Reality fails to meet expectations when Alexander Bisley spends half a day travelling from Toronto to New York

Toronto is a vibrant, inviting city — particularly when the Toronto Film Festival is on — but you wouldn't know it plodding through the interminably bland suburbs and strip malls on the train leaving town.

My trip on the 12-and-a-half-hour Maple Leaf to New York started off indicatively at the cafe car. The discourteous, incompetent French Canadian staffer made paying by credit card a right kerfuffle.

There was no free water — even Eastern Europe's zloty-pinching no-budget carrier Wizz Air manages that. Despite serving overpriced, unhealthy North American food at its blandest — saccharine cookies and stodgy sandwiches — the food car was persistently overcrowded.


You couldn't get a decent cuppa, unlike on Amtrak's very enjoyable Texas Eagle service from St Louis to Chicago. On that journey, steward "Big John", a solid character out of a Mark Twain novel, was ever hospitable. The wide-windowed carriages allowed comfortable views rolling through the picturesque mid-Western countryside.

I was looking forward to the Maple Leaf's 875km trip. Amtrak has seen stellar improvement in passenger numbers, most promisingly with younger, environmentally conscious passengers. The outgoing Vice-President Joe Biden is a cheerleader. Amtrak's 2014 Writers Residency saw 16,000 aspiring writers apply for its 24 gratis long-distance trips.

Unfortunately, nihilistic Republicans dominating Congress have been throttling Amtrak. Down the line, Amtrak had a fatal May 2015 Philadelphia crash — suggestive of under-resourcing — and the Republicans voted to further reduce funding the following day. As Mississippi Republican/Reconnecting America train advocate John Robert Smith has said: "You can't disinvest in something and then beat it to death because it doesn't perform."

One of my life's delights is train rides in Japan, Switzerland, France, Germany and — albeit variably — Italy, Scotland, the Czech Republic and even New Zealand. Quality train systems, like all important infrastructure, are expensive. But critics ignore they are dramatically less costly than roads and airways. As Tony Judt argues in his totemic Ill Fares the Land, trains remain a powerful symbol of the collective democratic imagination.

Carriage-wise the Maple's seat standard was tired, stained, low comfort. Promised Wi-Fi worked intermittently and patchily in only some cars; I had expected to be able to complete some pressing e-work online — so much for that. Crossing the border took more than an hour and a half, far from Gothenburg Landvetter Airport's swift Scandinavian efficiency.

The expansive choppy deep blue of the Niagra River — building up to the Niagra Falls — impressed. As did the beautiful autumnal colours, russets and yellows, of Upstate New York's trees. As the stainless steel train rattled along, the flat despair and harsh inequality of formerly middle-class bastions like Syracuse, Utica, and South Buffalo was striking. As in the the Rust Belt, manufacturing had been hit hard, compounded by the 2008 financial crisis. Shuttered GE plants and steel mills are imposing, Wire-esque symbols of doom. Later, it was too dark to see the Hudson Valley countryside you may have enjoyed in Tony Bourdain TV episodes.

Though Amtrak's staff were mostly ill-disposed, with the aloofness one associates with Austrian parking wardens, passengers were sociable. Don, a gaunt painter off to paint Southern plantation mansions in Virginia, sat down reeking of alcohol, his truck broken down. But he had the friendliness and frail bravery of many of America's economically marginalised. Geoff Sobelle, an actor, whose experimental productions dedicated to the "sublime ridiculous" take him from the Lincoln Centre to Sydney Town Hall, shared animated conversation about the abundant theatre in New York. Happy kids, regulars off to see grandparents, were more buoyant about the trip than I.

The Maple's lateness, and shifting accounts of how late from disinterested Amtrak staff, reminded me of our own Tranz Rail in the bad old days. Rude service continued right into New York's squalid Penn Station, an hour late. But there my mood lifted; the infectious excitement and excess of the Big Apple! The destination more delectable than the journey.


On track

Not all of North America's rail journeys are a let down, in fact the US and Canada are home to some of the most stunning rail journeys in the world. Leila George offers a selection.

Rocky Mountaineer (BC-Alberta)

The daytime rides showcases Canada's magnificent mountain landscapes.

The highlight: The Rainforest to Gold Rush route to Jasper takes in Howe Sound, Cheakamus Canyon and Whistler. You'll also have views of Mt Robson, the highest summit of the Canadian Rockies.

Silver Meteor (New York-Miami)

The overnight train follows the coastline from the Big Apple going south on a 23-hour ride.

The highlight: You can visit the art gallery at Princeton University during a scheduled stop.

California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco)

Amtrak's longest route runs 3923km, linking the Windy City with the west coast, crossing cornfields, cattle country, the Great Plains and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

The highlight: In spring and summer, park rangers provide commentary through the canyons of the Rockies.

Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles)

This 35-hour trip attracts a younger crowd for a journey following the Pacific coast. Snap terrific photos on the climb through the Cuesta Pass into the Santa Margarita Mountains and on the final straight stretch of coastline into LA.

The highlight: Take an overnight break in America's capital of hipsterdom, Portland.



For ticketing and booking information regarding the Maple Leaf or other Amtrak services, see