Montréal to Washington D.C. By Train

If you want to escape Canada for a few days, you’re probably going to visit their closest neighbour: The United States of America. To get there, you could fly, drive or perhaps take a bus. But of course, don’t forget the train.

Of all the methods of getting from Canada to the US, the train is probably the slowest. More expensive and time consuming than taking a bus, but vastly cheaper than flying thanks to Canada’s high airport taxes.

Train travel in North America is an arduous experience, and not as seamless as the train travel experience you might be accustomed to in European countries or places such as Japan.
The journey to D.C. means changing trains in New York City, and so it’s possible to break the main legs of the journey into five distinct phases:

  • From Montréal to the US border with New York State.
  • From there, the train hugs the edge of Lake Champlain. This was by far the slowest part of the journey, as the train barely breaks 30mph.
  • From the southern edge of Lake Champlain down to Albany is much faster.
  • The penultimate leg of the journey takes you along the Hudson River right into the heart of New York City.
  • From New York City to Washington D.C.

Gare Centrale

The journey begins in Downtown Montréal, and trains to New York City leave from Gare Centrale (aka: Central Station). An impressive open space, it forms the heart of Montréal’s underground city as well as being a hub for trains to other parts of Canada (such as Québec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Moncton and Halifax) and local commuter trains. The only service to the US from Gare Centrale is Amtrak’s Adirondack service to Albany and New York City.

Gare Centrale

For reasons that escape my understanding, Amtrak don’t give you a reserved seat with your ticket, meaning it’s a scramble to get on the train first in order to get decent seats (fellow Europeans who have travelled with the likes of Ryanair or EasyJet will know the experience well!)
There is also no baggage checkin due to the fact that the train crosses an international border, and so the customs officials require passengers to have access to their luggage.
People start forming the queue at the platform gate, and if you want to guarantee a good choice of seats, you’d best start queueing an hour before boarding. That is, unless you cheat.
Whilst standing in queue, we noticed a guy going round offering to help take people’s luggage down to the train to save them carrying it. For $3 per person (plus a tip if you’re nice), he offered to take us and our belongings down to the train, and help us pick a seat. You can use this service to jump the entire queue, and be one of the first on the train.

Inside the Train

The Amtrack trains themselves are quite comfortable. Due to the impressive length of the journey, all the train carriages are business class, meaning cosy seats with a tonne of legroom, a real life saver when you’re 6′-4″!

An empty train… but not for long!
There is Wi-Fi available on the train, but for some reason it’s only available in the buffet car. Where we were sitting at the back of the train, the wifi signal wouldn’t reach us. This meant frequent trips up to the front to get a dose of internet. Unsurprisingly, soon after the train left Montréal the buffet car was packed with people and their laptops, just like you’d find your local Starbucks. It seems a bit silly to me that they don’t just extend the WiFi signal to cover the whole train, but the side effect was that our car at the back was pretty quiet due to the number of people who couldn’t handle a journey without WiFi.
The buffet car provides the usual selection of overpriced food to a captive audience, and shuts down at a couple of points during the journey, most notably at the border where the immigration officials take it over as an ad-hoc office to process people.

Montréal to the U.S. Border

Leaving Montréal, the train heads over the impressive St Lawrence river giving great views. After a brief stop at St-Lambert station on the South Shore, it continues at a slow speed through Brossard and the unremarkable towns and countryside of Southern Québec until it reaches the Québec / New York border at Rouses Point, the northern tip of Lake Champlain.

Bye bye Montréal!

Crossing the St Lawrence

At The Border

At this point, the buffet car is closed, and all passengers are expected to remain in their seats for the remainder of the border inspection. Anyone who’s experienced the thoroughness of US border officials will know this can be a lengthy process. In our case, we were stationed at the border for almost two hours.
The officials enter each car from both ends, and work their way down speaking to each passenger in turn and inspecting their travel documents.
Canadians and US citizens can expect to be processed at their seat, but people who are from outside of North America can be expected to be moved to the buffet car in order to get processed. The said processing involves filling out some paperwork, having a “chat” with one of the US border officials and then paying $7 to obtain a permit to enter the US by land. After that, you get a stamp in your passport and can return to your seat…

… Unless, you’ve been profiled. In such a case you’ll be taken aside for another little chat, as happened to the poor guy sitting in front of us. He ended up returning back to his seat without his luggage. Clearly if there had been something dangerous in his luggage, he would have been detained, but as it is he came back looking absolutely furious and humiliated. I’ll never know the complete story.

Drama over, once the officials have cleared the train and its passengers for entry into the US, the long journey can continue. I have to say three hours in and having covered such a small distance, it’s a bit disheartening to realise how much further there is to go.

Lake Champlain

A short ride south of the border brings the train to scenic Plattsburgh. For the next few hours, the train travels the coast of Lake Champlain at excruciatingly slow speed. The views over the lake and the surrounding mountains is breathtaking, and demonstrate that upstate New York is a definite sight for the eyes. People choosing to travel by train for the scenery won’t be disappointed. After the stress of the border crossing, it’s a good time to put your feet up and enjoy the landscape over a cup of tea.

Arriving into Plattsburgh
Passing along the lake
Definitely a great lake

Down to Albany

After escaping Lake Champlain, the route becomes straighter and there are no mountains in the way. This means the train speeds up quite a bit, as it passes through a number of small towns, and you get the sensation that you’re finally making headway towards your destination.

Arriving into Albany.
Upon arrival at Albany, the train stays put for around 20 minutes as the locomotive is swapped for a much faster model. Whilst this isn’t long enough to explore New York State’s capital in any way, it does provide a chance to stretch your legs and grab some fresh air.

Albany Station
Looking out towards NYC

Albany to New York City

The final leg takes the train directly down the Hudson Valley directly into downtown Manhattan. Going along the west bank of the Hudson River, you’d get some great scenes if it wasn’t already getting dark.
If you were hoping for some iconic views of New York City as you approach it, then you’re in for a disappointment. After leaving Yonkers, the train dives underground for the remainder of the journey, burrowing under the two boroughs of The Bronx and Manhattan, arriving in Penn Station.

New York Penn Station

Penn Station forms a main hub for Amtrak’s services in the area. Unlike the more famous Grand Central station, it’s a musty smelling place with lots of people standing around waiting for their train platform to be announced.
There’s a pretty good selection of places to buy food, and if you have the time you can emerge above ground to find yourself in Midtown Manhattan. Sadly with a connection to make, there wasn’t time to peek above ground, and soon enough our connecting train to D.C. was announced.
This prompted a scrum of people attempting to get past the lone ticket inspector. Once again, I’m unable to figure out why they don’t either assign seats on the tickets, or at least allow people to wait on the platform before the train arrives.
The train itself having arrived from Boston was absolutely packed, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the stretch between Boston and D.C. must be one of the most heavily populated areas in the country. We managed to struggle with the crowd back down the escalator onto the platform and find a couple of seats for ourselves.
Whilst this train didn’t have business class seats as standard, it did have WiFi throughout all the carriages.

New York City to Washington D.C.

Again, the chance of getting a view of New York was squandered by the fact that the train once more stayed underground from Penn Station until Jersey City. I just about managed to snap a shot of the tip of the Empire State Building on the return trip before we went underground. Suffice to say, it felt extremely weird to travel through the middle of one of the most famous cities in the world without actually seeing it!

Unlike the earlier part of the journey, this final leg was uber speedy. The trains along this section are fully electrified, and travel at high speed. They’re not Bullet Trains or TGVs, but they’re comparable to the speed I’m used to travelling in the UK.
Given the late hour and the fact that most people were travelling to destinations in New Jersey, but the time we’d reached Philadelphia the train was mostly empty. Due to it being dark outside, there wasn’t a lot to see unless we were going through a big city. I could tell though that Philadelphia had an impressive skyline as we went past.

Washington Union Station

After 18 hours of travel, we made it to our final destination in D.C. Needless to say, there was a long queue to get a taxi, but we’d made it!

Final destination reached!

The Return Journey

The return journey was much the same sequence of events (except in reverse). Before boarding the train to Montréal you had to check in and get your bags tagged, and crossing the Canadian border was a more reasonable experience than going the other way. Yay Canada.

I was quite amused by the friendly ticket inspector, who upon seeing we were destined for Montréal announced with surprise “Oh, you’re going all the way upstairs?”, as if Canada was some far away mythical place.

Due to extreme heat that day, the train travelled at about 20mph from the border back up to Montréal, but otherwise the journey was uneventful.

Always good to make it back!

Was It Worth It?

I’d say if you’re just travelling to NYC, it’s a lot cheaper than flying, and a lot more pleasant that going by coach. The price is probably comparable to renting a car and the associated fuel costs, but you do get to put your feet up instead of having to focus on the road. However, if you’re making a connection within the US, it becomes an epic journey which I don’t think I’d want to put myself through it again. Perhaps it would have made more sense to spend a couple of nights in New York City to beak the voyage.

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