Waiting on the Canadian

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 28, 2011

When VIA Rail Canada added eight hours to the schedule of its Toronto-Vancouver Canadian almost three years ago, making it a four-nights-out adventure, I was among the incredulous folks who wondered at the audacity of slowing down an already slow train. Today’s westbound No. 1 averages 32 mph on its 2,775-mile trip lasting almost 87 hours.
 
The problem, if you call it that, lies in VIA’s arrangement with host railroad Canadian National. It’s apparent that the two parties made a Faustian pact. In exchange for a relatively modest track-usage fee, VIA gives CN wide latitude in dispatching the Canadian. Almost always, the passenger train takes the siding for CN’s numerous two-mile-long freights. Those added eight hours disappear as the train struggles to stay on time. Usually, in my experience, it reaches the big terminals in good order.
 
My latest trip across Canada illustrates the process nicely. Day two out of Toronto finds our 10-car train leaving Capreol, Ont., at 6:55 a.m., a modest 47 minutes late. If we can average 35 mph the next 296 miles to Hornepayne, Ont., we’ll maintain our pace. If we average 38 mph to Hornepayne, we’ll be back on time. Our nominal speed limit through northern Ontario is 60 mph. With only two passenger stops to make along the way today, this doesn’t seem difficult, does it?
 
So off we go. Despite taking sidings for two eastbound CN trains, at Thorlake (MP 40 from Capreol) and Bethnal (MP 95), we do so well that we sail past the flag stop of Foleyet (MP 148) 26 minutes ahead of schedule. The train director announces we may arrive Hornepayne an hour early.
 
He should know better. At Oakland (MP 176), in we go for 10 minutes to meet CN freight 314. Seven miles later, we stop to board two passengers at Elsas. From radio chatter, it’s apparent we have caught up with westbound intermodal hotshot 111, which is throwing us flashing yellow (advance approach) signals. The combination of these three events slows our westward pace.
 
Then comes the big blow. In our train goes at Dishnish (MP 242) for a long 40 minutes, while 111 meets an eastbound intermodal train at the next siding west, Minnipuka, and that train makes its way past Dishnish. When we get to Minnipuka, our assistant engineer alights to reline the power switch, which would not respond to the dispatcher’s command. There’s a CN employee to let off at Algoma (MP 258) and another meet (10 minutes standing) at Penhurst (MP 279).
 
So when do we arrive Hornepayne? At 2:45 p.m., 5 minutes late. Train 111 is just leaving, and we’ll have 35 minutes to walk around before our on time departure at 3:20 p.m.
 
The rest of that afternoon and evening and all night long, it’s in and out of more sidings, making way for those supersized freights. But lo and behold, we come to a stop in Winnipeg, Man., at precisely 8 a.m., on time.
 
Come time to leave Winnipeg at noon (the train is relaunched there with a fresh on-board crew and a complete restocking) and there’s total congestion. We don’t begin moving until 1:50 p.m. (For those keeping score, CN’s 111 slides past the VIA station shortly after noon.) By Rivers, Man., and three more meets with eastbounds, we’re 2 hours 16 minutes late, leading me to wonder how many disappointed customers VIA will have by Jasper, Alta., where most of them will detrain. We’ve a lot of time to make up and a lot more trains to make way for.
 
I’ll conclude this recitation quickly: At Watrous, Sask., we sail past CN 111 for what I suppose is the final time. A few minutes later we take siding for eastbound CN train 198, and this radio conversation ensues with our engineer, Gino:
 
“You go by 111, Gino?”
 
“Yeah, but I don’t know why,” says our engineer.
 
“Well, he’ll go by you again in the city [Saskatoon].” says 198’s engineer.
 
“Yeah, probably.”
 
Does he? I don’t know. I go to sleep. But again, as if by magic, the Canadian glides to a stop in Jasper early the next afternoon at precisely its scheduled minute, 1:00 p.m.
 
So the Canadian’s pace is slow. In the U.S., Amtrak would not dare make such a flagrant arrangement with a host railroad. But I have to admit, given the number of Canadian National trains the Canadian must dodge, you cannot retighten the schedule and hope to get to the other end on time with any regularity. And personally, I don’t care. Those frequent stops break the monotony and provide more train-riding pleasure at no extra cost, eh? — Fred W. Frailey

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