Boleslaw Mazurek boarded Via Rail’s overnight maritime train, the Atlantic, in Montreal on June 4 expecting only a 21-hour overnight train ride before arriving in Halifax at 6:40 p.m. the next day for a vacation. But the professor of electrical engineering from the Technical University of Wroclaw, Poland, in Canada as a visiting professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, did not know that at the remote border town of Jackman, Me., the train crosses into the United States en route to New Brunswick. When Via conductors awakened passengers for a U.S. Immigration inspection at 2:55 a.m., Mazurek presented his Polish passport to the inspectors—and was told that as a non-Canadian he needed a U.S. entrance visa. Recalled the professor: “They said I had no visa and could go no farther. They said I must leave the train.” As embarrassed Via officials stood by helplessly, a U.S. sheriff drove him back across the border to the tiny Quebec community of St. Théophile and left him at a deserted bus stop at 4 a.m.
The incident occurred only three days after the Atlantic—a casualty of the Liberal government’s November, 1981, train cutbacks—was reinstated on June 1 by a Conservative government dedicated to revitalizing Canada’s passenger rail system. According to Cedric Jennings, Via’s senior director of public affairs in Montreal, 10 other Atlantic
passengers have been turned back by U.S. officials on the train’s eastbound and westbound runs: five Canadians with criminal records, three Iranians and, last week, two citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But because the return service stops in five towns in northern Maine during its 290-km sojourn in the United States, the 400 passengers—most of them Canadian—who travel on the Atlantic daily are subject to U.S. immigration regulations. As a result, Via is powerless to intervene.
Still, past U.S. policy was simply to ask Via Rail for a list of any passengers disembarking on U.S. soil, leaving the rest to sleep through the formalities. Said Brian Heath, Via’s public affairs manager in Montreal: “I rode that train before it was suspended and I never saw an inspector.” But shortly before the Atlantic was cancelled four years ago, Washington ordered its immigration inspectors to check all passengers thoroughly—regardless of the hour or inconvenience. Although U.S. immigration officials say they are now simply enforcing regulations which have always been in effect, they add that the present policy is a result of concern that aliens—and international terrorists—may use the train to enter the United States illegally. Declared Elmer Hasker, assistant regional commissioner for U.S. Immigration in Burlington, Vt.: “Certainly, the illegal immigrant in the United
States is a growing problem, but we are just as concerned with worldwide terrorism; we have identified people involved in known terrorist activities at the Canadian border in the past.”
Some Via officials say that the U.S. concerns are legitimate. But other people question the policy, especially in light of the fact that in New Brunswick alone there are almost 50 private and semiprivate airstrips which could more effectively be used as jump-off points for illegal entry into the United States. John Zimmerman, a retired electronics manufacturer from New Jersey and a passenger on the June 8 eastbound run, told Maclean's: “Being strict on the Mexican border is necessary. Here it isn’t.”Added Neil Arbo, an Atlantic conductor who lives in Brownville, Me.: “I think they are paranoid. This train has never been used as a vehicle to enter the United States illegally. Nobody is jumping ship here.”
Because immigration officers process onboard transit visas for any non-Canadians and non-Americans on the spot —about three per trip—Via must also deal with delays of as long as one hour and with complaints from passengers wakened from a sound sleep at 3 a.m. (on the Atlantic’s westbound run, the immigration check takes place at about 8 p.m.). Declared Jimmy Brown of Belleville, Ont.: “I think it’s stupid. You’re in a steel box going from Montreal to Halifax. Why do they have to pry it open?” Via officials say that they try to prepare passengers by printing warnings on timetables and instructing ticket sales personnel to inform customers of the border check. Still, some passengers say that the policy is often not applied. Said one Australian citizen on the June 8 run who had to apply for a transit visa: “Nobody told me we were going into America.”
Via acknowledges that problems remain. Said Heath: “We have some kinks to iron out on this train line.” Meanwhile, Via has enlisted the help of Transport Canada and the department of external affairs to solve the problem. But because U.S. immigration officials have indicated that they are unlikely to relax the rules, Via is now discussing whether to reroute the train through Canada—another train, the Ocean, makes its run between Montreal and Moncton, N.B., entirely on Canadian track—or reschedule it so that passengers experience the inconvenience of the U.S. immigration check during daylight hours. For now, though, passengers must continue to endure the earlymorning confusion of producing identification papers. Said Heath: “As long as we go through the United States, we are going to have to abide by the law.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.