Farewell to the great Canadian hopper fleet

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Canadian Wheat Board hoppers near Fernie, BC. Photo by Justin Franz.
Most freight cars today are unembellished objects. Many come in simple colors (like boxcar red, which is really just a fancy word for brown) and have reporting marks, numbers, maybe a herald and not much else.

That was not always the case. In the past, many railroads put a lot of thought into how they painted their freight cars. My beloved-Bangor & Aroostook had its iconic “State of Maine” red, white and blue boxcars; the Rio Grande painted some of its freight equipment orange and silver to mirror its locomotives; and who could ever forget the Delaware & Hudson’s fleet of “I Love NY” 50 footers.

While some railroads still try to make their equipment stand out, for the most part, flashy freight cars are a thing of the past. The vast majority of cars on the rails today are owned by leasing companies that aren’t particularly interested in creating memorable billboards rolling across the countryside, just a useful piece of equipment to move freight from Point A to Point B.

But there is a major exception to that rule: Canada’s fleet of government-owned covered hoppers. In the 1960s, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific were losing money moving grain and because of that low yield, the two railroads rarely invested in their hopper fleets. By the 1970s, Canadian farmers were losing international grain sales because of the dilapidated fleet of rolling stock. In an effort to ensure a robust supply of freight cars, the Canadian Wheat Board purchased more than 13,000 covered hoppers between 1972 and 1994 to haul western grain on CN and CP. The cars were provided at no cost to the railroads so long as they were moving export grain. In return, the two Class 1s managed and maintained the fleet. The only time the railroads had to pay for using the cars was if the grain was being shipped domestically or it was loaded with some other commodity (According to a 2015 report, the two railroads pay the government anywhere between $10 million and $15 million annually to use the cars for other commodities). Alberta and Saskatchewan also purchased a fleet of cars.

Since the Canadian Wheat Board was established by Parliament to market the country’s wheat, it took full advantage of its new rolling billboards by painting them red with the yellow outline of wheatgrass and “Canada” spelled out in big, bold letters (Alberta painted its fleet in blue and yellow and Saskatchewan went with green).

If you’ve been trackside in Canada in the last 30 years, you have more than likely seen a cut of these cars in a train or waiting at a grain elevator. They’re hard to miss. But that might not be the case for long. Last week, CP CEO Keith Creel said it was time to replace the government-owned cars and that his railroad was willing to buy its own fleet, according to Bloomberg News. “They’re just not very reliable cars (anymore),” Creel said. As of late 2015, the Canadian government had 8,400 of the original 13,000 cars.

According to the 2015 fleet report, all 8,400 cars have been completely rebuilt, ensuring that they will be rolling for at least another 10 years. But there is no denying that the end is near for the great Canadian hopper fleet. It’s all but certain that whatever CP and CN buys to replace the fleet, it will not be as flashy as the original; a throwback to an era when freight cars were more than just a piece of equipment but an opportunity to promote the industry and its goods on thousands of billboards crisscrossing the country.

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