Across Canada by Train

Eastbound on The Canadian in 1979

Part 1 - Vancouver to Winnipeg

In 1979 I crossed Canada by train. Westbound I took CNR's Super Continental.
The return trip was on the train known as The Canadian - the Canadian Pacific's premier passenger train, which first ran in the mid-1950s.

New and unusual traffic patterns in the 1960s ... and miscalculations

For a number of years during the 1960s, Canada was planning for its big Centennial of Confederation celebration in 1967.  During the mid-1960s, many people went across Canada by train for the first time - particularly those travelling to Expo 67 in Montreal during the Centennial year itself. Passenger trains were lengthened and extra trains were scheduled to meet the demand that year.

The Trans-Canada Highway had recently been completed north of Lake Superior and automobiles expanded their dominance of land transportation - now possible from coast to coast on an all-Canadian route.

Canada ... or 'the nation of' Quebec ... or Montreal ...  depending on who is writing the history ... "burst onto the world stage" with Expo 67.
"The whole world", and much of Canada, came to Montreal during the summer of 1967.
What a future we proud Montrealers had !

Perhaps because of this euphoria, overly optimistic bureaucrats were extrapolating their 1967 traffic graphs a little too far ... the 1969 blizzard of expropriation orders for houses and farms in the Ste-Scholastique area was soon to blow. The only thing that blew harder was the trumpetting Jumbo white elephant airport ... subsequently built there at great expense ... Mirabel International.

Meanwhile, in the ferro-pachyderm department was Canadian National Railways' Turbotrain - "built with blueprints in one hand and a hammer in the other". Promised, but not ready in time for 1967.

The Canadian Pacific 1966 Timetable

During those years, the railways were still generally proud of their tried and true transportation traditions ... but Canadian Pacific's sombre, black-covered 1966 public timetable suggested the grand days of rail passenger travel were gone ... regardless of the CPR's historic association with Macdonald's 'National Dream' and Canada's growth and development ... and therefore the 1967 Centennial celebration.

The idea of a bilingual public timetable saved money.

Perhaps it also suggested that the "Two Solitudes" (i.e. descendants of "Canada's Two Founding Nations" - France and ... um ... Scotland ?) were coming together for a national celebration, just like bolted rail butts on a warm and sunny summer day.

Here is the 1966 timetable of the classic CPR Canadian.
Westbound, read down the left side.
Eastbound, read up the right side.

CPR "The Canadian" 1966 public timetable

Canada in the 1960s ... krazy fun facts:

As you may have noticed above, The Canadian originated in Canada's historic railway capital - Montreal.
It's poor, shorter cousin from Toronto met it in Sudbury where switching operations took place.

When I travelled in 1979, VIA Rail (a government "crown corporation"), had recently taken over responsibility for most passenger rail service in Canada.

Even so, the proud culture of CPR's great passenger train was largely still in place as you'll see.

Eastbound on The Canadian 1979

Vancouver Lion's Gate Bridge

Beautiful weather on the southern approach to the Lion's Gate Bridge at Vancouver.

CPR The Canadian eastbound Fraser Valley

At the beginning of November, the autumn colours are showing.
The Canadian has left Vancouver and the train is travelling up the Fraser Valley.
The sun to our backs reflects off the snowy mountain top and the moon.

Using all CPR stainless steel equipment, I assume the sleeping car containing my roomette was wired through to the dining car, where I assume the public address and music equipment locker was located. Including many subsequent trips on The Canadian, this was the only time a roomette's public address and music selector knobs could be set to bring sound into the individual sleeping car rooms.
In fact, after the first night, nothing ever came through the speakers again.
It was nice to get an idea of how luxurious the train had been in earlier years with PA announcements for trackside scenery,
the various sittings for dinner in the 'Dining Room Car'
and music to soothe the savage rail traveller.


The Canadian eastbound, just east of Field BC

The next morning, I was up early to see the first available Rocky Mountain scenery.

Just after the crew change point of Field, British Columbia I was in the rear dome as we went through the Spiral Tunnels and continued up the "Big Hill" to the Continental Divide. A wonderful travelling companion would be present in the Park observation car between Field and Medicine Hat. At that hour, we were pretty much alone in the dome and quickly struck up a conversation. Many years later, his name was mentioned at some railway fan event, and I regret that I didn't record it so I could pass it on to you today.

September 2010

Brent Fritzke also worked out of the same Medicine Hat terminal (as the trainman pictured) retiring last summer with 34 years of service.

When visiting this website, he was kind enough to drop me a line to indicate that our tailend trainman's name was Mars Wolf.

Thank you Brent.

The Canadian. The best tailend trainman of them all.

Much later in the day, you can see him here in the dome, still doing his thing. A Medicine Hat based trainman,
you can recognize over 35 years of railroading from the service bars on his immaculate CPR uniform, complete with a Remembrance Day poppy.

In addition to his usual light (unless something went wrong) duties as a tailend trainmen,
he spent his entire trip proudly pointing out and interpretting the various attractions.
You can just imagine the storms and emergencies he had worked through during all those years of service.

During several trips across Canada I/we never experienced a CPR CNR or VIA employee
with the interest or pride displayed by this "old school" CPR professional.

CPR The Canadian Motorola 5 watt portable

The trainman's friend.
Back in Schreiber, hopping up onto moving boxcars from deep snow was always more fun when you had three lantern batteries strapped around your neck!
This was the standard issue CPR Motorola 5 watt portable radio a trainman usually had with him.
When they finally failed, they were probably reissued to Maintenance of Way personnel to tap in loose spikes.

CPR The Canadian at Banff

The Canadian stops at Banff, near the famous CPR Banff Springs Hotel.
Notice that VIA has removed the CP Rail The Canadian illuminated drumhead sign from the rear door.

Three young women in identical ski jackets have just boarded and they will join us in the dome.
They are from Australia.
Every long distance train in Canada has at least one Australian aboard.
I've concluded some old Board of Transport Commissioners regulation requires it.

CPR The Canadian

The Trans-Canada Highway decides to follow us for a short while.
Does it have a choice ?

CPR The Canadian beaver dam

Just shoot out the rear window every now and then ...
The scenery is provided by the CPR.
Notice the beaver dam and the frosty ties.

Shown about 95 years after it was graded ...
how many people and tons of freight have travelled along this simple little earthen embankment ?

CPR The Canadian

Leaving the foothills, we're making good time.

CPR The Canadian Calgary Yard

Threading our way through the tracks of Calgary.
This is taken from the rear of the dome.

CPR The Canadian grain elevators

Diesel smoke rises ahead of the Skyline Dome.
We're at Indus, just east of Calgary.
Notice the boxcars on the elevator lead.

My guess is that the shed at the extreme left once housed a kerosene and water "hit and miss" engine.
Firing intermittently to satisfy a centrifugal governor (long before electricity was available here) it drove a large flywheel.
A heavy leather belt connected the flywheel to the inner workings of the grain elevator
- everything was as ingenious and efficient as a pocketwatch.

Keeping sparking engines in a separate shed, away from combustible grain dust suspended in air,
helped prevent splintered elevator timbers from littering the mainline.

CPR The Canadian meeting No 1

The tailend trainman took me down to the vestibule with him to celebrate a human resources event.
We, Train Number 2, are in a siding for Train Number 1 - which left Montreal about 2 days ago.
The engineer of Number 1 is just a few dozen miles from retiring in Calgary ... and he was moving !
Consider the importance to an old time CPR engineer of bringing his last train in safely ... but on time.

Doing a rough conservative calculation today, he had covered over 500,000 miles during his career.
One million kilometres would be possible - and that sounds more impressive if you are telling a story.

The Canadian Medicine Hat

Our exceptional trainman leaves us as the operating crew changes.
Many people are milling around the headend of the train where the bus-like coaches provide economical medium distance transportation.
A worker leans out of the hot and busy dining car kitchen door for a breath of fresh cool air.
Notice the little touches the Classic CPR applied: "CPR Med Hat" at the left.

Medicine Hat power

Some power, with a van attached, idles in the late autumn sun at Medicine Hat as we start to pull.
All night, we raced across the Prairies.


Good Morning !

CPR The Canadian approach to Winnipeg

After basking in the sun in Alberta, we were in for a little shock the next morning.
The dome car itself was cold and drafty as I took this shot.
We are running between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg on CNR's double track mainline.

Here is the 1979 public timetable which made the trip with me, showing the CPR route, Vancouver to Winnipeg, and approximate times.

CPR The Canadian public timetable 1979


CPR The Canadian Switching at Winnipeg

  Tramping around in the snow in my running shoes, I photographed a rebuilt GMD1 as it switches our train just "west" of Winnipeg's Union Station.
(This class was originally designed as a unique Canadian prairie branchline locomotive with 12 wheels {A-1-A trucks} to distribute weight on very light rail)
The Assiniboine River is moving away from us as it flows into the Red River just behind the dome car.

The car at the left is the dining car.
I am travelling in the centre car, Chateau Maisonneuve.
The dome car is Kootenay Park.


(flat building at left with centre dome)
from a CGR "notes by the way" booklet - sometime between 1916 and 1918

Winnipeg Union in a vey different era

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