Montreal to NYC by Bus and Rail

The trip from Montreal to New York is surprisingly inconvenient. I had time to ponder potential improvements during a recent 12 hour train ride home. Here’s what I came up with.

I’m from Montreal but live in New York City, so I frequently make the trip between the two. For those who haven’t had the privilege, there are currently two ways to make the trip for those who can’t afford a flight or don’t want to drive: the bus, and the train. Both could use an upgrade.

First, the train. The train’s scheduled run time is about 11 hours, although my anecdotal experience suggests that an additional hour is not an uncommon delay. That means the trip is frequently as long as 12 hours, almost double the length of the driving alternative. The other struggle is frequency – there’s only 1 train per day, leaving in the morning and arriving in the evening.

Why is the train so unimaginably slow? There are two basic reasons. One is that the track north of Albany is slow and single tracked. New York to Albany is nearly half the mileage of the whole trip but takes only 2 hours and 20 minutes at its fastest. The stretch from Albany to Montreal takes 8 to 9 hours, despite covering roughly the same distance.

The bus is quicker, and completes the whole trip in a scheduled time of about 8 hours at its fastest. There are two reasons the bus is slower than a car – it makes a mysteriously long (30-45 minutes) service stop in Albany, and it takes longer to cross the border than a passenger car typically does. As with anything that travels on roads, it can also suffer from significant delays getting into and out of the congested core of Manhattan.

Is there a way to improve the two options to make them more competitive with the car? Although some have proposed a multi-billion dollar HSR program, there’s a much quicker approach that would yield enormous benefits for both riders and transport operators at minimal cost.  See the table below for a summary of the current situation.

Road Distance Train Travel Time Bus Travel Time
New York – Albany 150 miles 2h 20m 3h+ 
Albany – Montreal  220 miles 8h 30m 4h 30m+

The train is quickest south of Albany. It also provides the additional benefit of a reliable and congestion-free approach to Manhattan’s urban core. As an added bonus, it also has spectacular views of the Hudson for its entire length. The bus wins by an enormous time margin north of Albany. Why not combine the two to get the best of both?

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The proposal is simple – passengers at Albany would transfer to a bus to complete the trip to Montreal (or vice versa) and shave about 4-5 hours off of of today’s train journey. Transfers between modes can be a pain, but they don’t have to be. The Albany train station could be configured to make the bus transfer quick and easy, cross ticketing (ie a single ticket for bus and rail) would make it seamless, and the buses could be timed to depart immediately after train arrivals. The best case scenario could get the total travel time below 7 hours and get travel time roughly to parity with the private car, with the added benefit of a congestion free approach to Manhattan’s Penn Station.

Aside from the clear passenger travel time benefits, there would be lots of operational gains for both bus and rail services to this change. As of right now, one of the train’s sources of delay is that it swaps out an electric locomotive for a diesel locomotive at Albany to complete the trip north to Montreal. This typically takes as long as 30 minutes. If the train ran only between Albany and New York, it could stay exclusively on electric power and gain back a large number of wasted man hours.

Even more beneficial, the two train sets currently providing 1 daily round trip on the 12-hour Montreal to New York segment could run 4 round trips on the the 3 hour trip from Albany to New York. Just by turning the trains back at Albany, you’d get 4 times more service over the Albany to NYC line using the same train equipment and crew. That’s a significant increase to the 13 daily round trips currently being offered on that line. 

Much like turning back trains at Albany improves Amtrak’s efficiency, preventing buses from entering New York City would makes buses more efficient. The traffic around New York City is severely detrimental for the operating efficiency of buses. Aside from making bus travel slower on average (which reduces the number of passenger miles a bus can serve in a given hour), congestion is unpredictable. That unpredictability requires bus operators to build additional slack into the bus schedule for buses heading into New York City. Keeping buses on the relatively uncongested Albany-Montreal branch would allow operators to tighten up schedules and run more frequent service at the same cost.

I used the word ‘operators’ deliberately – there’s no reason that multiple bus operators shouldn’t be encouraged to run the new Montreal-Albany route. Given that the goal here would be to attract choice riders, bus operators could compete to offer the best service – luxury buses, large seats with more legroom, etc. 

Even for those who believe that enhanced rail infrastructure is the ultimate solution, this intermediate and flexible step could help build ridership for mass ground transportation (ie, alternatives to air and private car travel) over time, helping make the justification for further investment more obvious.

Another advantage of creating the bus/rail combination is that service levels could be dramatically improved and tailored to demand.  Amtrak currently offers 1 train per day – it’s sometimes sold out at holidays, but it’s likely not terribly well utilized at most other times of year.  With the new model, there would now be 17 trains per day running between Albany and New York, and each could be combined with a bus leg to Montreal. This list of 17 departures would create a whole new realm of options. As just one example, a bus operator could launch a service from Montreal at 1AM to catch the 5:05AM train from Albany to NYC that arrives in NYC at 7:30AM.

There’s one other improvement that would make any option dramatically better: a dedicated border crossing at the Montreal bus station. There’s precedent for this – airline passengers already clear customs at the Montreal airport, even when departing for the United States. Clearing customs at the bus station (rather than the border crossing) would allow for much more certainty in bus travel times (by avoiding an unpredictable border), allowing for further tightening and cost efficiency for bus operators and better experience for riders. I’m sure there are 100s of obstacles to getting that done, but it’s a no brainer from a transport operator and rider experience perspective.

So what would all this cost? I don’t know, but infinitely less than a rail upgrade would cost to get anywhere near the travel time benefit described above. There are definitely obstacles to getting this done, but I think there’s something to the idea of a combination bus-rail alternative between NYC and Montreal.

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