allowances for length). Then they run trains on them to the exact schedules of historical timetables (modulo the changes in length, obviously). Some of them are amazingly detailed: down to the switching in the yards and everything. The level of fidelity is astonishing.
posted by jquinby at 2:39 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't forget: January 11, 2013 is NATIONAL HUG A RAILFAN DAY
but not too tight, cause I want to show you this full O-scale downtown-depot scene I built...
posted by bicyclefish at 2:41 PM on January 10, 2013

I don't know why trains are so much more romantic than almost any other form of travel. But they sure are. I envy the heck out of this guy.

South Coast Plaza in Orange County used to have a restaurant called 20th Century Limited that was a couple of train cars, in the middle of the mall. It sounds kitschy as hell, but it was actually really elegant. You would walk into a big dark room, and there would be these train cars sitting there. Once you were "aboard," the vibe was more Orient Express than Amtrack. The dark outside the windows made it feel like you were on a midnight adventure through a foreign land. It was a rare instance when Orange County ostentation was actually done right.

Years after I moved away, I went back to the mall one afternoon and I was appalled and amazed to discover that the restaurant was gone. How could anything that awesome, that right, that necessary, ever close?

I despised almost everything about my childhood, but I'd give almost anything for one more club sandwich aboard the 20th Century Limited.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:50 PM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's no good unless he's selling cans of pop and packets of crisps for $4 each. That's the real VIA experience.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

A wonderful post with wonderful comments. Thanks to all.
posted by gilrain at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2013

I am trying to use this to convince my wife I am allowed to have another synth.

"I haven't built a goddamn basement train!"
posted by smackwich at 2:56 PM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Of all the things to build - a VIA train. I honestly thought that no one really loved VIA like that.

Somewhere out there, VIA Rail is doodling hearts and kisses and joining their name to this guy's on a timetable, all the while blinking back dreamy tears through Keane-painting eyes.
posted by Kitteh at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Having lived off and on in Japan over the past 17 years, I've ridden in my fair share of trains. The three memories that stick out the most for me would be:

1) Taking local trains from the Ibaraki-Fukushima border all the way to the Japan Sea Coast, north of Kyoto. It took about 16 hours and I must have taken 6 different trains.

2) Traveling up the Japan Sea Coast between Niigata and Yamagata at sunset. The rail line is cut out of the living rock in some places, so you look right out over the sea. I remember stopping a small station next to a temple, and a father playing with his kids in the temple playground at dusk.

3) Waiting for a train at Tsubata, just north of Kanazawa. The snow was falling and was deep on the ground, and the December sumo tournament was playing on the television in the small waiting room.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:08 PM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was just looking up VIA schedules for a friend visiting in the summer. To get from Toronto-Calgary-Vancouver involves min 3 days trip from Toronto to Edmonton then a coach ride down to Calgary and a coach to Vancouver. The only trains to Vancouver are the tourist sightseeing trains. For this, she can spend close to $1k, or she could fly with WestJet and get there the same day for less money.

Just amazed that there's not more of a connected rail system here. In fact, more rail everywhere please.

This guy? Love it.
posted by arcticseal at 3:24 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is the best thing I have seen in ages! I love this!
posted by parmanparman at 3:31 PM on January 10, 2013

Our family took one cross-US train trip on Amtrak back around 1990, starting with the Albany-Chicago leg where you had a Pullman-style two-berth compartment and left at around 10 at night. As I was tucking my son into the upper berth, the train started pulling out of the station. "Dad," he said, "this is GREAT" — a statement, not an exclamation, with more conviction in the word "great" than I've ever heard from anyone. It made the whole trip worthwhile.
posted by beagle at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I took VIA from Kamloops to Vancouver about 15 years ago (typically a 5 or 6 hour drive by car). The train left Kamloops at about 11PM at night, and it was pretty fantastic waking up at Hope at dawn (this would have been late August) and traveling along the lush greenery that lined the Fraser River.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

(sigh) Of course he's not single.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:33 PM on January 10, 2013

arcticseal: If you stay on that train in Edmonton it'll continue through Jasper and then to Vancouver. Not the same ride Chocolate Pickle attempted (you won't go through Calgary, Banff, etc) but similar.

But yes, the only trains from Calgary are tourist trains to Vancouver. One day in the next few decades we'll get trains to Edmonton again, but cross-country trains are not returning here any time soon.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:50 PM on January 10, 2013

Thirding (or fourthing) high-speed rail in Canada. I would love a trip from Montreal to Toronto, or Montreal to NYC that would take less than six hours (11+ if it's the latter route, currently). Also, given that so many people where I live make the 100K drive to Montreal all the time, I would not be averse to high-speed rail in all over Quebec.
posted by Kitteh at 3:59 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was 11, we took the train from Vancouver to Toronto at Christmas (1967-8). It took three days and three nights.

Sneebler, I just did this, from Toronto to Vancouver, and got back yesterday. It still takes three days and three nights. The cars are the same, beautiful 1950s stainless steel. Same observation cars with the same domes. The dining car still has linen and real silverware. You can still feel the frost between the cars, you still see the same endless pine trees, all night and all day and all night again just trees and trees and trees until almost Winnipeg, the same snow-covered lakes and rivers criss-crossed by trails of deer footprints, the same farms and hills and valleys and frozen rivers and towering mountains, but mostly I feel that same cold icy black outside, empty rock and tree and plain illuminated by the train's headlamp and every ten minutes, a bright green signal, slowly approaching, flicking to red, and quickly disappearing back into the dark. The faded sun hanging low in the sky to the south, so so low even at the height of the day, shining sideways into the car and strobing through the trees, and then gone, the universe recedes until there is nothing but the black sky and rhythmic hum and the inky blur of snowy evergreens and you and your thoughts. Time passes but doesn't, you sleep but don't dream, it's a strangely liminal in-between place, and when you arrive on the other side you know you have passed through something, and maybe even something important has happened to you, but it's hard to put into words exactly what it is. You think about your ancestors who rode this track, you think about the industries and infrastructure in these far away frozen dark places that so many of us depend on, maybe you think about the people who lived here one hundred, two hundred, two thousand years ago. Maybe you understand Canada in a way you didn't before.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2013 [26 favorites]

The one difference is that in the old days the cross-country trains took the CP route, and now they take the (less scenic) northern CN route through the rockies. Hence the tourist-only trains from Calgary.
posted by maledictory at 4:47 PM on January 10, 2013

(Okay, it's probably not like real real silverware. Poetic license. It's a proper restaurant experience though.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:48 PM on January 10, 2013

I'm going to go listen to some Tragically Hip now, PercussivePaul. That was awesome.
posted by The World Famous at 5:06 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Naw, you need to listen to the Rheostatics while reading PercussivePaul's comment.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:09 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would add one or two things to this project:

A track/motion simulator, so the car rocks back and forth and makes gentle train track noises and motions like it's moving.

A high definition video screen outside the car so you can load up video of any of the hundreds of full length train trips filmed by railfans and posted to YouTube, so you can watch the scenery roll by.

Well, three things. After that I might move in and use the crazy thing as my home.

One of the things at the top of my list of things I'd do if I ever won the proverbial lottery is buy/lease a private train passenger car, outfit it as a rolling apartment and studio and have it hauled all over the US and live in it for a year or more. Apparently private passenger rail cars is a thing you can do.

As I understand it you more or less pay for your passage as freight based on the weight, plus any water, power or other services you may need. I think you can even lease sidings or storage tracks in yards if you want to stay put somewhere for a while.

Yeah, sure, I could just get an RV or converted but then I'd actually have to drive instead of watching the scenery rolling by for hours or weeks on end. And a train car is much, much larger than most RVs and can handle larger weights. Plus train tracks run through some amazing scenery you can't get to via RV-accessible roads.
posted by loquacious at 5:11 PM on January 10, 2013

Much as I have every reason to despise Ayn Rand, the start of Atlas Shrugged has a bit about trains that I can't help but love. Every time I look out a train window at the rails of the next line over, at the the glistening steel, fixed and unmoving against the blurred terrain, I'm filled with a certain sort of awe that I don't find anywhere else. I might not have noticed that if not for her. She had terrible ideas about society, politics, philosophy, economics and human beings in general, and she expressed them poorly, but if she did nothing but write about trains I would remember her fondly.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:11 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know why trains are so much more romantic than almost any other form of travel.

I have an idea why this is true for me. Backpacking through SE Asia, I took an overnight train from Vientiane to Bangkok. Trains are big enough that you don't feel like you're inside a vehicle, but small enough and connected enough to the passing landscape that you don't feel separated from it. My favourite moments on that train were early in the morning, with the car door open, smoking a cigarette as the suburbs of Bangkok whizzed by at 60kph.

Just amazed that there's not more of a connected rail system here. In fact, more rail everywhere please.

The economics of trains for passenger lines require population density, which is, like, the opposite of what we have in Canada.
posted by fatbird at 5:12 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

As I understand it you more or less pay for your passage as freight based on the weight, plus any water, power or other services you may need. I think you can even lease sidings or storage tracks in yards if you want to stay put somewhere for a while.

Apparently they even have rail sidings with utility, phone and broadband connections for railcar residents. Or so I heard somewhere.

On the down sides, rail yards probably aren't ideally located for residential purposes, and then there's the question of securing your stuff when you're in a siding on the rough side of town.
posted by acb at 5:18 PM on January 10, 2013

It's a proper restaurant experience though.

If anyone ever finds themselves on a long haul Amtrak trip, do not turn your nose up at the dining car. Compared to the food prices and quality in the cafe/snack car it's a goddamn bargain and worth every penny because it's real food that didn't look/taste like it came from a cheap convenience store.

In fact, last time I did it it was actually basically the same price per the amount of food/calories you could get from the cafe/snack car.

They generally do group seating so that if you're a single or couple you'll be seated 4 to a table with strangers, but that's fine. Most people who ride Amtrak for fun are interesting, pleasant people.

And there's just something really nice about having a proper hot dinner with real utensils, plates and waitstaff service while the scenery rolls by outside, especially after you've been on the train for hours/days. It's casual but very civilized and refreshing and more nourishing than just the calories themselves.

So when the conductor or attendants come through taking reservations for the dining car and you're feeling tired and peckish - say yes. I used to always say no because it seemed like it would be a rip off like the cafe/snack car, but, no, they actually serve real food up there and unless you're springing for a sleeper car berth it's going to be the only truly civilized moments of what is often a trying and taxing train journey in the cheap seats.

Now if they just had an open-air caboose or viewing platform where you could have a smoke and a drink at the same time...
posted by loquacious at 5:21 PM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I took a sleeper car across country with my dad for my first day of college. It was great because we could bring as much baggage as we could carry between us, and the food in the dining car was included and just as good as loquacious says.

I've never taken the train since, though. Every time I've looked into it, it was significantly cheaper to fly.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:32 PM on January 10, 2013

I don't know why trains are so much more romantic than almost any other form of travel. But they sure are. I envy the heck out of this guy.

I'm not terribly into trains as a thing, but I love locomotives, especially steam. There's just such of a sense of massive power to them. They're some of the largest machines that normal people ever get to see; there are much larger ones in remote areas, digging up whole mountains and stuff, but in regular life, a train engine is one of the most powerful machines you'll ever interact with.

If you're in California, you can see a monster old 4-8-8-4 steam engine in the Sacramento Railroad Museum. The driver wheels are about six feet across, and the whole thing weighs about 300 tons. It's not operable anymore, but the museum says there's no reason why it couldn't be, if anyone wanted to restore it that far. And they have at least a couple of smaller engines in active use. I think one of the 'live' ones is a 4-4-0 American class, which are really gorgeous. You'll know one when you see one -- they're the iconic example of a steam engine.

If you have any interest in the Age of Steam, that museum is a great place to visit.
posted by Malor at 5:42 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

In August 2012 I took a short rail trip from Bratislava to Brno with three colleagues of mine to see the Gregor Mendel there. I'll always remember that trip, even though it was only a few hours. My wife and I have taken Amtrak from New Orleans to Washington, DC, as well as VIA from Montreal to Quebec City, and I've been fortunate enough to take trains in Australia and some of Europe. Put me firmly in the pro-trains camp.
posted by wintermind at 6:19 PM on January 10, 2013

Neat. One of my early memories is of Amtrak (I guess? What other train would I have been on between SF & Portland in 1966 or '67?) -- specifically the crazy-scary space between cars with the accordion thingy. It took some guts for 4 or 5 year old me to step out onto that swaying plate between cars & I can still feel the motion. The clattering noise & the smell stuck in my mind as well. Nothing else smells like a train. Everything on those old trains was (or seemed) chrome silver, & I was just agog at all the wild machinery, especially the sliding doors, which I recall giving my mother some difficulty. The dining car was absolutely the height of luxury that I had attained at that point, I I just wanted to go back there the whole trip, & get the little cereal boxes. We walked through sleeper car to get to the diner each time & I recall being intensely jealous of the people who got to travel in their own little kid-forts, and treasured each glance I could get into an open door at what seemed like a perfect kid's paradise. I could have just hung out on that train for weeks and been happy -- it was pretty wondrous, despite that scary spot between cars.

I certainly don't begrudge this guy his passion, & I can understand how it would become one. Trains are fascinating machines, with an interesting history. I don't guess I've been on a train in 40 years now, but I still yearn to get on one & go, just so I can walk between cars on my way to the diner.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:53 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Amtrak (I guess? What other train would I have been on between SF & Portland in 1966 or '67?)

Well, Amtrak didn't exist before 1971. Southern Pacific had West Coast passenger services before Amtrak.
posted by junco at 7:15 PM on January 10, 2013

He needs to have some cockhead sitting next to him listening to their ipod through those shitful fucking earbuds, while a woman opposite calls her best friend to talk about her day.
posted by mattoxic at 7:39 PM on January 10, 2013

More tips for cheaper Amtrak travel and touring, especially west of the Rockies where riding Amtrak is not a viable city-to-city transport like it is in the east:

1) Amtrak has a rail sale page somewhere where you can get tickets super cheap as long as you're not particular about your time or destination. I don't know about now but I've seen some ridiculously cheap ticket prices for long haul stuff like Seattle to Chicago for $10-20, as opposed to hundreds.

2) Also if you're on one of their long haul routes that has a sleeper car - you can upgrade to a sleeper car on the train even if you just have a coach ticket. Make friends with the conductor (and don't annoy them while they're actually working at stops or ticket checkpoints, wait for downtime) and then ask about upgrades. There is a standard price but from what I've heard there is the option and possibility of severely discounted sleeper car upgrades at the conductor's discretion if it's a particularly empty or unbooked trip. I think they might even pro-rate it based on how many hours you actually check in for, because (I think) you can basically book a sleeper for any given segment of a route.

3) There are also different local, regional and nationwide passes. For a while there was a 30 day nationwide pass for about $500. California has or had a 7 day pass for $99. Make sure you read the fine print, as some of these passes have a weird stipulation like you have to ride a particular route at least once. For the nationwide pass I saw at the time at least one segment of your 30 day trip had to be in Canada on a Via line, but you can basically cross the whole country several times in 30 days, so passing through Canada isn't that big of a deal even if you start in Florida or LA.

On one of my train rides I met an older fellow who was on a 30 day pass and just riding for the heck of it as a vacation. He planned on ending his route at the Kentucky Derby. He was also occasionally upgrading to a sleeper when they were available, and was the person who first told me about the sleeper upgrade options and how they could sometimes be cheaper than list, especially if you counted the gratis dining car access.

One of these days I'd really like to do a 30 day pass. I like the idea of being able to get off at any stop and then take the next train in a random direction, or just pass back and forth over a particularly pretty area so I can see it a few times before moving on. You could fairly easily do resupplies for food at larger stops, or stop somewhere for cheap camping and a shower, or upgrade to a sleeper for a small segment for the shower and flat bunk to recharge before going back to coach.

I would do even do the same thing on Greyhound - and I actually like Greyhound - but Greyhound would be much, much more grueling. I don't think I could last 30 days on Greyhound without significant layovers and reduced actual travel time. Also, every damn Greyhound station in the whole network is usually in the wrong part of town, making resupplies or layovers much less replenishing or sustaining.
posted by loquacious at 8:39 PM on January 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Like, 24 hours on Greyhound is as much wear and tear as 48-72 hours on Amtrak. I've traveled on foot or bike some pretty serious distances and Greyhound is the only mode of transportation I've experienced where I've ended up walking around in torn pants, shorts or other clothing and just not giving a fuck at all, because I'm not changing in the "toilet" on the bus or the station bathroom is just too gross. No matter how good or short the trip is you just end up dirty, sweaty, disheveled and smelling funny.

As bad as Amtrak can be it's luxurious, downright pleasant and hygenic compared to Greyhound.

I'd still attempt 30 day Greyhound tour if I could afford it. It's a hell of a way to actually see the US and meet the real people who live in it - specifically because most of their stations are in the wrong part of town. There's been a bunch of times where I wished I could just keep riding with someone interesting I just met on a leg or transfer. It'd be cool to be able to actually follow them to their destination to meet their folks or friends or such for a day or so and then keep moving.

Heh, I think I need a road trip. Gettin' antsy.
posted by loquacious at 8:53 PM on January 10, 2013

God, that's awesome. I basically live on New Jersey Transit so I don't need a train car in my basement at this juncture - and let's be real, if I had to choose one it wouldn't be NJT - but I totally get the appeal. And a personal, benignly-wacky project executed so perfectly is always a joy to behold.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2013

COOL! I wish I had a full-sized airplane cabin in my basement so I could play flight attendant. I could even play an Air Canada flight attendant and get surly with my imaginary passengers. "NO Mr. Bear, no headphones for you! They're $5 by credit card only now SIT DOWN!"
posted by 1000monkeys at 9:27 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would you settle for playing a Pan Am attendant instead, monkeys?
posted by ceribus peribus at 9:48 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The economics of trains for passenger lines require population density, which is, like, the opposite of what we have in Canada.

The very successful 621km AVE line from Madrid to Barcelona connects cities totalling around 12 million people.

A line running Hamilton-Toronto-Oshawa-Kingston-Ottawa-Montreal would run around 625 km and would connect cities totalling around 11.9 million people.

Yes, once you've connected Quebec to Windsor, and connected that line to Chicago via Detroit and to New York via St Catherine's and Buffalo, and connected Vancouver to Seattle, there's not a lot of opportunities left. But just because we can't build it everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't build it anywhere.

But man, the train is so fuckin' civilized. I'm going to Washington DC tomorrow from Calgary, and rather than connecting from Newark to BWI as Air Canada suggested, I'm taking the train down from Newark to Washington. Imagine; comfortable seats, no jackboot security, and when the ride is done I'm right in the middle of Washington, with an easy Metro connection to my hotel. The connecting flight to BWI would have put me landing in BWI at the same time, which is sort of in the middle of nowhere.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:42 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I take VIA from Toronto to Ottawa (and sometimes to Montreal) at least once a year and love it. It's about twice the cost of driving (alone), but far more enjoyable. It's about half the cost of flying, but takes three times as long. For me, it's the perfect balance.

I don't know if I'd be able to sit through a cross-Canada trip though. I imagine the romance wears thin after hour 48 in the same chair.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:52 PM on January 10, 2013

Europe has a fairly well developed rail network, quick and cheap. Going loafing around the continent by rail one summer is almost a rite of passage here, aided by the availability of the InterRail Pass. One price gets you tickets for all trains in Europe for a fixed period (some restrictions do apply).

Most of the young people with backpacks you see around Europe in the summer travel like this.
posted by Harald74 at 11:53 PM on January 10, 2013

I don't know why trains are so much more romantic than almost any other form of travel.

It's because there's just so much about trains to love. The motion, the incredibly evocative sound of a train's whistle, the traditions and long history, the higher level of comfort than is found in any other mode of public (and most forms of private) transportation, the wonderful scenery.
posted by orange swan at 11:55 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I was a freshman university student, before I could afford my own car, I took the VIA trains up and down the Toronto-Windsor line at least once a month. It was the most comfortable form of transportation: cushy upholstered bench seats that rivaled those of touring buses, gliding along on smooth rails instead of uneven pavement, with a gentle rocking motion. So much more civilized than commuter trains, and for a kid heading out of town for the weekend it suited my needs just fine.

Now, I would love to take the train again back and forth between Toronto and NYC. However last time I checked, the Amtrak "Maple Leaf" route:
  • is more expensive is not cheaper than flying. Provided the tickets are bought far enough in advance, it was kind of a wash. Last minute train tickets are about one third cheaper than a last minute flight, though. Additional airline weight/bag fees could potentially make the flight significantly more expensive.
  • takes much longer than flying. Even taking into account getting to/from the airport, getting through customs, airport security, weather delays, and reclaiming checked baggage, the train was longer. The station to station time is nearly 14 hours(!) vs a 50 minute flight. The fact that the train stops at the border for several hours while customs and border protection comb their way through it doesn't help.
  • has a smaller baggage allowance than flying! Amtrak limits you to two (2) items of such dimensions that would fit into an overhead bin on a plane. No fees for additional bags or larger bags -- they're simply not permitted. In other words, NO checked baggage on this train (probably because it goes through customs). If you want to bring extra bags you'll have to ship them separately.
  • has only one train per day, so it sells out sooner, so you have to commit your itinerary to it even earlier than if you were flying, to get a guaranteed seat. And the single, daily passenger train (one in each direction) between these two capital cities with a combined population over 30 million leaves before 8am and doesn't arrive until after 9pm, so you've lost the whole day. I've heard that there used to be a night train option which wasn't that bad -- leave Union station after rush hour and wake up when pulling into Penn station at 8am -- but that trip no longer runs for some reason. Compare to a choice of flights from over a dozen carriers every two hours between three major New York airports and two Toronto ones.

  • A nice thing about the train is that if you spring for business class (which is only a few dollars more, unlike first class airline tickets), you get a foldaway desk, reclining seat, individual reading light, power outlets, and even [bandwidth limited] wi-fi for web browsing, so if your job fits in a laptop you can spend the day working. But with all of the other concessions and inconveniences, it just doesn't win over air travel.

    Quebec and Windsor (and New York) are connected by rail, but passenger service is mostly limited to regional commuter trains; the rest of the lines seem to be dominated by freight. Long distance passenger rail seems to have reached an equilibrium where it's not economical to offer the kind of service that would attract increased ridership.
    posted by ceribus peribus at 4:14 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

    There's been a bunch of times where I wished I could just keep riding with someone interesting I just met on a leg or transfer. It'd be cool to be able to actually follow them to their destination to meet their folks or friends or such for a day or so and then keep moving.

    Like the little Indian dude about half my weight who tried to grab my junk or Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama with a man, his pork rinds, and a endless cooler of beer. Greyhound all the way!

    Although I'm glad I started riding young enough that I got to see just how much of a zoo Port Authority used to be before Manhattan got Giulianied....
    posted by at 6:08 AM on January 11, 2013

    Now, I would love to take the train again back and forth between Toronto and NYC. However last time I checked, the Amtrak "Maple Leaf" route:

    Sucks. It sucks.

    I was talking about modern high speed rail, not the legacy abandonware that is the vast bulk of the North American passenger rail system. Certainly, terrible train service is terrible. Terrible restaurant service is also terrible, but that doesn't mean that restaurants are somehow infeasible. If rail was adequately funded like road and air travel, it could be competitive between a number of cities.

    Your 50 minute flight is a fictitious number for a "station to station" comparison, unless you are like that dude in the Tom Hanks movie who lives inside an airport terminal. Not even the pilot walks directly onto the aircraft. The usual recommendation is to arrive at check-in 90 minutes in advance; it usually takes less, but you never know. Once the ritual humiliation is over, you fly for an hour to the destination, then you spend another 15 minutes waiting for all of the bozos in front of you to get their crap out of the bins and file through the single exit. Spend another 15 minutes walking out of the airport terminal (more if you check bags), and it's about 4 hours from when you got to the airport to start the process.

    The train I brought up travels 600 km in 2h30 (and there are 22 of them running today); for the 800 km from Toronto to New York, that scales to about 3h20. Presumably there would be a customs preclearance facility at Toronto Union Station, similar to at Pearson; add what, half an hour for that? And add another 15 minutes to get on the train and the 5 minutes to walk to the curb -- a total of 4h10. And most of it is in one block of comfortable continuous time, so you can get into your work or book or movie or nap, where flying a short distance like that is an endless series of 15-60 minute walks, waits, etc.

    Of course, this is still a ridiculous comparison, because no one wants to be at the train station or airport -- they start somewhere else, and they want to be at their destination. The station would either be LaGuardia, on the northern frontier of Queens, or Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. In some cases, like people going from Brampton to Long Island, flying would be more appealing. Leaving from and arriving at a central station would be more appealing in other cases, like, for instance, from Toronto to New York City.
    posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:32 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Like, 24 hours on Greyhound is as much wear and tear as 48-72 hours on Amtrak

    American Greyhound is more draining than Canadian - or, at least, more draining than Canadian Greyhound in 1997, which is when I went from Toronto to Vancouver and back by bus. The Canadian bus didn't switch drivers as often, so the passengers were given breaks outside whenever the driver had to stop - we got off the bus every 2-4 hours for 15 minutes, and had lunch hours and dinner hours off too. Whereas when I took the bus Toronto to New York, there was only one 20-30 minute break off the bus in the whole 12 hour trip (the drivers just switched instead - about three drivers over the trip).
    posted by jb at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2013

    So very cool. I want one in my basement too. But make mine a sleeper. : )
    posted by SisterHavana at 12:08 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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