The Canadian customs agent checks your passport and gives you a puzzled look when you explain that you just landed in Vancouver so that you can head to Toronto tomorrow. The poor young chap cannot wrap his head around the concept of taking VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian 2,800 miles simply for the fun of it.
It’s his loss, for the Canadian is the last great streamliner. This point is driven home minutes later as you roll your suitcase onto Vancouver’s Sky Train. The autonomous light rail line will whisk you downtown with the cold efficiency of a computer.
It’s the polar opposite of the delightfully retro vibe you’ll find on the Canadian. Why, the locomotives on the point of No. 2 — a pair of F40PH-2Ds — are a decade older than the Sky Train system. The real attraction, of course, is what’s behind those locomotives: a 13-car train of stainless steel coaches, sleepers, and domes, all of which Budd delivered in 1954 and 1955.
Thank goodness the Canadians can’t seem to part with this classic equipment. Whether that’s by design or not really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s 2023 and you can still climb aboard as if the streamliner era never ended.
But two recent developments make it obvious that the sun is setting on the Canadian as we know it.
The first is behind the Park Car. Where there should be nothing but a view of the receding mainline, there are instead three coaches tagging along behind the dome observation car. Last year cracks were discovered in welds in the frames of some of the stainless cars in the VIA fleet. So Transport Canada in October began requiring that the Canadian carry a buffer car in the wake of concerns about the crashworthiness of a stainless steel fleet that cannot last forever.
Right now four of the venerable Budd cars are being sacrificed in Montreal. They’re being stripped to their frames and undergoing detailed inspections and metallurgical analysis. Then they’ll be put through destructive stress testing that will simulate a collision. The goal is to determine if they’ll buckle at the vestibules, as designed, or in their interiors, as feared.
In a few weeks we should know the diagnosis and the prognosis. (An initial report on the test findings was due on Jan. 31. In a statement, VIA on Wednesday said: “We can confirm that VIA has complied with all the necessary requirements from its regulator. We won’t comment further until their review is complete.”) The best case would be that the cars sail through the testing or can get by with frame modifications. The worst case would be that there’s no fix and the cars are deemed so unsafe that they must be pulled from service. That would be the Canadian’s death knell.
The second development is VIA’s announcement last month that it will seek proposals to replace the Canadian’s equipment. Assuming that the Budd fleet lasts long enough to be replaced, new train sets would secure the train’s future, if not its character.
So one way or another — and either sooner or later — the Canadian will lose the equipment that makes it special.
Naturally, you don’t want to ponder all this as No. 2 bears down on Edmonton. The Skyline dome is your front-row seat to Canadian National’s busy Edson Subdivision, a combination of single and double track that funnels traffic to and from Vancouver and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. In the 45 minutes before dusk on Tuesday, the Canadian is running on the heels of an eastbound freight and meets five westbounds: four unit grain trains and a stack train.
The friendly call for the second dinner seating in the Fairholme diner comes on the leisurely approach to Edmonton, where westbound counterpart No. 1 is in the midst of its station stop. The VIA flagships sit side by side as dinner — an out-of-this-world filet mignon topped with mushroom sauce — arrives at your table.
After dessert you retreat to the Laurentide Park dome to watch signals and stainless steel put on a mesmerizing show. The fluted Budd roofs glow green and then shimmer in red as the locomotives knock down the signals for mile after mile.
Yes, there’s nothing quite like the Canadian. Ride it while you can.
Coming later this week: A report on the Canadian‘s progress from Vancouver to Toronto. We’re due to arrive at Toronto Union Station on Friday afternoon and as of 10:30 a.m. Central Time on Wednesday No. 2 was running on schedule across the Prairies.