The Canadian Railway Story – Part II

[ 0 ] September 26, 2012 |

“Laying down track and building the bridges
Bending our old backs til the railroad is done.”
Gordon Lightfoot – Canadian Railroad Trilogy

In Part I of The Canadian Railway Story, we began an account and a history that stretches from coast-to-coast. It’s one that that has helped establish the Canadian identity in this great land. It’s a story that stretches back to the early 1800’s, and one we hope will stretch forward into time immemorial. There are a lot of iconic symbols one can easily identify with Canada, and most certainly, the railway is one of those. In this, the second chapter of this boundless story, we’ll pick up at the beginning of the last century. At the time, the entire country was connected by rail, and the railway story was a mere 65 years old.

  • 1900-1925: In railroad history, the last century began with regular service put in place between Skagway, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. But perhaps a much bigger story overall was the first live demonstration of communication between a station and a moving train. That was in 1902, and the Grand Trunk Railway train was en route between Toronto and Montreal. In 1903, The National Transcontinental Railway Act is passed. The first run of the Ocean passenger train—along an 840 mile route between Montreal and Halifax—happened in the summer of 1904.

    Between 1907 and 1909, several events occurred, all involving the lives of railway workers.

    In August of 1907 a bridge under construction across the St. Lawrence River collapsed. 75 men were killed. (This same bridge was to collapse, again, in 1916, killing 13 more workers.) In the spring of 1908, the era of steam trains in the Sarnia, Ontario ended with the advent of electric trains. This was good news, as many had died from asphyxiation before then. In the late winter of 1909, on a track in the Montreal train station, an out-of-control train had a mechanical problem which in turn caused boiling hot escaping steam, and because the breaks could not be applied in time, the train hit the stop blocks at too fast a speed and there were several deaths.

    Also in 1909, the highest railway bridge in Canada was completed (up to 314 feet about the Oldman River) at Crows Nest Pass in Alberta.

    C.M. Hays, President of Grand Trunk and Grand Trunk Pacific, was killed on the Titanic. In 1912 his body arrived at Halifax, and in May of that year, a funeral took place in Montreal. A very scenic run, and one that’s vital to people in remote areas of Ontario—The Algoma Central, running between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst—opened in 1914. Montreal is featured again in 1915 when the body of Sir William C. Van Horne was conveyed in a special funeral train from Montreal through to Joliette, Illinois, and in 1916 when Grand Trunk’s Bonaventure Station was destroyed by fire.

    World War I saw, through an order-in-council, the shipment of various rail materials to France. In 1917 a report was released (accepted by the Government of the day) suggesting the Government take over various railway lines, merging them into one system. The beginnings of the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) can be found in the fall of 1917 as the organization held its first meeting in Montreal. A year later, the first use of the term Canadian National Railways came into play, authorized by council. Two years later, the Canadian National Railway Company was incorporated.

    The Prince of Wales was conveyed in a special train from Montreal to Toronto in the summer of 1919, with the Prince himself running the engine for a 20 mile section on the return route. One of the largest transit systems in North America, the Toronto Transit Commission, took over the street car system from the Toronto Railway in 1921. As the first quarter century rolled to a close, the history of the rails converged and morphed into another iconic Canadian tradition: Canadian National formed the “Radio Department” in 1923 (in part to keep passengers entertained during long trips). This would later become CBC Radio. In late 1925, a CN diesel electric car, in a run from Montreal to Vancouver, recorded several world records for endurance, economy, and speed, making the lengthy journey in a little less than 72 hours.

  • 1926-1950: A piece of both railway and Toronto history was unveiled in 1927 when the third Union Station was officially opened by the Prince of Wales.

    In 1929 Canadian National’s International Limited ran its first diesel electric passenger locomotive; it was a monster, weighing in at 335 tons! Another impressive train—the famous “Royal Scot’’—stopped in Montreal in 1933, on its way to the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.

    The most serious railway crossing incident in this country occurred in the summer of 1936 when a truck carrying men and boys was hit at a grade crossing in Louiseville, Quebec. There were 14 injured and 22 killed in that accident.

    In testing a new streamlined passenger train in the fall of 1937, a recorded speed of over 112 mph was attained by a train on CP Winchester Subdivision. CP took delivery of its first diesel electric train that same year. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went on a 12-car Royal Tour of Canada in 1939. The trip took the royal couple, and many others, from Quebec through to Victoria, BC. The two locomotives involved later became known as the Royal Hudsons. The Canadian National Exhibition was the showcase for General Motors “Train of Tomorrow” in 1947. In 1949, when Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada, their railway system became part of CN. That same year, GMs Train of Tomorrow made a return visit to several Canadian cities.

    As the second quarter of the century came to a close, two events put blight on railway travel. The first was a nationwide strike in the summer of 1950. And the second was a disastrous collision in the fall of that year between a freight train and troop train. It occurred near Jasper. 17 servicemen were killed, as well as four railroaders.

  • 1951-1975: CP began intermodal freight transportation in 1952, as they carried truck trailers between Toronto and Montreal. The first subway in Canada opened in Toronto in 1954, launched by the Toronto Transit Commission.

    Hurricane Hazel made her name well known in parts of southern Ontario in 1954, and the ravages of nature because of her caused a significant railway accident near Port Elgin.

    In 1955, perhaps the one of the most famous passenger trains—The Canadian—was inaugurated between Montreal-Toronto and Vancouver. The stainless steel domed cars can still be seen today. A couple of years later, the last steam train run of Ontario Northland left Timmins, arriving in North Bay the next day. The Moccasin, Canada’s longest running train, running between Brockville and Montreal, ceased operation in 1958; it had been in use for over a hundred years. CNs Super Continental appeared in its new black and white colours (replacing the olive green) in 1962.

    The 1960s and early 1970s saw many prominent advances in systems that are still with us today. In 1966, the Montreal subway opened. In the late spring of 1967, the Province of Ontario began GO Transit (a service used by tens of thousands of commuters in the Greater Toronto area every day). In 1970, CP unveiled Canada’s first double-decker passenger train. Around the same time, a CP coal unit train went into operation, having as its first shipment almost 25,000 tons of coal. In 1972, the last use of Morse code occurred in Canadian railroad history (this happened at the same time CP had sent out its last telegram).

    The much troubled “Turbo” train resumed its run between Montreal and Toronto in early 1974. It was also run between Montreal and Ottawa that year, but withdrawn in 1975.

  • 1976-2000: There was an awful lot of movement on the rails in the last quarter of the last century, and some of that began with the ‘need for speed’. In 1976 an Alcan-Dofasco-MLW train achieved a speed of over 200 kph on a test run. In the spring of that same year the Turbo train reached a speed of over 225 kph (near Kingston, Ontario). This Canadian rail speed record stands to this day.

    The renowned Northlander, between Toronto and Timmins, operated by Ontario Northland Railway (ONR), switched to two of four trains purchased from Swiss and Dutch Railways. This was in 1977. In 1978, Go Transit introduced its bi-level passenger coaches. The first passenger train to run as far north as the Northwest Territories began in time for the 1978 Arctic Winter Games.

    One of the most public, recognized rail evacuations occurred in Mississauga, Ontario in late 1979 as a CP Rail train derailed with dangerous chemicals aboard. A five-day evacuation of almost 250,000 people occurred. In 1981, VIA Rail cut nearly 20% of its services, and in 1982, the last revenue-earning run of the Turbo train took place. VIA continued to have its share of problems as its then-famous Christmas train sales showed a drop over the years from 50,000 to 5,000.

    Toronto continued to make inroads (in tracks?) in 1985 as the TTC opened the Scarborough Rapid Transit line (using linear induction technology).

    In 1988, when the Winnipeg Union Stockyards closed, the last shipment of cattle by rail stopped with it. A year later, CP Rail (followed by CN a year after that), initiated ‘cabooseless’ train operations. VIA continued to have serious problems as 1990 rolled around, and they had to cut fully one half of its passenger network. Yet another railway, CN, put out its first public stock offering in 1995 as its shares began to trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

    The longest passenger train in Canadian history—run by Rocky Mountain Railtours—having three locomotives and 34 passenger cars, ran from Vancouver to Kamloops BC in 1996. As 1999 sought to close out the century, Trillium Rail took over operation of over 40 miles of industrial trackage in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. This closed out a period of intense railway launches, new lines, take overs, amalgamations, and many new services to smaller communities.

  • 2001-present: Showing a propensity for moving forward, and for tenacity, the first few years of this century have proven busy ones for our continuing railway adventures.

    Express Marco Inc., run by Quebec Central Railway, re-opened for business in mid-2000. The quaint town of Orangeville, Ontario purchased over 30 miles of former CPR track in late 2000. In 2001 VIA closed down one series of locomotive when their delivery of General Electric Genesis trains came into play. As a sign of the electronic times we live in, CN began to paint its Web address on its locomotives in 2002. CBC, which we wrote about earlier, had a special train to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2002 as well. There was a museum car included in its trip from Vancouver to Halifax, and it included props and puppets from beloved children’s shows like The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup. Another car included old equipment from CBC such as cameras and other artifacts.

    BC Rail became part of CN in the summer of 2004. Various other openings and acquisitions took place between 2006 and 2009, such as Fife Lake Railway’s 2006 opening in Saskatchewan, the sale of Savage Alberta Railway’s regional lines to CN that same year, and other CP and CN acquisitions.

    A several day shutdown of VIA Rail’s services occurred in the summer of 2009, as engineers and yard masters went on strike (affecting many other services in the area). Another strike, this one by CNs locomotive engineers, took place late in the year. They were forced to return to work because of binding arbitration. (A more serious strike by CP engineers and others took place in the spring of 2012, and operations only resumed followed back-to-work legislation). Also in 2009, the Canada Line brought rapid transit service to Metro Vancouver.

    As the fall of 2012 rolled around, there was news both good and bad in Canada’s railway history. In September, a special Grey Cup exhibition train journeyed from Vancouver all the way to Halifax, returning by way of Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and eventually through to Toronto. And a revered train service fell to poor economic times, in terms of government funding: the Northlander was forced to discontinue its run between Toronto and Moosonee. This run was replaced by buses.

But the bus story of this land is another story, for another time…

This article could not have been written as thoroughly as it has been without referencing
the SIGNIFICANT DATES IN CANADIAN RAILWAY HISTORY website.

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Category: Historical Entities, Patriotic Patter

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