I’m now aboard the Maple Leaf, bound for Toronto. I was hoping to see downtown Buffalo, but I was stuck at the Depew station, which is a 30$ cab ride from downtown and I didn’t think seeing Buffalo was worth 21$ more than my (business class!) train fare from Buffalo to Toronto. Retrospectively what I should have done was take a taxi from the Buffalo-Depew station to the Buffalo-exchange (downtown) station, stored by bags, and waited for the train there, but I didn’t realize this until after boarding the train.
While I’m technically still in America, the trip feels like its already over. Back in business class means comfortable seats, but less talkative people. Not that the Lakeshore limited last night from Chicago to Buffalo was anything special. I wrote earlier that train travel is simply what it is, and it isn’t hankering for another time, some banal nostalgia. Now I see though, in comparison, the Empire Builder does have something that is more than just travel – and it does start with the historic connection in the name “Empire Builder”, which was the nickname of the baron who built the Great Northern Railroad on which the Empire Builder runs. The Empire Builder is also special because of the country it passes through, and not only its brutal aesthetic force (although there is probably no such thing as aesthetics outside history – remember it was only a few hundred years ago that the Alps were thought to be terribly ugly), but its historical significance to the thing called “America” today. The nickname “Empire Builder” isn’t accidental – the settlement of the northern west (which at the same time means the displacement and degradation of its native peoples) was made possible by the railway he is credited with building (but we know of course that it was workers who had the greater part in it). The magic also has something to do with the double-decker “Superliner” cars, which have certain pragmatic advantages over single deckers when low bridges don’t prevent their use, but they are special because they are rare, and because it is like a little two story city is passing through the mountains and across the plains. The dining car is both nostalgic and excellent – really just a good, slightly overpriced restaurant coupled to the train – it features community seating for parties less than 4 (which means you can’t help but meet people), and relatively healthy fare. While I’ve been told that such dining cars are being replaced by freeze-dried entres (already standard fare at Boston Pizza and Earls), and that the Empire Builder is the only train which still has its own chef onboard, in a world where labour is not lacking there is really no reason why a properly cooked healthy meal on a dining car can not be part of the future as well as the past of rail travel.
Unfortunately, the short-distance routes (even Chicago to New York is considered short distance, perhaps it is purposely scheduled as not to include dinner by leaving at 9 p.m. and arriving in NYC at 6) do not run with dining cars, and trains east of Chicago can not utilize the Superliners since there are bridges that are too low. They have not even announced the names of the trains east of Chicago – and the magical import of the name can not be ignored. A name connects a route to the terrain around it (the LakeShore limited runs along the shores of lakes Michigan, Eerie and Ontario on its way to NYC), or can even refer to the country in, into or towards which it travels (the train from New York to Toronto is the Maple Leaf, and the train to New Orleans was once called the Panama Limited, and the remaining Canadian trans-continental train bears the name of the old Canadian Pacific express – the Canadian).
I’m currently passing over a bridge on the Niagara river, I assume this is the border. I cannot actually see the falls, but I did catch a glimpse of the spray. Presumably we are about to arrive at the border crossing.