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The Slow Death of Passenger Rail Service Between Ontario and the USA

Perhaps the most chilling example of our archaic Canadian passenger rail system is the current debacle facing the Amtrak The Maple Leaf train that runs from Toronto to New York.

In my lifetime I may be witness to the elimination of all passenger rail trains between Ontario and the USA. While most countries have seamless movements of people between countries by rail, successive Canadian federal governments have failed to have any policy or plan for cross border passenger rail service. The end result is that two of three passenger rail crossings between Ontario and the USA are extinct, while the third crossing at Niagara Falls for the Toronto – New York train is on life support.

I am from Windsor, Ontario, and saw first hand the elimination of the Detroit -Windsor border when the Amtrak Niagara Rainbow passenger train was eliminated on January 31st, 1979 after almost a century of passenger rail service.

After moving to the Waterloo Region, I experienced the death of the Toronto-Chicago Amtrak The International passenger rail service through the Sarnia-Port Huron border in 2004. Ironically, I shot a photo of The International at the Kitchener, Ontario railway station not knowing that in less then three months it would be discontinued.
Now there is the precarious situation for The Maple Leaf train that runs from Toronto to New York.

It seemed like in the USA, passenger rail renewal on this line was hopeful. President Obama is reinvesting in passenger rail including a dedicated third track for passenger rail in the Albany – Buffalo corridor part of the Toronto – New York route. The City of Niagara Falls New York was building a new International Railway Station. They are very supportive of continued use of passenger rail service between Canada and the USA

Now circumstances in the USA and Canada have put passenger rail service through the Niagara Falls border on a lifeline.

In the USA, Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act requires that all routes under 750 miles, excluding the Boston - Washington Northeast Corridor, be the financial responsibility of the state governments. This mandate will become effective in 2013. So that means that the cost of running Amtrak’s The Maple Leaf will be the responsibility of the State of New York. It is hoped that the State will fund its continued use.

The Niagara Bridge Commission owns the Whirlpool Bridge that has a single track crossing that The Maple Leaf runs on.

CN has the rights to run trains on the bridge. It has not run freight traffic over the bridge in several years and now has decided unilaterally to abandon the bridge and offer the track for sale at an unknown cost.

The Niagara Bridge Commission is charging a fee for passenger rail operators that want to continue to run a service over the bridge. Sources who want to remain private have stated that the fees the Commission is charging Amtrak to run on the bridge are extremely high.

VIA Rail is doing its usual “duck and cover routine” on this issue and are doing nothing to keep the passenger rail service intact on this line.

On the Canadian side, the Progressive Conservation Federal Government under Prime Minister Harper has not taken any actions to address the issues relating to purchasing the track over the bridge and negotiating a fair price for usage of the bridge. This failure by our government may result in the final nail in the coffin for Ontario/USA passenger trains. Non action by our Canadian federal government will result in the abandonment of cross passenger rail service at Niagara Falls.

It is tragic that our Canadian federal government has no plan for passenger rail at our border crossing or in this country as a whole. What is more tragic is that we the public allow this to happen.


  1. If the worst comes to the worse regarding the Whirlpool Bridge, cannot the Maple leaf be shifted to the CPR former Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo RR route via Welland?

  2. That route could work but miss the large Niagara, ON/NY market. Using that route would require a whole new list of approvals with both CN and CP who now use that track. Interesting, AMTRAK is just now constructing a new modern station and border management facility in Niagara Falls, NY adjacent to the Whirlpool Bridge. Does Canada really care what happens?

  3. One thing to point out concerning the federal government is *not* progressive conservative, but just conservative with strong ties to its Reform movement base. As such, the ideology of the Harper Government does not look favorably on the Crown Corporation model of public enterprise and will, in all likelihood, seek to privatize or eliminate such entities in the run up to the 2012 budget under the auspices of "cost-cutting" or "austerity measures."

    If this same government is willing to entertain the idea of privatizing search and rescue services provided by the Canadian Forces ( - something I consider to be essential to public safety - then I have increasingly less confidence that VIA will survive in its current form between now and 2015. Thus, I think there is little hope of any Ontario-USA services receiving any further subsidy.

    Christopher C.N. Greenlaw
    Author, VIA Rail Canada

  4. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? Not likely.

    First strike against rerouting the train is that it will cut out Niagara Falls, New York from the train's route. Considering they're building a new station, I doubt they'd support this. Remember, New York needs to support this too.

    A route along CP from Welland to Hamilton would actually 5.4 miles off the current route but would necessitate the construction of a connecting track on the New York side at Black Rock. I seriously doubt New York would agree to a route that would cut out Niagara Falls NY and require them to build new track. That route would also have to contend with sharing a busy single-track bridge already shared by two CN and CP, who would strenuously object.

    Not only that, any routing through Welland would cut out Niagara Falls, Ontario. Currently the evening train from Niagara Falls to Toronto is the Maple Leaf. I highly doubt VIA would consent to originating that service in Fort Erie, nor would they likely consent to paying for two evening trains from the Niagara Peninsula.

  5. The final option would be routing the train over the International Bridge to Welland, reversing along CN's Stamford Sub to Niagara Falls, and then continuing to Toronto. That is getting rather silly. It would still cut out Niagara Falls, NY, require New York to construct a new connecting track, would require a new connecting track in Welland, and would add 12 rail miles to the route.

    Clearly, the obvious solution is to repair the Whirlpool Bridge. It would be so much easier for everyone. Failing that, VIA and Amtrak will likely terminate the Maple Leaf in their respective Niagara Fallses.

  6. A real crying shame with what's going on. One would think that with the advent of free trade and globalization that some agreement would be worked out to handle transportation between the U.S. and Canada. I guess that type of globalization only applies to the U.S. and Mexico.

    Now would be the time to work out a special public-private arrangement with the two governments and all railroads. A new company would run the trains, but all of the parties would have some kind of stake in the train.

    Eventually, this Eurostar-like company would handle international travel properly and professionally.


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