Jason Shron is a lifelong railway enthusiast and the president of the VIA Historical Association.
Every year, our family of five leaves the hustle and bustle of suburban Toronto for our cottage on the breezy west shore of Lake Winnipeg, Man. On each occasion – with exceptions during the pandemic – we’ve taken the train.
I honestly thought the kids would outgrow it, but they are now in their tweens and teens, and they still count down the days to our annual trip on VIA Rail Canada’s train No. 1, The Canadian.
We haven’t outgrown the train, but the train may have outlived its own aging equipment. As reported last month, the safety of some cars in VIA’s fleet have been called into question. VIA is set to begin rolling out a new fleet of coaches in the Quebec-Windsor rail corridor, but some of its older trains now require “buffer cars” on either end to ensure crashworthiness, raising doubts as to how long certain cars in the fleet can remain in service.
How did we get here? And what will the aging fleet mean for long-distance train travel in Canada?
Until the 1970s, Canada’s two largest freight railways, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, operated most of the country’s passenger trains. The freight railways qualified for subsidies of up to 80 per cent for the losses incurred by running intercity services, but they still wanted out of the passenger rail business.
In 1977, the federal government under Pierre Trudeau formed VIA Rail Canada through an order-in-council. Incorporated as a crown corporation in 1978, VIA took over most intercity passenger train services in Canada. It also inherited all of its trains – including locomotives and passenger cars – from CN and CP.
This summer, our sleeping car to Winnipeg was Blair Manor, named for 19th-century New Brunswick premier Andrew George Blair. Our bedrooms were “spacious apartments by day,” complete with “four easy chairs, two picture windows and two disappearing beds in each room,” as well as “plenty of lights, luxurious carpets, air foam mattresses [and] snowy linen.”
If my description sounds like it’s been lifted from a 1950s railway brochure, that’s because it was. The majority of VIA’s sleeping car fleet was built for CP by the Budd Corporation in Philadelphia in 1954 and 1955. The long-distance passenger cars that VIA inherited from CP in 1978 are the same passenger cars it’s still using today. Blair Manor is almost 70 years old.
The CN fleet was built from mild steel rather than stainless, and extensive corrosion precluded rebuilding. To replace these cars, VIA purchased second-hand Budd coaches from American railways and refurbished them. These cars were introduced in 1996 and are still in daily service in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor. The newest of these cars is 69 years old; five just celebrated their 75th birthdays.
Between 1984 and 1985, VIA did carry out testing for new long-distance equipment, primarily the Superliner cars used by Amtrak, but it did not secure the needed funding from Ottawa in order to acquire them. So the old CP fleet soldiered on. Built from stainless steel, the cars have been rebuilt and refurbished numerous times. Upgraded amenities, such as larger bedrooms and showers, have been achieved not by buying new cars but by reconfiguring the old ones.
It is frankly amazing that Canada still has any long-distance passenger trains, given the near absence of investment by the federal government over the past four decades. The Ocean, which runs from Halifax to Montreal, The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, and The Hudson Bay from Winnipeg to Churchill, Man., are not just antiquated remnants from a bygone era: these trains connect communities. They bring tourist dollars. They give a travel option for people unable or unwilling to fly. They provide a lifeline to remote communities, especially in Northern Ontario and northern Manitoba.
Despite the limitations of the aging equipment, VIA manages to provide my family with a long-distance passenger service that frequently surpasses our expectations. My experience has been that anyone who disparages The Canadian hasn’t actually used it.
But we’ve run out of time. A new fleet can take up to 10 years to deliver, and we need new long-distance trains right now. The crashworthiness of the Budd cars is currently being tested by the National Research Council. Even if they are cleared for service, nobody knows if they will last until new equipment arrives.
There is a chance that my kids’ most recent trip on The Canadian might have been the last time they’ll have that experience, and I can’t believe it’s come to this. Canadians deserve a properly funded, national passenger rail service.