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.
You can reach Bill Stephens at email@example.com and follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @bybillstephens
17 thoughts on “Ride the VIA Rail Canadian while you can: Analysis”
Enjoyed the CANADIAN in 1968 when the CP routing was used by VIA. Our
consist from Winnipeg to Vancouver had 16-cars including two diners. And on-time 100%.
Last trip was in 2014 on a truncated CANADIAN from Vancouver to Winnipeg
that was plagued with having to take sidings so that the mammoth CN trains
could have priority. We were due in at Winnipeg at 8PM but arrived at 12AM>
four hour delay due to CN dispatching.
I mourn the fact that the original “Super Continental” did not survive with its Pullman-Standard and Canadian Car & Foundry train sets intact. The train was the Canadian National flagship.
Bill Stephens is so lucky to have a job where he gets to evaluate the experieces that we enjoy. Having taken the Canadian back in the ’90s, and enjoying the experience (and the green to red signal show as Bill describes it) is a memory of a GREAT trip on classic BUDD equipment with great crews and one I will not forget.
We rode the Canadian on a return trip Montreal – Vancouver in 1981. Amazing. Don’t forget the Winnipeg – Hudson Bay in poar bear season, more than amazing!
My wife and I took our honeymoon on the original CP Canadian back in 1974. And in recent years I have ridden the VIA version once or twice a year. We are very lucky the Canadian has survived in any form, and extraordinarily lucky that VIA has been able and willing to maintain the high level of onboard service. But I agree with the gist of the article that the future is very uncertain, with today’s risk adverse culture any structural flaws could easily lead to over-reaction and a sudden end to a great Canadian institution. Ride it while you can.
I took that trip in 2017, from Toronto to Vancouver. It was fabulous and I spent a lot of time in the dome of the Glacier Park. I agree. Take the classic Canadian sooner rather than later. It’s a magnificent way to experience both Canada and the last vestiges of the streamliner era.
Oh, the food was good too.
SInce I rode the Canadian way back in 1981, I will consider myself lucky.
Going to be a Field Day for tourist lines when this equipment gets replaced!
Don’t mean anything negative towards Mr. Stephens, but first there were no more accounts of epic trips on the Canadian with Fred Frailey, and now we contemplate the end of the train itself. Yikes!
I think the title is a bit clickbaity, I was honestly worried that this meant that the Canadian was being discontinued, just like the Super Continental in 1990. Though, I would like to ride the train though before the streamliner equipment gets retired and replaced by new train cars, even if that does mean that soon enough, Via Rail would not have to spend so much on maintaining long distance cars.
The current Canadian is actually the Super Continental. The real Canadian made its last run on January 14, 1990.
Prior to that, both the Canadian and Super Continental ran daily, provided transportation and the fares were really cheap.
I rode round trip from Medicine Hat to Toronto and back in a Roomette for $286 American. Those were the days.
I took that trip in 1985. Sorry for the omission in my previous post.
So glad me, my wife and six month old daughter rode the Super Continental in 1976, We took a circle trip from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder, then to Vancouver on a bus substituting for the Amtrak train, the Super Continental to Montreal, the Adirondak to Albany then the Lakeshore Limited back to ChiTown. The Super still had open section accommodations! We used an Amtrak Railpass with upgrades to bedrooms on Amtrak and first class in a bedroom on the Super, with hotels close to the stations in Seattle and Montreal. The total for the rail fares was $900. Needless to say, the trip was unforgettable. We were 25 at the time and very fortunate to be able to take such a trip.
We still hope to ride the Canadian.
I’ve ridden the Canadian, back in 1984, not out of amusement but because it got me where I was going when I wanted to go there: The Winnipeg – Toronto leg of journey ultimately to Dearborn, Michigan. That was then and this is now.
I have no interest in a supposed “train” that runs twice a week at ghastly inflated fares and a padded schedule. No matter how lovely the rolling stock.
Charles, you seem to have enough “interest” to post your usual “Bah, humbug” every time the opportunity arises. I got it the first time.
GEORGE my friend. I try to put myself in the position of a Canadian who has seen the Western transcon routes go from 14 train pairs a week to two train pairs a week under VIA’s watch, the schedules lengthen, the timekeeping abyssmal, and the fares skyrocket out of sight. Also the Montreal sections disappear. Also the local trains into Calgary and Edmonton that have been discontinued. And so forth in other parts of Canada, especially the Maritimes.
There are literally thousands of route miles I’ve personally ridden in Canada that have gone away, if you include Detroit – St. Thomas – Buffalo which was Amtrak. Add to that corridors like Sarnia – London or Walkerville (Windsor) – London – Toronto that have seen frequencies reduced since I’ve ridden them.
October 1974 Passenger Train Journal, lauding CPR and CNR passenger trains as valued and viable transportation all over Canada when America’s Amtrak was struggling to get started. What happened?
CHARLES, my friend: 1. I’ll put my Canadian route miles and train miles up against anyone who is not an onboard employee, so, in the words of Hank Snow’s song,”I’ve been everywhere, man” (at least on Canadian rails). 2. What happened was not a sudden disappearance of fannys from the seats. What happened was political social engineering, with which I profoundly disagree. Today’s Canadian is the best that VIA could do with the cards they were dealt and today hold in their hand. No, it’s not really any great boon to public transportation any more, but I will be sad to see it go, even in its present form.