Train Travel in North America is Bad

Map of hypothetical North American high speed rail network

Part of why I wanted to do this trip was to see how difficult it would be to travel across the continent. I’m a big proponent of rail travel as building out a network of high speed rail (similar to the Shinkansen in Japan) would reduce our carbon emissions, help end our dependence on cars, and make it easier and cheaper to travel between cities. There was a high speed rail meme going around the internet a while ago that’s burned into my brain.

Wouldn’t the map in the top image be nice? I appreciate that they even worked in some Canadian cities, which was very thoughtful, and a new high-speed CPR would be very cool. The depressing thing about the above map, however, is that the current rail system doesn’t even come close to the same coverage.

Navigating the Current Network

DC to Montreal

Map of train route from DC to Montreal
The completely insane route to get to Montreal from DC

You’re probably wondering, for starters, why I’m not travelling by rail to Montreal. Well when I booked my trip a few months ago, I searched for trains between DC and Montreal and the only result it gave me was a three step journey that looped back through Toronto. This would take about 38 hours if I left at 10pm on a Sunday. For reference, driving from DC takes 9.5 hours according to Google. So I booked a flight instead.

Yesterday I got told about the Adirondack route which goes directly from New York to Montreal. It had been cancelled during the pandemic but was supposed to be up running again soon. I checked, but found there still wasn’t a direct train, but I could take an 8 hour bus ride from Albany to get there a little quicker (12 hours in total). That still seemed horrible.

Today, just as I was finishing typing up this blog post, I tried Amtrak again, and the Adirondack is finally back running all the way to Montreal. If I cancelled my flight, I could get to Montreal in a measly 15.5 hours or so. It’s hard even for me, with my love of trains, to justify the expense and the time with the switch now.

Montreal to Chicago

But why not rail down from Montreal to Chicago? The Windsor Corridor is basically a straight shot from Montreal down to Detroit so that should be easy enough. Well taking the train to Windsor is a mere 10 hours which is about the same as driving. That’s not a bad trip. But there’s no connecting train across the water. You have to bus or drive over to Detroit and then take a 5.5 hour train to Chicago. And that’s going to have to be the next day, because the schedules aren’t going to line up. Also the Detroit Amtrak station currently looks like a sad Taco Bell. I think I’ll probably end flying for this section as well.

Map of route from Montreal to Chicago
You would think this route was easy, but you’d be wrong

Freight Right of Way

Okay so crossing the border by train is pretty horrible. But it’s also bad inside of Canada.

In a previous post, I noted that The Canadian only averages about 49km/hour over its trip. Now even though the rail cars got manufactured in the 50s and rock back and forth a lot at high speed, it can easily hit speeds of about 120km/hr. But what holds it back is that it has to give right of way to every freight train it meets as it travels on CP and CN lines. At various points, the train can easily be up to 8 hours behind schedule. A few years ago, it was sometimes 45 hours behind schedule! These delays are factored into the final arrival time, but they make what could be a 2 day trip into a 4 day one.

It also seems like catching the train at any stop other than Toronto or Vancouver would be an absolute nightmare. As the train is basically a hotel on wheels, it’s not such a big deal. However if we actually want people to use rail instead of more carbon-intensive transport like flying it would be nice to have trains that run on time.


Long distance rail travel in North America is a hot mess of cancelled routes, slow trains, missing connectors, and terrible timetables, and only a giant weirdo like me would attempt a trip like this. But the food is really good on The Canadian so that’s something.

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