Requiem for Government Grain Hopper Cars

Brand new cars from MIL, Sorel, QC., being moved for delivery to the Prairies by CNR. Walkley yard, by pass track Ottawa

Government of Canada Hopper Cars being scrapped at Welland, Ont., 2021 Joseph Bishop photo

The Beginning by Colin J. Churcher

I was responsible for "buying" a large proportion of the government grain hopper fleet while working in grain transportation for Transport Canada (1975-1986).

The bulk of the brown and yellow fleet as well as all the red and black cars were purchased by the federal government
(13,500 cars). The Canadian Wheat Board acquired 4,000 brown and yellow cars. The provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta each bought 1,000 cars. The brown and yellow scheme was chosen by Otto Lang, then Minister Responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, as being non-partisan. The red and black scheme was chosen by Senator Argue, a later Minister Responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board.

Original Government of Canada scheme
Photo thanks to Eric Gagnon

Canadian Wheat Board scheme.
Ken Healy photo.C. Robert Craig Memorial Library 38010

Original livery Saskatchewan car at Smiths Falls
Bruce Chapman collection C. Robert Craig Memorial Library No. 62379

Second livery Saskatchewan car at beechy, SK. on 25 August 2018
Raymond Farand photo

Alberta. Photo thanks to Eric Gagnon

The steel hoppers were put into service very quickly and were praised at the time for their greater capacity and lower center of gravity with their four unloading hoppers. Initial problems were experienced both on the prairies and at the ports.

On the prairies the country elevators had to be modified with higher loading spouts.  A number of elevator managers fell into the hoppers through the top hatches and could not get out on their own. We solved this by putting a grating over the opening.

Another problem experienced by the prairie elevator managers was that the hopper cars with roller bearings ran much more easily than the journal bearing boxcars they replaced. The elevator operators asked that the cars be modified to have a hand brake operating wheel on both ends of the car. This was rejected by the railways as causing potential operating problems

At the ports some difficulty was experienced in opening the discharge gates.  Some gates even became so stiff that they had to be cut off to allow unloading. Eventually the gates were modified to a more satisfactory system which could be operated with mechanical assistance.

One of the problems experienced with the steel hoppers was harmonic motion. The distance between the leading wheel of the front truck and the leading wheel of the rear truck was forty feet. This was the same as the rail lengths before extensive use of continuous welded rail.  With rail staggered joints a dangerous harmonic motion could develop. For this reason trains which had these cars in the consist could not be operated between 18 mph and 22 mph (I believe this was the range). Engineers were only allowed to accelerate or decelerate their trains through this speed range. There was another danger range around 60-70 mph I believe.

Jerry Pinkepank writes: The rock and roll issue was dealt with by constant contact side bearings which were available in the early 80’s and I suspect they were retrofitted on these cars. The 60-70mph problem would have been truck hunting and the constant contact side bearings also deal with that.  I suspect the elimination of these cars from the fleet is due to the move to 286,00 lb. and 316,000 lb. gross rail load cars in place of the 263,000lb car prevailing in the early 80’s.  This has also culled 263,000lb cars out of the coal fleets.--Jerry

Some time after I was called to testify before the Anti-Dumping Tribunal. It turned out that we were buying some parts (wheels, I believe) from Brazil that were cheaper, including transportation to Nova Scotia, than they could be manufactured in the Trenton plant. I heard nothing further.

The CNR line to Churchill

For similar reasons CNR would not allow these hoppers to be used on the line to Churchill, which was always difficult because much of it was laid on permafrost. This was why the federal government agreed to renovate a number of 40 foot boxcars for use on the line to Churchill. It should be noted that when the Churchill line was privatized hopper cars did make it to Churchill.

Transport Canada also funded the construction of an articulated car which might have performed well on the line to Churchill.  However development did not go any further than the prototype.

The Aluminum Cars

William A. Crago photo.
The aluminum hopper cars were built for CNR which had a large mileage of lines with 60 pound rail.  The CPR Prairie lines were laidwith 85 pound steel and did not need these cars. The aluminum cars were built by National Steel Car in Hamilton, Ont., which had the ability to weld aluminum. The first large batch was built straight off the drawing board and went successfully into service. There was an initial problem with cracking around the top hatches which was resolved by shortening the hatches by a couple of feet.

Ordering the Cars

The government cars were built in several orders.  We obtained prices and delivery from the three suppliers, National Steel Car, Hamilton, Ont., MIL, Sorel, Que., and Hawker-Siddeley, Trenton, NS. In each case the cabinet decided to spread the order rather than choosing the lowest cost from one manufacturer.

Northern Alberta Railway

In the mid-1970s the Northern Alberta Railway (NAR) was an independent line wholly owned by CNR and CPR. Initially neither CNR nor CPR would allocate hopper cars to the NAR and I began negotiations for the NAR to have its own separate allocation. There was talk in Edmonton of a separate NAR livery.  However, in the end I was able to persuade CNR and CPR to allocate hopper cars to the NAR from within their own allocation.

My discussions with Jim Pitts, the NAR General Manager covered a wide range of subjects as well as hopper cars.  One of the outcomes was to name the NAR locomotives in a manner similar to locomotives in the UK.

Using the Cars

The rationale for buying hopper cars was that the railways were losing money moving grain under the statutory Crow’s Nest Pass rates.  Hopper cars were seem as short term assistance until the rate problem could be resolved. Because if this the government cars could only be used by the railways to move grain moving at the Crow Rate. This restricted their use to wheat, oats, barley, rye, rape (canola) and flax moving from the prairies to Thunder Bay, (Churchill) and the west coast ports for export. This did apply to grain moving to the Victoria elevator until it closed but not to domestic points on Vancouver Island.

The railways were charged whenever a car was used in domestic service. For many winters there was a heavy movement of grain in solid trains of hopper cars east of Thunder Bay to Montreal and Halifax (and possibly Saint John, NB.). These were made under an agreed payment with the government for their use. This was lucrative traffic for CNR and CPR. The two railways originally agreed to split the traffic by number of trains.  CPR stole a march on CNR by running 99 car trains whereas CNR was only able to run trains of 98 cars.  Over the winter this resulted in a significant financial advantage to CPR.

The hopper cars were occasionally used for non-grain movements with payment to the government. For example they were used by CPR to move drilling mud to Alberta. 

One of the pleasures of my job at that time was to attend the sample car inspections.  At the commencement of each order the manufacturer would complete one car and the railway mechanical people would go over that car in fine detail to ensure that it conformed to the plans. The car was then kept at the plant so that if there were any problems later on in the production process these could be verified by reference to the approved model. Here are two pictures I took at Hamilton in August 1982.

Sample car ar National Steel Car, Hamilton, August 1982.

Sample Car at National Steel Car, Hamiltom. August 1982
From left to right John Nelham, NSC; Paul Churcher; Colin Churcher

The Demise of the Government Cars

The decomissioning of the cars was not straight forward as Bernie Geiger remembers (June 2021)

The disposal of the cars was not straight forward as the government laws and policy requirements have complex approval and reporting requirements to write-off and / or transfer to other operators.  There was some Central Agency discussion as to whether the actions could be reported as groups of cars in the Public Accounts or individual numbers needed to be given for each individual car.

 I remember it was often difficult to "donate" federal government items to museums because you had to adhere to various disposal requirements and there is really no easy way to "gift" something like a (railway) artifact, image, souvenir, etc to a museum or library.

 Perhaps it was easiest to throw it in the "garbage" and tell someone to pick it out of the garbage before it was hauled away.

Updated 30 July 2021