Fifty Years Later
All photographs by Bob Meldrum

VIA F40-PH-2 6448 pauses with the westbound "Canadian" at Jasper, Alberta, on March 30, 2006. Sister 6439 has been cut off, and will soon be replaced by 6433 for the journey to Vancouver.  See story on Page 3. 

My father was an air brake machinist in the Canadian National steam locomotive repair shops in Stratford from 1924 until 1963.  As a railway employee, he got a pass allowing free transportation.  At first the pass was only good in the local region, but over the years, he reached the “All System” status.  The railway also accorded the free travel privileges to members of the employee’s family.  Our family made good use of this perk and often travelled to Toronto for special occasions.

When I was 14 in 1955, my brother got me a job as a clerk in the Dominion Stores supermarket in Stratford where he had worked until graduating from high school.  Even though the fifty cents an hour seems very little now, it was a pretty good wage in those days when my boss only made a dollar an hour.  One hour’s wage paid for a movie and an ice cream bar or two nights at the YMCA dances.

In the spring of 1956, my Dad organized a trip to Vancouver for the two of us on the “Continental”.  The “Super Continental” had been introduced but did not allow passes.  The pass would allow free transportation from Stratford to Vancouver and return in a coach.  We could get berths in a tourist sleeper if I used some of my Dominion Stores savings to pay for mine.  This I happily did.  I think I took the upper while Dad had the lower in a section.

Holidays at the “Shops” were always the last week of July and the first week of August.  Dad and I set off from Stratford.

Train number 36 left Stratford for Toronto at 17:10.  It took almost 3 and a half hours to do the 88 miles(140 kilometres) to Toronto as it did much head-end work.  Ian Wilson in “To Stratford Under Steam” says it could have been powered by Hudson, Pacific, or Mountain.  In Toronto we boarded Tourist Sleeper/Dinette “White Glen” of Train 53 to go to Capreol.  I remember being amazed as we turned off from the “Stratford” line near Parkdale Station onto the Newmarket Subdivision.  At Jasper, Train 3 was pulled by Montreal Locomotive Works (MLW) diesels 6710 (FPA-2) and 6810 (FPB-2) which were only one year old.  I suspect that they had actually run all the way through from Montreal.  One of the benefits of taking the “Continental” was its relaxed schedule.  We even had a stop to get out and look at Mount Robson.  After a week in the Vancouver area which included a trip on the CPR steamship “Princess Patricia” to Victoria, we got on Train 4 to return to Ontario.  By Melville Saskatchewan, we were led by MLW FPA-2 6707.  While my Dad played Bridge with the other adults in the Tourist sleeper, I became friends with a pleasant young lady from Whitehorse in the Yukon.  I never saw her again, but she did drop in to Stratford once many years later to say “Hello” to my parents while I was away at university.

The CNR station in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on July 22, 1956 advertises "The Super Continental"for speed and luxury. Note the Royal Mail truck.

Almost new MLW FPA-2 6710 and FPB-2 6810 pause at Jasper, Alberta, on July 23, 1956.  Note the detatchable ditch lights for improved visibility through the mountainous terrain west of Jasper.

The “Continental” stopped for significant periods at every division point and I can remember my Dad and me running in to the station lunch counter to get an Orange Crush and a cheese sandwich while ice was added under the cars and water was put into the tanks on each car.  It was also a treat to eat in the little dinette in our car.  This was my first experience of eating on a train.  Normally we brought our own food.  To this day, I cannot eat an egg sandwich without having a flashback to a pleasant train trip.

My father standing in front of heavyweight 8 Section, 1 Double Bedroom, Buffet car "White Glen".  This was my accommodation from Toronto to Vancouver and was built by CC&F in 1925 as 6 Section 2 Compartment Observation Sleeping Car "Cape Traverse".  She was retired in 1975.

As I woke up on the last day of our return trip, I was stunned by the many different green colours of the Southern Ontario landscape as Train 54 proceeded to Toronto.  After a cheap breakfast of tea and toast in the little cafe at Union Station, Dad and I boarded Train 29 back to Stratford.  I’d like to think that one of the streamlined Mountain type locomotives such as 6071 (as pictured at the head of Train 29 on page 28 of “To Stratford Under Steam”) pulled our train that morning.  The two week experience with my Dad was my first trip with many time changes and it left me tired and dazed for about a week.

The trip to Vancouver was the last trip that I did with my Dad.  The next summer I turned 16 and had two jobs.  After 1956, there was no more time to travel.  Dad died at age 69 thirty years ago.

Now it is 2006 – fifty years after that first experience.  Retirement has given me time to travel again.  The North American Rail Pass provides an economical way to travel – especially for seniors.  A trip to Vancouver would not be free like in 1956, but it would also not break the bank.  In 1994, I took Silver and Blue Class all the way from Toronto to Vancouver.  It was not a pleasant experience.   The limited dining capabilities for sleeping car passengers (meals were not included at that time) left a group of us unfed between Jasper and Vancouver.  When a member of our group became injured while trying to get some food, I became ballistic and almost ended being put off the train – a not uncommon occurrence even today on the Canadian.  I vowed never to ride the Canadian again.

In 1999, however to meet a family need, I did come back coach class from Winnipeg to Toronto.  Even though accidents stretched the trip into almost two days and two nights, I came away with a very good feeling about the trip including its value for money.  As well, in the past two years, I endured long plane rides to the southern hemisphere sitting up.  Surely, coach class from Toronto to Vancouver would not be as bad as those cramped airplane rides.

Thus, on Tuesday March 28, I joined the queue for VIA # 1 in the outgoing area of Union Station in Toronto.  How that area has changed from my 1956 trip.  GO transit now uses many of the departure gates.  There also seems to be a new procedure where intending passengers are marshalled some distance from the actual gate.  There was also confusion as Silver and Blue people were let on while we Comfort Class people were sent back to the holding pen.  No matter – as we all were soon boarded.  One late-arriving passenger seemed to be on the verge of “Rail Rage” even before the train left.  It turned out, he had somehow got into the wrong waiting line and had almost missed the train.

The train was quite large.  Locomotives 6439 and 6448 led.  Dead-heading sleepers 8209, 8215, and 8206 followed.  (VIA has announced that they are stationing an extra consist in Vancouver to allow on-time departures even if the westbound is late and I suspect that these cars were part of that consist.)  After baggage 8613 came coaches 8124, 8122(mine), and 8125.  After Skyline Dome 8515 came the first sleeper 8317.  It was followed by dining car 8407 and then three more sleepers 8303, 8322, and 8319.  VIA 8710 (Prince Albert Park) brought up the rear.

Just as in 1956, the “Canadian” heads west out of Union Station, passes the site of the demolished Parkdale Station, and turns north on to the Newmarket Subdivision.  The curve from the Weston Sub is now much faster – no doubt to facilitate the Bradford GO trains which use the line.  At Snider, our train proceeded north very slowly beyond the York Subdivision.  The slowness was caused by the massive construction project going on.  I could find nothing definitive, but I noticed one report that GO Transit was considering paying for an underpass at this point so that their trains on the Newmarket Sub could proceed quickly under the York Sub. 

We then backed from the Newmarket Sub to the York Sub.  After getting the signal, we proceeded east five miles to Doncaster where we joined the Bala Sub.  Between Doncaster and Washago, the Bala Sub is very congested and I have encountered severe delays in the past.  This day we were lucky and proceeded on time to Brechin East.  There we waited for CN 304.  At Smail siding we dealt with CN 102.  As a result we were late into Washago.

Railway trips are more than just the railway doings outside.  There are the riders as well.  I got chatting with one of the fellows getting off at Washago.  I had overheard he was facing a three and a half year jail sentence and I was curious.  “Can you make money out of crime – after paying for a lawyer?” I asked.  The young man was certainly wiser than his years and I got quite a story.  As a result, my desire to not follow a life of crime has been strengthened.

CN and CP have tried to reduce delays caused by opposing train movements by instituting a policy called “directional running”.  In British Columbia, there have been a number of years of success whereby westbound trains use the CN line down the Fraser to get to Vancouver and eastbound trains use the CP Line.  Late in 2005, changes were made so that something similar could be done in Ontario.  At mile 146 of the Bala Subdivision (Boyne), westbound CN trains move onto the CP Parry Sound Sub.  The westbound Canadian obeys this rule and journeys along the CP for the next 90 miles – even stopping at the former CP station in Parry Sound.  It is quite a sight going over the giant trestle in Parry Sound.

VIA's westbound "Canadian" stops at the restored CP Parry Sound station which houses an art gallery, on March 28, 2006.

At St. Cloud, the Canadian took a new piece of track to go back onto the Bala Subdivision.  At St. Cloud, all eastbound trains(CN, CP, and VIA) follow the Bala Sub south to Boyne where they either continue on the Bala (CN, VIA) or move back onto the Parry Sound Sub(CP).  It was a treat to sit in the dome of the Skyline car and observe these movements on what was an exceptionally beautiful spring day.

"On-board-writer" Geoffrey Dougherty presents a champagne lecture in "Prince Albert Park" on March 29, 2006.  Note the six clocks to the speaker's right.

From this experience, I also met the “on-board writer”.  Geoffrey H. Doughty is an American from Maine who has written the book “Canadian Treasures – Two Trains Across Canada”.  This book turns out to be a best-seller on the “Canadian” and Geoffrey was on board to get material for an update.  My Canadian Trackside Guide was much appreciated by him and as a result, I even got invited to his champagne lecture in the Park car.  This is the way friends are made on a trip.

Winnipeg station on March 29, 2006.

Stops were infrequent.  No running into division point lunch counters on this trip.  From the Skyline snack bar, I dined on chicken noodle soup (just pour boiling water into a cardboard container) and a microwaved sub sandwich.  Probably a bit more expensive than my 1956 cheese sandwich and orange drink – but it did keep the wolf away from the door.

In spite of the earlier delays, we were into Sudbury Junction thirty minutes early.  One departing lady could not believe the station was in Sudbury.  I certainly found it hard to find when I was driving around Sudbury – not like the one that the White River Budd Car leaves from – which is right downtown.

At Jasper, Alberta, F40PH-2 6439 has been removed from the "Canadian" on March 30, 2006. Sister 6433, to 6448's left, will soon couple onto 6448. The 6439 will later power the "Skeena" to Prince Rupert, BC.

At Capreol, there was time for a walk while the units were refueled and water was topped up in the coaches.  Oh yes, I learned a new duty for a VIA Service Manager.  Ours had to run to the local hardware store to get a head cleaner for the VCR in the Skyline car.  It was essential that the movie “Bewitched” play at its best.

During the swap of locomotives at Jasper on March 30, 2006, CN SD60F 5517 and brand-new ES44DC 2240 pull an eastbound freight into the yard.

First call to dinner was made after Capreol and I proceeded to the dining car.  I guess because it was off-season, four tables were kept out of service.  Sleeping car passengers got preference especially since their meals are included in the price they pay.  As a coach passenger, I was not allowed in.  They might be able to feed me around nine thirty.  At first I was annoyed getting a flashback to the awful 1994 trip.  This time, however, I laughed and went back to my seat.  There I had some fruit and a granola bar before falling sound asleep.

Around midnight, I woke up enough to get some pictures of the dilapidated Hornepayne station and to note that the yards there are still very active.  I was not up long and was soon sound asleep waking only as the sun was rising over Armstrong.

At 6:30, breakfast was served in the dining car and I had a fabulous meal of fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and cup after cup of delicious coffee.  My bad feelings towards VIA’s food service were immediately dispelled. 

After packing up my pillow and sleeping sack, I headed for the dome.  There I watched fascinated as we took siding after siding for passing eastbound trains.  Something not shown in Section 16 of Trackside Guide was an arrow on the mast showing the engineer which side that the siding was going to be on.  This must be new.  As I listened on my scanner, I was impressed with the way, those in the cab diligently called the signals.  “Clear to Ogaki”, “Slow to Limited or Diverging at Sioux Lookout East”.

Everyone who has had the chance to ride the CP line from Nipigon to White River raves about the cliffs and scenery along Lake Superior.  I would submit that the VIA Canadian on the CN line still passes through some similarly beautifully territory between mileages 41 and 135 of the Redditt Sub where there are no less than five tunnels of various lengths attesting to the ruggedness of the area. Granted the ice-covered lakes are smaller than Lake Superior, but they still provide an excellent picture of the long train wrapped around their shores.

Standing beside the totem pole at Jasper on March 30, 2006, just as I did 50 years before.

There was no time in Winnipeg for the long walk that my Dad and I took, but I did have a chance to rush over to Portage and Main – Winnipeg’s famous street corner.

I could go on and on with all the little details, but at this point I will just sketch some highlights.

One of the passengers who came to the onboard writer’s lecture on the joy of riding passenger trains was a distinguished English gentleman who had been Tolkien’s lawyer and was in Canada to see the opening in Toronto of the musical “Lord of the Rings”.

CN 4-8-4 6015 has been displayed near the station in Jasper since 1972 replacing 6060. After being displayed for ten years, the 6060 was shipped to Montreal for an overhaul and was utilized in excursion service from 1973 to 1980.  Today 6060 is owned by the Rocky Mountain Rail Society and periodically operates out of Stettler, Alberta.

I awoke in the middle of the second night to find us backing into Saskatoon station.  It turned out that we had to back in because VIA # 2 – the eastbound Canadian was already at the station.  Getting out into the cold night, I walked back to the station building and was greeted with the beautiful sight of the two Park cars back to back.  Fatigue and sleepiness kept me from noting which Park car was on the eastbound.

The second morning brought another delicious breakfast and the sight of the Fabyan trestle, one of the tourist highlights of the Wainwright, Alberta area.  It is hard to get pictures from the train.  Instead see the Internet:

At Jasper, there was a chance to get out and walk around while locomotive 6439 was taken off and 6433 was put on.  It was a beautiful day and it brought back many happy memories of when I was there with my Dad.  Although we did not stop, the Skyline car attendant pointed out Mount Robson on one of the few days it was clear enough to see it.

For the last night, I got into the dining car for dinner and had a most delicious Roast Bison dinner as we traversed the new trackage in the Red Pass Junction area.

Again, I went to sleep early and when I awoke around six, I expected us to be nearing Vancouver.  Instead we were pulling into North Bend, British Columbia on the CPR.  It turned out that there had been a CN work train derailment at Lasha near the Cisco bridges.  The accident had caused directional running to cease and all trains, both eastbound and westbound, both CN and CP were struggling along the CP line.  It was a real tie up and resulted in the Canadian arriving in Vancouver three hours late.

My stay in Vancouver was brief.  Two days after arriving, I headed out on AMTRAK.  My pass took me to Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Washington, and New York before delivering me to Montreal.  That trip too was a great adventure, but it did not have the nostalgia or delight that retracing the journey across Canada that I had taken at 15 with my Dad had brought to me.

The Jasper station shows that it is 534.9 miles from Vancouver.  The 2408.8 miles to Montreal, however, would have applied when trains operated through Algonquin Park and Ottawa.


Thanks to Gerry Gaugl for his help with the CN 1956 timetable.

I cannot say enough about the VIA staff that I encountered on this trip.  I sensed an entirely different attitude than I had seen in 1994.  Thanks to the pass seller in Ottawa who has helped me on many journeys, the VIA North American Railpass reservations person, all of the onboard personnel including the excellent Service Managers, and finally to the wonderful railfan attendant who ran the Skyline snackbar and told us about the scenic highlights in the Rockies near Jasper.  You all made a difference.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, July/August 2006, page 3.

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